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British Immigration Policy Since 1939 - Resigners?

November 13, 1998

There is a growing debate on whether the British approach to a multi-ethnic society has been sufficiently distinct from other European experiences to justify the label of uniqueness. At one end of the spectrum, some have intimated that a British model has existed, or at least emerged indirectly, which has been founded on the pillars of strong pragmatism in managing inter-group relations and a streak of political realism (read populism) in curbing non-white immigration. At the other end, the British case is described as just that, a subtle though not exceptional variation on other European countries, which, at most, has been influenced by factors such as a weak tradition of ideological racism and an official acknowledgement of full political rights for Commonwealth settlers.

Both of these books are concerned with interesting aspects of this debate. Simon Holloway and Anne-Marie Barron's study of minority police officers takes a sociology-led policy analysis as a way of trying to assess whether official opportunities afforded to blacks and Asians are well founded and reflected in actual experience, in this case among serving police officers. Ian Spencer's book is a contemporary history of immigration process and politics in post-war Britain. Its chief purpose is to chart the rise of a new multi-ethnic society and to evaluate the contribution made by government to the delivery of the successful transformation, something that Spencer does not think has been especially successful. His view of successive administrations is a negative one, though, as I suggest below, he may have missed at least half the picture.

Holloway and Barron have taken on an extremely tough subject. At an empirical level, negotiating access to sources would appear to be a daunting job. However, there were a number of other hurdles to be tackled, such as how such a study's policy relevance and value might be conveyed to interested parties. In any case, the authors have successfully overcome many of these difficulties and written a well-informed and empirically generalisable book. Their problems seem to lie elsewhere.

The most pressing stems from their underlying theoretical position. At first glance there is little that is obviously doubtful here. The approach seeks to characterise the internal professional culture of police officers in terms that are, at the very least, suggestive of a latent set of values that includes racial stereotyping, and, at the most, amounts to a fully formed and systemic racialisation process. The danger is that much of the data that is gathered is interpreted according to this self-proclaimed focus. This is justified to the extent that the study sets out to tap the actual experiences of black and Asian officers, but is less certain in its approach to making sense of policing as a policy sector and bureaucratic way of life. However, at a more global level, this study does not appear to have anything original to say in relation to the debate about the British model. This is a shame for what is a well-researched inquiry, but it is a tough indictment nevertheless. Racialisation theory, especially when applied to concrete policy analysis, often serves to reinforce some fairly predictable positions. In this case, the conclusions drawn are far from surprising where the subject matter is surely in need of some genuinely pioneering thinking.

Spencer's account of immigration politics continues in a long tradition of books devoted to this theme. It is particularly useful in charting the historic ebb and flow of political debates on immigration during the 1940s and 1950s. So often the students studying race politics tend to gravitate to the short term; widespread purchase of this book will certainly help to counter such bias. However, the concentration on the earlier post-war era has meant that the story told in this book effectively runs out at about 1960. The final chapter, covering all of the 1962-91 period, contains some enormous generalisations: the treatment of economic versus social paradigms (reaching a head in the early 1960s) is particularly poor, as is the fairly shallow consideration of party competition and the immigration issue.

The main worry relates to the flat-line, downbeat view taken by the author of the role of government in shaping a multicultural society. Pessimistic accounts of this question are now widespread and, where robustly argued, are usually founded on a consideration of policy activity in a range of fields, such as education, housing, and policing (as in the Holloway/Barron study). Spencer, oddly, is not interested in examining the actuality of what government has done, either at the level of establishing a broad framework for integration policy or in terms of managing and mediating overt racial conflict. Government, it is argued, failed to assist the multicultural society project and yet the author systematically avoids consideration of integrationist thinking and practices over 30 years. The conclusion drawn, therefore, seems unconvincing, but the weakness is even more evident once an attempt is made to relate this study to the "British exceptionalism" debate. Presumably Spencer's position would have us believe that British governments failed to make crucial interventions in keeping with the track records of other European governments.

However, this does not satisfactorily account for the decline of immigration as a salient issue in Britain or for the growing empirical evidence of changing attitudes towards ethnic diversity. It is a position that is likely to be of interest to readers. Perhaps the author wants to argue that the British case stands out for other, distinctive reasons; but that is not the claim advanced in this book.

Shamit Saggar is senior lecturer in government, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

British Immigration Policy Since 1939: The Making of Multi-racial Britain

Author - Ian Spencer
ISBN - 0 415 13695 4 and 13696 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 207

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