Month: July 2014

Writing the History of the British Far Left: Book launch talk on Youtube

far left cover

Last month, Matthew Worley and I pre-emptively launched our forthcoming edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), at the London Socialist Historians Group seminar series, located within London’s Institute of Historical Research. The launch was well attended, but was a bit more formal than I had anticipated. So I gave a 30 min talk on compiling the book (reading a few excerpts from the intro) and we had a short Q&A (which was perhaps dominated by discussion of whether the book should have included pictures).  The IHR now records most of its seminars and the talk I gave is now available on Youtube. You can listen to it below.

As with all my media appearances, I haven’t been able to listen to myself speak, but hopefully it is enlightening to others.

By the way, the book will be out in October. Please recommend it to your university, college or council library.

EDITED TO ADD: You can now also listen to the talk as a podcast here.


Guest post at Border Criminologies

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 8.47.44 pm

This is a quick post to let people know that Marinella and I have written a short guest post outlining the findings of our new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, at the Border Criminologies blog. If you don’t already follow this blog, I recommend you do so!

Out Now! Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control has been published

Palgrave cover

This is a quick post to announce that our new book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control has been published by Palgrave Macmillan and hopefully should be ready to be shipped out soon. I know the hardback is costly, but we hope that people encourage their university, college or council library to order a copy. The book can be ordered from here (although your mileage might vary from other online book distributors).

A flyer for the book with endorsements from Philippa Levine (University of Texas at Austin), Imogen Tyler (Lancaster University) and Alan Travis (The Guardian) can be downloaded here. We also drew up a press release with a summary of book’s key findings, which you can download from here.

We also heartily welcome people getting in touch with journals for review copies. If you want a review copy, do contact your favourite history/criminology/politics journal’s book reviews editor and/or Palgrave.

Policing the Cypriot community in London: Creating a “suspect community” in the inter-war period

Last year I announced that my colleague and I had been awarded a Faculty Research Grant to begin a project titled ‘Monitoring a “suspect community” in the UK: The colonialist origins of the national/border security nexus and interwar London’s Cypriot community’. While in the UK recently, I attended the Crime and Deviance in the 20th Century Conference at the University of Lincoln and presented this paper on our initial research. Please find below an abridged version of the conference paper. As usual, we welcome any feedback, criticisms or questions.

In January 1933, Michael Kyriakides, a Cypriot chef in Soho, was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. The magistrate, R. E. Dummett, wanted to convict Kyriakides, who had a prior conviction for assault, and asked the detective-sergeant: ‘There is no means by which we can get these men [Cypriots] out of the country?’ When the detective-sergeant answered that they were British subjects, Dummett retorted: ‘The British Colonies do not hesitate to send back anyone they do not want to this country. This is the tragedy. They are doing no good to themselves, and they are a perpetual menace and a nuisance’.[1] The magistrate was clearly airing a widespread notion amongst the police and the judiciary in London that the local Cypriot Orthodox Christian community was a ‘problem’. Deportation, Dummett’s solution to the problem, was not at a legal option, but the British authorities adopted other strategies, such as police surveillance and the control of immigration, which certainly bent the laws.

This paper aims to explore why during the 1930s the British authorities focused on the relatively small Cypriot community in London as one of deviance that needed to be monitored and controlled. We argue that Cypriots were seen as a particular problem for the British because of their criminal activities as well as their links to communism and anti-colonialism. For these combined reasons, the British authorities viewed the Cypriot migrant population as a ‘suspect community’, resulting in intense surveillance by the police and the security services, as well as controls on Cypriots trying to enter the country.

Taking the terminology coined by Paddy Hillyard,[2] and developed by Christina Pnatazis and Chris Pemberton, a ‘suspect community’ can be defined as:

a sub-group of the population that is singled out for state attention as being ‘problematic’. Specifically in terms of policing, individuals may be targeted, not necessarily as a result of suspected wrong doing, but simply because of their presumed membership to that sub-group.[3]

This concept is not only useful for contemporary analysis of counter-terrorism policing, but can also be used to analyse how various ethnic minority groups have been policed in earlier times. We would argue that the Cypriots in London were precisely singled out for their criminal and communist deviancy in the inter-war period and that this led to extensive monitoring and control over the relatively small community.

Cypriot crime in inter-war London

John Solomos and Stephen Woodhams wrote that the British characterised the Cypriot migrant as ‘a young single male, unskilled, poorly educated, of suspect morality and prone to petty crime’.[4] However it was not just petty crime, with several high profile murders occurring in the early 1930s amongst the migrant community and the establishments of the community becoming increasingly notorious for forms of organised crime, such as gambling and prostitution rackets. By looking at newspaper reports from the period, between 1931 and 1934 no less than three men were sentenced to death after being found guilty of murder, while in a fourth murder of the prominent Cypriot, Dr Zemenides, committed in 1933, the accused, also a Cypriot, was acquitted. Meanwhile a Metropolitan Police report from October 1933 stated that in the past 12 months the Marlborough Street police Court had seen Cypriots charged with the following offences: murder, breaking and entering, larceny, possessing a revolver, assault, indecent assault, living on immoral earnings, indecency, cruelty, obstructing footway and drunkenness.[5]

Charges against Cypriots brought before the Marlborough Street Police Court (Oct. 1932 – Oct. 1933)

Murder   1

Breaking and entering  2

Larceny  5

Possessing revolver   1

Assault and wounding   3

Suspected person   1

Indecent assault on female  2

Living on immoral earnings  2

Indecency  3

Cruelty   1

Obstructing footway   16

Drunkenness  4

(Letter from C.E. Campton to W. Collins, 8 October, 1933, CO 67/260/7, National Archives, London)

The accusation that Cypriots were involved in organised crime was also widespread amongst the authorities and the press, particularly with regards to prostitution. The location of Cypriots in London’s red light district caused concern for police in the capital,[6] with the Metropolitan Police reporting:

There is no doubt… that venereal disease is rife amongst these Cypriots, and strange to say they seem to have some fascination for white women, and they can often be seen in their cafes in the company of white women, usually of the prostitute type.[7]

The most significant case involving Cypriots in the 1930s was the assasination of a leading figure within the Cypriot community, Dr Angelos Zemenides, in January 1933. Zemenides was a prominent spokesperson for the community and had formed, with British government support, the Christian Cypriot Brotherhood of St. Barnabas, which had been established for the purpose of counteracting the appeal of communism within the Cypriot diaspora. While Zemenides supported British rule in Cyprus, after his death the Colonial Office became concerned that the Brotherhood had become a safe-house for right-wing enosis supporters[8] and was a source of tension within the Cypriot community. Zemenides was a supporter of the exiled Greek monarchy and a staunch anti-communist, with the newspapers speculating as to whether he was involved with the security services. The Daily Express stated:

It was common talk among a certain section of Greeks in London that Dr Zemenides was a secret service agent. He had great ideas for the return of the monarchy to Greece.[9]

On the other hand, the Daily Worker (the paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain) called him ‘an agent of imperialism’, claiming:

The dead man was a notorious imperialist and known as such to Cypriots and Greeks the world over. In Cyprus itself his activities on behalf of the British there so enraged the Cypriots that he was forced to leave hurriedly.[10]

Zemenides was shot in his home in Hampstead and a wide investigation amongst the Cypriot community followed. The widespread investigation into this supposedly politically motivated murder by the Metropolitan Police led many left-wing and anti-colonial sympathisers within the Cypriot community to believe that the murder was being used as a cover for stricter monitoring of communists amongst the Cypriot population.

The threat of communism and the monitoring of the Cypriot community


Alongside the perceived criminality of the Cypriot community in London, the British authorities were very concerned about the number of communist sympathisers there were amongst the Cypriots and the championing of anti-colonial activism in this diaspora community. In the case of Cyprus, the Communist Party of Great Britain, as a representative of the Communist International (Comintern), surprisingly supported the notion of enosis (the joining of Cyprus to Greece) – a position later associated with right-wing politics.

Although a minority of Cypriots joined the Communist Party because of its support for enosis, the majority of those who did join the CPGB were committed communists. This was influenced by the type of migrant that was leaving the island, mainly men from the peasant and labouring class, who were then employed at the lowest levels of the food and other industries in London. Meanwhile, the deportation of leading Cypriot communists in 1931 swelled the ranks of the Cypriot communists in London. Cypriot communists in London were very active in both the Cypriot Branch of the Workers International Relief and in the League against Imperialism, both of which were affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The prominence of communists in the London Cypriot community was a more intensive watch placed upon them by the authorities, particularly the Metropolitan Police Special Branch and MI5. The Daily Worker frequently reported on the police and Colonial Office persecution of Cypriot workers in London. For example, in January 1933 (at the start of the Zemenides case) the Daily Worker reported on British ‘attempts to muzzle Cypriots’ in London by breaking up protests against the Governor of Cyprus and establishing the Brotherhood of St Barnabas.[11] The police persecution was linked to the growing anti-Cypriot feeling, which the Daily Worker took the lead in condemning. On 6 November 1933 it reported on ‘Cypriots Hit Out at Slanders: Dirty Yellow Press Attack on Workers’. Cypriot workers in London were indignant, the newspaper claimed, at the report in a Sunday newspaper that claimed the Cypriots in London were so bad that a ‘special squad of detectives’ was involved in rounding them up and searching them for arms.

As mentioned before, archival records from Kew show that both the Metropolitan Police and the security services were involved in policing the Cypriot community in London and kept them under considerable monitoring throughout the 1930s. The small geographic area that the Cypriot community lived in helped the police monitor activities within the community and the various locations inhabited by Cypriots. This allowed the police to perform wide sweeps of the community looking particular offenders, as demonstrated with the investigation following the murder of Zemenides. MI5 were particularly interested in communists within the Cypriot community and we know of several Cypriot CPGB members who were monitored by the security services. The Metropolitan Police report that we cited earlier also complained about the number of Cypriots reading and selling newspapers such as the Daily Worker and Russia Today.[12]

The control of Cypriot migration to Britain

As well as policing the Cypriot community in London, the British authorities also attempted to stem migration from Cyprus – thirty years before other Commonwealth migrants were subject to immigration control. Cyprus had become part of the British Empire in 1914 and from this date, all Cypriots based on the island became British subjects. During the interwar period, all British subjects were allowed to enter, reside and work in the UK without restrictions, so the British authorities sought to prevent Cypriots from arriving in Britain. The Colonial Office asked the Home Office whether legislation could be introduced to prevent Cypriots from migrating to Britain, but the Home Office refused. As Assistant Under-Secretary for the Colonial Offie, Arthur Dawe, explained:

It may be said they could introduce legislation, but I imagine that the political objections to this may be so great as to make impracticable for them to do so even if they, as a Department, desired it. After all, the right of a British subject to enter this country, provided he can establish his national status by means of his passport, is something more than a mere question of administrative advantage. It is an important and fundamental right under our political system;[13]

The British attempted to prevent Cypriots from travelling to Britain by limiting the number of passports issued to them in Cyprus. To obtain such a passport Cypriots had to present proof of employment in the UK and pay a bond. By 1937, passports were only issued to applicants who could prove they could speak English, were able to a pay a bond of £30 and an affidavit showing they had employment in Britain.[14] This did not stop all Cypriot migration, but numbers were lowered and the demographic make-up of who was travelling to Britain changed, with a larger number of women and children coming in the late 1930s.


The outbreak of the Second World War stopped Cypriot migration to Britain, although it stepped up again in the early 1950s, alongside a wider wave of Commonwealth migration from the West Indies, West Africa and the Indian subcontinent. As Solomos and Woodhams have argued, the British were able to use border control techniques first employed against Cypriots in the 1930s against broader Commonwealth migration thirty years later under the claim that ‘good race relations’ required strict immigration control. Taking Solomos and Woodhams’ argument further, we believe that the way in which the British authorities policed, monitored and controlled the movement of Cypriots stemmed from viewing the Cypriot population in London as a ‘suspect community’ and helped inform much wider national/border security practices, used against other ethnic minorities in the post-war era.


[1]The Times, 20 January 1933, 4.

[2] Paddy Hillyard, Suspect Community: People’s Experiences of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain London: Pluto Press, 1993).

[3] Christina Pantazis & Simon Pemberton, ‘From the “Old” to the “New” Suspect Community:

Examining the Impact of Recent UK Counter-Terrorist Legislation’, British Journal of Criminology, 49 (2009) p. 649.

[4] John Solomos & Stephen Woodhams, ‘The Politics of Cypriot Migration to Britain’, Immigrants & Minorities, 14/3 (1995) p. 233.

[5] Letter from C.E. Campton to W. Collins, 8 October, 1933, CO 67/260/7, NA.

[6] Robin Oakley, ‘The Control of Cypriot Migration to Britain Between the Wars’, Immigrants & Minorities, 6/1 (1987) p. 31.

[7] Letter from C.E. Campton to W. Collins, 8 October, 1933.

[8] ‘Memorandum’, 19 February, 1936, FCO 141/2523, NA.

[9]Daily Express, 4 January 1933, 2d.

[10]Daily Worker, 5 January 1933, 2d.

[11] Daily Worker, 13 January 1933, 4.

[12] Letter from C.E. Campton to W. Collins, 8 October, 1933.

[13] Note from A.J. Dawe, 2 January,1935, CO 67/258/7, NA.

[14] Oakley, ‘The Control of Cypriot Migration to Britain Between the Wars’, p. 39.

Piecing together the death of Ian Macleod: The responses in West Germany and Britain

How Macleod's death was first reported in The Times

How Macleod’s death was first reported in The Times

Early in the morning of June 25, 1972, the West German police raided a supposed ‘safehouse’ of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, in Stuttgart. There had been supposed telephone communications between the flat in question and a group of Swiss anarchists who had allegedly been in contact with Andreas Baader. During the raid, Ian Macleod (also spelt as ‘Ian Mcleod’ or Iain Macleod’) was shot in the back of the neck. Macleod, a UK citizen, was naked and unarmed when he was shot. Since then, the West German police (now obviously just the German police) have argued that Macleod had some connection to the RAF, whilst others have alleged that the police had shot an innocent man and this grave mistake by the police was covered up.

I came across the response by the British government to the shooting in some files at the National Archives whilst doing research on the UK’s counter-terrorist strategies in the 1970s and I have been interested in how the media and government in both countries reacted to the death of a foreign national in a high profile counter-terrorist manhunt. The Times first reported the death on page 1 on 26 June, 1972, largely based on accounts from officials in Stuttgart and Bonn. It reported that:

According to well-placed sources in Stuttgart tonight, Mr Macleod was suspected by the police of being at least a contact man for the gang.

However over the next few days, the newspaper was reporting that these contacts might not have existed and that the police shooting was unwarranted. On June 27, the newspaper stated:

The West German authorities have so far been unusually tight-lipped over the shooting.

The following day, the paper went further:

Lawyers and newspapers in West Germany today attacked the police for unnecessarily killing Mr Iain Macleod, a British businessman, as the official case against him began to disintegrate

Several newspapers here have underlined the impression Mr Macleod must have had when he opened the door and saw what was apparently a civilian brandishing a machine gun at him first thing on a Sunday morning. He screamed and slammed the door, whereupon the policeman fired two shots. 

While reporting that the police accepted that they acted ‘negligently’, The Times also remarked that the police’s case against Ian Macleod was ‘at best highly circumstantial’ and there nothing in the police account to reject the notion that Macleod’s actions (that caused the policeman to open fire) were:

the frightened reaction of someone awakened by noises in his home who finds a man with a machine-gun at his bedroom door at 6.30 on a Sunday morning.

The newspaper reported that the British Consulate in Bonn was liaising with the West German government and the National Archives has part of this correspondence. The only official statement I have been able to locate by the British Government was in Parliament in late July 1972:

Mr. Arthur Lewis

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what action he has taken or intends taking to protest to the West German Government at the shooting of Mr. Jain Macleod, a British businessman, by a West German policeman on 25th June, 1972 in Stuttgart; and whether he will demand compensation from the West German Government for Mr. Macleod’s next of kin.

Mr. Kershaw

Soon after Mr. Macleod’s death we expressed our concern to the Federal German authorities and asked for a report as soon as possible. We have been kept fully informed by the German authorities on the course of their inquiries, the latest state of which show no basis for suspicion against Mr. Macleod. But the case is still under investigation and until this has been completed, it is not possible to say what action Her Majesty’s Government intend to take.

I haven’t had a chance to look at other British media outlets from the time, but I expect that similar reporting could be found in The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. My next place to look will be The New Statesman, which hopefully covered the case.

How Der Spiegel reported on the case

How Der Spiegel reported on the case

As expected, the West German media covered the case in quite a bit of detail, although sources are not as accessible from Australia (and my German is quite limited). The current affairs weekly Der Spiegel reported that this was the sixth death by the police in the hunt for RAF members and seemed to conclude that Macleod’s death was one of mistaken identity. The same issue of the magazine contained a lengthy interview with two senior policemen in Stuttgart who were involved in the case. An English translation of the interview (thanks to Google Translate) opens with:

SPIEGEL: One of your officers has shot dead last week during the search of an apartment a recognizable defenseless man. Has the fear of the Baader-Meinhof people your police so messed up that it already is holding a naked man who starts up from sleep dangerous?

RAU: Certainly not. But we had to assume that the flat of the Baader-Meinhof people’s lives, had all experiences expected that BM group members ruthlessly shoot – and of weapons and ammunition that cause death. We also know that these people are smart and do not be surprised readily. That our officials did not count on the door so that the door is flung open suddenly and that he then fell into a deep psychologically explicable only state of emergency, of course, is extremely unfortunate.

Further in the interview, the senior police officers tried to explain the use of machine guns in the raid:

SPIEGEL: Why did you have your people equipped with machine guns! For an arrest a rather unusual armament.

RAU: In Baader-Meinhof operations we always take with machine guns.We must orient ourselves to the armament of the enemy – with 7.65 guns our government officials were always inferior in case of emergency. Incidentally, the MP of the shooter was set to single fire. He fired two shot.

SPIEGEL: Even if you wanted to grant him to have fired the first shot with excitement uncontrollably – one must not judge differently the second shot?

FREY: I think this all happened in the same psychological situation. It also went in quick succession: Päng. bang – I heard it on the hallway entrance to the apartment, I was also there. The shooter has explained to me spontaneously that he wanted to reach for the latch as the door was flung open from the inside. He saw only one head – wearing nothing of whether he was naked or – and suddenly the man had moved, as if to bend down. He had assumed that now he shoots, felt a burning sensation in the lower abdomen – “I already have one or I get ‘another’ – pulled the trigger, and as he has.

Weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, reported the following month that the Federal Prosecutor announced there was ‘no reasonable suspicion’ for Macleod and expressed concern that mere suspicion placed the police at Macleod’s residence that Sunday morning, armed with heavy weaponry and faulty intelligence: The suspicion is always a dangerous and too often an unreliable ally.”

Der Spiegel announced in July 1973 that the case had now been deliberated on by prosecutors in Stuttgart and the case against the policeman who shot Macleod had been dropped.

In 2007, two MPs from left wing party Die Linke (‘The Left’) requested information from the Bundestag (German Parliament) on the deaths of people at the hands of the police, prisons and the criminal justice system in the state’s fight against the RAF. In their request, they specifically mentioned the death of Macleod, stating that the full details of his death were still not known. The response by the Bundestag stated that 7 suspected RAF members had been killed between 1970 and 1998, with another 15 people injured.

In 2013, a former journalist from a local Stuttgart newspaper wrote that questions still needed to be answered about the case:

In July 1972, federal prosecutors closed the file McLeod. The Ninth Criminal Chamber of the Stuttgart Regional Court decided to not open a criminal trial of the gunman. The 36-year-old Detective Chief Master had acted in putative self-defense. The Labour MP Gavin strand of the Edinburgh constituency, from the Ian McLeod came, had called for an acknowledgment of the innocence of the murdered compatriot by the German authorities. He has received a diplomatic embellished with flourishes final report. The mother was offered a compensation of 135 000 marks, which she accepted a little later.

The police has been the case McLeod never worked. The newspaper did not also. My attempt to talk to the now 93-year-old Kriminaldirektor Frey about these past has failed, and the now 77-year-old gunman silent. From the former police leadership has only Günther Rathgeb (79), then head of the police, expressed at the time. He says:.. “In reality, politicians and security forces were taken by surprise, were not prepared and were sometimes completely helpless the events against a rule, barely stayed opportunity to actively and preventively to influence events almost exclusively one could only respond, had be wide awake, often take emergency decisions without guarantee of success and trust to luck. “

Where Ian McLeod is buried, I could not find out.

A German website dedicated to the history of political opposition in Germany has a page dedicated to the death of Macleod, with a lot of contemporary material from radical German groups and their responses to the death, as well as to the RAF more broadly. I enquired last year with the German State Archives about material relating to Macleod’s death. I was told that there are two closed files, which I can apply to have opened, although my success at gaining access is probably rather limited. But then again, I may apply to see them later in the year.

A radical interpretation of the events

A radical interpretation of the events

I have not mentioned what the FCO files from Kew say as I am hoping to put together a journal article on this case eventually. Anyone knows of any other potential sources should get in touch. I would also be interested in hearing from any German/German speaking historians who might be interested in working on this project with me – Google Translate can only help me so much!

‘Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956’ in latest MUP catalogue

The latest catalogue from Manchester University Press features our new edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (on page 60). Here is what it says about our book:

catalogue pic

If you haven’t done so, you should pre-order a copy for your university, school or council library now (a paperback should be following in the next 12-18 months).

We are also excited because the same page in the catalogue features a new book by fellow Flinders University colleague Rob Manwaring on social democracy in the UK and Australian Labour Parties.

Deny, normalise and obfuscate: The Home Office in the 1980s and the abuse of South Asian women

Palgrave cover

The ‘missing’ files of the Home Office relating to an alleged child-sex ring given by Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens to Home Secretary Leon Brittan is not that surprising. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept silent about a hundreds of thousands of files that were thought to be ‘missing’ or ‘destroyed’ during the decolonisation process that most probably document a number of abuses by British personnel in Africa, Asia, Latin/Central America and the Middle East between the 1930s and the 1970s. Our own research into the abuses suffered by South Asian women at the hands of the British immigration control system shows that the Home Office (along with the FCO) was unwilling to admit to the abuses that occurred during the 1970s and at every turn, Home Office staff tried to obfuscate any independent investigation into these known abuses. We have only started to fathom the extent of the abuses suffered from the archival records released 30 years later. Without the archival record, many of the transgressions of the state would go unnoticed by the mainstream and historians are valuable in making the past wrongdoings of governments known.

As we have written in the introduction of our forthcoming bookRace, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination:

The main methodological approach adopted for the research underpinning this book was archival research based on recently opened Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) files held at the National Archives in London (released to the public between 2004 and 2012). This approach allowed us to capture the internal voice of authority – the one that we know it exists but often cannot be reached – representing the secretive side of the state that excludes us unless there is a leak of information (as recent cases linked to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden would suggest). Thus, we must wait an inordinate number of years to access such information, should any trace of it remain. In the case of the virginity testing controversy, we had to wait 30 years to access this side of the story, for more details of what occurred to be released. This practice must also be understood within a wider context of a series of human rights abuses conducted by British state institutions in the 1970s and 1980s (with the relevant files being released in the same timeframe), such as the actions of the British forces in Northern Ireland, the death of Blair Peach at the hands of a police officer in 1979, the policing of the Brixton riots and the response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. We see in black and white the recurrence of the typical cycle of government evasion of accountability, which usually starts with denial, and is followed by the adoption of a minimisation approach and ‘othering’ strategies. The crude reality of what is known and not shared publicly conveys a sense of uneasiness, and of unbalanced power between those who govern and those who are governed, which can be readdressed by the opening of the archival record.

And further into the book:

This [book] has outlined how the British Government, under both Callaghan’s Labour and Thatcher’s Conservatives, responded to the revelation of the virginity testing practice by The Guardian in early 1979. The initial reaction of the government, led by Home Secretary Rees, was to question whether the tests on South Asian women had taken place in the manner alleged and to claim that any such test was part of a ‘routine’ medical examination to which most migrants were subjected. However, these claims were contested as details emerged that the practice was much more common than first thought, with numerous cases alleged to have occurred in British High Commissions across the Indian subcontinent. The strategy of the Home Office and the FCO was thus to deny publicly the number of examinations conducted (even though internal correspondence reveals that by March 1979 the Prime Minister’s Office knew of at least 80 cases), and to hope that public criticism would be stemmed by the announcement of an investigation into the process of medical examinations of immigrants by Sir Henry Yellowlees.

Soon after the practice of virginity testing was revealed in the mainstream press, the CRE announced that the Home Secretary should allow an independent investigation to pursue allegations of racist (and sexist) discrimination within the immigration control system. However, the Home Office was keen to resist this and challenged the questions raised by the CRE, claiming that discrimination was necessary to ensure the effective control of immigration, as well as launching legal action against the CRE, disputing whether it had the necessary powers to investigate another government institution…

The same strategies of denial, justification and obfuscation were adopted by the Home Office and the FCO when similar questions were asked about the use of x-rays within the immigration control system, with criticisms that x-rays were being performed upon minors not for medical reasons, but to verify their entry clearance applications. The Yellowlees investigation was used by the incoming Conservative government to deflect enquiries about the administrative and non-medical use of x-rays. Although the Yellowlees Report, released to MPs in April 1980, sanctioned the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes, the documents we have uncovered show that the Home Office and the FCO, internally, were in doubt over the usefulness of x-rays and quietly abandoned using them in all overseas posts except the High Commission in Bangladesh. Eventually Yellowlees, for reasons unknown, reassessed his position, and in 1982, Willie Whitelaw announced in the House of Commons that x-rays would no longer be used to determine the age of potential migrants. Since this 1982 embargo, there have occasionally been calls to reintroduce x-rays to verify the claims of potential migrants (and more recently, asylum seekers). 

Guardian front page

And in the book’s conclusion:

As we have shown throughout this book, from the 1960s to the 1980s the British authorities saw (and still see) the strict implementation of immigration controls as necessary for ‘good race relations’, and discriminatory practices – with the burden of proof placed upon the applicant – as necessary for the effective implementation of these controls. The suspicion of foreigners that existed within the system and pressure to scrutinise those who fit the profile of a potentially ‘bogus’ migrant led to the occurrence of various physical (and mental) abuses. This is the context within which the practice of virginity testing operated.

The practice of virginity testing and other forms of intrusive examination conducted upon migrant women from the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s were informed by a mentality of postcolonial dominance. The targeting of this group of women was certainly dictated by the British colonial experience – or misconception – that the female role in South Asian society is submissive. Further, the post-imperial British Government held a conviction, remaining from the colonial era, that people from the Indian subcontinent were untrustworthy. Yet, having admitted many Indian men into Britain for economic development purposes in the 1950s and 1960s, the government had to recognise the need to reunite families as a pressing point of public policy, while at the same time attempting to preserve the whiteness of British society.

The border became a space where virginity testing and other abusive treatments were justified to serve socio-economic and political aims. The increasingly restrictive conditions produced by British immigration control policy saw the authorities seek to apply a formula to create and maintain its idea of the ideal mixed society, whereby the Commonwealth migrant would be accepted on the terms of the host society. In the case of the South Asian women who came to Britain in the 1970s, they were to fulfil the purpose of joining their male family members and creating homogeneous family units in Britain’s South Asian communities, thus replicating the ideals of white British society. To ensure that these women would fulfil this role, and because South Asian migrants were thought to be prone to fabrication (especially women), the body became the signifier of ‘the truth’ for British immigration officials. The combination of all of these elements formed the basis for the conditions under which [many] South Asian women had to endure intrusive tests between 1968 and 1979. This practice was highly discriminatory, with a very select demographic group being the victims; it was an abuse of power and a violation of human rights.

The victims who were subjected to such practices remain mostly nameless and faceless, will never receive adequate compensation and, most importantly for the purpose of a proper healing process, have yet to receive an apology from either the past or current British governments. On this point, when the story broke again in May 2011 in The Guardian, and was widely reported worldwide, the Conservative government did not consider it to be a good opportunity to redress past wrongdoings:

[a] UK Border Agency spokesman said: ‘These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong.This government’s immigration policies reflect the UK’s legal responsibilities and respect immigrants’ human rights.’[i]

In a multi-ethnic, globalised Britain, one would assume that this matter would be taken more seriously. Redressing past wrongdoing is the foundation of restorative justice, an underpinning principle embraced by the UN to attest to the importance of acknowledging abuse and the infringement of human rights. Meaningful reparation of wrongdoings does contribute to the healing of victims, and any action in this direction ought to be encouraged…[ii] 

The task of discerning ‘undesirable’ migrants at the border was prioritised over all other economic, social and humanitarian concerns. Did ever the Immigration Officers, who used their discretionary power to argue that more intrusive examinations were needed, consider the implications of their actions? Have they ever looked back? We accept that they followed orders. We also accept that immigration officials may have agreed, up to a point, to perform their duties in a most comprehensive manner because of the government’s broader vision and their background. In other areas of the world, brutalities directed at certain ethnic groups to achieve a better position for the dominant state would be framed in completely different terms. The harmful actions of the British state and its branches and personnel cannot be dismissed in this way… 

As we have written, the archival record is key to uncovering the past abuses by the British state and as this blog post argues, the need for historians to assist in bringing the archival record to the public’s knowledge is increasingly greater. The recent past should not be arbitrarily off-limits. And if the government is reluctant to open its records, historians should learn from journalists and endeavour to make FOI laws work for us.


[i] A. Travis, ‘Ministers Face Calls for Apology as Extent of 1970s “Virginity Tests” Revealed’, The Guardian 9 May 2011, (accessed 9 January 2014).

[ii] Much of Miriam Aukerman’s analysis would apply to this context as well. See M. Aukerman (2002) ‘Extraordinary Evil, Ordinary Crime: A Framework for Understanding Transitional Justice’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, pp. 39-97.