Month: December 2014

Enoch Powell and the immigration “challenge” to Thatcher (1985)

Thatcher and Powell in 'happier' times at the 1969 Conservative Party conference

Thatcher and Powell in ‘happier’ times at the 1969 Conservative Party conference

In the file on the Scarman Report and the 1985 Handsworth riots that has been recently released by the National Archives, there is a series of documents concerning a challenge made by Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher to clarify her position on immigration. Speaking to the Birkenhead Conservative Women’s Association in September 1985 (two weeks after the Handsworth riots), Powell declared:

What sort of country will Britain be when the capital city and major cities and areas of England consist of a population of which at least one-third is of African or Asian descent?…

My answer, upon my maturely considered judgment, is it will be a Britain unimaginably wracked by dissension and violent disorder, not recognisable as the same nation as it has been, or perhaps as a national at all. Let those in positions of responsibility who disagree with my judgment declare their own in equally unequivocal terms.

If the Prime Minister of this country holds a different judgment – I am not sure that she does – let her publicly say one of two things. She can say: “Mr Powell’s figures and his picture of the factual future are substantially right, but I believe it will be a happy and peaceful Britain, which we and I shall be proud to bequeath to the next generation”.

Alternatively she can say: “Mr Powell’s figures and picture are mistaken: the true population proportions will be lower”. If she says that, however, she cannot stop there. She must tell the country what she believes those lower proportions will be and why; and having done so she can then, if she wishes, go on to make the same asseveration about a happy and united Britain.

The time of truth is coming at last for those who sit in the seats of authority… The nation will insist upon knowing what they intend to do.

Thatcher’s Chief Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, wrote a memo to the Prime Minister, warning her not to be drawn in by Powell’s challenge:

It seems likely the press will ask you to react but there are dangers in doing so on this scanty basis. I would refuse to be drawn.

From documents published by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, we know that the press asked Thatcher about Powell’s comments at a press conference in Aqaba, Jordan, the same day:


To change the subject for a moment, Prime Minister, you may be aware that in England today Mr. Enoch Powell has spoken following the Handsworth riot and he has suggested that the African and Asian population of Britain should be reduced by a Government programme of repatriation. Do you regard that as a helpful or unhelpful statement at this time?

Prime Minister

I have heard that Mr. Powell either has or is going to make a speech. I do not know what he said and should not dream of commenting on a speech I have not seen

This was not the first time that Thatcher had been quizzed by the press about crossover between her ideas about immigration and Enoch Powell’s. Since becoming leader of the Conservatives in 1975, the spectre of Powell had lingered over Thatcher and many scholars have emphasised the continuities between Powellism and Thatcherism. Probably the best known example of Powell’s idea about immigration (also expressed by the National Front) and the challenge they presented for Thatcher was the 1978 interview with Granada TV’s World in Action. Thatcher was asked about overlap between herself and Powell and herself and the National Front. She infamously answered:

I shall not make it a major election issue but I think there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this and sometimes, you know, we are falsely accused of racial prejudice. I say “falsely accused” and that means that we do not talk about it perhaps as much as we should. In my view, that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems. Now, we are a big political party. If we do not want people to go to extremes, and I do not, we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened…

And on the similarities between the Tories under herself and Powell, Thatcher said this (but did not say that she didn’t agree with Powell ideologically):

Mr Powell is an Ulster Unionist. In Ulster there is no Conservative Party; it is the Ulster Unionist Party and the question therefore is whether the Ulster Unionists would get closer to the Conservative Party. When I first came into Parliament in 1959 they took the Conservative Whip—you are familiar with the phrase —Conservative and Ulster Unionists went to the same back-benchers’ committees and tended to vote together. Then, as you know, there were differences and they have not. So, it is not a question of Mr Powell being Conservative. There is no Conservative Party in Ulster; it is the Ulster Unionist Party. It may well be that their views on the main things in politics are far closer to ours than to socialism and that, I think, is going to be the ultimate question at the next election.

But while Powell and Thatcher had similarities in their ideological outlook on many key issues, Powell was still a political liability and Thatcher dismissed (at least in public) any suggestions that Powell could be re-incorporated into the Conservative Party. Powell occupied a space on the political right in between the Conservatives and the fascist far right of the National Front and was able to vocalise many of the new right’s frustrations with the parliamentary Tory party. But as an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party, Powell was unable to capitalise upon the apparent popularity of his opinions and after the downfall of the NF at the 1979 general election, the right-wing vote had nowhere to go but to the Tories.

This seems very different from the challenge that Nigel Farage and UKIP present to David Cameron and the Conservatives in 2015. The media fascination and the apparent momentum that UKIP seem to currently enjoy means that Cameron cannot simply publicly dismiss Farage in the same way that Thatcher publicly ignored Powell. Maybe the archival documents released in 2035 will tell us more…




From the newly released NA papers: Thatcher, riots and the aftermath of Scarman in the early 1980s

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 11.01.05 pm The National Archives have just released archival documents relating to the Thatcher government for 1985 and 1986, with further releases in July 2015. There have been many media reports already on many other aspects of the papers (such as the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland, the Anglo-Irish relationship and her love-hate relationship with Australian PM, Bob Hawke) but I thought I’d explore one of the digitised files that has been so far overlooked – a file on public disorder and the aftermath of the Scarman Report on the Brixton Riots, spanning from late 1981 to late 1985 (PREM 19/1521).

As I have written before, the 1981 riots and the inquiry by Lord Scarman signified a low point in the history of Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister, with public support for the government and for the police greatly dropping amongst large sections of the British population. From this position, the government generally accepted the recommendations of the Scarman Report and on paper, agreed to implement most of its recommendations. The most significant reform was the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (which came into effect in January 1986), but scholars, such as John Benyon, have since argued about the effectiveness of the government’s other initiatives.

The newly released file shows the government’s statements about the extent of their actions in line with Scarman’s recommendations. But the file also shows that the government was still sceptical of Scarman’s suggestion that unemployment, poor housing and declining access to social services were underlying reasons for the outbreak of the riots across Britain in 1981. After further unrest broke out in September 1985 in the Birmingham borough of Handsworth, newly appointed Home Secretary Douglas Hurd made a speech to the Association of Chief Police Officers stating:

Handsworth needs more jobs and housing. But riots only destroy. They create nothing except a climate in which necessary development is even more difficult. Poor housing and other social ills provide no reason for riot, arson and killing. One lady interviewer asked me whether the riots was not a cry for help by the rioters. The sound which law-abiding people at Handsworth heard on Monday night… was not a cry for help but a cry for loot.

Hartley Booth, Margaret Thatcher’s Special Adviser on Home Affairs, repeated this assertion in a report to the Prime Minister in the days after the unrest in Birmingham. Booth criticised Labour MP Claire Short for her statement that ‘unemployment caused the riot’ and said that ‘socialist-style policies’, such as ‘huge state intervention and subsidy’, had failed to quell unrest. Booth reported to Thatcher:

there is overwhelming evidence that [the unrest] was a criminal exercise, carried out by selfish, greedy and idle youths

Booth also suggested that it was outside agitators and groups from the far left that contributed to the riot. As well as proposing that people had come from places such as Wolverhampton, Sparkbrook and Manchester to take place in the riots, Booth also asserted:

The police have clear evidence, as has Special Branch, that a group from Notting Hill with Far Left connections – entitled the Tabernacle Group – were present in Birmingham this week, and were the architects of a demonstration which it was intended should be filmed by the television cameras yesterday outside the Law Courts.

This suspicion of ‘outside agitators’ were responsible for the riots was a subject that Thatcher’s advisers came back to between 1981 and 1985 (I have already written about a report drawn up by Peter Shipley for the Home Office in 1981 which suggested that ‘outside elements’ were involved in the 1981 riots here). Thatcher’s Private Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs, Tim Flesher, wrote a memo in November 1982 that a ‘Trotskyite rent-a-mob’ had attempted to disrupt a meeting of the Brixton Police Community Liaison Committee. Tony Rawsthorne, the Private Secretary for Home Secretary Leon Brittan, wrote to Flesher in July 1983 to outline the risks of public disorder that summer and included the following passage about ‘subversives’:

the assessment from the Security Service is that there is no intelligence to suggest that any black or white subversive groups or individuals are planning civil disturbances or that they are considering how they might exploit any disturbances that might otherwise arise. If disturbances were to break out, some subversive groups would be likely to move quickly to extract the maximum political advantage from them.

After the 1985 riots, Quintin Hogg, the Lord Chancellor, expressed in a letter to the Home Secretary’s staff: I hope the factual account of Handworth [sic] will either confirm or repudiate the impression I get which is that there was an element of deliberate planning there either by drug pushers or left wing anarchists.

The file also has two memos that refer to a special report on subversive groups drawn up by MI5, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence of this report in the digitised file. A memo from Thatcher’s Principal Private Secretary, Clive Whitmore, to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, dated 22 Feb, 1982 mentioned the report:

The Prime Minister was very interested to read the report by the Security Service on exploitation by subversive groups of last year’s civil disturbances which you sent me with your minute AO7560 on 19 February 1982.

I am unsure why this report seems to be missing from the digitised file. Maybe it is something worth FOI-ing in the near future.

The British Communist Party and the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia, pt 1

This is part 1 of a series of posts looking at how the CPGB responded to the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia and the establishment of Zimbabwe in 1978-79. It is an off-shoot from my research into relations between the CPGB and the South African Communist Party. Part 2 will look at the CPGB’s reaction to the Pearce Commission in 1972 and a possible Part 3 will look at how the Party viewed the negotiations between the Smith regime and ZANU/ZAPU between 1977 and 1979. It is pretty new stuff for me, so any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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In 1965, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith announced the country’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from the British Commonwealth. Although there had been civil disobedience by the Zimbabwean people and the beginnings of an uprising prior to this, Smith’s (UDI) intensified the civil war in Rhodesia as the Smith white minority government fought two national liberation movements – the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Supported by South Africa and Portugal, the Rhodesian government fought these two movements from 1964 until 1978-79, when the Smith regime conceded power to the Patriotic Front (the combined forces of ZANU and ZAPU), ending white minority rule and the establishment of Zimbabwe.

By the late 1960s, the wave of decolonisation had effectively swept over most of the African continent, with only the Southern African states, such as Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia and South Africa holding out. Therefore Southern Africa became a focal point for anti-imperialists across the globe and flashpoint in the Cold War. The British left had, for the most part, supported decolonisation and opposed these states that continued to impose white minority rule in Southern Africa. Although the left’s efforts were primarily channelled into the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) and campaigned mostly on South African issues, there was healthy support for the national liberation forces fighting the Smith regime in neighbouring Rhodesia.

As allies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was heavily involved in the AAM in Britain, and also involved in supporting ZAPU in the Rhodesian Civil War (which also had support from the Soviet Union). In a 1969 issue of International Affairs Bulletin, the journal of the Party’s International Department, the CPGB stated that the AAM and Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom (soon to be Liberation) both greatly supported the Zimbabwean cause, but lamented that the labour movement had ‘not been sufficiently active on the issue’ (IAB, 3/4, Jan/Feb 1969, CP/CENT/INT/08/08, LHASC).

The same bulletin framed ZAPU as the spearhead of the Zimbabwean national liberation movement, stating: that ‘ZAPU is a mass party, and is firmly based on the workers and peasants’. This was contrasted with ZANU (which was supported by Chinese and had links to the Pan-Africanist Congress in South Africa, the main rival of the ANC), whose influence, the CPGB believed, was ‘more narrowly restricted and appeal[ing] more to sections of the intelligentsia, who are influenced by Maoist adventurism.’ The CPGB complained:

ZANU certainly appears to take little or no part in the present armed guerrilla struggle being waged by the ZAPU-ANC alliance, except to make wild statements from time to time which are based more on imagination than on fact.

The Party further added:

From the political standpoint ZANU seems to rely on flamboyant proclamations far remote from the realities of the actual struggle.

Between 1966 and 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson pursued negotiations to secure a new constitutional arrangement in Rhodesia, including majority rule for the country’s African population. Labour agreed in principle to ‘NIBMAR’ (no independence before majority African rule), although it was more or less powerless to prevent Smith from maintaining Rhodesia’s self-declared independence after 1965. Smith was able to reject most overtures from Wilson and the Communist Party was of the opinion that there was little hope in these negotiations achieving anything of significance. For the CPGB, support for the armed struggle was paramount, even though a resolution pronouncing this support was defeated at the 1968 Labour Party Conference.

The CPGB declared:

With their leaders in prison and in detention, the operation of a system of repressive laws, and with the Labour Government’s policy of appeasement of the Smith regime, the national movement has now taken the only way left for them to struggle for their aims…

Having formed an alliance for joint struggle, the Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU) and the African National Congress (ANC), of South Africa, launched their first military operations in August 1967 around Wankie. This marked a decisive new stage in the independence struggle of both the Zimbabwean and the South African people…

It is essential to win support for an understanding of the reasons for the armed struggle, to lay the basis for winning not only moral and political support for the freedom fighters, but material support as well.

The Communist Party put forward five main demands in regards to Rhodesia, which were very similar to those put forward by ZAPU. These were:

  1. No talks with Smith.
  2. Full moral and material support to the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle for liberation.
  3. Suspension of the 1961 Constitution and a fully representative conference to frame a new constitution based on universal adult suffrage and majority rule.
  4. The release of all political prisoners and detainees.
  5. Complete mandatory sanctions to be applied in accordance with the United Nations resolution.*

While giving support to ZAPU, the practical activism that the CPGB was involved in regarding Rhodesia was attempts to convince the trade unions to support the national liberation struggle (just as the unions were doing with regards to South Africa and the AAM). If the trade unions could be convinced to take this action, it would put pressure upon the Labour Party (and the government) to follow this lead, particularly in supporting the armed struggle. The International Department concluded its report on Rhodesia in 1969 with this statement about the importance of the British trade unions in campaigning for a democratic and independent Zimbabwe:

The British labour movement must be won to ally itself with the movement at present campaigning for a reversal of these policies of betrayal and for support of the Zimbabwe peoples in their struggle for one man one vote and no independence before majority rule.

However as the relationship between Britain and Rhodesia changed under the Heath govermment, which came into power in late 1970, the Party started to seek other forms of activism to highlight the struggle of the Zimbabwean people and not simply direct their efforts into pushing resolutions through the labour movement. This will be discussed in the next blog post on this subject.


*The five demands of ZAPU were:

  1. One Man One Vote.
  2. No Independence Before Majority Rule.
  3. No Negotiations with the Smith Regime.
  4. Comprehensive and mandatory economic sanctions.
  5. Moral and material support for the Zimbabwe people in their struggle for independence based on universal suffrage and majority rule.

(‘The Khartoum Conference and Six Liberation Movements’, IAB, 4/1, May/Jun 1969, CP/CENT/INT/08/08, LHASC)

Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Excerpt from ‘Against the Grain’ book

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This is just a quick post to let people know that the text of Mark Hayes’ chapter for our book Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 has been posted on Red Action’s website. Hayes’ chapter is titled ‘Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Some Observations Regarding Ideological Apostasy and the Discourse of Proletarian Resistance’ and adds to the growing literature about Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action. As RA/AFA had strong links to Irish Republicanism, there is also a discussion of the group and Hayes’ chapter on the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog here.

If you’re looking for something to spend your Christmas dosh on, you can pick up the book (with a slight discount) here.

New left history resource: SLL/WRP’s Labour Review & Fourth International

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This is just a quick post to let the usual left-wing trainspotters that the Encyclopedia for Trotskyism Online (ETOL) has now digitised the entire run of two journals belonging to the Healyite Socialist Labour League (after 1973 the Workers Revolutionary Party).

The first is Labour Review, which ran from 1952 to 1963. This was the journal of The Club, the group formed by Gerry Healy after the dissolution of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949 and coincided with The Club joining the anti-Pabloite Fourth International, led by the US Socialist Workers Party. Labour Review is particularly interesting in the mid-to-late 1950s for its commentary on the split in the Communist Party of Great Britain and the emergence of the new left. The journal includes articles written by several former CPGB members including Peter Fryer, Brian Pearce and Peter Cadogan.

The second is Fourth International. In 1963-64, the two wings of the Fourth International reunified, which was opposed by the SLL and the French International Communist Party. These two groups maintained the name of the International Committee of the Fourth International and published this journal. It was kept under SLL control until 1973, after which I’m not sure what happened, and re-appeared in 1978-79.

This journal is rather more expansive than Labour Review but is much more dense. It does carry some interesting material, such as the SLL’s position on Vietnam, Ireland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. However readers of the WRP’s daily paper Newsline will be disappointed that the apocalyptic tones of the Healyites is not that apparent in the pages of this journal. But in the last issue (Autumn 1979), you see an article by Alex Mitchell celebrating 10 years of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, an association which the WRP unfortunately fostered throughout the 1980s.

There is not a lot of SLL/WRP material on the internet, besides copies of The Newsletter from 1957-58 (see here), and this is a great resource for future research.


New article: Thatcherism and The Young Ones

TYO Agora

This is just a short post to let everybody know that my new article on depictions of Thatcherite Britain in The Young Ones has been published in Agora. A version of the paper can be found here. If you can’t access it properly, send me an email and I’ll ping one your way.

As usual, feedback, critiques and praise is welcome.

State crime and the migrant experience in the UK

After the coverage of the number of recent deaths of black people at the hands of the police in the United States and the commentary about similar victims of police/prison brutality in the UK and Australia, I thought I would post this excerpt from our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control. Although it concentrates on the immigration control system, it also talks about the concept of state crime more broadly and the importance of transforming how we look at the deaths, injuries and abuses suffered by ethnic minorities in the UK (as well as elsewhere) at the hands of state institutions.


The conduct of the immigration control system as state crime

The theory of state crime is a relatively recent development in criminal justice research, particularly in relation to the discussion of the practices of governments in Western liberal democracies, where the rule of law maintains that a legitimate use of force may be wielded by the institutions of the state, and effectively ‘consented’ to by the people who elect the government. This relates to the idea of ‘sovereignty’ – that a country has the right to solely determine its own laws (and enforce them) within its borders – although many scholars have argued that this idea of sovereignty is a myth.[1]

Criminologists Penny Green and Tony Ward have developed this idea of state crime by questioning the concept of the liberal democratic state’s legitimate use of force and arguing that the ‘legal limits of legitimate force are inherently vague’, and that the ‘strict enforcement of what limits do exist is intrinsically difficult and will often be contrary to the interests of the enforcing agency.’[2] For Green and Ward, the concept of legitimate force derives from a state’s claim to sovereignty and from ‘some degree of consent’, such that ‘there is likely to be some tacit understanding of the limits of legitimate conduct’.[3] One of the factors these authors use to define state crime is thus when the state acts outside the limits of legitimate conduct and its actions would seem illegitimate in the eyes of the civil society that the state purports to serve. They propose that state crime ‘should be restricted to the area of overlap between two distinct phenomena: (1) violations of human rights and (2) state organizational deviance’.[4] Human rights, in Green and Ward’s view, are ‘the elements of freedom and well-being that humans need to exert and develop … for purposive action’, while state organisational deviance is defined as:

Conduct by persons working for state agencies, in pursuit of organizational goals, that if it were to become known to some social audience would expose the individuals or agencies concerned to a sufficiently serious risk of formal or informal censure and sanctions to affect their conduct significantly.[5]

It is taken as implicit by Green and Ward that ‘passive failures to protect individuals against violations of their rights’ are also included within this definition of state crime.[6]

Green and Ward also point out that there is a difference between ‘individual deviant acts committed by state agents’ and ‘acts committed in pursuit of organisational goals’[7], with only the latter constituting state crime. Michael J. Lynch and Raymond Michalowski emphasise the term ‘organisational’ in the concept of state crime, proposing that often those who commit human rights abuses ‘are not morally depraved’, but are usually ‘ordinary workers who come to accept the normalcy of an organisational culture in which these acts, even if regrettable, are understood as simply part of their jobs’.[8] We have seen this in the history of abuses within the British immigration control system, as the government has tried to refute such abuse by attributing it to an individual (or individuals), usually at the lower levels, acting outside the parameters of their job. But it is often the case that the individuals are under pressure and informed from above, which creates the opportunity for abuses to occur.

In the area of immigration control policy, with a particular focus on Australia’s immigration control policy, Sharon Pickering and Michael Grewcock have both utilised he concept as developed by Green and Ward to highlight how the modern discourses that criminalise irregular migration (by refugees and asylum seekers) provide the context for state crimes to occur whereby these migrants become the victims. Grewcock states that Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has been long criticised for ‘breaching human rights norms’, but notes that ‘few legal or formal sanctions have operated against Australian government policy’.[9] Along similar lines, Pickering points out that over the past decade and a half, ‘Australia has retreated from its international human rights obligations and has sought to particularly distance itself from its international human rights obligations to refugees’.[10] However, any condemnation by the international community has been interpreted by many in Australia as ‘an attempt to undermine the policies and practices of a democratically elected government’.[11] A ruling government is unlikely to prosecute itself for state crimes, even if its practices do constitute a violation of human rights, are institutionally embedded and are conducted in pursuit of the goals of the state. So what is the point of labelling these practices as state crimes? Pickering and Grewcock both argue that labelling a certain practice or act as a state crime allows a space for a challenge to be made within civil society and an alternative view of the ‘refugee question’ to emerge. As Pickering concludes in a 2005 article, the use of the term ‘state crime’ ‘may assist in the deployment of alternative meanings for legitimate sovereign behaviour and the terms through which its legitimacy may be judged’.[12]

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An IRR report into the deaths of asylum seekers and ‘irregular’ migrants in the UK

British immigration control and state crime

We see similarities between the phenomena described by Pickering and Grewcock and the abuses that we have described in this book. One of the continuous features of British immigration control since the 1970s is that there are ever tightening restrictions placed upon non-European migration, but as mentioned earlier this has not stopped the flow of people into Britain. Liza Schuster has argued that, despite controls becoming ever tighter, people still find a way into the destination country, stating that:

Controlled borders, let alone closed borders, are a fiction, and … the European and other governments which attempt to enforce these are involved in a symbolic battle at best.[13]

It is within this symbolic battle, Schuster claims, that there are ‘very real serious costs and consequences’ of the enforcement of immigration control, not only for migrants but also for the destination countries.[14] In addition to the massive financial costs of maintaining border control, hundreds of migrants die or are injured while seeking to gain entry to the destination country and there is an ‘increase in racial prejudice and racial violence each time migration controls become the focus of political attention’.[15]

The figures on how many have died, been injured or been physically or mentally abused within the British immigration control process are incomplete, and only cover a much more recent period of time than that examined in this book. For example, Harmit Athwal for the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) states that, between 2006 and 2010, ‘77 asylum seekers and migrants … have died either in the UK or [while] attempting to reach the UK’.[16] Of these 77, 15 died ‘taking dangerous and highly risky methods to enter the country’, 44 died ‘as an indirect consequence of the iniquities of the immigration/asylum system’ (with 28 of those committing suicide), seven died in police custody, seven died ‘at the hands of racists or as a consequence of altercations with a racial dimension’ while out in the community and four died while undertaking work in the ‘black economy’ as irregular migrants who are not provided with any state assistance.[17] After the deaths of three migrants in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre in July and August 2011, Athwal reported on the IRR website that 14 people had died in British immigration detention centres since 1989.[18] These reported figures are most likely to be underestimates of the real size of the problem and Athwal suggests that there may be more, such as those who die while trying to enter Britain, those who are repatriated to a place where they fear for their safety and those who die while working in the ‘black economy’.[19] Athwal also emphasises that these figures do not include the violence experienced by settled migrants and the next generations, at the hands of either other members of the community or institutions of the state, such as the police. Another IRR study from 2010 found that 89 people had died as a result of racial violence since 1993 (the year of Stephen Lawrence’s murder)[20], while the IRR website claims that over 140 black and ethnic minority people died in police custody between December 1978 and November 2003.[21]

Can these deaths be attributed to state crime? Looking back at Green and Ward’s definition, these deaths can be seen to eventuate from the pursuit of organisational goals by state personnel (such as preventing irregular migrants from entering the country, deporting unwanted migrants, and ensuring that living in the UK as an irregular migrant intolerable) or the failure to adequately protect vulnerable individuals. As Leanne Weber argues:

[t]he majority of border-related deaths can be attributed to the ‘structural violence’ of border controls – that is, to systemic effects that multiply the risks of death and injury faced by illegalised travellers.[22]

And like the Australian context, in Britain the migrant has little recourse against state crimes. Mary Bosworth and Mhairi Guild have explained that the migrant is in a ‘substantially different, and far more vulnerable, position’ than the domestic criminal, and the ‘British immigration complex does not encounter the same [legal] constraints as the [domestic] criminal justice system’.[23] Liz Fekete has lamented that ‘[n]ot one of the twelve deportation deaths the IRR has documented since 1993 [to 2007] has led to a police officer or immigration official being successfully prosecuted for murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter’.[24]

The death of migrants is not the only basis on which to justify use of the term ‘state crime’. Serous abuse and physical and psychological harm at the hands of the state can be classified as state crime. And the practice of virginity testing reveals that the maltreatment of vulnerable migrants is not reserved to irregular migrants. Moreover, migrants showing up at the border with documents are subjected to state abuse. This demonstrates that state crime at the border can take many forms, and more often than not goes unreported and remains unknown. However, these abuses can be explained as a consequence of attempts to achieve the organisational goals of the immigration control system: the ‘desire for order’ and the aim of preventing ‘undesirable’ migrants from entering the country.

This raises a question in relation to the cases of abuse seen in the British immigration control system and in the Australian system: can these abuses be considered ‘state crimes’ as defined by Pickering, Grewcock, and Green and Ward? Clearly, similar abuses have occurred in both immigration control systems. And by the definition put forward by Green and Ward, as used by Pickering and Grewcock, these abuses could indeed be defined as state crimes, pursued in the process of state organisational goals.

What is the purpose of calling these abuses state crimes? It must be to redress the balance in the discourse on how migrants are treated within the British immigration control system. The present discourse is framed by a popular assumption that migration is a transgressive act that must be responded to with the full force of the coercive powers of the state, which often surpasses the ‘legal’ limits of this coercion. By highlighting the actions of the state as a form of criminal activity, rather than focusing on the possibility of people entering the country under false pretences, we are hoping for a shift in the dominant discourse.


[1] See David Garland, ‘The Limits of the Sovereign State: Strategies of Crime Control in Contemporary Society’, British Journal of Criminology, 36/4 (Autumn 1996) pp. 445-471; Saskia Sassen, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York, 1996).

[2] Penny J. Green and Tony Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, Social Justice, 27/1 (2000) p. 102.

[3] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 108.

[4] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 110.

[5] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 110.

[6] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 111.

[7] Green & Ward, ‘State Crime, Human Rights and the Limits of Criminology’, p. 110.

[8] Michael J. Lynch & Raymond Michalowski, Primer in Radical Criminology: Critical Perspectives on Crime, Power and Identity (Mansey, NY, 2006) p. 186.

[9] Michael Grewcock, Border Crimes: Australia’s War on Illicit Migrants (Sydney: Institute of Criminology, 2010) p. 18.

[10] Sharon Pickering, Refugees and State Crime (Sydney: Federation Press, 2005) p. 13.

[11] Pickering, Refugees and State Crime, p. 14.

[12] Sharon Pickering, ‘Crimes of the State: The Persecution and Protection of Refugees’, Critical Criminology, 13 (2005) p. 160.

[13] Liza Schuster, ‘An Open Debate on Open Borders: Reply to Stephen Castles’, Open Democracy (29 December 2003) (accessed 18 November 2009).

[14] Schuster, ‘An Open Debate on Open Borders’.

[15] Schuster, ‘An Open Debate on Open Borders’.

[16] Harmit Athwal, Driven to Desperate Measures: 2006-2010 (London, 2010) p. 2.

[17] Athwal, Driven to Desperate Measures, p. 2.

[18] Harmit Athwal, ‘Three Deaths in Immigration Detention’, IRR website (4 August 2011) (accessed 26 August 2011).

[19] Athwal, Driven to Desperate Measures, p. 2.

[20] Harmit Athwal, Jenny Bourne and Rebecca Wood, Racial Violence: The Buried Issue, IRR Briefing Paper 6 (London, 2010) p. 3.

[21] IRR, ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ (19 February 2004) (accessed 26 August 2011).

[22] Leanne Weber, ‘Knowing-and-yet-not-knowing about European Border Deaths’, Australian Journal of Human Rights, 15/2 (2010) p. 41.

[23] Mary Bosworth and Mhairi Guild, ‘Governing through Migration Control: Security and Citizenship in Britain’, British Journal of Criminology, 48 (2008) p. 711.

[24] Liz Fekete, ‘Europe’s Shame: A Report on 105 Deaths Linked to Racism or Government Migration and Asylum Policies’, European Race Bulletin 66 (Winter 2009) p. 5.