London and the south-east regional divide in television sitcoms in Blair’s Britain

This is an extended conference paper by Lauren Pikó and myself, originally presented at the Eric Richards British and Australian History conference earlier this year. It is part of an on-going research project that we are working on looking at representations of political and socio-economic change in modern Britain through television comedies. Our previous work on The Young Ones and Men Behaving Badly can be read here.

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.” – Alan Partridge

 While many have discussed the North/South divide in England that has widened since the days of Margaret Thatcher, at the same time, many have overlooked the divide between London and the regional south-east, where the divide between Greater London and its surrounding counties has become increasingly blurred in a geographic sense, but a stark contrast has emerged socio-economically. Cities as far away as Norwich in East Anglia have become commuter towns to London, while conversely, much of the non-customer service work that used to be conducted for the city has been moved out to its outliers, such as Slough and Staines. In these commuter towns and outlying places in the Greater London region, the workplace (and the working class) has become irrevocably changed by the shift away from industry and manufacturing to service industries and white-collar office work. London, to those on its fringes, is not a place of opportunity, but an expensive and anonymous place to be avoided.

This post looks at how this regional divide plays out in three British sitcoms made in the Blair years, which normalised and encoded the economic transformations of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership. These are I’m Alan Partridge (set in Norwich), Da Ali G Show (set in Staines) and The Office (set in Slough). Through their liminal fringe south-eastern settings, and their tortured main male characters, these programmes negotiate the tensions and borders between ‘Middle England’ and the glamorous, but ultimately unfamiliar metropolis.

Liminal spaces in the Blairite metropolis

The explicit divide-and-rule policies of the Thatcher governments pitted the post-industrial service-based economies overwhelmingly located in the south-east of England against heavy industries, manufacturing, and those associated with communities in the North of England, by exploiting deindustrialising macroeconomic trends and weaponising them against communities and regions who were politically hostile to the new political order. While this phenomenon has been well explored by historians, it is significant to note that it was understood as an explicit and overt policy at the time; the very concept of “the enemy within” during the Miners’ Strike exemplifies Thatcherite attempts to Other and present northern working-class communities as not only outside of national norms, but as being in opposition to it.[1]

The willingness of the Thatcher governments to accelerate and weaponise wider global macroeconomic trends against communities it judged as hostile helped establish a new economic geography of Britain, which was also mapped onto a moral political rhetoric. The fullest expression of this rhetoric would be developed under the Major government, through the concept of “Middle England”. While this was far from being a historically new term, its usage during the mid-1990s came to reflect a historically specific set of economic and class allegiances associated with suburban petit-bourgeois individualism, a hostility to working-class cultures and to state “intervention”. Middle Englanders were associated with the geography of south-eastern England’s post-industrial economies that had been encouraged by Conservative deregulation of urban planning protections. From the extensive service and logistics industries populating the new geographies of out of town “industrial estates”, the transformation of motorway sidings through the expansion of “services”, “big-box” distributing centres and fringe leisure complexes, the primary and visible economic functions of British landscapes changed drastically during the 1980s and through the 1990s.[2]

At the same time as these communities and regions were being actively redefined as outside of the national norm, the Thatcher governments actively cultivated the idea of a south-eastern English aspirational middle class aesthetic, lifestyle and individualistic value set as a universal norm and as an ideal moral and economic type of its voting base. Through political rhetoric and the constant media generation of associated ideotypes such as Essex Man, Basildon Man, Mondeo Man, and White Van Man, the conceptualisation of the typical or privileged voter as white, male, lower-middle-class, and south-eastern English were codified through cycles of political and media repetition.[3] This process established a mythological norm which privileged a specific image of embattled bourgeois whiteness and presented it as intrinsically linked to the new forms of productivity generated by the south-eastern English landscape.

This would become all the more profoundly normalised as the Blair government, elected in 1997, deliberately refrained from attempting to remedy these drastic changes to maintain their idea of political legitimacy. For all its rhetoric of change, its appeals to authority relied primarily on making only superficial aesthetic changes to the existing economic order; the divisions left by the Thatcher governments could only have been addressed through the kind of interventionism and regulation which postwar Labour governments had used to shape and control market influence, and these were no longer seen to be politically palatable to a “New” Labour. While they were elected on a hopeful campaign promising change from 18 years of Conservative rule, one of the Blair governments’ primary political contributions was to reinforce the neoliberalisation of the British state. While high-profile support for Blair amongst musicians, comedians, and writers peaked during 1996 and 1997 at the time of the election, once New Labour began to be seen as business as usual, this mood mellowed.

British television comedy in the 1990s

The history of British television comedy defies easy compartmentalization and the rise and fall of different comedy trend are difficult to categorize. On a broad level, the mid-to-late 1990s can be somewhat characterized as the start of a shift away from the ‘laddish’ comedy culture of the early-to-mid-1990s, typified by Baddiel & Skinner and Men Behaving Badly. Tim Edwards has described this as the ‘New Lad’ phenomenon, which spanned television, film, magazines and novels, pointing to the following examples:

The BBC situation comedy, Men Behaving Badly, gam shows such as They Think It’s All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels… in very different ways play upon and invoke the theme of the New Lad. Loud and sexist humour often tied in with rudeness and bad behaviour, if not extreme violence, characterize all of these representations of masculinity that, for the most part, appear to have direct appeal to a young, aggressive and sel-consciously working class male audience or its admirers.[4]

The ‘laddish’ comedy trend had originally been partly in reaction to the ‘political correctness’ of the alternative comedies of the 1980s, such as The Young Ones and The Comedy Strip Presents. Many sitcoms in the 1990s took the flatmate/sharehouse premise and extended it, often with the protagonists no longer being students (like in the Young Ones), but now older, in some form of employment and in some form of relationship. Furthermore, these were comedies were dominated by men, often in their late 20s or early 30s, putting off the pressures of ‘adulthood’. This can be seen in Men Behaving Badly and Game On (and later in shows like Coupling, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and even Peep Show). The locations that these shows are set in are the traditional house or flat, as well as the pub/bar and sometimes the workplace). Most, except for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, were set in London. In many ways, these shows reflect a transition in the way in which the British family and household were changing in the 1990s, as people were increasingly likely to buy a house and start a family later in life.

The shows that we are looking at transgress these traditional settings, moving away from the home and the communal area of the pub to the workplace and the liminal spaces on the edges of the metropolis. The programmes under examination here all formally depart from classic sitcom formulae and from the domestic setting of many popular comedies from prior to 1997. All are located in liminal south-Eastern English cities and within these, in “non-place” post-industrial settings (motorway sidings; industrial estates; suburbia/housing estates). They all share a critical and subversive relationship to television comedy genres, and all use a form of humour which deliberately provokes the edges of social norms through their main male characters. In this post, we examine the relationship between the liminal landscapes and liminal values these programmes navigate, and use them to trace the social, economic and geographic normalisation of neoliberalism during the early Blair government.

I’m Alan Partridge

The first series of I’m Alan Partridge aired from November 1997. A successor to the sketch show The Day Today and to the talk show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, the programme continued to document Steve Coogan’s character of a failed Norwich-based television and radio presenter in a new context. While using a laugh track, I’m Alan Partridge adopts a fly-on-the-wall style which at times approaches documentary style. The series opens with Alan living in one of the typical liminal spaces of the post-Thatcherite deregulated south-eastern English landscape; Linton Travel Tavern, a carefully fictionalised Travelodge located on the motorway services halfway between London and Norwich. Alan’s life is in a similar transitional space, as he fails to negotiate a new BBC contract, his optimistically titled autobiography Bouncing Back fails, and he is forced to liquidate his production company.

The gap between Alan’s aspirations and failures is mirrored in part through his occupation of what Marc Augé termed the “non-places” of late capitalism; motorway sidings, service stations, carparks, ring roads.[5] Partridge’s comfort with these settings even as he seeks to escape them is central to the humour of the programme, with his conservative enjoyment of mass produced foods, music, and even clothing which are so mainstream as to be passé. Like Alan’s preferences for consumption, and the settings of the programme, the plots satirise ideas and aesthetics which presume the audience is both familiar with and therefore contemptuous of, with Alan’s failure to realise his own faux pas making him the target of jokes. Phillip Wickham has written that the first series of I’m Alan Partridge, ‘broadcast in the year of raised hopes as New Labour came to power in 1997, suggests a world where… the individual has become dislocated from society and where codes of personal morality, solidarity and self-belief are rendered meaningless’.[6]

The second series of I’m Alan Partridge, broadcast in 2002, shifted its setting to Alan’s caravan and under-construction Barratt-style home, further exploited Underpinning these stories of Alan’s striving for status are flashes of narratives of repression, whether of his innermost sexual desires or reflections on past breakdowns.[7] Even while he constantly seeks to escape his surroundings, his antipathy to London as the site of his professional failures, and indeed any other city, region or country, entraps him with his refusal to transcend the comforts of what he knows.

Da Ali G Show

The first series of Da Ali G Show was broadcast in 2000 on Channel 4. In some ways Ali G echoed Coogan’s earlier invocation of Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You, in its constant attempts to subvert the format of a smoothly functioning talk show by introducing tension (interrupting music segments, simulating mistakes and technical failures). Much of the humour, however, arose from actively exploiting the guile of guests who believed the show would conform to conventional talk show formulae. While creator Sasha Baron-Cohen, like fellow character creators Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan, subsequently took these characters into other settings (including America) in subsequent series, the setting of the first series of Da Ali G Show is frequently referred to as Staines, the staid Middlesex commuter town on subsumed into the exurbia of London’s Western fringes.

The gap between Ali G’s persona and the show’s setting exploits racialised stereotypes of “urban yoof” subcultures associated with inner cities, and the gentrified commuter landscape of the fringes of Greater London. The gap between expectations of what is “allowed” to be said and what Ali G, Borat, or Bruno would in fact say, and the ensuing discomfort of guests and audiences, relies on the perception of being “out of place”, mirroring the programme’s juxtaposition of stereotypes with their setting. Locating Ali G in an implied stronghold of Middle England works to subvert both the supposed homogeneity of the ideotype, and to point to the limits of cultural and political stereotypings of race, class, and youth subcultures. The space between expectation and reality as a source of recognition for the audience, as well as of humour, is mirrored in the programme’s landscape as well as its social relations.

The Office

This was especially the case in The Office (airing from 2001), which used mockumentary style to depict the mundanity of working life in the regional office of Wernham Hogg paper company, located in Slough. Existing on the fringes of the London commuter belt, Slough represents an anonymous ‘anywhere’ in Britain outside of London proper, but is also a representation of the ‘local, specific and particular’.[8] As Tara Brabazon has suggested, The Office represents ‘the specificity of a post-Blair, post-union, post-industrial, post-feminist, insular, open-plan office’.[9]

The setting of the comedy in Slough, and its regional tensions with Swindon branch, is inextricably interwoven with the aimlessness and escapist desires of its main characters, who are presented as socially and economically enmeshed with their unfulfilling environment. This underpins both the normative characters Tim and Dawn, whose dissatisfaction is expressed overtly, and through the escapist, compulsive approval seeking of the office manager David Brent, who barely sublimates his dreams of fame and an exceptional life into being a “cool boss”.

Like Partridge, however, Brent’s affection for the landscape of his entrapment reinforces his wider social failings: in an interview scene where Brent reads and ineptly critiques John Betjeman’s poem “Slough”, his defense of the town is represented as over-familiarity with the undesirable or distasteful, much as his racism, ableism, sexism, and general insensitivity is ostensibly mocked for its failure to conform to new social norms. Brent’s escapist desires is offset by his desperation to keep his job, which he is fired from as he stretches his “relaxed” attitude to the point of untenability. With an identity predicated on stretching the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour, Brent’s workplace persona relies on remaining in tension with social and economic expectations, much as his regional office is a tense and precarious link in the wider supply chain of Wernham Hogg.

We propose that the shared humour style of representation in these programmes, and the landscapes they depict, are distinctly related. Cringe humour can be seen in this way as one that plays with uneasy interpellations, and the tensions and liminal spaces of comfort and discomfort, familiarity and unfamiliarity. It relies on the audience recognising particular character types, settings, and situations, but identifying with them at least partly unwillingly, whether through recognising social faux pas, vulnerable emotions, or behaviours that are outside of the established norm. The humour in each of these programmes derives from discomfort, whether that of the audience, the main character/s, or other characters reacting with distaste due to their expectations of a social norm not being met. The gap between uplifting rhetoric and economic realities is presented as the source of displeasure, unfulfilment, and the striving for places and economic roles outside the norm; the characters either want to escape, or are ridiculed for their level of comfort with the new environment. Unlike comic forebears such as Abigail’s Party, whose satires of social mores responded to suburbia and which ended in tragedy, these comedies are workplace-focused with a heavy emphasis on individual pursuits of fame as an exit-strategy. In these comedies, the failed promises of neoliberal economics and the landscapes which it has created are inextricable subjects of ridicule.

Cringing is a form of emplaced dramatic irony, making reference to the uneasy space between familiarity and contempt, knowing and wishing not to know, while locating the audience as a moral arbiter over the characters’ failures to differentiate the behaviours that are dictated and required by this particular setting. In the programmes under discussion here, the use of post-industrial “non places” reinforces and emphasises the literal “edgy-ness” of the type of humour being used; familiar and yet distasteful, both inside and outside of the expectations of the projected audiences. On the one hand these can be contextualised within longer patterns of elite satire of mainstream working conditions, lifestyles and aesthetics which recur throughout modern British culture, however these comedies deliberately targeted settings, lifestyles and expectations in ways which were made possible by their being both relatively historically new and deeply familiar and recognisable. The constant juxtaposition of emotional repression and economic striving, and perpetual entrapment within liminal, unfulfilling spaces not only shapes the humour of these programmes but maps them onto the specific post-industrial landscape of south-eastern England, which are seen as familiar but also as morally desolate sites of discomfort, precarity and unease.

[1] Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); “The Strange Birth of Middle England,” Political Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2005).

[3]Imogen Tyler, “”Chav Mum Chav Scum”,” Feminist Media Studies 8, no. 1 (2008); T. Jensen and I. Tyler, “‘Benefits Broods’: The Cultural and Political Crafting of Anti-Welfare Commonsense,” Critical Social Policy 35, no. 4 (2015); Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, Class and Contemporary British Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[4] Tim Edwards, ‘Sex, Booze and Fags: Masculinity, Style and Men’s Magazines’, Sociological Review, 51/1 (2003).

[5] Marc Augé, Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London/New York: Verso, 1995).

[6] Phillip Wickham, ‘British Situation Comedy and “The Culture of the New Capitalism”’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2013).

[7] Joe Moran, On Roads (London: Profile Books, 2009); “‘Subtopias of Good Intentions’: Everyday Landscapes in Postwar Britain,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 3 (2007).

[8] Tara Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”: The Office, (Post) Reality Television and (Post) Work’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8/1 (2005).

[9] Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”’.


The last time the government evoked the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan

The new Home Secretary Amber Rudd has, in the wake of Brexit, evoked the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, which has been used in the past by Gordon Brown in 2007 and by the British National Party and the National Front in the 1980s. While she has been heavily criticized for her statements, this is an on-going issue. The following is from a 2010 book chapter on discourses of ‘race’ and immigration in the UK under Thatcher and New Labour, which looks at the last time the slogan was widely used – at strikes in 2009 where a section of the British labour movement embraced Euroscepticism. In the aftermath of Brexit, these strikes reveal some of the debates that the left were unwilling to have about the EU, European workers and a consistent anti-racism.


In their 2009 European Parliament elections, UKIP gained 16.5 percent of the vote and thirteen seats,[i] heavily campaigning for withdrawal from the EU and limiting immigration from Europe. Their campaign document for the European Parliament elections, intertwining opposition to the EU with an anti-immigration position, declared:

Our membership of the European Union is already costing jobs in the UK. Major construction projects now hire many of their staff overseas, with British workers not even having the opportunity to apply…

The only people who should decide who can come to live, work and settle in Britain should be the British people themselves. We can only do this outside of the EU political union. The open-door immigration policy has been voted against by only one party–UKIP.[ii]

The 2009 European Parliament elections saw a swing by British voters, albeit a low voter turnout, to the right, with the explicitly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrationist UKIP and the British National Party (BNP) gaining votes and/or seats, and the Conservatives, with a more toned down rhetoric on Europe and immigration, winning a majority of British seats.[iii] However anti-EU politics are not always defined by the right, with the Labour Party until the era of New Labour traditionally opposing British involvement in the forerunners of the EU, and are not always linked to anti-immigrationist politics. The labour movement has also traditionally opposed British entry into Europe, viewing the EU and its predecessors as a capitalist super state that allows the flow of economic benefits into the hands of a supra-national ruling capitalist class and away from the working classes.

The 2009 European Parliament election also saw the creation of a new left-wing anti-EU party, the No2EU: Yes to Democracy party, which sought to promote withdrawal from the EU on less nationalist and xenophobic grounds, but did not make much ground against the Eurosceptic right. No2EU had originally emerged from a crisis in the British labour movement over the free movement of labour within the EU, with wildcat strikes breaking out across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[iv] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union.

But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, used by some involved in the strike. This slogan had been first used by the National Front and the British National Party, but had been revived by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in several speeches in 2007, including the TUC Annual Conference and the Labour Party Conference.[v] The slogan was evoked by some rank-and-file striking workers,[vi] which drew fierce media attention to the strike and divided the labour movement over how to support the strike. The reluctance to explicitly support or condemn the strikers using the slogan can be seen in the comments from the trade unions involved. Derek Simpson, a joint leader of Unite, asserted that “[n]o European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job”, while General Secretary of the GMB, Paul Kenny said, “You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs”.[vii] TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber stated:

Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff.[viii]

Some “distasteful elements”, such as the BNP, tried to make political capital out of the strikes, using the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in a council by-election in the ward of Newton Hyde in Greater Manchester. In May 2008, the BNP had polled 846 votes in the ward, compared to Labour’s vote of 1,124, and this gap of only 278 votes was expected to close as the economic downturn worsened and the BNP campaigned on the “British jobs” slogan.[ix] But this did not happen as the BNP vote increased marginally to 889 votes, but Labour’s majority soared to 1,379 votes.[x] James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, which encompasses the Newton Hyde ward, said, “I think it’s a victory for hope and solidarity over people who want to bring division and hatred”.[xi] However four months later, the BNP had a surprising result in the European Parliament elections, winning two MEP seats for former National Front members Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, in the North West and Yorkshire, exploiting populist anxiety over immigration and the European Union. On the other hand, No2EU only managed to gain around 1 percent of the vote across Britain.[xii] What the wildcat strikes and the No2EU campaign demonstrated was that it is difficult to disentangle anti-EU politics from nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric and left-wing, and generally anti-racist, opposition to the EU is a minor part of the discourse, unfortunately trumped by the right, who continue to dominate the discourses on immigration and the European Union.


[i] UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”, 17 July, 2009,, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

[ii] UKIP, “Campaign Policies Euro Elections 2009”

[iii] UKIP’s vote increased from 16.2 percent in 2004 to 16.5 percent in 2009, with 12 seats in 2004 and gaining one seat in 2009. The BNP gained two seats in the 2009 election, even though their overall vote declined. The Conservatives lost two seats in 2009, but still hold ten more seats than Labour with 25 seats and 27.7 percent of the vote. See: UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”; House of Commons, “European Parliament Elections 2004”, House of Commons Research Paper, 04/50, (London, 23 June, 2004) 11

[iv] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, “Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates”, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, “Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength”, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, “Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes”, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, 4; “Blame the Bosses not ‘Foreign Workers’”, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, 1, 3

[v] Vincent Keter, Government Policy on “British Jobs for British Workers”, House of Commons Library, (16 September, 2009) 2,, (accessed 4 December, 2009)

[vi] See:, (accessed 17 February, 2009)

[vii] Cited in, Unite, “Unite’s Three Point Plan for Dealing with the Current Wave of Unofficial Strike Action”, latest_news/unite_has_today_proposed_a_thr.aspx, (accessed 17 February 2009); “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[viii] Cited in, “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[ix] Jon Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”,, (accessed 8 February, 2009)

[x] J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xi] Cited in, J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xii] “Crow’s No2EU Gain 153,000 Votes”, BBC News Online, 8 June, 2009,, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

New piece at History & Policy: Brexit, imperial nostalgia and the “white man’s world”

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This is just a quick note to let people know that the website History & Policy has published a piece by myself and Steven Gray (University of Portsmouth) on Brexit and imperial nostalgia for the ‘white man’s world’ of the former settler colonies. You can read the piece here.



Forming the National Front of Australia: ASIO and the fledgling far right group

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On Saturday June 2, 1978, a group of nine people gathered in a room of the Southern Cross Hotel in the Melbourne CBD to launch the National Front of Australia (NFA). According to the ASIO informant, nine people attended the meeting, including several well-known far right activists, a 16 year old schoolboy and an undercover reporter for the newspaper The Age. Seven out of the nine listed were already known to the authorities in some regard. The meeting was led by a 23 year old law student and army reservist, Rosemary Sisson, who had travelled to the UK in 1977 to seek permission from the National Front’s John Tyndall to establish an NF in Australia. According to ASIO, Tyndall had appointed Sisson to be Chairwoman of the NFA until a directing body was created. In a report on Sisson by the Victorian Police’s Special Branch, Sisson was described in these terms:

She appears to be intensely sincere in her beliefs but politically naïve and immature. I do not believe that she has the ability to form a political party on her own volition and would most likely be used by other persons taking advantage of her enthusiasm, while maintaining their anonymity.

The meeting, which lasted between two and four hours, commenced with the playing of God Save the Queen and passed several motions relating to the outlook of the NFA, the composition of the National Directorate, membership fees and a statement of ambition regarding the contesting of elections in the near future. The ‘highlight’ of the meeting was listening to a tape recording of Tyndall. The ASIO informant described Tyndall’s speech as such:

Tyndal’s [sic] speech included greetings to the newly formed NFA and congratulations and it is encouraging to him that the National Front had extended to Australia… He pointed out that the National Front had been established for almost 12 year and during this time there had been clashes with the authorities, Police Special Branch and most left-wing groups. In spite of all this, they had conducted massive demonstrations and never instigated violence but violence was forced upon them… The speech continued with the usual self praises and self congratulations for the National Front.

Tyndall also mentioned in his speech that National Fronts had been established in several other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia. After Tyndall’s speech, a letter of congratulations from the leader of the New Zealand National Front, David Crawford, was read out. Sisson saw the connection to the British NF as very important and most of the policies outlined at the meeting centred around maintaining Australia’s links with Britain, the Commonwealth and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ race. These included the establishment of the Commonwealth National Front (CNF) as a (theoretical) co-ordinating body of the various NFs across the globe and the call for the reconfigurement of the British Commonwealth as ‘an exclusive closely-knit association of White states’, where there was either a large white population or ruling white elite. This led to the calling for the re-entry of Rhodesia and South Africa into the Commonwealth and support for white rule in both countries. As evidenced by the singing of the old national anthem, loyalty to the British Crown was paramount to the NFA.

The Age journalist that attended the meeting was David Wilson who wrote about the establishment of the NFA in the newspaper the following week. Wilson described the secret meeting of nine people as:

the culmination of 12 months’ work: trips by England by two of the nine, talks with the head of the English movement, Mr John Tyndall, letters to the chairman of the New Zealand division, Mr David Crawford, and weeks of long hours carefully selecting the initial members of the Australian movement, printing, letter writing and telephone calls.

According to ASIO intelligence reports, a Birmingham based NF organiser, Jeremy May (who had previously lived in Australia), had travelled in early 1978 to assist Sisson in setting up the NFA, while Sisson also communicated with Tyndall in writing. In an intercepted letter between Sisson and Tyndall, written in late November 1977, she concurred that the NFA would supposedly operate differently than the British NF, writing:

We agree with your suggestion that an Australian NF body should aim to function – at least initially – as a pressure group concentrating on basic political technique and party organisation, rather than attempting to achieve mass popular appeal and publicity.

This letter was written in the wake of the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977 when the British NF attempted to march through a borough of south-east London with a large African-Caribbean community. The clashes between anti-fascist protestors and the police, as well as with some NF members, brought the NF to attention of many Australians as the scenes were broadcast on the news. The NF had shifted in their strategy from attempting to gain influence amongst ex-Conservative Party voters and building its membership base to a strategy of ‘owning the streets’ and gaining as much as publicity as possible from these street battles, whilst simultaneously contesting elections and trying to siphon off disaffected Labour voters. It seemed from Sisson’s letter that the NFA were not expecting to mimic the British NF’s approach just yet – with only a handful of interested people, occupying the streets was too tall an order for them.

The 'Battle of Lewisham', August 1977

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’, August 1977

The month before the establishment of the NFA, May wrote an article in Tyndall’s journal (aligned to the NF at the point in time) Spearhead, titled ‘Towards a National Front of Australia’. Like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the NF saw Australia as ‘a vast and fascinating country with tremendous social and economic potential’ and while the country was ‘almost completely self-sufficient in economic resources’, it was perceived that Australia was at the mercy of foreign investment and international liberalism. May pointed to the ending of the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a particular symbol of Australia’s despair, lamenting the ‘invading hordes’ from southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, May focused on Australia’s ‘complete absence of protection for almost the entire length of the country’s vast coastline’ as another example of the country’s weakness, with the naval defences, described as a ‘bathtub floatilla’, unable to prevent ‘Chinese drug racketeers, Pacific Islanders and, most recently, Vietnamese refugees’ from reaching its shores. Despite this, Australia was still seen as a bastion of the old white Commonwealth at a time when South Africa and Rhodesia seemed on the verge of collapse. May warned Spearhead’s readers:

Let us be clear on one point. Should South Africa ever fall to the forces which threaten to engulf Western civilisation, we can be sure that Australia will be next on the list. Liberalism is a luxury which Australia simply cannot afford, if only for geographical reasons. No protection money will ever be sufficient to dissuade the teeming Asiatic billions from erupting into the island continent once they get their chance.

May declared that the only way to ‘safeguard the nation from this fate’ was the creation of the NFA, which he described as ‘an urgent and imperative necessity’. ‘Native Australians’, by which May meant white Australians with an Anglo background, ‘are a proud, strong-minded and independent people’, who also maintained their links to British. And it was up to the NFA to ‘ensure that this distinctive national identity… is encouraged, enforced and politically activated.’

With this mission in mind, the establishment of the NFA was preceded attempts to gauge public opinion through the secret distribution of literature across Melbourne. As David Wilson wrote in The Age, ‘The only indication of the secret spread of the movement was through the carefully circulated newsletter, The Australian Nationalist.’

The Australian Nationalist had started appearing from January 1978 and was a mimeographed publication written by Sisson. The first issue called for a united Australian nationalist party and bemoaned that the nationalist movement at that time was ‘almost hopelessly and irretrievably fragmented into mutually suspicious, competitive, and absurdly idiosyncratic, exclusive little groups.’ But Sisson declared:

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT WE REGROUP AND UNITE! Only though unity and the strength this gives us can we begin to tap and realise the incalculable political potential of national patriotism within this country.

Sisson pointed the British NF as the example ‘forever before our eyes’ of the unification of several different far right groups (in 1967, the NF had formed from the remnants of the League of Empire Loyalists, the British National Party, the National Democratic Party, the Greater Britain Movement and the Racial Preservation Society). The Australian Nationalist expressed a pro-British Commonwealth nationalism and its influences were very much drawn from the British fascist movement, rather than the American far right. Similar to May’s article, Australia was portrayed as the bastion of the white British civilisation on the periphery of Asia and Sisson argued that this meant that a strong nationalist movement was needed to maintain this position. The fear of invasion by Asians was long-standing in Australia and Sisson evoked this in a January 1978 article:

The geographical situation of Australia, with its close proximity to some of the most populous of Asiatic nations, impels us to be very much on our guard against nationally destructive propaganda…

In the editorial to the April 1978 edition of the newsletter, Sisson further championed Australia’s links to Britain and the importance of their ‘proper ethnic pride’. She argued:

Australia owes almost everything it has to Great Britain. The conquering and pioneering spirit of our forefathers was British. This can never be denied. If anything, we should seek closer links not only with white Europe, but to a greater extent with our mother country. Even though we are no longer a cluster of colonies, but are fully self-governing and independent, there is no reason why we should forsake our history and clamour for a republic.

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The first leaflet produced by the NFA

In June 1978, The Australian Nationalist became Frontline: Magazine of the National Fronts of Australia and New Zealand, with the debut issue dedicated to the formation of the NFA. Unlike the descriptions by ASIO and by David Wilson in The Age, the June meeting of the nine people to form the NFA was described in Frontline in grandiose terms. Quoting the opening address by Sisson, meeting supposed ‘mark[ed] an important event in the political history of Australia’ by forming a new political party that ‘represents the future of the Australian people’ and ‘revive national pride’. The magazine also carried the text of Tyndall’s speech heard at the meeting, in which Tyndall described Australia as a terra nullius transformed by British settlers into a bulwark of white civilisation on the edges of the British Empire:

Australia was not so very long ago a wilderness inhabited by a few savages, and it took some very hardy determined, self-reliant and tough pioneers to carve a great country and a great civilization out of that wilderness…

Tyndall enthused about the formation of the Commonwealth National Front, remarking that the ‘realisation of the National Front spanning the whole British Commonwealth has always been a dream to me’ and with the establishment of the NFA, ‘the sight of this dream being fulfilled is enormous encouragement to me’. Tyndall asserted that the NFA was not subordinate to the British NF and there was to be ‘equal partnerships’ between the NF in the UK and those in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In an article in Frontline, the CNF was to co-ordinate activities amongst the various NFs across the Commonwealth, but allowed discretion to each NF to function as it desired. The article explained:

Subject to their adherence to a common set of basic principles and objectives, National Front organisations in various countries are free to determine their own rules of association, to make their own executive decisions and to determine themselves all policies relating to their own countries’ domestic political affairs.

The above will include the right to determine whether the National Front in a particular country will function as a fully fledged political party, seeking power in its own right by the ballot box, or whether it will function merely as a pressure group or society for the furtherance of National Front ideals.

The magazine also carried the letter of congratulations from the NFNZ’s leader David Crawford, which described the NF as ‘the vanguard of the most impelling force ever to strike your country in the last 100 years’. Crawford mentioned that National Fronts now existed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. The journal Patterns of Prejudice noted the announcement of the Commonwealth National Front in mid-1978, but stated that the only NF that had been set up by that time was in New Zealand – although by March, 1979, ASIO believed that the NFNZ was ‘almost finished’. Patterns of Prejudice that NFs in Canada and South Africa were still in development.

The 16 year old schoolboy that attended the inaugural meeting of the NFA was David Greason. In his autobiography, I was a Teenage Fascist, Greason described the meeting as a ramshackle and ill-organised affair, with him moving a motion for the formation of the NFA, even though he had not seen the motion previously. Greason described that in the days following the meeting and the publicity given to the NFA in the mainstream media, several different far right identities, usually linked to the now defunct national Socialist Party of Australia claimed to part of the NFA’s leadership. This is borne out in the ASIO files, which catalogue that various people in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales all claimed to represent the National Front in Australia. According to Greason and ASIO, the NFA seemed to be limited to Victoria and Queensland, where the Queensland Immigration Control Association (run by John C.A. Dique) had significant influence. The rival to the NFA in Sydney was the National Alliance, which eschewed the pro-Britishness of the National Front and leaned more towards the white supremacism coming out of the United States, influenced by the infamous newspaper National Vanguard. According to Greason, National Alliance tried to foster a uniquely Australian nationalism, appropriating the symbolism of the Eureka Flag and promoted the idea of an Australian republic. The leading figure of the National Alliance was Jim Saleam, who had been a member of the NSPA and went onto form groups such as National Action and the Australia First Party.

By mid-1979, Patterns of Prejudice was reporting that the NFA had between 100 and 300 members, but had been subject to in-fighting, particularly as Sisson made trips to the UK to meet with Alan Birtley, a NF member jailed for weapons and explosives offences. The ASIO file carries significant correspondence between Sisson and a NF member named Margaret Swan, whom Sisson discusses her links to Birtley extensively.

In the UK general election in May 1979, the British NF contested more than 300 seats and were wiped out at the polls, receiving barely more than 1 per cent of the vote on average. Similar electoral contests by the NFA in 1979 and 1980 led to the same results. Greason outlines that by 1980, there had been several defections from the NFA to the National Alliance, but the National Alliance was unable to make any more headway than their rivals. The media also focused less on the National Alliance, which did not have the same name recognition of the ‘National Front’, which was infamous across the English-speaking world.

The Commonwealth National Front did not last long into the 1980s. The NFA emerged to a completely hostile media and fared very poorly in its electoral pursuits, but was also not popular enough to take up the strategy of ‘occupying the streets’. Besides the production of Frontline, Sisson’s organisation dwindled and eventually over taken by rival groups, namely National Action. Patterns of Prejudice also reported in 1978 that the National Front of South Africa was in talks of merging with another small racist group and that the Chairman, Jack Noble, had resigned. The NFSA’s other major figure, Ray Hill, also left South Africa in 1980, before returning to the UK to join the British Movement as an undercover anti-fascist mole for Searchlight magazine. The British NF, which was seen as the beacon of the CNF, also collapsed after the 1979 election into warring factions. Tyndall formed the New National Front in 1980 and in 1982, transformed this into the British National Party. The remnants of the NF in the 1980s became known as the Official National Front and the NF Flag Group, which competed with the BM and the BNP for support amongst football hooligans and skinheads in the Thatcher years.

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

In his PhD thesis (acquired through the University of Sydney), Jim Saleam suggests that it was the authorities, particularly ASIO, that stifled the development of the NFA, writing ‘two facts were demonstrated: some Extreme-Rightists had strategies, and the para-State intended they not blossom.’ However while ASIO had infiltrated the NFA from its very inception and monitored it closely, the hostility it faced from the Australian public and its inability to gain any sort of traction politically was more to do with the NFA’s ideology and its membership.

As John Blaxland has acknowledged in his volume on the official history of ASIO, the security services had monitored the far right in Australia since the inception of the NSPA in the early 1960s and continued to monitor the far right throughout the 1970s, even though the various far right groups did not seem to present a danger to the parliamentary system and the ‘poor quality’ of its small membership. Troy Whitford has shown that when National Action was formed in 1982, both ASIO and the NSW Special Branch took measures to monitor and infiltrate the organisation, especially in the late 1980s when NA became increasingly involved in racist and political violence (as noted in the 1991 national inquiry into racist violence in Australia).

These three large files of ASIO’s surveillance of the National Front of Australia make for very interesting reading and show how the NFA attempted to seize the initiative presented by the British NF, creating an antipodean version of the UK organisation. The NFA had a particular pro-British outlook and saw a white-dominated British Commonwealth as its goal, but like many white supremacists and far right activists in the 1970s and 1980s saw South Africa and Rhodesia as symbols of white ‘civilisation’ being attacked by non-white and communist forces. Solidarity with these former settler colonies was paramount to the NFA’s worldview. The files show that the internal structures of the NFA (with the disputes over the leadership and direction of the party), as well as the media’s spotlight on the fledgling group and its inability to gain a widespread following, all led to the demise of the NFA by the early 1980s. However, as National Action, the Australia First Party and nowadays, the United Patriots Front demonstrate, the far right in Australia may change and shift, but not necessarily go away.


Public engagement ftw!


Two guest posts by yours truly have been published in the last two days. The first is on my research into the UK perspective on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 and has been published by The Conversation. The second is on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and their view of Australia as a ‘proto-fascist’ settler colony. This post has been published by the wonderful Imperial and Global Forum run by the University of Exeter.

I did a radio interview about the Whitlam controversy with Dom Knight on ABC Radio Sydney last night. I think the episode is available for reply for the next week.



Policing Communism Across the British Empire: A Transnational Study

This is a revised (yet shortened) version of the conference paper I gave last week at the XXIV Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History. I am currently knocking it into shape for submission as a journal article, so any feedback, comments or questions is most welcome. If you’re interested in reading the longer version, do send me an email.

A flyer from the campaign against the dissolution of the Australian Communist Party in 1951.

A flyer from the campaign against the dissolution of the Australian Communist Party in 1951.

The period after the Second World War looked to present the international communist and anti-colonial movements with an ‘interlude of hope’ as the forces of socialism and national liberation seemed to gather pace.[i] Based on the Lenin’s theory of imperialism, communists saw the collapse of the European colonial systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas as the catalyst for worldwide socialist revolution. On the other hand, these colonial powers, primarily Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, also viewed colonial independence as a precursor for a communist takeover and prepared heavily to prevent decolonisation and the spread of communism.

The largest empire belonged to the British and there was an orchestrated effort from late 1946 onwards to allow colonial self-government where necessary, but also intense pressure put on the British armed forces and the security services to, in the words of Calder Walton, ‘to prevent former British colonies being absorbed by the Soviet Union as satellite states.’[ii] In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, this led to counter-insurgency measures being taken in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus (as well as support for the Royalists in the Greek Civil War), as well as ‘anti-communist’ interventions by the security services in other parts of the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia.

While the threat of a communist takeover was more acute within the Commonwealth’s developing nations, the Dominions of Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia were seen as vital allies in the battle against communism inside the Commonwealth and bulwarks of ‘democracy’ on the periphery of the former empire, charged with maintaining order within the ever increasing post-imperial Commonwealth. Although its struggles were not as bloody as those of French, Dutch and Portuguese decolonisation, Britain did not willingly give up its rule in every former colony were part of a wider strategy developed by successive British governments that was ‘carefully calculated to allow decolonization to occur on British terms rather than those of the indigenous people’.[iii] As Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon states:

The British government developed a concerted imperial strategy designed to secure the colonies for the Commonwealth in an orderly transfer of power while maintaining British influence in the region and strengthening overall Western dominance in the Cold War world.[iv]

In a bid to counter these national liberation movements and their links to communists, the British authorities, alongside the United States, the Australian and South African governments (as well as those of Canada and New Zealand), looked to co-ordinate an anti-communist response across the British Empire. While the British authorities were able to ban many communist or workers’ parties in the British colonies, in the Dominions, where there was self-government, the British tried to build an anti-communist consensus. This was achieved through several measures:

  1. By a constant relay of information about ‘communism in the colonies’ via the Foreign Office through the various High Commissions;
  2. by the establishment of security agencies in liaison with the British and the Americans to gather and distribute intelligence on communist activists in each country;
  3. the monitoring of suspected communists inside the trade union movement, the civil/public service and other civil society organisations; and
  4. the introduction of legislation to ban the Communist Party.

Although much of this was driven by the British (as well as by the United States as the new global superpower), in some areas, the authorities in Australia and South Africa went beyond what the British government was inclined to do domestically, resulting in a process where often the periphery that drove the anti-communist policies and strategies of the metropole. Alongside this, there was also the horizontal transmission of anti-communist politics and policy transfer particularly between Australia and South Africa – two countries where anti-communism became intertwined with white supremacy and shared a common outlook as the Cold War began.

This paper proposes that anti-communism in the British Commonwealth as pursued by the ‘white’ Dominions fuelled by two overlapping sets of transnational ties. Firstly, there was a keen sense of imperial responsibility felt by the Dominions (particularly Australia) to maintain the Empire/Commonwealth and assist in the fight against communism, which threatened both domestic politics and the political situation in the colonies (such as Malaya). Secondly, there was the wider concept of the global West under the umbrella of the hegemonic dominance of the United States and an allegiance to the ‘global colour line’ promoted by the USA’s informal empire.[v] To varying degrees, Britain, South Africa and Australia co-operated with each other to combat the communist threat, but also taking inspiration from other Anglophone nations, such as the US, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia. This formed the basis for the intelligence network, developed during the Cold War, known as the ‘five eyes’ network between Britain, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.[vi]

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The Foreign Office as co-ordinating centre for information

Beginning in the late 1930s, the Dominion Office, and then the Foreign Office, compiled a weekly report from the various High Commissions across the British Empire/Commonwealth, routinely titled ‘Communism in the Colonies’. These typically took in reports from the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, as well as the various countries of the Indian sub-continent, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and on occasions, Ireland. Correspondence was generally directed towards the Foreign Office in London, but copies of most reports were distributed between the High Commissions in Canberra, Pretoria, Ottawa and Wellington.[vii]

The transmission of anti-communist materials went essentially three ways and this differed with the kind of report produced. Firstly, the Commonwealth Relations Office produced weekly reports on ‘Communism in the Commonwealth [or Colonies]’ that were distributed to the High Commissions in Canberra, Ottawa, Pretoria, Wellington, Dublin, Delhi, Karachi and Colombo. These were, for the most part, summaries of the communist movement in each country and the measures being taken against them. Secondly, there were in depth reports produced by the High Commission in each country, which were fairly constant, but not regular, in their production and these were sent to the Foreign Office in London. Lastly, these in depth reports were also distributed horizontally across the various Dominions, fostering links between the various countries.

The co-ordination of intelligence

Up until the late 1940s, the security and intelligence services of the Dominions were overseen by MI5 and MI6 (also known as the Secret Intelligence Service), with local Special Branches being involved in the policing and monitoring of political dissidents and extremists. Special Branches were established at federal and state/province level within most of the Dominions in the first half of the twentieth century, aided by the British security services. As the Cold War began in the late 1940s, the newly formed CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, taking over from the US Office of Strategic Services) and MI5 formed closer ties and it was felt that a more rigorous security service needed to be established in such places as Australia, Canada and New Zealand after a series of security lapses. Originally perceived as overseas sections of MI5,[viii] each country established a domestic security service modeled on the British agency.

Alongside the establishment of security services in the Dominions and the frequent reports on Communism in the Commonwealth via the Foreign Office, the Attlee government attempted to foster closer ties between the security services and the executive branches of the government with the creation of the Information Research Department (IRD) in 1948. The IRD was an inter-governmental body established to produce ‘covert anti-communist propaganda’ and although originally constituted to counter the Soviet-inspired World Peace Council, it was transformed under the Conservative government, led by Winston Churchill, in 1951 into a strategic counter-subversion body to deal with domestic and transnational communist threats.[ix] Like ASIO under Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, the IRD’s scope for counter-subversion went beyond known Soviet operatives and CPGB members and also targeted ‘fellow travellers’ attached the trade union movement and the British Labour Party.[x] Despite this work on counter-subversion, others in the security services were not convinced of the political threat posed by communism in Britain, and instead focused on the role that communists played within the trade unions.[xi]

Purging the trade unions

After a general freeze on industrial action during the Second World War by many of the Communist Parties in the Western world, strike action involving communists rose sharply in the late 1940s as the Cold War escalated and the international communist movement shifted to the left. These episodes of industrial action in all three countries led the authorities, as well as many others, to worry about communist infiltration in the trade unions. This led to increased monitoring of the trade union leadership in all countries and numerous reports by the security services, the police and various British High Commissions being circulated on the subject. For example, a 1947 report (made public in 1952) by the Investigation Officer of the South African Police declared:

it might be mentioned straight away that they have only one policy, viz. control of all trade unions in this and other countries which must ultimately be used to establish anarchy at a given moment in order to facilitate world domination. Local and present-day strikes are primarily engineered by them in order to practise and perfect the necessary machinery for their ultimate object. In order to accomplish this, demands are invariably made on the employers for increased wages to an extent which can never be met in order that no alternative but a strike may be the issue.[xii]

With their links to the trade union movement, the ruling Labor/Labour governments in Australia and Britain both renewed their rules enforcing the proscription of members of the Communist Party from joining and encouraged those trade unions that also banned Communist Party members. Phillip Deery and Neil Redfern suggest that this revived anti-communism was influenced by Harold Laski’s pamphlet The Secret Battalion: An Examination of the Communist Attitude to the Labour Party, which was distributed widely amongst Australian Labor Party branches and to the anti-communist Industrial Groups formed inside the Australian labour movement.[xiii]

Similar to the Chifley government, Deery and Redfern argue that ‘proscribing the CPGB or banning its publications was not seriously considered’ by the Attlee government. But in all three countries, calls were made on the right wing side of politics for the banning of the Communist Party.

National Party PM of South Africa, who oversaw implementation apartheid, D.F. Malan.

National Party PM of South Africa, who oversaw implementation apartheid, D.F. Malan.

Banning the Communist Party

Of all the anti-communist measures introduced across the three countries (and the wider Anglophone world), the most transnational of these was the banning of the Communist Party (or attempts to ban it), where the governments of South Africa and Australia took inspiration and lessons from each other and other attempts to ban the Party in Canada and the United States. In a 2004 speech, Justice Michael Kirby stated:

In the United States,… the Supreme Court had held up as valid the Smith Act which was in some ways similar to the Australian anti-communist legislation. It, in turn, had borrowed elements from a South African law which subsequently became the model for “suppression of terrorism” laws in a number of British colonies.[xiv]

Shortly before his electoral victory in 1948, Opposition leader D.F. Malan cited the efforts made by Canada and Australia during the Second World War to deal with the ‘threat’ of communism, praising that ‘Canada decided to banish the Communist Party in that country and to take every necessary step to ensure Canada’s safety.’[xv] He further added:

In Australia we have the same phenomenon at the present time. I think it was announced last Saturday that two of the principal parties in Australia had announced that they wanted steps to be taken against Communism in so far as it exercised an influence from outside on Australia but also from within and that they also wanted steps to be taken to ban the Communist Party and its allied organisations. South Africa’s Government is powerless and is doing nothing in the matter…[xvi]

The Malan government and the Menzies opposition (and after December 1949, the Menzies government) did share some thoughts on how to deal with the communist ‘threat’, with the Communist Party Dissolution Bill (Cth) and the Suppression of Communism Bill both being entered into Australian and South African Parliaments respectively within months of each other in 1950. Records from the National Archives of Australia show correspondence between the High Commissions in Cape Town and Canberra in March 1950 that drafts of each country’s anti-communist legislation were confidentially shared prior to the introduction of Menzies’ bill in April 1950. A cablegram from the Australian High Commissioner in Cape Town to the Australian Minister for External Affairs states:

The Union Government has made available for your strictly confidential information, a copy of the draft bill to combat Communism, which I am sending by today’s airbag. It has yet to receive the final approval of Cabinet.

The Union Government state they would seek particulars of any Australian Government measures directed to the same object.[xvii]

In the end, the ban on the CPSA was the only one to survive (and did so until 1990), with the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 being ruled unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia and a subsequent referendum to change the Australian Constitution to allow such an Act narrowly failed in 1951. In the parliamentary debates on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in Australia, veteran Labor MP Jack Holloway raised the fact that Australia was, in May 1950, leading the way in its pursuit of anti-communist legislation, stating:

No other country within the British Commonwealth of Nations would dream of passing legislation of this kind. Great Britain and Canada have refused to do so whilst South Africa is watering down its original proposals to deal with the Communist Party.[xviii]

Legislation was not introduced in Southern Rhodesia as the small communist circle inside the country worked clandestinely within the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party and as an extension of the CPSA (and after 1952, the South African Communist Party). Despite calls for the banning of the LPP, Canadian PM Louis St. Laurent rejected these proposals by the Opposition in May 1950 and the Party was allowed to continue legally until it was reconstituted as the new CPC in 1959. As The Guardian commented on during the debates over the Suppression of Communism Bill in South Africa:

Canada has learnt her lesson. Must we learn it too, in this country, only from bitter experience?[xix]


This paper shows that the co-ordination of anti-communism in the British Commonwealth went beyond the sharing of intelligence between the members what would become the ‘five eyes’ network in the Cold War (and post-Cold War) era. Through government agencies, the institutions of the Labor/Labour Parties and the executive branches in all three countries, Britain, Australia and South Africa drew upon each other’s policies and legal frameworks to develop a shared anti-communist response, although adapted to local political and social conditions. Between 1947 and 1951, this co-ordinated response was strongest, before divisions in the international communist movement and in the Anglophone world emerged in the late 1950s. Using the metaphor that Zhdanov promoted at the outset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, by the late 1950s, there no longer just two camps – the democratic/anti-fascist/anti-imperialist and the anti-democratic/fascist/imperialist camps – but a myriad of camps amongst the global West, the global East and the non-aligned, which complicated the Cold War. With these divisions, the anti-communist and imperial unity projected by Britain, Australia and South Africa (alongside the United States and other Anglophone nations) in the early Cold War period became more fractured and these countries were less likely to act in step with each other as they once did.


[i] Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.

[ii] Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire (London: Harper Press, 2013) p xxvi.

[iii] Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) p. 2.

[iv] Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame, p. 3.

[v] John Munro, ‘Imperial Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement in the Early Cold War’, History Workshop Journal (2015) doi:10.1093/hwj/dbu040 (accessed 21 July, 2015); Richard Seymour, ‘The Cold War, American Anticommunism and the Global “Colour Line”’, in Alexander Anievas, Nivi Manchanda & Robbie Shilliam (eds), Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line (London: Routledge, 2015) pp. 157-159.

For further discussion of the ‘global colour line’, see: Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008).

Both Lake and Reynolds, and Seymour have taken this notion from W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903) (accessed 20 July, 2015).

[vi] See: Stephen Lander, ‘International Intelligence Co-operation: An Inside Perspective’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 17/3, (2004) pp. 481-493.

[vii] See: Letter from Lord Harlech to Viscount Cranborne, 3 December, 1943, DO 35/1199, NA; Letter from Lord Harlech to Clement Attlee, 16 April, 1943, DO 35/1199, NA.

[viii] Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London: Allen Lane, 2009) p. 371.

[ix] Thomas J. Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain: The Official Committee on Communism (Home), the Information Research Department, and ‘State-Private Networks’, Intelligence and National Security, 2014, DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2014.895570, pp. 2-4.

[x] Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain’, p. 12.

[xi] Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, p. 406.

[xii] Cited in, South African House of Assembly Debates, 13 June, 1952, col. 7949.

[xiii] Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) p. 66.

[xiv] Justice Michael Kirby, ‘Comparative Constitutionalism – An Australian Perspective’, paper presented at the University of Chicago, 23-25 January, 2004, , accessed 13 April, 2014.

[xv] South African House of Assembly Debates, 15 March, 1948, col. 3198.

[xvi] South African House of Assembly Debates, 15 March, 1948, col;.3199.

[xvii] Cablegram from Australian High Commissioner (Cape Town) to Minister for External Affairs, 3-4 March, 1950, A1838 TS201/2/26, NAA.

[xviii] Australian House of Representatives debates, 16 May, 1950, col.

[xix] The Guardian, 11 May, 1950.


Communist Attitudes towards Polish Migration to Post-War Britain

This post was inspired by a recent analysis on the reception of Polish migrants by the NUM in Wales in 1940s and 1950s by Daryl Leeworthy over at his History on the Dole blog. It had formerly been an article that I was trying to write on the subject, but has been on the backburner for a long time. Sections will be included in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of ‘race’, which will be published by Brill’s Historical Materialism series. As usual, feedback is welcome!

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

The CPGB and colonial migrants

When Afro-Caribbean workers started to migrate to Britain in large numbers during the 1940s and the 1950s, the Communist Party was one of the principal organisations that appealed to these immigrants. Many of those who were attracted to the Communist Party had been political activists or trade unionists in their home countries and looked to the Party, as both an anti-colonial force internationally and an influential trade union presence domestically. The Party had a tradition of involvement in the anti-colonial movement, with chief theoretician on anti-colonial policies, R. Palme Dutt, citing Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism: ‘Stalin emphasized that “the victory of the working class in the developed countries”, e.g. in Britain, “is impossible” unless this common front and alliance with the struggles of the colonial peoples is established’.[1] Viewing the people in the British colonies as ‘fellow fighters… against the common enemy’ of British imperialism,[2] the Party welcomed the black immigrants and attempted to incorporate them into the Party, with varying levels of success.

The Communist Party acknowledged that racial discrimination was evident in Britain, but for the most part, this was attributed to a ‘prejudiced, stupid and sometimes vicious minority’, identified as ‘fascists’, ‘Tories and employers’ and ‘Leaders of the Government’.[3] This largely absolved the working class from being responsible for acts of racial discrimination as race prejudice was largely seen as ‘a conscious part of the policy of the most reactionary sections of British capitalism’.[4] However the Party did admit that ‘amongst a minority of workers, some racial feelings still exist’.[5] In the 1955 pamphlet, No Colour Bar in Britain, the CPGB welcomed immigration from the Commonwealth, claiming that the arrival of ‘colonial workers’ was a ‘great opportunity before British working people’.[6] In a declaration of CPGB policy, the pamphlet stated that the ‘attitude of the Communist Party is clear… It welcomes the arrival of colonial immigrants’, stressing that ‘colonial people are British subjects’ and were entitled to enter Britain freely.[7] For immigrants from outside the Commonwealth, the Party’s attitude was much more divisive.

The campaign against Polish resettlement

In May 1946, the Labour Government announced the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, a ‘noncombatant military unit… in which Polish veterans were encouraged to enrol by promise of resettlement’ to direct Polish workers into ‘essential’ industries, such as construction, agriculture and coal mining.[8] The TUC and various unions ‘voiced suspicions about threats to jobs and conditions of employment’, as well as the ‘potential threat’ to British working class politics and culture posed by these European recruits.[9] The Communist Party was heavily involved in opposition to the migration and settlement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the late 1940s. As the polarisation of the Cold War began to take place, the CPGB greeted the establishment of the People’s Democracies and was, in the words of socialist journalist Paul Foot, ‘upset that anyone should not volunteer to enjoy the rigours of Stalinism in the Russian satellites of East Europe’.[10]

The Polish workers were labelled ‘fascist Poles’ and were treated with ‘accustomed shabbiness and chauvinism’ by the Party.[11] In the Parliamentary debate on the Polish Resettlement Bill in early 1947, the two MPs who opposed the bill were Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher (Communist MPs for Mile End and West Fife respectively). Piratin declared that the Polish Resettlement Corps was ‘an affront to the Polish Government and a hindering of its progress’, and a ‘dangerous move for this country to maintain a body of men under a reactionary leadership’.[12] In a 1946 leaflet titled ‘No British Jobs for Fascist Poles’, the CPGB claimed that ‘at least a third’ of the 160,000 Polish troops in Britain ‘actually fought for Hitler’, while ‘the remainder are fascists who do not wish to return to their own country’.[13] The CPGB claimed that ‘nearly 2 million organised British workers have expressed their opposition to the presence in this country of these Polish troops’ and the Party proposed repatriating them to Poland where ‘they should accept the democratic will of the majority of the people and work for the reconstruction of their own country’.[14]

As well as these ‘political’ objections, the Party press made other accusations towards the Poles, particularly the sexual threat of the Polish migrants to British women and the Poles taking vacant housing away from homeless Britons during a shortage of adequate housing. The Daily Worker accused Polish officers of fraternising with young girls at a Polish Army camp in Yorkshire, with the ‘majority of the girls [being] between 14 and 18 years of age’.[15] A few months earlier, at the height of the Squatters Movement led by the CPGB,[16] the paper reported that Poles were being given accommodation at various camps, while squatters were being fined and removed from housing.[17] Syd Abbott declared in the December 1946 issue of the Communist Review:

if the Government would send home Anders and his Poles, many of them fascists, a further 265 camps occupied by 120,000 Polish troops, could be freed, and made available to house the people.[18]

These accusations were similar to the racist falsehoods that numerous people accused Commonwealth migrants of, which the Communists routinely refuted in their anti-racist activities.

The CPGB saw the Polish Resettlement Corps, routinely described as ‘Anders’ Poles’ after conservative Polish leader General Anders under British command, as an ‘anti-Soviet [and] anti-democratic’ force, whose presence in Britain was ‘obviously insincere’.[19] While depicted by the British Government and British industry as a solution to the post-war labour shortage, the Communist Party claimed that the Poles of the Resettlement Corps had no desire to ‘be absorbed as loyal citizens of this country’, but looked to ‘use Britain as a temporary base from which to pursue, at some future date, an armed crusade against the U.S.S.R. and the new Poland’.[20] The Daily Worker quoted a statement by the Polish Embassy in London, saying that the resettlement of Poles was ‘nothing but diplomatic eyewash’, adding ‘No sensible person… can understand why training for civilian jobs should be carried out according to units and arms’[21] – evidence for the Communist Party that Poles in Britain were organising resistance to the Polish Government.

Welsh miners’ leader and member of the CPGB’s Executive Committee, Arthur Horner announced in 1945 that the Communist Party would ‘not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines’.[22] In the 1946 leaflet, the Party declared that there was ‘no room in Britain for fascists’ and that there was ‘no reason why British jobs should be given to these Poles’.[23] In February 1947, Horner, now General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), spoke against foreign workers in the mining industry, declaring that the Government ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’.[24] The Party declared that the Poles ‘should be sent home, to work out their own salvation’ and according to Paul Foot, Piratin and Gallacher ‘never missed an opportunity to point out that the Poles were dirty, lazy and corrupt’.[25] In Parliament, Piratin routinely asked the Government whether Polish workers were trade union members or willing to work as directed by the Ministry of Labour. Piratin was accused of having a ‘vendetta against Poles who want to work here rather than return to Communist Poland’, but Piratin claimed that his persistent questioning was ‘merely to ensure that such Poles who are in this country do not in any way scab or blackleg on British labour’.[26]

Even in 1955, while the Party tried to combat racism amongst workers against Commonwealth immigrants, Party literature claimed that the ‘real menace… comes from the far greater number of displaced Poles and Germans whose attitude is hostile to militant trade unionism’.[27] This was compared with the black immigrant workers, who were seen to have the ability to ‘greatly strengthen the fight of the trade unions’.[28] The contradicting attitudes can also be seen in the oral history of CPGB member and Secretary of the Armthorpe NUM Branch, Jock Kane, originally recorded by radical journalist Charles Parker. In one section, Kane described an argument with the NUM area leaders over black workers:

Then I’d another run-in with them about coloured labour. He wasn’t going to have coloured labour. He wasn’t having any ‘half-caste bastards’ running about the streets of his villages. I said: ‘You’re a Nazi. We fought a bloody war to defeat bastards like you.’[29]

But Kane’s description of the Polish miners was very different, accusing them of being work-shy and a hostile class:

I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work… There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps… A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end.[30]

In a 1961 pamphlet, John Moss wrote that immigration had little effect on the total population increase that Britain had experienced in the early post-war period,[31] but the Party still objected to the presence of around 100,000 Poles and other Eastern Europeans and their apparent drain on resources. This campaign against Polish immigration and settlement ran counter to the very arguments the CPGB had been using to convince British workers that immigrants from the Commonwealth were not in competition for employment, housing or welfare.

Back in 1947, R. Palme Dutt discussed that the ‘crucial shortage of man-power’,[32] linking the CPGB’s anti-colonial programme with opposition to the Polish workers. As Dutt argued continually through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Britain’s maintenance of its colonies, its role in NATO and its other activities during the Cold War caused a huge drain on its economy, resources and manpower.[33] Dutt cited that in November 1946, over 1.5 million men were in the armed forces, while another 474,000 were ‘engaged in making equipment and supplies for the armed forces’ – ‘a total of close on two millions [sic] or one-tenth of the available man-power’.[34] Meanwhile more than half a million workers were needed in British industry to assist with reconstruction, with the British Government enthusiastically recruiting European labour, including the Poles. Dutt lamented the fact that the Government’s solution was ‘sought to be found in the settlement of Polish fascists in Britain or the retention of German prisoners of war’.[35] For Dutt, decolonisation and end of Britain’s involvement in ‘imperialist commitments in the Near East or the Far East’ was the solution to Britain’s labour shortage, rather than recruiting Polish ‘fascists’.[36]

The Communist Party were also sceptical whether the deployment of the Polish Resettlement Corps to the mines would actually have any impact upon the labour shortage, with the Daily Worker reporting that less than 2,000 Polish workers – ‘not half of whom are trained miners’ – would be available by mid-1947.[37] In an interview with the Evening Standard’s Industrial Reporter, Arthur Horner, under the headline ‘Foreigners: Mr. Horner Says NO’, stated that ‘[e]ven if the Poles were willing to come into the industry they could not be taught English and be trained to work in the mines in less than six months’.[38] Thus the Daily Worker’s Industrial Reporter, George Sinfield, asked rhetorically, ‘Is this infinitesimal force worth the big and detrimental repercussions it might have if it were used?’[39] If this was the case, the implication the Communists were making was that the British Government was not interested in recruiting Polish workers to fill the gaps in the labour market, but for a more sinister political purpose, possibly to rein in militancy amongst the miners or provide assistance to anti-Communist forces in the early manoeuvres of the Cold War. The Daily Worker posed rhetorically whether to Labour Government’s moves to nationalise coal production was to be counter-balanced by ‘the introduction of men who hold trade unionism in contempt’ or ‘the introduction of men who are avowed opponents of their own Government, which is backed by all working-class parties in Poland’.[40]

The Trades Union Congress and immigration

The reasoning that the CPGB opposed the Polish migrants purely on the grounds that the CPGB was devoted to the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Europe can only be part of the reason for the hostility towards the Poles. While this can be an easily identifiable target for criticising the CPGB, it doesn’t explain why anti-Polish sentiment was expressed by a large number of trade unionists and why the TUC voted against the settlement of Polish soldiers in 1946. As Paul Burnham wrote, ‘[t]his was not just a campaign of the Communist Party’.[41] At the TUC Congress in 1946, the General Council of the TUC demanded that, ‘no Poles should be employed in any grade in any industry where suitable British labour was available’, with a bloc majority of 884,000 voting for this.[42] Although the TUC is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be seen as interchangeable with the various policies and actions of the entire labour movement, some authors have seen a convergence at this point between the protectionist nationalism of the TUC and the sentiments put forward by the CPGB. Both Keith Tompson and Robert Winder have used a quote from Harry Pollitt to demonstrate the hostility of the labour movement towards the Poles and a reflection that the unions were ‘traditional opponents of migrant workers’ in general:

I ask you, does it make sense that we allow 500,000 of our best young people to put their names down for emigration abroad, when at the same time we employ Poles who ought to be back in their own country…?[43]

But it would be rash to conflate the attitudes and motives of the Communist Party with that of the Trades Union Congress. Although the CPGB was influential in some trade unions, it would not have been able to influence the decisions of the TUC General Council. It is also important to note that it was during this time that Cold War was taking shape and that anti-communist sentiment started to grow within the British trade union movement, specifically within the higher echelons of the TUC. As Richard Stevens has demonstrated, during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, ‘[t]he TUC remained deeply involved in anti-Communist activity’.[44]

While the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers can be viewed, ideologically at least, as contradictory to their general anti-racist position, the TUC’s policy on ‘race’ and immigration during this period has long been described as ‘muddled’.[45] The exclusionism of the trade unions opposed Polish and other Eastern European workers can be viewed as similar to their opposition to workers who migrated from the Commonwealth. The general policy of the TUC, as Barry Munslow wrote, had been to ‘play down the subject, stress the need for immigrants to integrate and oppose special provisions’.[46] The TUC General Council expressed the need for immigration controls and implicitly accepted that it was the immigrants that were ‘the problem’ and the ‘view that immigration should be controlled flowed logically from that premise’.[47] While the Congress opposed, on paper, racial discrimination, their position on immigration was that ‘immigrants were a problem and their arrival in Britain should consequently be controlled’.[48]

Neville Kirk has recently argued that in the early post-war period, in comparison with the explicit racism of the Australian labour movement, the British labour movement ‘adopted a predominantly positive attitude to the issues of immigration and “race”’, stating that the TUC ‘prided itself on its efforts to promote trade unionism and worker solidarity, irrespective of colour’.[49] But the fact is that the TUC did support immigration controls and in the case of the Polish workers, called explicitly for Poles to be prevented from entering the British job market, or if they were employed, that the Poles would be the first dismissed. The trade unions may have ‘opposed on economic grounds’ to the introduction of the Polish workers, as ‘trade union leaders and members feared alike the return of the mass unemployment of the 1930s’, but Diana Kay and Robert Miles have also suggested that there was also a ‘vigorous nationalism [that] ran through the trade union movement’.[50] Citing Kay and Miles, Kenneth Lunn noted that the argument has been made that the British labour movements’ response to European immigration was ‘not racist’.[51] A similar argument is made by Stephen Catterall and Keith Gildart in their study of trade union reactions to Polish and Italian miners in the post-war era, arguing that, rather than racism or xenophobia:

[h]ostility from rank and file members arose from the perceived ‘threat’ that the workers posed as a result of prodigious output performance and the mining skills they brought or through domestic and social tensions.[52]

While fears about job security and unemployment may help to explain why racist sentiments were expressed by trade union members, it cannot excuse that Polish workers faced discrimination based on their nationality. As Kenneth Lunn declared, ‘[b]y any reasonable definition, a policy of “Poles out first” is racist’.[53]


In 2004, Paul Burnham stated that ‘[t]he response to the Polish migrants is not an episode that reflects any credit on the left in Britain’.[54] The opposition to the Polish workers in Britain in the late 1940s has been overlooked by many historians of the British left and of British immigration, contrasted with the research concentrated upon the impact that black migration had upon post-war Britain and the left’s anti-racist work in the 1960s and 1970s. But when it has been the focus of research, the opposition has been construed in several different ways, with the actions of the Communist Party of Great Britain during this period under particular scrutiny. Some have used the TUC’s opposition, shared by the CPGB, to portray the British labour movement as nationalistic protectionists, who opposed Polish migrants, just as they opposed migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. Others have used the CPGB’s opposition to demonstrate their loyalty to Stalinism and their descent into nationalism, following the Popular Front politics on the Second World War. However the Party’s opposition to the Polish workers has not been contrasted with their acceptance of West Indian migrants. This presents a dilemma for those who want to essentialise the CPGB as either inherently racist or inherently Stalinist, as both inclinations can be found within the Party’s disparate approach to post-war migration. The Party’s support for the Soviet Union did affect their position on Polish workers who did not want to return to the Soviet bloc, but it doesn’t explain why they were receptive of West Indian workers or why the TUC adopted a similar approach.

This piece has argued that the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers was partially inspired by the Party’s loyalty to the Soviet Union, but the Party was also imbued with a sense of Soviet-inspired internationalism and anti-colonialism which saw the Communists (on paper at least) champion West Indian migrants who came to Britain in the late 1940s as comrades against imperialism and capitalism. The Party welcomed these migrants who arrived in the early post-war period, declaring in 1955, ‘It is most urgent that the Labour movement… set out to welcome the coloured workers who come to this country and win them for the trade unions’.[55] However the anti-racist rhetoric of the CPGB literature did not always filter down into the Party’s rank-and-file, nor was the Party able to counter the often xenophobic attitudes of the wider labour movement. The CPGB was primarily made up of skilled and semi-skilled workers and in the in the early post-war era, it was significantly representative of the nation’s working class.[56] The Communist Party, by recruiting workers, could not be immune to some forms of racial prejudice amongst its members, with racist beliefs harboured within the working class and the institutions of the labour movement, such as the TUC. This wider chauvinism in the labour movement can also be a partial explanation for the hostility directed towards the Polish workers, that reflected a streak of nationalism or ‘jingoism’, but also a misplaced apprehension towards migrant workers in a time of economic and industrial uncertainty. The opposition to Polish workers put forward by the CPGB is a murky episode in the Party’s history, but the reasons for this opposition, like that of the wider labour movement, are much more than complex than other scholars and commentators have previously suggested. At the same time, the vocal (and leadership endorsed) opposition to the Poles seems an aberration in the history of the CPGB’s anti-racist work, where the Party made quite significant efforts to highlight the issue of racism in Britain and recruit Commonwealth migrants into the CPGB. But similar to the longer history of the CPGB’s anti-racism, the Party tried to balance its position between its commitments to the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles and its attempts to maintain its influence to the wider labour movement, which in the end, cost the Party support from both sides.

The different ways in how sections of the British labour movement have reacted to migration from Europe is still a contentious issue today, as the free movement of labour within the European Union allows many migrants from Central and Eastern Europe to work and settle in Britain. In early 2009 a significant number of workers went on unofficial strikes across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[57] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union. But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’, used by some involved in the strike to rally against foreign workers, the European Union and the New Labour Government. Although many denounced the use of this slogan, the fact that it was raised shows that issues faced by the British Labour movement, and the Communist Party, in the 1940s and 1950s in regards to migrant workers still remain today. The response to migrant workers by the British labour movement has often been one of solidarity, but resistance has reared its head on many occasions, but even this resistance is informed by a number of different factors, including xenophobia/racism, fear of competition, issues of class and international concerns. As Catterall and Gildart have argued, ‘even the most enlightened sections of organised labour could take reactionary measures when faced with economic uncertainty and threats to job security’.[58] This article has shown, despite the anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist work that the British labour movement and the British left has conducted over the years, opposition to foreign workers has been an problem that it has suffered from on a number of occasions, and one, unfortunately, that seems to still be of concern in the twenty first century. But while any forms of racism or xenophobia within the labour movement must be countered, it is just as important to understand the reasons for this racism and how it is manifested.



[1] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and the Colonies – II’, World News, 9 January, 1954, p. 25; J. V. Stalin, Works vol. 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954, p. 150

[2] Harry Pollitt, Britain Arise, London, 1952, p. 18

[3] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[4] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[5] CPGB, Brothers in the Fight for a Better Life, London, 1954, p. 11

[6] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 3

[7] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[8] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 68

[9] Ken Lunn, ‘Complex Encounters: Trade Unions, Immigration and Racism’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Aldershot, 1999, p. 74

[10] Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 118

[11] Harry Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles, CPGB flyer, London, 1946, Ref. 35/3, CPGB Leaflets, Working Class Movement Library, Manchester; P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 118

[12] Hansard, 12 February, 1947, col. 428

[13] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[14] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[15] Daily Worker, 16 December, 1946

[16] For further information on the Squatters’ Movement, see: James Hinton, ‘Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’, History Workshop Journal, 25, 1988, pp. 100-126; Noreen Branson, The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, pp. 118 –128

[17] Daily Worker, 23 August, 1946

[18] Syd Abbott, ‘The Mood of the People’, Communist Review, December 1946, p. 7

[19] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[20] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[21] Daily Worker, 22 August, 1946

[22] Arthur Horner, ‘The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis’, 25 November, 1945, from Marxist Internet Archive,, accessed 28 July, 2010

[23] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[24] Cited in, Paul Flewers, ‘Hitting the Pits: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Miners’, New Interventions, 7/1, Winter 1996, p. 21

[25] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles; Paul Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, International Socialism, 1/22, Autumn 1965, p. 10

[26] Hansard, 19 February, 1948 col. 1333

[27] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[28] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[29] Jock Kane, with Betty Kane and Charles Parker, No Wonder We Were All Rebels – An Oral History,, accessed 1 December, 2009

[30] J. Kane, No Wonder We Were All Rebels

[31] John Moss, Together Say No Discrimination, London, 1961, p. 8

[32] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and Empire’, Labour Monthly, February 1947, p. 34

[33] See: R. Palme Dutt, Crisis of Britain and the British Empire: Marxist Study Themes no. 7, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1953; R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1957;

[34] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[35] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[36] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, pp. 34-35

[37] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[38] Arthur Horner, interviewed by Anne Kelly, Evening Standard, February, 1947, from Security Service file on Arthur Horner, KV 2/1527, National Archives, London

[39] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[40] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[41] Paul Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946: South Bucks Squatting in the National Context’, paper presented at the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, London, 23 February 2004

[42] TUC, The General Council’s Report to the 78th Annual Congress, TUC, Brighton, 1946, p. 171; p. 364

[43] Cited in, Keith Tompson, Under Siege: Racial Violence in Britain Today, London, 1988, p. 71; R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners, pp. 323-324

[44] Richard Stevens, ‘Cold War Politics: Communism and Anti-Communism in the Trade Unions’, in Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman & John McIlroy, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. I: The Post-War Compromise, 1945-64, Aldershot, 1999, p. 171

[45] Beryl Radin, ‘Coloured Workers and British Trade Unions’, Race, 8/2, p. 161

[46] Barry Munslow, ‘Immigrants, Racism and British Workers’, in David Coates & Gordon Johnson (eds), Socialist Arguments, Oxford, 1983, p. 204

[47] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, Bristol, 1977, p. 7; p. 11

[48] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, p. 2

[49] Neville Kirk, ‘Traditionalists and Progressives: Labor, Race and Immigration in Post-World War II Australia and Britain’, Australian Historical Studies, 39/1, 2008, p. 64; p. 67

[50] Diana Kay & Robert Miles, Refugees or Migrant Workers? European Volunteer Workers in Britain 1946-1951, London, 1992, pp. 76-77

[51] Kenneth Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, in Kenneth Lunn (ed.) Race and Labour in Twentieth-Century Britain, London, 1985, p. 24

[52] Stephen Catterall & Keith Gildart, ‘Outsiders: Trade Union Responses to Polish and Italian Coal Miners in Two British Coalfields, 1945-54’, in Stefan Berger, Andy Croll & Norman LaPorte (eds), Towards a Comparative History of Coalfield Socieities, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 164

[53] K. Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, p. 24

[54] P. Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946’

[55] ‘Talking Points On… Colonial Workers in Britain’, World News, 19 March, 1955, p. 238

[56] K. Newton, The Sociology of British Communism, p. 55; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 23-24

[57] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, ‘Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates’, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; ‘This is a Strike Against Bosses’, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, ‘Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength’, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, ‘Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes’, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, p. 4; ‘Blame the Bosses not “Foreign Workers”’, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, p. 1; p. 3

[58] S. Catterall & K. Gildart, ‘Outsiders’, p. 174