Research suggestions

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

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

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

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

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

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



UK High Commissioner Morrice James on the Whitlam Dismissal 1975


I have blogged in the past about the files at the National Archives in London revealing the British attitudes towards the ‘constitutional crisis’ of 1975, when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr after the Liberals, under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser, refused to pass supply bills in the Senate. When I was last in the UK, I photographed the three files that I had previously mentioned and am finally getting the chance to have a look at the documents, which seems timely with the recent death of Whitlam and the 39th anniversary of ‘The Dismissal’. The document I have decided to blog about is a report for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the crisis by the UK High Commissioner in Australia at the time, Morrice James. Written in late November 1975 under the title, ‘The Australian Constitutional Crisis, 1975’, James outlined the events leading up to the dismissal and wrote about the possible implications it would have for the future. He concluded his report with this paragraph:

It helps to illuminate, I think, the real responsibility for the lamentable dramas of the past few weeks in Canberra. Certainly the naked ambition for power of Mr. Fraser, and the obduracy of Mr. Whitlam, have contributed to the crisis; and it is impossible to dismiss completely the suspicion that Sir John Kerr’s judgment has been open to question. But the real villain, if there is a villain at all, has been the inherent contradictions of the Australian Constitution… Was it ever really a practical possibility to combine an Upper House on the American model, in which all the states are represented equally irrespective of population, and having a broadly the same powers as those of the Lower House, with a Westminster style of relationship between the executive and legislative branches, in which by convention the possession of a majority in the Lower House confers the right to form the Government and to govern as long as the majority lasts? It is this attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable which the Australian Constitution enshrines. If the contradiction has only now led to a major political upheaval , the reason is that hitherto Australian leaders have respected , not just the letter of the Constitution, but also the spirit of the unwritten conventions concerning the exercise of power which breathe vitality into written documents… The moral is that sooner or later a reliance on the discreetness of members of the Chamber, and on their willingness to refrain from exercising their normal rights in the pursuit of power, is likely to come unstuck. I suppose it is a moral which those who depend more on unwritten convention than on written Constitutions ought, in their own interests, to ponder. 

James, earlier in the report, suggested that Senate needed to be seriously reformed or abolished and highlighted a potential problem that Australian governments have avoided for the last four decades, unwilling to indulge in the brinkmanship that Fraser did in 1975. But he also seemed to be suggesting that the Westminster system did not need an elected house of review, in line with conservative thinking in the UK at the time, alluding to the problems that might be faced if there was electoral reform in Britain.

Labour politicians feared that the dismissal of Whitlam gave the right ideas about how to subvert parliamentary democracy in the UK, with Tony Benn writing in Marxism Today in 1982:

If there were ever to be a right wing coup in Britain it would not be carried out by paratroopers landing in central London, as it once seemed they would land in Paris just before de Gaulle came to power, but by an attempt to repeat what happened to Gough Whitlam when the Governor-General dismissed him as Prime Minister.

But it would be interesting to see if conservatives in the UK saw the events of 1975 in Australia as a demonstration of why an elected (and more powerful) upper house was undesirable.

The Communist Party and the debate over gay rights

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One of the areas of the history of the British left that is under-explored is the relationship between the left and gay liberation/rights. Lucy Robinson’s 2007 book is a pioneering work in the field and Graham Willett (who has written extensively about the Australia left and gay rights) has recently contributed a chapter in this collection on the topic. Both Robinson and Willett provide overviews of how a range of left-wing parties engaged with the question of gay rights from the 1960s to the 1990s, including the Communist Party of Great Britain. Both authors describe how the Communist Party first supported in the pages of the Morning Star a National Union of Students motion supporting gay rights and then after pressure from several local branches at the Party’s 1975 National Congress, the CPGB’s Executive Committee finally issued a statement in September 1976.

This intersects with work done on the CPGB and the shifts in the Party during the 1960s and 1970s that led to the rise of Eurocommunism, Gramscism and the 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism (and to some, the inevitable decline of the Party). The support for gay rights as part of this shift in the outlook of the Party is mentioned in the work by Mike Waite, Geoff Andrews and Richard Cross, for example.

Both Robinson and Willett mention an interview in the journal Gay Left from 1977 with CPGB members Beatrix Campbell and Sarah Benton (editor of the fortnightly Party journal Comment). In this interview (pages 9-13), Campbell and Benton mentioned that this statement supporting gay rights created enormous debate within the Party. Looking through issues of Comment, one can see the differing reaction by different Party members who wrote to the journal after the EC statement was published in September 1976. Although just one resource to look at a major policy debate within the Party (there is probably much more available in the Party archives in Manchester), the articles and letters in this journal provide a different perspective on the Party’s changing attitude towards gay liberation.

Prior to the EC statement, Comment (3 April, 1976, p. 108) featured in its regular ‘Viewpoint’ column a piece by John Gowling, a leading member of the Young Communist League, on the Party’s attitude towards gay rights. Gowling started the piece with:

I think many Communist Party members are unsure as to whether we have a policy on gay civil rights or homosexual equality/law reform…I find it very difficult to discover what the attitude of Communist Party members in this country is towards homosexuality. I have yet to come across a discussion of gay civil rights in our press;…

Gowling’s piece described the difficulties faced by gay people in the 1970s and stated:

The fact is we do exist, therefore we have a right to exist and enjoy equal civil liberties… Homosexuality is a fact of every society, whether repressed or accepted.

And he concluded the piece with:

I do not think that they gay struggle should be shelved by Communists because it is embarrassing. There are many civil rights to be won. These can only be won when we all turn around and face them.

In October 1976, the Executive Committee’s statement was published in Comment (16 Oct, p. 328). It began by stating that the CPGB ‘opposes discrimination and victimisation against homosexuals’ and supported several changes in the law, in particular:

The criminal law should not distinguish homosexual activities from heterosexual activities

Just as there has been legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sex or race, so legislation should be passed to outlaw discrimination in the grounds of sexual orientation…

The Party also stressed that ‘much more than legal reforms is necessary to achieve homosexual liberation’ and called for several actions, including an end to the regarding of homosexuality as a mental illness, the end to exclusion of gat parents from having custody of their children, sex education to include discussion of homosexuality, an end to police harassment. The Party announced in the statement:

A fundamental change in attitude will require political struggle and work to change the general climate of opinion which is hostile to, or derisive of, homosexuals…

We must help to combat sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they are found, including among the left, in the labour movement and in our own party.

The Communist Party supports the right of people to be actively and openly gay, and gives support and encouragement to gay comrades to work in the gay movement.

In order to assist these changes in law and attitude, the Communist Party will establish a committee to promote discussion and analysis on gay rights, and assist the party in activity on these questions.

Alongside the publication of the Party’s official position on the issue of gay rights, Comment also published the text of a speech to the EC by the Party’s National Organiser, Dave Cook (16 Oct, 1976, pp. 327-328). Cook claimed that ‘hostile attitudes to homosexuals are essentially sexist’ and reinforced that the Party’s 1975 resolution on women ‘committed the party to fight sexist attitudes wherever they appear’. Cook’s speech reflected the Gramscian/Eurocommunist attitudes within the CPGB in the mid-1970s and was similar in phrasing to the 1977 draft of The British Road to Socialism. He stated:

We as Marxists are concerned with all aspects of oppression… [The Party’s] objectives will themselves be divided and held back if the oppression for example of women, of racial minorities and all other oppressed minorities, homosexuals included, is not actively opposed by the working class.

Cook urged that the CPGB ‘declare itself totally opposed to discrimination and oppression against homosexuals’ and with that, they needed ‘to recognise that this means we must help to oppose sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they occur, including in our own party’. This was not just to be a top-down decision by the EC and Cook advised that several committees (at national and district level) be established ‘to promote discussion and analysis’.

Staring with this issue, Comment’s letters section featured several letters from Party members debating the EC statement and the issue of gay liberation, with both pro- and anti-gay positions reflected. Several of the letter writers identified as gay and wrote to the journal to welcome the EC’s statement. Bill Thornycroft, a veteran of the Party since the 1940s, wrote:

I welcome the EC statement on homosexual oppression, gay civil rights and gay liberation. For far too long have we as a party remained silent in this issue and ignored the growth of the gay liberation movement…

Prejudice and ignorance is widespread throughout the party as well as elsewhere… To dispel this ignorance every branch should hold discussions either with gay comrades or by inviting along to a branch people involved in the gay movement.

Thornycroft concluded his letter with this appeal:

Finally, I would like to appeal to all gay comrades to come out, It’s like getting into a cold bath, the first step is the worst. All the ensuing hassles are nothing compared to the strength and joy we can get from one another – and we can’t get it if we remain invisible.

Another letter in the same issue, written by Eric W. Edwards, argued that while ‘we must agree that the point of view concerning the repressed minority position of homosexuals was correct’, the Party’s position ‘would have been improved by an analysis of what homosexuality is, as well as its relevance to the class struggle as a whole’. Edwards proceeded to concentrate on defining homosexuality and had little to say on the class struggle, calling homosexuality as an ‘anomaly’ and linking it to ‘transvestism, fetishism, sado-masochism and exhibitionism’. Edwards stated:

[W]e can see that homosexuality of the habitual and exclusive kind is a persistent expression of selfish individualism, the socio-political origins and implications of which we should know only too well.

In other words, it is a form of love or liaison that functions as an antithesis of normal, evolutionarily selected but plastic sexual activity.

Therefore, Edwards proposed, ‘gay liberation is a secondary issue to the main direction of the class struggle’ and concluded, ‘Gay liberation without scientific class analysis will certainly create… a diversion.’

These two letters essentially provided the framework for the debate between the authors of the letters sent to Comment in the last months of 1976. In the following issue (30 Oct, 1976, p. 350), Peter Mason argued against the biological determinism of Edwards, writing:

[I]t is not so much that the Eysenckian biological arguments are unconvincing (though they are). It is rather that Marxism has always stressed the need to make the start of one’s analysis the differentiation of mankind from the animal world by its constitution as a society.

For Mason, it was capitalism that transformed homosexuality into a ‘problem’ and in a capitalist society, communist politics was considered just as ‘deviant’ as homosexuality. But Mason also warned against seeing gay liberation as something wholly determined by the class struggle:

The relation of the struggle for sexual liberation to the class struggle is not an either/or situation. Though linked to the class struggle, the gay movement has its own specificity, and its relation to the class struggle is a complex one. The slow rate of development of sexual liberation in a number of socialist countries indicates that the achievement of socialism does not by itself bring about sexual liberation at the same time.

Similar to the words of Cook and the theory of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ being developed inside the CPGB at the time, Mason ended his letter with:

[T]hose sectors who see that the objective conditions of their struggle are similar to those facing the working class in its struggle are people whom the Communist Party must be prepared to support.

In the 13 November, 1976 issue (pp. 365-366), two gay Party members, Frank Langan and Brian Allbutt, wrote to welcome the EC’s statement and suggested that ‘many left wing gays’ viewed it as ‘the most positive statement on gay liberation made by any major political party in Britain’. They described Edwards’ opinions as ‘closer to Catholic puritanism than even the beginnings of a Marxist analysis’ and took further issue with the assumption ‘that homosexuality is a product of bourgeois society and will be resolved in a socialist one.’ Langan and Allbutt wrote, ‘We disagree entirely with the comrade’s assertion that the struggle for gay liberation is a ‘secondary issue’ to the main direction of the class struggle’ and used the text of The British Road to Socialism to reinforce this, mentioning ‘the common factors’ between social movements. The organised gay movement, they argued, had supported the fight against the Industrial Relations Act, the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, the pro-choice movement and the Chile Solidarity Movement, and concluded with this, ‘And yet the comrade accuses us of selfish individualism.’

John Gowling contributed another letter to the same issue of Comment. Gowling also welcomed the Party’s statement, but bemoaned the fact that the gay liberation movement tended to be centred around London and that the struggle was much more difficult in the North, Scotland and Wales. He explained:

The tragedy of London, as I see it, the large drift of Northern and Scottish political and apolitical gays who have left their hometowns because they cannot cope with the isolation; nothing is solved, the same oppression still exists in sizeable Northern towns. Many of these migrants are Communists. I hope the new CP policy will seta precedent, and as a result the heterosexual majority of comrades in town branches and provincial districts will help us gay comrades to fight our oppression. For I believe the gay comrades have much to offer and none of us can turn from one sort of oppression when oppression concerns us all.

While these previous letters were mostly positive, the next letters printed on the topic (11 Dec, 1976, p. 397) were quite homophobic and covered similar ground to the letter submitted by Edwards. The first letter by O.M. Olynyk complained that ‘[w]e seem to have become bemused of late with the homosexual cult’, adding:

Nothing we can do or say makes homosexuality normal and all I see us doing at the moment is making a laughing-stock of ourselves by letting the whole thing get out of all proportion to its importance.

Olynyk, like Edwards, suggested that working on matters of gay liberation diverted attention away from the class struggle and the issues concerning the rank-and-file membership of the CPGB. Olynyk finished with:

Come down from your ivory towers into the ranks of the party, to the branch meetings and find out what our problems really are, instead of being sidetracked into fighting artificial battles which will do us infinite harm.

Long term CPGB member John Hukin also wrote a letter railing against the new position of the Party towards gay rights, using similar arguments to Edwards and Olynyk. Hukin called the statement by the EC ‘ill conceived and premature’ and reiterated the homophobic concern that the Party was wrong to see that ‘homosexuality is a normality, equal to the functions of heterosexuals.’ Like Edwards and Olynyk, Hukin saw homosexuality as a ‘sexual abnormality’ and while he agreed that it should be legal, he was against the ‘absolute free expression’ of gay rights ‘without due regard for society in general’. Like Edwards, Hukin was concerned with the ‘individualism’ of the gay rights movement, claiming ‘the preoccupation of homosexuals’ was ‘the promotion of their own sexual ideas and activities, rather than concerning themselves in the everyday struggle for socialism’.

Hukin argued against the EC’s proposal that anti-gay sentiment should be fought in all arenas, qualifying his statement with:

I suggest these matters depend very much on whether anti-‘Gay’ attitudes have justification or that discrimination is necessary to safeguard others in society…

He also called into question the ‘general conduct of homosexuals themselves’ and suggested that it was their own conduct that made them subject to oppressive laws and societal attitudes. His letter concluded by seeking to ‘draw attention’ to:

The danger of ideas which are directed at promoting sexual self interest which at the same time begin to challenge the very fabric or organised society namely the family unit, which despite all its problems is till and will be the basis of organised society socialist or otherwise.

From these letters, we can see that a number of the Communist Party clung to its social conservatism developed between the 1930s and 1960s and so aptly described by Raphael Samuel in his ‘Lost World of British Communism’ series. As Sarah Benton told Nigel Young in her interview with Gay Left:

There’s a certain puritanism which is very strong on the British left generally, which associates a strong family and straightforward sex with a man and wife, with communist

morality. Bourgeois morality is seen as living in sin, promiscuity. Sexual athletics and bourgeois morality is not seen as good family structure … it isn’t seen as a good solid working class unit.

As Graham Willett shows in his chapter, the progressives within the Party eventually won, despite the Party collapsing in on itself during the 1980s, and most left-wing groups moved in the same direction towards the support of gay rights. Nowadays it would be rare to find a left-wing party that did not embrace gay rights in some way (at least on paper), but this was not so clear in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the movie Pride depicts quite well is that the British labour movement was slow to accept gay liberation as part of its agenda, and arguably the 1976 statement by the CPGB helped to progress these attitudes.


Trends in myths about immigration


Today The Guardian published a very thorough Q&A about European immigration to the UK and addressed some of the routinely asked questions about immigration, particularly as UKIP and the Tories seem to want to make immigration an issue at the next election. As I was reading the article, I was reminded that many of the persistent questions that people have about immigration have existed for a long time and have been addressed, in one way or another, since the 1960s. One of my ideas for a future research project would be to map which questions have been continually addressed in anti-racist literature since the 1960s and how these ‘myths debunked’ or ‘questions answered’ pieces have changed since then.

As a quick experiment, I found five pieces written in this format since 2001 (including today’s piece). The five pieces were:

Ceri Mollard, Asylum: The Truth Behind the Headlines (Oxfam, 2001)

Richard Smith, ‘Asylum – Myths of Truths’ (BBC, 2003)

Socialist Worker, ‘Migrant Myths’ (Socialist Worker, 2004)

Isabelle Koksal, ‘Mythbuster: Immigration – The Real Story’ (Red Pepper, 2012)

Jonathan Portes, ”Immigration: Could we – should we – stop migrants coming to Britain?’ (The Guardian, 2014)

All address the issue of immigration to the UK, although two of the earliest (from 2001 and 2003 respectively) focus on asylum while the latter focus on EU immigration (as well as asylum in the case of one from 2o12). I looked to see whether similar questions were raised in all five and which questions were specific to each piece – hoping to see some some trends and indicators of the wider debate about immigration occurring at a particular time.

Some of the reoccurring themes that were present were:

The severity of Britain’s immigration control system

Myth:… Britain is a ‘soft touch’ (2001)

MYTH: Britain is a soft touch (2012)

That ‘bogus’ asylum seekers outnumber genuine ones

Myth: Only a tiny proportion of refugees are genuine, and the rest are ineligible for asylum. (2001)

Aren’t most of them “bogus”? (2003)

Migrants receive a greater amount of state benefits

Myth: Asylum seekers get huge State handouts (2001)

Why do they get more benefits than people who’ve always lived here? (2003)

Myth 1 Migrants are ‘benefit tourists’ (2004)

MYTH: They come here for our generous welfare system (2012)

Do we have a problem in the UK with benefit tourism? (2014)

Migrants are abusing the NHS

Myth: The numbers of asylum seekers using State-provided services, such as the National Health
Service,are spiralling out of control and crippling the services. (2001)

Myth 3 Migrants are ripping off the NHS (2004)

MYTH: They are draining public services (2012)

But what about the argument about pressure on the public services? (2014)

Migrants are taking British jobs

Myth: Most asylum seekers are ‘economic migrants’. (2001)

Why are they allowed to take our jobs? (2003)

Myth 2 Migrants will take British jobs (2004)

But how can this be? Isn’t it just the economics of supply and demand – if you increase supply of workers, wages will fall? And if an immigrant takes a job, then a British worker can’t. (2014)

As part of my research into the history of British immigration control, I had a copy of a 1973 pamphlet by the Runnymede Trust that answered questions on immigration and found that similar questions could be found in the 1970s to those in the pieces from post-2001.

Regarding the severity of the immigration control system, the 1973 pamphlet had two questions:

How much illegal entry is there? Are the penalties severe?

Regarding the receipt of state benefits, it had this question:

Do immigrants cost the social services as a whole more?

And this one on the NHS:

Do immigrants cost the health service more?

And finally, on the issue of migrants taking jobs, the pamphlet asked these questions:

Do immigrants take white workers’ jobs? Do immigrant women go out to work? Are immigrants concentrated in a small number of jobs? Has the availability of immigrant labour prevented modernisation in industry?

So it seems evident from the small amount of source material that I have looked at that similar questions about immigration have persisted for a long time, although they are adapted or modified over time. I would like to try this on a much larger scale. Any suggestions of where to find more FAQs would be most welcome.

What might be just as interesting is seeing what kind of questions were asked in the past that are not asked today. For example, the 1973 Runnymede Trust pamphlet included the following questions:

Why have immigrants come here?

What about the Irish?

Why should we oppose racial discrimination if ‘discrimination’ in general is a part of life?

How do we know that racial discrimination is common?

Is it discriminatory to keep racial statistics?

Are ‘coloured unions’ desirable?

At this stage, this research project is only a pipe dream, but as usual, anyone interested should get in touch.


The PFLP/RAF terrorist who evaded the UK border control system: Zohair Akache and the ‘German Autumn’

Zohair Yousif Akache before the Lufthansa hijacking

Zohair Yousif Akache before the Lufthansa hijacking

In 1980, Lord Carrington, the new Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, ordered a review of how the UK border control system was utilised in the fight against terrorism, particularly in relation to terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa. The catalyst for this review were two incidents in May 1980 – the siege at the Iranian Embassy and the killing of an Iranian dissident working for the BBC in Bayswater. Carrington asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

[I]n what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation? (FCO 50/685, NA)

I have written an article (currently under review on this topic) and outline that there were four major actions proposed and/or taken arising from this review. They were:

  1. Interviews and security checks before the issuing of visas to most Middle Eastern and North African nationals
  2. A special landing card (with photo) for these nationals to be required when arriving in the UK
  3. The requirement that these nationals report to the police if staying longer than three months
  4. The withdrawal of the ability to appeal a deportation order before being deported (only proposed – not introduced)

These strict measures seemed to be aimed at all Middle Eastern and North African visitors and as I have written in the article:

In the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

FCO staff were also highly critical of this blanket approach, arguing that any terrorists attempting to enter the country were likely to be trained and sophisticated enough to slip through the border control system. The British Embassy staff in Tripoli submitted a report during this review that doubted the usefulness of the measures sought by Carrington and others. The report stated:

We have no doubt that if Libya was determined to send a terrorist to the UK, through our new system, she could arrange, with relative ease, for him to be provided with convincing documentation and to be adequately briefed for our interview. (FCO 93/2356, NA)

This post is not about the findings or an overview of my article, but about one interesting bit about the files of the review in the National Archives. One of the questions raised during the review was how effective can the border control system be in detecting potential terrorists and there is an assumption that the border control system had failed during the 1970s as several terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa had come to the UK to commit terrorist acts.

One of the failings of the border control system during this period was its failure to detect Zohair Yousif Akache, a terrorist attached to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Pakestine (PFLP), who was deported in 1976, but managed to re-enter the UK in 1977 to assassinate three people and then depart from the UK before being detected. It is interesting that this bungling was not mentioned anywhere within all the correspondence generated by Lord Carrington’s review.

Akache is probably best known as the leader of the RAF/PFLP group that hijacked the Lufthansa Flight 181 in October 1977 in order to force the West German government to release the four jailed members of the RAF, including Andreas Baader. Akache had been a ‘student’ in London during the mid-1970s and according to Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees:

This man was not formally deported but in March 1976 was allowed instead to make a supervised departure from this country, and instructions were issued that he was not to be readmitted. The Commissioner of Police informs me that police inquiries have taken into account the possibility that he may have re-entered under a false name.

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According to The Times, he was deported after serving a six month jail term for hitting a policeman. In April 1977, Akache apparently re-entered the UK under a false name and killed three people in Hyde Park – the former Prime Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic Kadhi Abdullah al-Hagri (or Qadi Abdullan al Hijri), his wife and another Yemeni minister. According to Rees:

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis tells me that detailed police inquiries have established that Akache, against whom warrants of arrest have been issued for the murder of three Yemen Arab Republic subjects in London on 10th April 1977, left the country that afternoon. He left through Heathrow Airport, using a Kuwaiti passport in the name of Ahmed Badir Al-Majid. Soon after the murders had been committed the police and the immigration service at Heathrow were alerted, but the descriptions of the suspect provided to the police were insufficiently detailed to enable Akache to be identified and apprehended. It was not until the following day that urgent and painstaking police inquiries provided evidence linking Akache with these crimes.

There are two files in the National Archives in Kew relating to this incident. I have yet to go through them to see whether they can contain information about Akache. There are also four other files relating to the Lufthansa hijacking. I can only assume that these files have more information on Akache and his time in the UK, although one of the files (PREM 16/1675) is closed and retained by the Cabinet Office.

Future Tory Home Secretary Leon Brittan questioned Rees in parliament after the Lufthansa hijacking over the UK’s inability to detect Akache when he was in the country in 1977. Brittan stated:

Does not the Home Secretary agree that there is likely to be continued anxiety over the case of Zohair Akache, who was deported from this country, then allowed to re-enter the country, was suspected of committing in broad daylight the murder of three prominent North Yemenis, was then able to leave the country again and is now suspected of being responsible for the hijacking which ended in Mogadishu?

Does not the Home Secretary agree that it is extraordinary that, after all this time has passed, it is still not possible for him to confirm or deny that this man Akache, who entered and left the country in those circumstances, is in fact none other than the Captain Mahmoud responsible for the Lufthansa hijacking?

Rees replied:

If I were basing my information on the newspapers, and only on them, I would be able to confirm that. But it is not my business to confirm a story when the police do not have the basic information on which I can be absolutely sure.

On the other issue, what the hon. Gentleman says is right. I see in the newspapers from time to time that I am accused of being devious about it, but there is no clever stuff behind the events. The man came into the country and went out again. He was using a false passport and so on, and I have the details. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to say it, a mistake was made, but it certainly was not by design. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to run around all the time saying that an error was made—well, I have said it now, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied.

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As Akache was killed during the Lufthansa hijacking, he was never questioned about his involvement in the assassination of al Hagri, but it has been assumed that Akache was responsible for these killings. There is nothing more in the public record (that I know of) that casts doubt on this allegation. I am wondering whether the archival records hold more relevant information.

What is surprising is that this episode, which seems to show an explicit failure of the border control system in detecting a dangerous person from entering the UK, was overlooked in discussions of how to tighten up border security with regards to the country’s counter-terrorism agenda only a few years later. One would’ve thought that Carrington could have used this incident to show that Labour was ineffective in both border and national security and that it highlighted a reason for tighter controls.

I’m still not sure what the Akache indicent tells us about the border/national security system in the UK during the 1970s, but I’m very interested in looking further at these files!



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

Palgrave cover

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

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

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

And further into the book:

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

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

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

Guardian front page

And in the book’s conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


British fascism and perceptions of Australia


Despite the centrality of the British Union of Fascists’ pro-imperialism, there has been little written on the BUF and its imperial policy (possibly with exception to the party’s attitude towards India). The attitude of the BUF towards the Dominions (in particular Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia) has not been explored in any detail by scholars. On the subject of Australian fascism and paramilitarism in the inter-war period, there have been several studies which analyse the influence of the BUF upon Australian fascist groups, most prominently the New Guard (see the Australian/British intelligence files on the BUF’s supposed influence in Australia here). But there is an absence of studies that look at how the BUF perceived Australia and its place within the British Empire.

After our university recently had a trial subscription to a historical newspaper database that included BlackshirtFascist Weekly and Action (the three weekly papers of the BUF), I became interested in how Australia (and to a lesser extent, the other Dominions) was portrayed in the BUF press. I was able to print off a lot of material, but after coming back from South Africa, I have not had the chance to go through the stuff downloaded.

I was especially interested in seeing whether the BUF had any commentary on the ‘White Australia Policy’ which was in effect during the inter-war period. In Australia, proponents of the ‘WAP’ argued that outposts of the British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, were preserving the ‘white race’ – even improving it by ‘flourishing’ within the new hostile environments. I am keen to see whether the BUF, with its pre-occupation with empire and ‘the British race’, held similar views. Although stuff keeps getting in the way, I hope to have perused the BUF material I downloaded before I leave for the UK in mid-June.

While I have been able to access the weekly papers of the BUF, the organisation’s ‘theoretical’ journals, Fascist Quarterly and British Union Quarterly, are not available in Australia. They are available in several UK libraries and I hope to have a browse of them while in the UK – they are at the British Library, LSE and Cambridge, for example, if anyone wants to have a quick gander for me! I am also half thinking about visiting the BUF archive at the University of Sheffield, but a look through their catalogue doesn’t promise much on the topic of Australia. Has anyone been through the BUF papers (and remember stuff about Australia and the other Dominions)?

This project is very much in the early stages, so any suggestions, comments or criticisms would be most welcome.