The Guardian

My article in The Guardian on the history of the Australian far right

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Just a quick note that I have reached the bourgeois elite now. The Guardian Australia website has published a short piece by myself on the history of the far right in Australia since the 1960s. The argument of the piece is that the far right has swung between electoralism and ‘direct action’ at different points in its history. You can read the piece here.

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Guest post at Border Criminologies

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

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

Palgrave cover

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

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

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

The ‘virginity testing’ controversy 35 years on

Part of the artwork 'She Loved to Breathe -- Pure Silence' from 1987 by Zarina Bhimji, which tackles the issue of 'virginity testing'.

Part of the artwork ‘She Loved to Breathe — Pure Silence’ from 1987 by Zarina Bhimji, which tackles the issue of ‘virginity testing’.

On February 1, 1979, Melanie Phillips wrote an explosive piece in The Guardian about the practice of ‘virginity testing’ that was experienced by an Indian woman at Heathrow during her attempt to pass through border control. Over the following two months, it came to light that theses ‘tests’ were much more widely practiced than initially thought, with many tests occurring at British High Commissions in South Asia. As Marinella Marmo and I wrote in this 2011 article, Phillips’ initial article set in motion a much broader questioning of how the British immigration control system functioned and the gap between the ‘official’ version and what really happened behind the scenes:

On 24 January 1979, a 35-year-old Indian woman arrived at Heathrow airport, wishing to enter Britain to marry her fiancée, a British resident of Indian descent. At this time, people entering Britain to marry their fiancées did not need a visa if the marriage was to occur within three months of arrival, but the woman was subjected to an extensive investigation into her plans to settle in Britain. According to internal Home Office documents, the Immigration Officer suspected, primarily because of her age, that the woman may have already been married and ‘asked the doctor to determine whether she had had children’.[i] A male doctor, acting under a debatable notion of ‘consent’ from the woman, made a rudimentary gynaecological examination of the woman, who was then given conditional leave to enter Britain. This ‘virginity testing’ gained nationwide notoriety a week later when details of the practice were published in The Guardian newspaper. On 1 February 1979, journalist Melanie Phillips reported that the woman was examined to ‘test’ whether she was a genuine wife-to-be, who had not borne children and who was still a virgin. The woman, cited by Phillips, described the procedure:

He was wearing rubber gloves and took some medicine out of a tube and put it on some cotton and inserted it into me. He said he was deciding whether I was pregnant before. I said that he could see that without doing anything to me, but he said there was no need to get shy.[ii]

An internal – and only recently disclosed – Home Office document, dated 1 February, 1979, detailed the doctor’s version of the events:

[P]enetration of about half an inch made it apparent that she had an intact hymen and no other internal examination was made. The doctor then examined her chest with a stethascope [sic], but she was not asked to remove her blouse or bra for this. The only time she was bare chested was for the X-ray examination… The doctor told the immigration officer verbally that the lady had not had children and she was then given conditional leave to enter for 3 months as a fiancee [sic].[iii]

Despite the fact that the newspaper report and the internal document were both issued on the same date, when the story first broke on a national scale, the Home Office denied that an internal vaginal examination had taken place, stating that ‘there was no internal examination and that [the medical officer] very quickly and decently established that she was virgo intacto’.[iv] Nevertheless, the revelation of this practice in The Guardian provoked severe criticism of the Labour Government, particularly the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees.  As details emerged over the next few days, the Port Health Control Unit at Heathrow told The Guardian that two other gynaecological examinations had taken place at Heathrow in the past seven years since the Immigration Act 1971 had come into effect. Furthermore, there was speculation from other sources, including the former Minister of State for the Home Office, Alex Lyon, that this ‘testing’ was a much more common practice off-shore, with more than 30 ‘virginity tests’ occurring in British High Commissions in South Asia.[v]

Only after these further revelations did the Home Secretary Rees announce that the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Henry Yellowlees, would conduct an internal investigation into the practice, alongside other medical examinations conducted upon migrants. However, this proposed action was seen by critics – in Parliament, the media and the black communities – to be an attempt to stem further discussion of the subject and to deflect further criticism of the Government in the lead up to the 1979 General Election.[vi] The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) also pushed an independent investigation of immigration control procedures and suspected racial discrimination within the immigration control system, which eventually brought the CRE into legal action with the Home Office.[vii] Alongside these criticisms, the British Government was condemned at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva by the Indian representative.[viii]

Using documents that have been released by the National Archives over the last decade, Marinella and I have been able to put together a picture of the widespread scrutiny, interrogation and physical abuse suffered by South Asian women as they tried to pass through the immigration control system between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The culmination of this research into the discriminatory and abusive actions of the immigration control system is the forthcoming book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which, we are pleased to announce, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year as part of the Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship series. More details of the book will put up on this blog when available. 

Picture credit: Zarina Bhimji.


[i] Letter from Mr Hillary to Mr Flesher, 1 February, 1979, HO 418/29, National Archives, London

[ii] The Guardian, 1 February, 1979, p. 1

[iii] Letter from Mr Hillary to Mr Flesher, 1 Feb 1979

[iv] The Guardian, 1 February, 1979, p. 1

[v] The Guardian, 2 February, 1979, p. 24; p. 1; House of Commons, Hansard, 21 March, 1979, col. 672w

[vi] ‘Immigration tests in Britain’, Spare Rib, 79, February 1979, p. 10; Brixton Black Women’s Group, ‘Black women organizing’, Feminist Review, 17, Autumn 1984, pp. 84-85

[vii] See: Home Office v Commission for Racial Equality, 1981, All England Law Reports, pp. 1042-1050

[viii] Commission on Human Rights, 35th Session, 23 February, 1979, para. 26-27, E/CN.4/SR.1494; Commission on Human Rights, 35th Session, 5 March, 1979, para. 1-22, E/CN.4/SR.1506

Mr Gove, film can never replicate historical ‘truth’

The last few days has seen a historiographical debate about the First World War played out in the media between Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Minister, and several different historians, including Richard J. Evans and Tristram Hunt, with plenty of others weighing in (see this article in The Guardian for a good summary). One of Gove’s arguments is that the popular memory of the First World War in Britain has been warped by satirical comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth, which suggests that people cannot tell the difference between what happens on screen and what ‘really happened’. I thought this excerpt from this article by myself might be worth considering in this debate:

“Film can be an effective, or disruptive, vehicle in shaping ideas about the past, but to articulate the past through film does not mean to recognise it the way it actually was. In Cinema 2: The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze asserts that we should not confuse the two—‘The past is not to be confused with the mental existence of recollection images which actualize it in us.’ The problem of film as historical evidence is that historical consciousness can be influenced by film (as well as popular forms of  storytelling) and there is a fear by some more traditionalist historians that ‘our’ memory will take on the conventions of cinematic representations of the past. Historical narratives provided by film often reinforce our popular memories of the past and, as discussed earlier, can be deemed ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ depending on their conformity to popular memory. As Raphael Samuel wrote, film ‘can establish . . . a past that never was, but which corresponds to what we would have liked it to be’.”

That is all, Mr Gove. Now should we discuss historical fidelity and Inglorious Basterds?

Historical research into black power in Britain

This article in The Guardian today caught my eye, arguing that the history of the black power movement and radical black activism in Britain was in ‘danger of being forgotten’. The article was referring to a new biography of Darcus Howe, the black activist and editor of Race Today during the 1970s and early 1980s, by Robin Bunce and Paul Field. Bunce and Field argue that the history of black struggle has been overlooked in recent British history and it is true that scholarship in this area is not large, but I’m not sure that it is deliberate as Bunce and Field make out.

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Narratively, the history of black activism has been subsumed into the wider history of anti-racism in Britain and the story of radical black activism/black power, which rose in the late 1960s and waned by the late 1970s, often forms part of a longer narrative. Similar to the history of the wider anti-racist movement, radical black activism may have had victories in the 1970s, but the narrative arc ends with the implosion of radical politics in the 1981 riots and the crushing defeats under Thatcherism. (I have written about the convergence and divergence between black activists and the ‘white’ left in the 1970s and 1980s here)

Practically, researching the history of radical black activism and black power is made difficult by the (scarce) amount of resources that can be obtained by historians. Publications produced by black activists in Britain remain rather difficult to find and archival material of their campaigns is only recently been compiled. Collections such as the Black Cultural Archives in Lambeth, the Race Relations Archive at the University of Manchester, the Sivanandan collection at the University of Warwick Library and the Institute of Race Relations Library are important for helping historians begin to write this history. Although Bunce and Field have made use of archival material from the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police’ Special Branch, files relating to black power and radical black activism in the National Archives are rather few. A quick check of the National Archives’ catalogue shows that there are about 10-15 files on black power in the UK publicly available. (I am sure there would be much more available through FOI) The next step for historians interested in this area is to conduct oral history interviews with people involved in black activism during this time – something which the Organised Youth project have been doing lately.

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Before Bunce and Field’s recent monograph, there have been other studies on black power and radical black activism in Britain. The most recent would be Anne-Marie Angelo’s work on the British Black Panther Party (based on her PhD on the internationalism of the Black Panthers in the UK and Israel). But the others are now over a decade old. Another PhD from 2008, by Rosalind Wild, looked at black power in Britain and its origins from 1955 to 1975. Colin. A Beckles published an article in 1998 on the black activist bookshops in the UK, describing them as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’. Kalbir Shukra and Brian Alleyne have both written about black politics, including black radicalism, but their books were published in 1998 and 2003 respectively. A. Sivanandan’s collection of his works from the 1970s to the present, Catching History on its Wings, has some material on radical black activism reproduced from Race & Class journal, of which Sivanandan was the founding editor.

In the period being discussed (the late 1960s to the early 1980s), the use of the term ‘black’ was a political term and often encompassed both Afro-Caribbean and South Asian people. In this period, there was significant crossover in activism between the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities, as well as with white activists, but there was also divergence, and activism that focussed on the problems specifically facing certain communities. There have been two books on radical activism within Britain’s South Asian communities. Anandi Ramamurthy has recently published Black Star which is a fascinating account of the Asian Youth Movements that started in Southall and spread across Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2003, Rahila Gupta published a history of the Southall Black Sisters, a South Asian feminist organisation that emerged out of the anti-fascist protest against the National Front in 1979 (where Blair Peach was killed). While differing from ‘black power’, this shows that research into radicalism amongst Britain’s ethnic minority communities does exist and is growing.

I look forward to reading Bunce and Field’s book and I hope this spurs more research into the history of radical black activism in Britain.

Further reading on British Maoism

For those interested in the bizarre history of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, I thought I’d mention some of the other parts of the interweb discussing the WIMLMTT and British Maoism.

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The Tendance Coatsey blog was probably the first to start publicly collating information on the WIMLMTT (mainly sourced from the EROL) and has led to an interesting discussion.

The Transpontine blog, which focuses on the history of politics and popular culture in South London, was also quick to have something on the Workers’ Institute and a discussion of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Keith Flett, from the London Socialist Historians Group, posted a defence of the ‘mostly harmless’ Maoists in Britain who were being lumped in with the extreme activities of the Workers’ Institute.

Author and activist Tariq Ali, formerly of the International Marxist Group, wrote about Maoism and the British left in the 1970s for The Guardian and tried to explain the attraction towards these minuscule Maoist groups back then.

Lucy Townsend asked for the BBC News website, ‘How common were Maoist groups in 1970s Britain?’ and found that there were around 20 different groups, each with only a handful of members.

Paul Flewers, editor of Revolutionary History journal, was interviewed by BBC Radio about the Workers’ Institute earlier in the week as well.

Phil at A Very Public Sociologist looks at why Maoism was short-lived in the UK, while Trotskyism had a much longer tenure.

Most of the mainstream media have been accessing the EROL website and a PhD thesis on sectarianism on the British far left written by Stephen Rayner in 1979 that has been digitised by University College London. But these sources have much more information than is being utilised.

If there are any other noteworthy sites, please let me know.