As the people of Britain, in all their ethnic and cultural diversity, mark the death of Margaret Thatcher, a look back at her record on immigration and national identity is needed. Although the 1982 Falklands War is heralded as her triumphant imperial moment, the year before, her Government brought an end to a customary and legal sense of Britishness that included all in the formal empire.
In 1982, Thatcher took action in the south Atlantic to protect ties of blood:
"We have to recover those islands, we have to recover them for the people on them are British and British stock and they still owe allegiance to the crown and want to be British."
She linked military defense of the island to a sense of British identity that was rooted in kinship and family descent. Although her words might be seen as a defense of a historic empire, Thatcher contributed to the exclusion of volitional Britons, especially those with family histories as colonial subjects.
Thatcher’s sense of hereditary Britishness was mobilized in reaction to the increasing presence of Commonwealth Citizens in Britain and their perceived threat to British culture. From 1948, the category Commonwealth Citizen extended to all in the British Empire and Commonwealth, and while the right to enter and reside in Britain was subsequently curtailed, the category acknowledged the historic relations of empire. Post-war migrants to Britain from the decolonizing empire encountered hostility to their presence and fears that they were taking over jobs and housing and taking advantage of state welfare services (fears that at the time and to this day have been repeatedly disproven in academic reports). These fears were often translated into numbers, as in how many of these “dark strangers” were too many, prompting Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood Speech”.
Yet, whereas in 1968 Powell’s views led to his dismissal as Shadow Secretary of State for Defense, Party Leader Thatcher's focus on how many immigrants were too many won her election as Prime Minister in 1979:
"Well now, look, let us try and start with a few figures as far as we know them…there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in."
The consummate politician, Thatcher spoke for that silent majority and their fears, winning votes that might have otherwise gone to a National Front attempting to stand its first national campaign. Thatcher’s brand of Britishness allowed white Britons to see themselves as the aggrieved party in the face of what they perceived to be migrants’ innate cultural differences and hostility to integration. It celebrated what the ‘British character’ had done in the world without accounting for the imperial context in which that character was shaped.
In 1981, Thatcher’s Government passed the British Nationality Act, which defined British Citizenship for the first time in law. The Act was a culmination of the rhetoric concerning who counted as British. The Act created three tiers of British Citizenship, but only those born in Britain, or the children and grandchildren of those born in Britain possessed the right to enter Britain. Ties of blood, not allegiance, desire, history or even character, made Britons.
The exclusionary implications of the British Nationality Act were fully understood at the time by Commonwealth Citizens who equated immigration laws with their standing in Britain. They argued for their right to belong in terms of Britishness, which they understood to be broad and based in a shared history of empire. As A. Sivanandan famously said, they “were here, because you were there.”
The British Nationality Act erased the economic and political circumstances of the late empire that compelled and governed migration. Many Commonwealth Citizens shared Thatcher’s belief that Britishness entailed democratic participation and equality before the law; values they had been steeped in as citizens of the empire in Pakistan, Uganda, Jamaica and Britain. As opposed to Thatcher’s hereditary Britishness, Imperial Britishness had inspired allegiance to the Crown and spurred the participation of colonial troops in two World Wars. It also motivated much anti-colonial struggle, as colonial subjects pointed out the very un-Britishness of colonial rule and argued for their rights to self-government. Britishness motivated Commonwealth Citizens to join in all aspects of life in Britain—they participated, often against the wishes of members, in trade unions; they joined churches and voluntary associations; they began businesses, and stood for political office.
Thatcher’s exclusive claim to Britishness for white Britons ignored the imperial formation of its basic principles and excluded Commonwealth Citizens from a share in that heritage. To say this is not to ignore the violence and dispossession that characterized imperial rule, but to confront the legacy of liberal empire. It helps us to understand both the power of appeals to Britishness in the colonial era as well as the continuing struggles to define the culture of the Commonwealth. Importantly, it helps us to understand why, in the early 1980s, the blood to be protected was that of the Britons in the Malvinas, and not the blood spilled in Brixton, New Cross, Southall, Toxteth and Moss Side.
The nature of Britishness and who is and is not British remains essential to contemporary debates on immigration and multiculturalism. We see the echoes of Thatcher’s Britishness in Prime Minister David Cameron’s speeches, which defend an exclusive Britishness from the threat of immigrant cultures. Cameron calls for immigrants to reach out to the “mainstream,” but in doing so makes communal identity incompatible with hereditary Britishness. The erasures of history in debates on immigration and multiculturalism continue to contribute to the marginalization of ethnic minorities in Britain, in spite of the moments when Britons of color are celebrated as national heroes.
While attempting to barricade the entry of Commonwealth Citizens, Thatcher’s particular brand of neoliberalism removed restrictions on the international flow of capital, and profited through the sales of arms to Iraq, a former British protectorate. Thatcher’s neo-imperialism embraced conquest and profit, but discarded the social and cultural ties of the British Empire. The street parties that have erupted in Britain on her death participate in a moral economy of disenfranchisement that we can see operating in the riots of 2011, in 1981, and the near constant sense of insurgency that characterized imperial rule. Britishness and insurgency are two sides of the coin of empire, one reaching out with the possibility of inclusion, and the other the sign of persistent exclusion.
As we remember the Baroness who saved Britain, and the Maggie who stared down the miners, let’s also remember the Thatcher who did her part to fuel ethnic division, and who presided over the end of a British Empire that included all its subjects.