I’ve been distressed by the fear-mongering in Suella Braverman’s rhetoric with regard to asylum seekers. When the Madras Courier asked me to write on the topic I jumped at the chance. I have pasted the copy below so you don’t need to subscribe to read it. But the MC is not expensive and is an interesting publication.
It’s an editor’s prerogative to make the titles. I don’t believe that Sunak is ‘inept and incompetent’. He’s stabilised the economy and has been adept handling the Northern Ireland Protocol. But his and Braverman’s immigration policy is indeed cruel .
History Repeating Itself by Sylvia Vetta
Listening to the fearmongering of British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, supported by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, I have entered a dismal time warp to distressing experiences back to the 1960s.
The steel factories of the West Midlands had recruited migrant workers – mainly Punjabis. While teaching their children English, I witnessed the growing poisoning of the atmosphere by self-seeking politicians, and the fear it created in small children.
Smethwick in the Midlands had been a safe Labour seat and the sitting MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, was expected to be the Foreign Secretary should Labour win the 1964 election. Gordon Walker had exiled Seretse Khama for marrying a white woman, the courageous Ruth Williams, so was not the right man to fight a racist campaign. Peter Griffiths became the Tory candidate and, given the Labour candidate of Gordon Walker, knew he would be on to a winner if he campaigned on just one issue: race and immigration.
You couldn’t live or work in the borough without hearing the slogan, If you want a ni**er for a neighbour vote Labour. Don Finney, a Conservative councillor and supporter of Peter Griffiths, was reported saying, ‘I had a wonderful fortnight’s holiday. Did not see a single ni**er!’
In 2023, Suella and Rishi make their sentiments equally plain when it comes to asylum seekers risking their lives trying to get here in boats. They would feel happy if they saw no more! I’m sorry to quote those disgusting remarks, including the ‘n’ word, but without them, it is hard to communicate that vicious atmosphere in Smethwick. Unsurprisingly, the vile propaganda provoked violence. Petrol bombs were thrown into an Indian shop. Houses where Indian immigrants lived had windows smashed. These incidents were not condemned by Peter Griffiths. I met my Indian-born husband, Dr Atam Vetta, and was spat upon while walking down the street beside him.
I can quote the racist incidents and the fearmongering which led to them thanks to Dr Dhani Prem. He kept a meticulous record of the events leading up to Griffith’s victory in the 1964 election and privately published The Parliamentary Leper (Colour and British Politics) in 1965 and gave us a signed copy.
Peter Griffiths won than seat and, after the election, Harold Wilson did something unprecedented. He made a speech attacking the new MP. The parliamentary correspondent, Preston Witts, wrote about Harold Wilson,
‘He had a knack of making statements containing phrases that have lived on well beyond his own time, such as the “parliamentary leper”’
On November 4.1964, Atam wrote to me, ‘Who would think of a leper! Wilson has finished Griffiths and this wretched creature will never be able to rise in the Tory Party.’
I was teaching in Handsworth when, on 20 April, 1968, Enoch Powell, used scare stories to demonise minorities and delivered what became known as ‘the rivers of blood speech’. Here is an extract…
For these dangerous and divisive elements [immigrants, in particular the Sikhs], the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the very pabulum they need to flourish. Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Within two days that speech affected my class. The children had previously played together in a colour-blind manner. Their innocence was lost, presumably because of what parents said to them, comments on the street and newspaper headlines. I walked into the playground to see the white children at one end and the darker skinned at the other.
Most of my life, I’ve been an optimist rooted in reality. I managed to find hope when Andrew Faulds replaced Gordon Walker as the Labour candidate. A Shakespearean actor, Andrew was a principled man with not a racist bone in his body. Edward Heath became leader of the Conservative Party and refused to have Powell in his cabinet so that Powell left to join the Ulster Unionists. Heath’s stand was not appreciated by many in his party but he too was a principled politician.
As a society we have progressed slowly and I felt that we were heading in the right direction, even if at snail’s pace. Our society has changed. In 2023, both our Prime Minister and Home Secretary are of Indian ancestry and our Foreign Secretary is of African ancestry. Given their origins, you would think they would champion immigrants. Instead, through their fearmongering rhetoric against illegal immigrants, they identify with the attitudes of the narrowest of tribes: the extreme right wing of the Conservative party.
My memoir Food of Love: Cooking Up a Life through Gender, Class and Race has recently been published. The London launch will be on April 26 at6:30pm at the Nehru Centre. When I wrote it, I did not believe our politicians would return to the hate speech that led to the attacks in the sixties. I ended it on a note of hope. Sadly that hope has escaped me. Justified in their eyes by the home secretary’s demonising of the boat people, racists are attacking hotels housing asylum seekers. These refugees have no voice and are already traumatised.
My husband and most South Asian immigrants would not have come to the UK if we had not partitioned India. It was ethnic cleansing on a vast scale. That’s why the immigrants who responded to the offer of jobs in heavy industry in the Midlands were mostly from the divided Punjab.
If we hadn’t invaded Iraq or stayed so long in Afghanistan, the numbers leaving traumatic situations would be far less. We need to assume some of the responsibility for their desperate situations. Given the chance, the British public can be generous and welcoming. Indeed, the Asylum Welcome movement is active almost everywhere in the country. Suella and Rishi, however, do not want us to open our hearts and minds to the desperate.
I met Atam in Smethwick. Graham Newis on the left told me that Atam wanted to start a multi racial youth club to diffuse prejudice. ‘Would I help?’ I’m second on right .