Salman Rushdie, "The New Empire within Britain"

First Published in 1982

Britain isn't South Africa. I am reliably informed of this. Nor is it Nazi Germany. I've got that on the best authority as well. You may feel that these two statements are not exactly the most dramatic of revelations. But it's remarkable how often they, or similar statements, are used to counter the arguments of anti-racist campaigners. 'Things aren't as bad as all that,' we are told, 'you exaggerate, you're indulging in special pleading, you must be paranoid.' So let me concede at once that, as for as I know, there are no pass laws here. Inter-racial marriages are permitted. And Auschwitz hasn't been rebuilt in the Home Counties. I find it odd, however, that those who use such absences as defences rarely perceive that their own statements indicate how serious things have become. Because if the defence for Britain is that mass extermination of racially impure persons hasn't yet begun, or that the principle of white supremacy hasn't actually been enshrined in the constitution, then something must have gone very wrong indeed.

I want to suggest that racism is not a side-issue in contemporary Britain; that it's not a peripheral minority affair. I believe that Britain is undergoing a critical phase of its post-colonial period, and this crisis is not simply economic or political. It's a crisis of the whole culture, of society's entire sense of itself. And racism is only the most clearly visible part of this crisis, the tip of the kind of iceberg that sinks ships.

Now I don't suppose many of you think of the British Empire as a subject worth losing sleep over. After all, surely the one thing one can confidently say about that roseate age of Engalnd's precedence, when the map of half the world blushed with pleasure as it squirmed beneath the Pax Britannica, is that it's over, isn't it? Give or take a Falkland Island, the imperial sun has set. And how fine was the manner of its setting; in what good order the British withdrew. Union Jacks fluttered down their poles all around the world, to be replaced by other flags, in all manner of outlandish colours. The pink conquerors crept home, the boxwallahs and memsahibs and bwanas, leaving behind them parliaments, schools, Grand Trunk Roads and the rules of cricket. How gracefully they shrank back into their cold island, abandoning their lives as the dashing people of their dreams, diminishing from the endless steaming landscapes of India and Africa into the narrow horizons of their pallid, drizzled streets. The British have got other things to worry about now; no point, you may say, in exhuming this particular dead horse in order to flog the poor, decomposed creature all over again.

But the connection I want to make is this: that those attitudes are in operation right here as well, here in what E.P. Thompson has described as the last colony of the British Empire. It sometimes seems that the British authorities, no longer capable of exporting governments, have chosen instead to import a new Empire, a new community of subject peoples of whom they think, and with whom they can deal, in very much the same way as their predecessors thought of and dealt with 'the fluttered folk and wild', the 'new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child', who made up, for Rudyard Kipling, the White Man's Burden. In short, if we want to understand British racism-and without understanding no improvement is possible-it's impossible even to begin to grasp the nature of the beast unless we accept its historical roots. Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of the culture, the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out.

For proof of the existence of this stain, we can look, for instance, at the huge, undiminished appetite of white Britons for television series, films, plays and books all filled with nostalgia for the Great Pink Age. Or think about the eased with which the English language allows the terms of racial abuse to be coined: wog, frog, kraut, dago, spic, yid, coon, nigger, Argie. Can there be another language with so wide-ranging a vocabulary of racist denigration? And, since I've mentioned Argies, let me quote from Margaret Thatcher's speech at Cheltenham on the third of July, her famous victory address: 'We have learned something about ourselves,' she said then, 'a lesson which we desperately need to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthearts, the people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did, that we could never again be what we were. There were those who could not admit it, but- in their hearts-they too had their secret fears that it was true: that Britain was no longer a nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.'

There are several interesting aspects to this speech. Remember that it was made by a triumphant Prime Minister at the peak of her popularity; a Prime Minister who could claim with complete credibility to be speaking for an overwhelming majority of the electorate, and who, as even her detractors must admit, has a considerable gift for assessing the national mood. Now if such a leader at such a time felt able to invoke the spirit of imperialism, it was because she knew how central that the spirit is to the self-image of white Britons of all classes. I way white Britons because it's clear that Mrs. Thatcher wasn't addressing the two million or so blacks, who don't feel quite like that about the Empire. So even her use of the word 'we' was an act of racial exclusion, like her other well-known speech about the fear of being 'swamped' by immigrants. With such leaders, it's not surprising that the British are slow to learn the real lessons of their past.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: Britain isn't Nazi Germany. The British Empire isn't the Third Reich. But in Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by the people to purify German thought and the German language of the pollution of Nazism. Such acts of cleansing are occasionally necessary in every society. But British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends. One of the key concepts of imperialism was that military superiority implied cultural superiority, and this enabled the British to condescend to and repress cultures far older than their own; and it still does. For the citizens of the new, imported Empire, for the colonized Asians and blacks of Britain, the police force represents that colonizing army, those regiments of occupation and control.

Now the peoples whom I've characterized as members of the new colony would probably be described by most of you as 'immigrants'. (You'll notice, by the way, that I've pinched one of Mrs. Thatcher's strategies and the You to I'm talking is a white you.) So now I'd like to ask you to think about this word 'immigrant', because it seems to me to demonstrate the extent to which racist concepts have been allowed to seize the central ground, and to shape the whole nature of the debate. The facts are that for many years now there has been a sizeable amount of white immigration as well as black, that the annual number of emigrants leaving these shores is now larger than the number of immigrants coming in; and that, of the black communities, over forty per cent are not immigrants, but black Britons, born and bred, speaking in many voices and accents of Britain, and with no homeland but this one. And still the word 'immigrant' means 'black immigrant'; the myth of 'swamping' lingers on; and even British-born blacks and Asians are thought of as people whose real 'home' is elsewhere. Immigration is only a problem if you are worried about blacks; that is, if your whole approach to the question is one of racial prejudice.

But perhaps the worst thing about the so-called 'numbers game' is its assumption that less black immigration is self-evidently desirable. The effect of this assumption is that governments of both parties have eagerly passed off gross injustice as success. Let me explain. The immigration laws of this country have established a quota system for migration of UK passport holders from various countries. But after Idi Amin drove out the Ugandan Asians, and Britain did her best to prevent those British citizens from entering this country, that African quota was never increased; and, as a result, the total number of black immigrants to Britain has fallen. Now you might think that natural justice would demand that the already lamentably low quotas for British citizens from Africa would be made available to those same citizens, many of whom are now living as refugees in India, a desperately poor country which can ill-afford to care for them. But natural justice has never been much in evidence in this field. In fact, the British tax system now intends to withhold tax relief from wage-earners here whose dependents are trapped abroad. So first you keep people's families away from them and then you alter your laws to make it twice as hard for those people to keep their families fed. They're only 'immigrants', after all.

A couple of years ago the British press made a huge stink about a family of African Asians who arrived at Heathrow airport and were housed by the very reluctant local authority. It became a classic media witch hunt: 'They come over here, sponge off the State and jump the housing queue.' But that same week, another family also landed at Heathrow, also needing, and getting, housing from the same local authority. This second family barely made the papers. It was a family of white Rhodesians running away from the prospect of a free Zimbabwe. One of the more curious aspects of British immigration law is that many Rhodesians, South Africans and other white non-Britons have automatic right of entry and residence here, by virtue of having one British-born grandparent; whereas many British citizens are denied these rights, because they happen to be black.

One last point about the 'immigrants'. It's a pretty obvious point, but it keeps getting forgotten. It's this: they came because they were invited. The Macmillan government embarked on a large-scale advertising campaign to attract them. They were extraordinary advertisements, full of hope and optimism, which made Britain out to be a land of plenty, a golden opportunity not to be missed. And they worked. People travelled here in good faith, believing themselves wanted. This is how the new Empire was imported. This country was named 'perfidious Albion' long ago; and that shaming nickname is now being earned all over again.

So what's it like, this country to which the immigrants came and in which their children are growing up? You wouldn't recognize it. Because this isn't the England of fair play, tolerance, decency and equality--maybe that place never existed anyway, except in fairy-tales. In the streets of the new Empire, black women are abused and black children are beaten up on their way home from school. In the run-down housing estates of the new Empire, black families have their windows broken, they are afraid to go out after dark, and human and animal excrement arrives through their letter-boxes. The police offer threats instead of protection, and the courts offer small hope of redress. Britain is now two entirely different worlds, and the one you inhabit is determined by the colour of your skin. Now in my experience, very few white people, except for those active in fighting racism, are willing to believe the descriptions of contemporary reality offered by blacks. And black people, faced with what Professor Michael Dummett has called 'the will not to know--a chosen ignorance, not the ignorance of innocence,' grow increasingly suspicious and angry.

A gulf in reality has been created. White and black perceptions of everyday life have moved so far apart as to be incompatible. And the rift isn't narrowing; it's getting wider. We stand on opposite sides of the abyss, yelling at each other and sometimes hurling stones, while the ground crumbles beneath our feet. I make no apology for taking an uncompromising view of the reasons for the existence of this chasm. The will to ignorance of which Professor Dummett speaks arises out of the desire not to face the consequences of what is going on.

The fact remains that every major institution in this country is permeated by racial prejudice to some degree, and the unwillingness of the white majority to recognize this is the main reason why it can remain the case. Let's take the Law. We have, in Britain today, judges like McKinnon who can say in court that the word 'nigger' cannot be considered an epithet of racial abuse because he was nicknamed 'Nigger' at his public school; or like great Lord Denning, who can publish a book claiming that black people aren't as fit as whites to serve on juries, because they come from cultures with less stringent moral codes. We've got a police force that harasses blacks every day of their lives. There was a policeman who sat in an unmarked car on Railton Road in Brixton last year, shouting abuse at passing black kids and arresting the first youngsters who made the mistake of answering back. There were policemen at a Southall demonstration who sat in their vans, writing the letters NF in the steam of their breath on the windows. The British police have even refused to make racial discrimination an offence in their code of conduct, in spite of Lord Scarman's recommendations. Now it is precisely because the law courts and the police are not doing their jobs that the activities of racist hooligans are on the increase. It's just not good enough to deplore the existence of neo-Fascists in society. They exist because they are permitted to exist. (I said every major institution, so let's consider the government itself. When the Race Relations Act was passed, the government of Britain specifically exempted itself and all its actions from the jurisdiction of the Act.)

A friend of mine, an Indian, was deported recently for the technical offense known as 'overstaying'. This means that after a dozen or so years of living here, he was found to be a couple of days late sending in the forms applying for an extension to his stay. Now neither he nor his family had ever claimed a penny in welfare, or, I suppose I should say, been in trouble with the police. He and wife financed themselves by running a clothes stall, and gave all their spare time and effort to voluntary work helping their community. My friend was chairman of his local traders' association. So when the deportation order was made, this association, all three of his borough MI's and about fifty other MI's of all parties pleaded with the Home Office for clemency. None was forthcoming. My friend's son had a rare disease, and a doctor's report was produced stating that the child's health would be endangered if he was sent to India. The Home Office replied that it considered there were no compassionate grounds for reversing its decision. In the end, my friend offered to leave voluntarily-he had been offered sanctuary in Germany-and he asked to be allowed to go freely, to avoid the stigma of having a deportation order stamped into his passport. The Home Office refused him this last scrap of his self-respect, and threw him out. As the Fascist John Kingsley Read once said, one down, a million to go.

The combination of this sort of institutional racism and the willed ignorance of the public was clearly in evidence during the passage through Parliament of the Nationality Act of 1981. This already notorious piece of legislation, expressly designed to deprive black and Asian Britons of their citizenship rights, went through in spite of some, mainly non- white, protests. And because it didn't really affect the position of the whites, you probably didn't even realize that one of your most ancient rights, a right you had possessed for nine hundred years, was being stolen from you. This was the right to citizenship by virtue of birth, the ius soli, or right of the soil. For nine centuries any child born on British soil was British. Automatically. By right. Not by permission of the State. The Nationality Act abolished the ius soli. From now on citizenship is the gift of government. You were blind, because you believed the Act was aimed at the blacks; and so you sat back and did nothing as Mrs. Thatcher stole the birthright of every one of us, black and white, and of our children and grandchildren for ever.

Now it's possible that this blindness is incurable. One of the SDP's better-known candidates told me recently that while he found the idea of working-class racism easy to accept, the parallel notion of widespread prejudice in the middle classes was unconvincing to him. Yet, after many years of voluntary work in this field, I know that the management levels of British industry and business are just as shot through by the threads of prejudice as are many unions. It is believed for instance, that as many as fifty per cent of all telephone calls made by employers to employment agencies specify no blacks. Black unemployment is much, higher than white; and such anomalies don't arise by accident.

Let me illustrate my point by talking about television. I once earned my living by writing commercials, and I found the prejudice of senior executives in British industry quite appalling. I could tell you the name of the chairman of a leading building society who rejected a jingle on the grounds that the off-screen singer sounded as if he had a black voice. The irony was that the singer was actually white, but the previous year's jingle had been sung by a black man who obviously had the good fortune not to sound like one. I know the marketing director of a leading confectionery firm who turned down all requests to cast a black child-as one of an otherwise white group of children-in his commercial. He said his research showed such casting would be counterproductive. I know an airline advertising manager who refused to permit the use, in his TV ads, of a genuine air stewardess employed by his own airline, because she was black. She was good enough to serve his customers their drinks, but not good enough to be shown doing so on television.

A language reveals the attitudes of the people who use and shape it. And a whole declension of patronizing terminology can be found in the language in which inter-racial relations have been described inside Britain. At first, we were told, the goal was 'integration'. Now this word rapidly came to mean 'assimilation': a black man could only become integrated when he started behaving like a white one. After 'integration' came the concept of 'racial harmony'. Now once again, this sounded virtuous and desirable, but what it meant in practice was that blacks should be persuaded to live peaceably with whites, in spite of all the injustices done to them every day. The call for 'racial harmony' was simply an invitation to shut up and smile while nothing was done about our grievances. And now there's new catchword: 'multiculturalism'. In our schools, this means little more than teaching the kids a few bongo rhythms, how to tie a sari and so forth. In the police training programme, it means telling cadets that black people are so 'culturally different' that they can't help making trouble. Multicultralism is the latest token gesture towards Britain's blacks, and it ought to be exposed, like 'integration' and 'racial harmony', for the sham it is.

Meanwhile, the stereotyping goes on. Blacks have rhythm, Asians work hard. I've been told by Tory politicians that the Conservative Party seriously discusses the idea of wooing the Asians and leaving the Afro-Caribbeans to the Labour Party, because Asians are such good capitalists. In the new Empire, as in the old one, it seems our masters are willing to use the tried and trusted strategies of divide-and-rule.

But I've saved the worst and most insidious stereotype for last. It is the characterization of black people as a Problem. You talk about the Race Problem, the Immigration Problem, all sorts of problems. If you are liberal, you say that black people have problems. If you aren't, you say they are the problem. But the members of the new colony have only one real problem, and that problem is white people. British racism, of course, is not our problem. It's yours. We simply suffer from the effects of your problem.

And until you, the whites, see that the issue is not integration, or harmony, or multicultrualism, or immigration, but simply the business of facing up to and eradication the prejudices within almost all of you, the citizens of your new, and last, Empire will be obliged to struggle against you. You could say that we are required to embark on a new freedom movement.

And so it's interesting to remember that when Mahatma Gandhi, the father of an earlier freedom movement, came to England and was asked what he thought of English civilization, he replied: 'I think it would be a good idea.'