Integration and working class culture

David Bates reviews Dave Renton's 'Colour blind? Race and migration in north-east England since 1945' University of Sunderland Press, 2008, pp286, £10.95

For over half a century, immigration has rarely been far from the top of the political agenda in the UK. In a culture which places such emphasis on ideas of national pride and superiority, this should perhaps come as no surprise - after all, it is no coincidence that the discourse of ‘border controls’ often draws directly upon British history in its invocation of invasions, conquests and the defence of Britain’s national frontiers against the barbarous foreign hordes. But what is the story on the ground? In Colour blind? Dave Renton sets out to examine the responses of working class communities in the north-east of England to the arrival of newcomers from other parts of the UK and far beyond.

Appropriately for a book about the north-east, Renton’s emphasis is firmly on class - namely, the making and remaking of a working class which absorbs workers from a huge array of cultures and nations and moulds them into a hybridised mass of people - many of whom share a common local and regional identity, with a staunchly working class underpinning. The process is not always straightforward, and the class dimension not always obvious, but the message is clear: integration is best achieved when it comes from below, as ordinary people the world over come to share the same friends, workplaces and eventually the same accents.

As Renton observes, “In so far as the region has been open to migrants, this welcome has been decisively shaped by existing cultures of occupation and class” (p215). Indeed, this focus on the importance of class lends Colour blind? an insight often missing in studies of migration and settlement, many of which concede too much ground to what Renton describes as ‘identity politics’ and the reproduction of ‘racialised’ thinking. It is here that Renton’s background in Marxist studies of fascism and anti-fascism comes into its own, as he is able to demonstrate how bonds of friendship and class solidarity have historically been able to cut across the divisions of ‘race’, ethnicity and religion in some of the UK’s former industrial heartlands.

The key contention of the book is that the warmth and hospitality for which the north-east is supposedly renowned stems from its distinct class character, with a predominantly industrial and coastal economy, giving birth to a population which was made up of predominantly skilled and semi-skilled manual workers. This in turn spawned a culture, Renton argues, which was largely receptive to incoming workers, regardless of their faith, nationality or skin colour, provided they were willing to demonstrate the same strongly working class virtues as the established population. The north-east was a place where, according to regional historian David Bean, working class virtues were the norm - honesty, kindness, humour and durability were to be found in the very fabric of north-east society.

Lest this sounds overly romantic, Renton is sufficiently vigilant to question whether the notion of ‘north-east exceptionalism’ is in fact a myth or reality. As is so often the case, what the author seems to suggest is that it is a partial truth, largely dependent on underlying structural factors. Indeed, it is argued that the decay of heavy industry and the declining influence of the organised working class “reduced the social basis for welcome”, diminishing the layer of activists willing to intervene in class-based community campaigns and destroying many of the bonds of solidarity enjoyed by workers of different nationalities in north-east communities: “Unemployment and underemployment,” comments Renton, “were hardly likely to encourage feelings of solidarity towards new arrivals.”

Nevertheless, there have been many examples of largely successful integration throughout the region’s history. Middlesbrough, for example, is a relatively young town which practically owes its existence to immigration, as workers from all over the UK, Ireland and the world flocked to the area for jobs in the ‘frontier’ town’s emerging ironworks in the 19th century. By 1871, one in five males on Teesside were Irish-born. There were periodic tensions between the different communities: Renton tells of how divisions between English and Irish ironworkers, fuelled by opportunistic employers, often resulted in both sides losing out, particularly in the ‘Great Strike’ of 1866 when differential pay cuts were imposed on both. Other historians point out that within a few generations the Irish in the north-east were very well integrated and, as Roger Cooter comments, “The proof for this must surely rest with the social, economic and political advancement of the Irish themselves” (p60).

Elsewhere, miner and trade unionist Jack Lawson remembers Bolden Colliery, near Sunderland, as “a typical example of the way in which the county of Durham had become a sort of social melting pot, owing to the rapid development of the coalfield during the 19th century” - one where a dozen different accents, dialects and languages eventually gave way to a common culture and a Mackem/Geordie lilt. The idea of a “melting pot” is not one that many people would necessarily associate with County Durham, where only 1.2% of the population belong to an ethnic minority, according to the 2001 consensus (compared with 2.4% in the rest of the north-east and 8.7% in England and Wales). But Lawson’s testimony is enlightening, for it reminds us that immigration is not always about crossing national borders, and also that migration fuels and is fuelled by rapid capitalist expansion and retraction.

Indeed, the story of migration and resettlement is woven into the history of the working class. As the numerous examples in Colour blind? show, it makes no sense from a rational Marxist perspective for some sections of the class to call for others to be expelled once expansion slows down, or to call for the capitalist state to throw up borders to keep newcomers out. The organisation of migrants into cultures and formations that emphasise the emancipatory potential of working class unity is what holds the key to successful integration - and to the struggle for improved quality of life for all, migrant and host alike. One example of this comes from as far back as 1866, when hundreds of seamen struck for higher wages in ports along the River Tyne. It was a strike in which black seamen were heavily involved, prompting one journalist to observe: “Whatever may be the feeling of the people of America or elsewhere against colour, it is not participated in by our tars, who walk arm in arm with the coloured men” (p34).

Yet the question of class and cultural identity is a complex one. To what extent do people consider themselves as workers rather than principally or exclusively as English, Poles, Pakistanis, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics or any of the myriad identities at play? The struggle to reinforce class identity as a means of cutting across ethnic and communal divisions is a recurring theme in the history of the north-east. Renton quotes a British-Indian youth, who says of his father: “He sort of wants to keep me Indian, you know, which I don’t like. I would like to think that I’ve got no nationality, you know, I’m just a human being” (p128). As Renton points out, narrow and communal identities - including white and British - have been all too easily reproduced down the generations, particularly from the 1980s onwards with the breaking up of the industrial proletariat and the onset of ‘identity politics’. Renton does not explore this debate in too much detail, although much has been written elsewhere about the role of identity politics and official, state-sanctioned multiculturalism in maintaining structural inequality and disadvantage.[1]

Often when migrant groups cling to old identities in their totality it is in response to the hostility they face from the wider community. Hence the formation of the first self-mobilised community organisations in the 1950s and 1960s, long before ‘race relations’ legislation was implemented as a means of preventing discrimination against newcomers. As Renton explains, “One way to understand the process is as one of repeated attempts at state-building. While the economic functions of the state were provided from within north-east society (or from within Britain as a whole), the cultural and representative institutions of the region were frequently closed to new migrants ... New arrivals in the region established religious, cultural, welfare and educational organisations, feeling that existing provisions were inadequate for them” (p80).

As time went on, however, these organisations came to be seen by the British establishment as a key means of managing troublesome minorities as part of a project in which anti-racism was gutted of any meaningful political content. The official policy of multiculturalism was formulated by governments from the 1980s onwards as a response to the persisting racial inequalities highlighted by anti-racist campaigners and to the ‘racial’ violence which broke out in British inner cities during the same period. This form of multiculturalism - which saw government and local authority funding directed to the aforementioned voluntary cultural organisations - not only ignored the economic, cultural and institutionally racist dimensions of existing inequalities, but actually fostered their entrenchment, including the patriarchal chauvinism of unelected ‘community leaders’ patronised by the state.

Although Renton only alludes to the fact, other writers have described this as a form of ‘internal colonialism’ actively fostered by the British ruling class. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, for example, have noted that the first generation of British ‘race relations experts’ received their training in the colonies of the British empire, where “they ruled through a stratum of local leaders and chieftains without too much intervention in the ‘internal affairs’ of those they ruled.”[2] This was eventually reflected in the race relations institutions and practices implemented by British governments in the post-war era. Ubmerto Melotti has characterised the form of multiculturalism practised in Britain - which he refers to as “uneven pluralism” - as a particularist, ethnocentric extension of British colonial policy.[3]

It is the long-established Yemeni community of South Shields on Tyneside, which offers perhaps the most fascinating example of these different processes at work. Renton tells of how journalists visiting the area in the mid-20th century marvelled at the extent to which the migrants and their descendents had adapted to north-east culture and spoke in ‘broad Tyneside’ accents: “They dressed, sounded and increasingly behaved like white Geordies” (p13). However, Renton does perhaps overestimate the extent to which South Shields migrants were assimilated at the cost of maintaining their own Arabic and Islamic traditions - not mentioned in the book, for example, is legendary visit in the 1970s of boxer Mohammed Ali - a figure whose political radicalism and proudly dissident Islamic identity struck a chord with the Tyneside working class, particularly its Arabic population.

The Yemenis’ integration was by no means an entirely smooth process. Settlement of the seafarers began in the 1890s and by 1918 Renton reports that there may have been up to 600 Arabs working out of North and South Shields. The Yemenis faced hostility early on, but nevertheless embraced aspects of English popular culture (for example, dances) and many married local women. In 1919, though, there were ‘race riots’ in South Shields involving Yemeni and white sailors - triggered, naturally, over an industrial dispute in which racism was deployed as a means of dividing a potentially united workforce.

These early decades of the 20th century also provide an early glimpse of what was to become a more pressing issue later on in the century with regards to the mobilisation of class and religion in the struggles for migrants’ rights: “A decade later,” writes Renton, “the Yemeni population of South Shields seems to have been divided between two different strategies to achieve success.” A significant minority of Yemenis in Shields identified with the Minority Movement, a CPGB-led organisation within the sailors’ union. On the other hand, the moderate and generally pro-government Western Islamic Association argued the case that the community’s principal need was the building of a mosque and the provision of more religious education (pp49-51). Although religious and class identities are by no means mutually exclusive, for socialists the fusion of class politics with religious politics can be problematic, to say the least, and the mobilisation of religious identities for political purposes can jeopardise the struggle for workers’ rights - as we have seen so often on the left in recent years.

All in all, in Colour blind? Renton has offered a concise, coherent and well-researched history of migration to the north-east, which adopts a class-based approach to the history of anti-racism and integration in the region. What conclusions can be drawn from the study? “The idea that the people of the north-east were always welcoming is no more plausible than its gloomier opposite, the idea that they were always hostile,” says Renton (p58). But if migrants did generally face less hostility than in other parts of the country - which is very possibly the case - it can confidently be said that this is largely attributable to its strongly industrial working class culture.

One lesson that we can draw from this is how important it is that the hegemonic struggle over the meaning of terms such as ‘integration’ and ‘community cohesion’ is won by forces that fill such concepts with progressive content - against, for example, the narrow bourgeois meaning given them by the establishment. We are for a grassroots integration that acknowledges no borders and strives to unite workers of all cultures in a radical political culture that is diverse but absolutely committed to the principles of workers’ rights, radical democracy and anti-racism. Only this can overcome communal division and the structural inequality it maintains.


  1. See, for example, A Sivanandan Catching history on the wing: race, culture and globalisation London 2008.
  2. F Anthias, N Yuval-Davis Racialised boundaries: race, nation, gender, colour and class and the anti-racist struggle London 1992, p158.
  3. See U Melotti, ‘International migration in Europe: social projects and political cultures’ in T Modood, P Werbner (eds) The politics of multiculturalism in the new Europe: racism, identity, community London 1997.