One political issue that did mobilize young Londoners into political action in 1968 was immigration and racism. We’re going to need some background on this.
Britain was, of course, a colonial nation who spent the better part of 400 years invading cultures around the globe, claiming their resources for themselves, and enslaving their people in the name of “civilizing” them. They aimed — as other Europeans did — to build an Empire on which the sun would never set, and they got their wish.
For the first 300 years, the British relied on slavery to make the Empire run. But when slavery was abolished in 1833, they had to scramble to reorganize. One way that they coped with the resultant labour shortage was to send Indians to other colonies as indentured servants (in a sort of contractually-limited-slavery), and this is why to this day there is still such a substantial South Asian presence in some Caribbean countries and some East African countries. The Indian Indenture System ran from 1833 to 1920 and resulted in hundreds of thousands of Indians resettling (or being resettled) in other British colonies.
The British were forced to dismantle most of what remained of the Empire after World War II. After Kenya and Uganda gained independence from the British Empire in the early 1960s, they were perhaps understandably intent upon “Africanizing” themselves, ridding themselves of the legacy of colonial rule. To this end, Kenya passed laws that were discriminatory to its sizable South Asian population, while in Uganda, things were much worse, especially after Idi Amin seized power in the early 1970s and forcibly expelled all South Asians under the threat of ethnic cleansing. (Amin is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 500,000 Ugandans during his dictatorship.)
As such, a great many East African Indians needed to get out of Africa, and tens of thousands looked to the UK to start a new life. Britain, however, had mixed feelings about this influx of brown faces from the Commonwealth — they still weren’t sure how they felt about the wave of Caribbean immigrants who had arrived to help rebuild after the war — and so the government put a stricter immigration law in place in 1968, one that required new immigrants from the commonwealth to demonstrate that they already had a “close tie” to the UK. And racist anti-immigrant rhetoric abounded, as it does to this day.
Most notable in this respect was a speech given in March 1968 by the creepy Tory MP Enoch Powell, a speech now known as “The River of Blood.” We’re probably going to read the whole thing next term, but the gist of it is that Powell argues that Britishness itself is being threatened by excessive immigration, and that if something substantial isn’t done to curb it, “In 15 or 20 years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” (seriously) and the Thames itself will begin to “foam with blood.”
It’s an ugly and hateful speech, but it captured the public imagination. Powell was immediately demoted in the government, but a great many Tories maintained that these were sentiments that nevertheless “needed to be said.” And even this year, following the riots in London, there were people who could be heard saying “Enoch Powell was right.” (If you google the phrase “Enoch Powell was right,” you’ll see what I mean.) The new law that Powell was opposing — the Race Relations Act of 1968, which made it illegal to deny someone housing or employment based on their race — passed later in the year in spite of his vituperation and bile.
Powell’s speech prompted massive protests and heated public debate. It captured Paul McCartney’s imagination too, and in January 1969 there are recordings of him working on a song called “Enoch Powell” that begins: “Tonight Enoch Powell said ‘Get out immigrants, Immigrants have got to go home.’ / Tonight Harold Wilson said to the immigrants “You’d better get back to your commonwealth homes.” A second bluesy version, sometimes called “Commonwealth,” has the great line “Oh commonwealth, you’re much too common for me.” And a later version of the song, usually called “Pakistanis,” starts off with an instantly recognizable melody: “Don’t dig no pakistanis, taking all the people’s jobs … Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.”
By the time the Beatles recorded the released version of the song later in the month, the lyric had been toned down considerably. Maybe they were worried the satire wouldn’t be clear — it would be a disaster if “Get Back to Where You Once Belonged” became an anthem for the xenophobic right. It’s too bad — this is the closest the Beatles ever came to politics (except for “Taxman.”)
The Beatles stopped performing live in 1966, but held one last concert in 1969 on the rooftop of Abbey Road studios in London. I’ll post “Get Back” below, but I’ll give links to the full concert beneath it as well. The concert is stunning, proof that the Beatles were one of the most effortless and intuitive live bands in history.
There’s also some amazing footage of London in 1969 in the full concert — the show was unannounced and the Beatles weren’t visible to the people below, so the crowd shots of people sorting out what’s going on are priceless. And the arrival of the police to shut down the show is a coup de théâtre all its own. Here’s the full concert, in three parts: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.