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Was Britain’s approach to mass immigration in the period 1945-c.70 a success or a failure?
The question of whether Britain’s approach to mass immigration in the period 1945 – c.1970 was a success or a failure is not as straightforward as it first may seem. Unpacking the question a little will help. Firstly, it is important to consider what is meant by Britain? Should it be taken to mean the government or the people, and which people?
Britain’s approach’ might be thought more likely to refer to government but clearly many British people having nothing to do with government also encountered mass migration and migrants in one way or another and therefore can be said to have had an approach to it. Also, the idea of a singular ‘approach’ over some 25 years is misleading. A variety of governments were incumbent over this period and therefore a variety of approaches to mass immigration might be expected. British society also experienced significant changes from the trauma of World War 2, the immediate post-war period and decolonisation to the 1970s and thus approaches and reactions amongst the population at large are bound to be many and varied as well.
Then, finally, there is the question of success and failure. In objective history how are success and failure to be judged? There is no very satisfactory answer to such subjective notions. It might best be determined on a policy basis, either governmental or non-governmental, but that is still a rather narrow view. This essay will examine selectively both governmental and non-governmental approaches to mass immigration into Britain from 1945-1971 in a broadly chronological framework, beginning with the immediate post-war period and Polish settlement, before turning to what has been termed colonial or New Commonwealth immigration.
Government policy will be analysed as will some of the social effects of and response these to migrations. Finally, the governmental approach to mass immigration from Ireland will be examined and contrasted with the former examples before a conclusion and answer is attempted. It should be noted at the outset that it is not possible in the space provide to include discussion of every immigrant population group, nor to examine satisfactorily the responses of the population at large but the groups discussed herein have been chosen on the basis of numbers.
That the reconstruction of the Britain after World War 2 would require labour was already a concern of the government in 1944, who appointed a Royal Commission to assess the matter of population. This Commission reported in 1949 that immigration could be welcomed without reserve ‘if the migrants were of good human stock and were not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged into it’. An indication of who constituted acceptable migrants had already been given by the government. At the end of World War 2 there were perhaps 500,000 Poles in Britain. While initially the government favoured voluntary repatriation for the Poles, the advent and recognition of a USSR dominated communist Poland was off-putting or impossible to many.
Recognising the potential offered by the Poles, the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) was formed in 1946 to help in their transition to civilian life in Britain. This was followed in 1947 by the Polish Resettlement Act. The dependents of those who enrolled in the PRC were also admitted to Britain and by 1948 there were approximately 114,000 enrolled in the PRC and 33,000 dependents. Layton-Henry has concluded that, while sympathy for the Poles existed because of the war and the Soviet annexation of their country, ‘the main reason for the successful integration of the Polish ex-servicemen and their families was the acute shortage of labour at the end of the war’ although there was some opposition from people and trade unions.
Post-war Britain was still imperial and colonial (though undergoing an ongoing process of decolonisation), if no longer a power, and as British subjects ‘colonial immigrants had the right of access to Britain and full rights of citizenship, including voting rights, the right to work in the civil service and the right to serve in the armed forces’. Notable in discussions about colonial immigration are the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent and it is immigration from these areas that shall be considered below.
In both the West Indies and the Subcontinent there was an awareness of the labour market in Britain – during the war colonial labour had been widely used, with some settlement resulting. In India, Britain had gained a reputation as a land of milk and honey and mutual knowledge was undoubtedly increased by the war. The increasing migration of West Indians to Britain began in 1948, the Empire Windrush leaving Kingston on the 8th of June with 492 passengers bound for a new life with their right, and that of other citizens of colonies or Commonwealth countries, to free entry guaranteed by the British Nationality Act 1948. The demand for labour in Britain and the poverty of some the West Indies were the main factors leading to the migration, but also important was the especially Jamaican tradition of labour migration.
Many had traditionally gone to the nearby and rich US, but this was severely restricted in 1952, directing migrants to the UK. Although much West Indian migration to Britain was done in the hope of better prospects, direct recruitment also took place, for example between the London Transport Executive and the Barbadian Immigrants’ Liaison Service and the NHS. Similarly, mass migration of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from India and Pakistan was to increase in the 1950s and 1960s. Many factors governed this, such as the economic opportunities presented by Britain, pressure for land and unemployment following limited industrialisation. In both cases, travel agents, family reunions and chain migration helped to drive numbers, with the arrival of dependents often signalling a shift from temporary to permanent migration.
West Indies India Pakistan Others Total
1953 2,000 2,000
1954 11,000 11,000
1955 27,500 5,800 1,850 7,500 42,650
1956 29,800 5,600 2,050 9,350 46,800
1957 23,000 6,600 5,200 7,600 42,400
1958 15,000 6,200 4,700 3,950 29,850
1959 16,400 2,950 850 1,400 21,600
1960 49,650 5,900 2,500 -350 57,700
1961 66,300 23,750 25,100 21,250 136,400
1962* 31,800 19,050 25,080 18,970 94,900
Table 1. Estimated net immigration from the New Commonwealth
(* first six months)
It has been said that after the war, the British Labour government maintained an ‘open door’ policy to immigration, deliberately settling some groups and encouraging others, although the racism of the Royal Commission Report which followed naturally from the racism strong among the government, armed forces and civil service before and during the war remained present. Of particular concern were the immigrants’ visibility and ability to assimilate into British society, obviously favouring white Christians. In early 1950 an interdepartmental working committee recommended discouraging colonial immigration at source, tightening up entry requirements and encouraging voluntary repatriation.
The immigration of coloured people was now being seen as a problem in several areas of British life although because of the small numbers involved, the Labour government chose not to act and curtail the traditional rights of citizens. The new Conservative government of 1951 were also concerned with avoiding the creation of, in Churchill’s words, ‘a magpie society’. Both Labour and Conservative governments from 1948-62 were involved in the ‘complex political and ideological racialisation of immigration policy’ and had by 1952 ‘instituted some covert, and sometimes illegal, administrative measures to discourage black immigration’. Debate continued throughout the 1950s about non-white immigration and social problems that were, in the minds of some, intimately connected with it.
Where blacks had settled in Britain before the war, racial prejudice was already a factor but during the war, when co-operation and unity were vital, it may have lessened for a time. For non-white immigrants the post-war era revealed continuing hostility and vilification from various parts of society, including in Stepney a priest who considered that blacks posed a social and moral problem. Incidents of violence occurred in the late 1940s between whites, sometimes Irish immigrants, and non-whites in Birmingham, Liverpool and London. These continued sporadically, leading to the much publicised Notting Hill and Nottingham riots in 1958 and the again in 1968.
There were problems on both sides including discrimination against non-whites in employment and housing while some whites also worried about these issues and it seems that certain employers and landlords, seeking to maximise their profits took advantage of the situation. Despite such extreme incidents we must contrast also the less high profile friendly and welcoming approach of some people. It would indeed be inappropriate and inaccurate to generalise about the approach to mass immigration by the public and individual local circumstances must always be considered. However, it has been said that post-war British society was still very traditional, and despite the empire, very insular for the majority of British people. This, combined with the pride of empire and the recent defeat of Germany, exacerbated by the natural British superiority taught in schools, could easily lead to a negative attitude to immigrants.
In 1962 the Commonwealth Immigration Act was passed by a Conservative government, legally restricting for the first time immigration from the Commonwealth. It was attacked by some sections of Labour and the media press as a response to ‘crude racist pressures’. Other Labour members, however, supported and had campaigned for stricter immigration controls, sometimes even stricter than that of 1962 and eventually Labour u-turned on the issue of repealing the Act. In fact, the looming prospect of strict regulation of immigration from the New Commonwealth speeded up immigration, in particular from the West Indies, destroying the rough balance that had existed between labour demand and supply.
The overt politicisation of race and immigration is visible in the Smethwick campaign of 1964. Peter Griffiths fought the Conservative campaign against Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker and was returned against the national trend. His campaign was based, as he saw it, ‘on defending the interests of the local white majority over the influx of immigrants’ and he notoriously refused to condemn the popular slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’ defending it as an expression of the popular feeling about immigration. Somewhat ironically, Labour introduced another Commonwealth Act in 1968 in order to restrict the entry of East African Asians who held British passports.
The governmental approach to post-war mass immigration from the colonies and the Commonwealth should ultimately be viewed in the light of Irish immigration, for to 1971 the Irish were the largest immigrant minority in Britain (see Table 2). In the 1861 census 3% of the population of England and Wales were Irish and 7% in Scotland with their numbers increased to 957,830, just under 2% of the total population of Great Britain, in the 1971 census. In the late 1920s and 1930s some restrictions on immigration and repatriation were proposed, partly in anxiety at the potential effects of US immigration restrictions increasing the flow of Irish into the UK, but were never realised except during the war.
The worries expressed by the reconvened working party in 1955 were restricted to controlling the immigration of coloured colonial and Commonwealth citizens, who were British subjects with legal rights to settle, and not with Irish immigration, concluding that ‘the Irish are not – whether they like it or not – a different race from the ordinary inhabitants of Great Britain’. That an estimated 60,000 Irish per year were migrating to Great Britain compared with far fewer colonial or Commonwealth citizens was evidently not the point, nor was the fact that Irish immigration also led to social tensions as the working party had itself concluded. These were later emphasised by the Commonwealth Acts, about which ‘there was no pretence of adopting non-racist immigration controls by including Irish or other aliens in the legislation’.
Table 2. Origins and numbers of some overseas born population of Great Britain in 1971
(note that immigrants may have also emigrated, therefore this table does not show total numbers of immigrants per year of entry)
In such a climate, the rise of the Conservative’s Enoch Powell as a spokesman for anti-immigrant resentment seems inevitable and the public response to his ‘rivers of blood’ prediction saw his popularity in polls rise from 67 to 82% in his favour, even making him a contender for the Conservative leadership. Powell used rhetoric and anecdote to create an image of Britain in its death throes through massive immigration, racial civil war and strife in which true white Britons were strangers in their own country, ousted from school, home and hospital by immigrant communities who plotted against them using the invidious Race Relations Act of 1968. The whole premise of the problem of immigrant numbers is in fact a non-starter since in the post-war era emigration from Britain has in any case generally been at a higher rate than immigration.
Fortunately, racism at the highest levels was less acceptable than in former days and Powell’s speech was found offensive by many of his parliamentary colleagues although 327 out of 412 Conservative constituency groups wanted all immigration stopped indefinitely and 55 wanted strict limits imposed. A Conservative victory owing in some measure to Powell’s dissonant if not entirely unpopular personal campaign and a promise that there would be no further large-scale permanent migration led to the Immigration Act of 1971, replacing employment vouchers with annually renewable work permits that no longer carried the right of permanent residence or the right of entry for dependants. Because of the special relationship between Britain and Ireland, none of this applied to Irish immigrants, suggesting that colour prejudice was at its heart.
In conclusion, despite initial so-called ‘open door’ policy to immigration, guaranteed by colonial or Commonwealth citizen rights guaranteed in 1948, the approach of successive British governments from 1945 to 1971 was to attempt to regulate mass immigration on the basis of skin colour. Indeed it seems that in the late 1960s even Labour accommodated itself to a ‘White Britain Policy’ and the difference in approach to Irish and West Indian and Indian immigrants clearly bears this out. Even today it is apparently acceptable to make a special case for the Irish who, according to Migration Watch UK ‘hardly come into the same category since they were part of Great Britain for centuries’ despite the fact that this ignores Irish ethnicity and identity while favouring skin colour, language and historical political and economic domination as reasons for some spurious sameness.
An Irish anecdote illustrates the offensiveness of this, stating ‘just because we speak English doesn’t mean we are the same’. Racial and immigration issues became inextricably linked and highly politicised and the prominence of Enoch Powell lead to the rise and normalisation of far right groups such as the National Front and the BNP, still active today and recently on trial for race crimes. Nowadays the debate centres around asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, who, in the style of Powell’s immigrants, threaten, despite the facts, to ‘swamp’ Britain, and even in the run-up to the current election the Conservative leader Michael Howard is making immigration a central election issue. Was the approach a success? In terms of keeping non-white colonial and New Commonwealth citizens out of Britain, no. In terms of linking and politicising immigration and racism and normalising prejudice in British society, yes.
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