Welcome to Britain?

Attitudes to Commonwealth immigration

Immigration is a salient issue, it particularly dominated political news in the UK in the lead up to and following the 2016 EU referendum.  In the public debate, the term ‘immigrant’ does not have a specific definition. Maya Goodfellow notes it has become a ‘catch-all term’ as it means different things, is ‘at times, conflated with race or ethnicity and it’s applied to people seeking asylum or who have refugee status’ (2019: 36).  Immigration is racialised; the policies and narratives surrounding immigration are intertwined with race.  This has been a long-standing issue, as immigration has been influenced by the legacies of the British Empire and colonialism.

I will focus on the increased immigration from Commonwealth countries since the Second World War, and the reaction to this.  Commonwealth immigration increased rapidly, from 3,000 people a year in 1953 to 46,800 in 1956 and to 136,400 in 1961 (National Archive, 2004).  In the aftermath of the Second World War, British nationality was re-defined, and the British Nationality Act 1948 ‘conferred the status of British citizen on all Commonwealth subjects and recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families with them’ (National Archives Website).  People were encouraged to come from the colonies to Britain to help with post-war reconstruction. They helped in key industries such as the production of raw materials, repair work, public transport and the NHS.  The ‘Empire Windrush’ arrived on 22nd June 1948.  I recommend finding more out about the Windrush generation – a start is to read McDowell’s article ‘How Caribbean Migrants helped to rebuild Britain’ which shows the huge contribution made.  

Yet despite this crucial work and contributions made (to society and to the economy), there was still a negative reaction to the ‘visibly different’ population.  Bhambra notes how concerns about immigration was underpinned by concerns about race, she says ‘the issue was never simply mobility, but rather the colour of those who moved and the direction in which they moved.’ (2017: 403). She talks about how much of Britain disliked and rejected migration of ‘darker’ people from the Commonwealth.  This reaction came from the public, but also politicians, such as Churchill who talked of ‘Keeping England White’.  Racial tensions increased demonstrated by several race riots, most notably in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958.  Policy makers at the time, however, believed good race relations required tight immigration controls (Runneymede Trust, 2015: 5).  

The link between race and immigration is demonstrated by the first Race Relations Act (1965) which made discrimination based on race unlawful.  This legislation was vitally needed, but was criticised for failing to address vital areas where discrimination was most prevalent, namely employment and wider aspects of acquiring accommodation. This led to the passing of the 1968 Race Relations Act, which made unlawful acts of discrimination within employment, housing and advertising. (Parliament UK website).

Commonwealth Immigration Acts

However, these were counterbalanced by successively restrictive Commonwealth Immigration Acts (1962, 1968, 1971) which converted Commonwealth citizens into ‘foreigners’.  They were restrictive, turning citizens into immigrants.  Lidher (2018) notes that whilst definitions of British citizenship remained formally expansive until 1981, these laws differentiated people with ‘qualifications based on passport origin (1962), on parentage (1968), and on patriality’ (1971) (Lidher, 2018).  He goes onto explain that in carving hierarchies of access to Britain, these restrictive laws also carved hierarchies of citizenship.  These policies show how immigration was ultimately racialised, they sought to restrict immigration from certain countries. The Commonwealth Immigration Acts have left a legacy of ‘racialised gatekeeping’ Lidher describes, they have an impact on immigration policy today, which has contributing to the ‘Hostile Environment’ and Windrush scandal.  

Also during this period, Enoch Powell, a Conservative politician, criticised Commonwealth immigration, in his divisive and renowned 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.  He was criticising the 1968 Race Relations Bill, which was undergoing readings in Parliament.  Powell warned about the dangers of mass ‘inflows’ of immigration and used explicit racist language to spread fears, saying in a 15 to 20 years ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’.  Whilst this speech was condemned by the Conservative party and led to Powell’s expulsion from the shadow cabinet, it represented some of the xenophobic views existing in Britain, many of which are present today.  The violent and racist imagery used in this speech demonstrates how parts of Britain are deeply uncomfortable with immigration.

Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’

This very brief look at Commonwealth immigration and the predominantly negative reaction to the increase in immigration, demonstrates how racism is rife in Britain.  People from the Commonwealth were initially encouraged to come to Britain and were promised opportunities yet despite huge contributions to society, faced much racism, both in everyday life but also by restrictions and limitations from immigration policy. 

Common insults and racial slurs thrown around (to this day) are ‘go back to where you came from’ or ‘go home’ and when people criticise Britain, they are often met with the question ‘Why don’t you leave then?’. As well as these comments having racist messages and questioning who belongs, they ultimately don’t make sense. Britain is the multicultural, multi-ethnic society that it is today due to Britain’s colonisation and the migration that followed this.  It is ironic that if Britain hadn’t had such an extensive empire and colonised so many countries it would not look the way it does today.  Feeling proud of the empire plays a prominent role in the British identity, a 2014 YouGov survey found that 59% of British people believed the empire was ‘something to be proud of’ rather than ashamed of.  Many Britons are proud and patriotic, they celebrate the glory and power of the British Empire, whilst condemning and rejecting immigration, which is a direct consequence of the Empire.  This illustrates Britain’s difficult relationship with immigration; needing and wanting immigrants to work (for the economy) but simultaneously rejecting them.

feature image source: BBC.


Linda McDowell (4th October 2018) https://www.bl.uk/windrush/articles/how-caribbean-migrants-rebuilt-britain

Parliament UK, ‘Race Relations Act 1965’ https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/race-relations-act-1965/race-relations-act-1965/

Dahlgreen, W. (26 July 2014) ‘The British Empire is ‘something to be proud of’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire

Lidher, S. (2018) ‘British Citizenship and the Windrush generation’ The Runnymede Trust, https://www.runnymedetrust.org/blog/british-citizenship-and-the-windrush-generation  

Runneymede Trust, (2015) ‘This is Still About Us: Why Ethnic Minorities See Immigration Differently’, Runneymede Trust, 1-44

Bhambra, G. (2017) ‘The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism.’ European Law Journal, 23:395–405 https://doi.org/10.1111/eulj.12234

Goodfellow, M (2019) ‘Hostile Environment – How immigrants became scapegoats’, Verso

One thought on “Welcome to Britain?

  1. An interesting article. Common insults like “go back home” are undoubtedly racist and annoying, but the fact that people are comfortable saying it, to me seems to be the real problem. Nick Ferrari a radio host and a panelist on Sky’s Pledge show sparked fury among viewers when he told Afua Hirsch “Why do you stay in this country?” after she questioned why statues of “problematic” British history icons such as Nelson and Churchill, are still glorified.

    The problem to me is that a prominent presenter on main stream TV feels comfortable saying this knowing there will be no comebacks. This attitude needs to change

    Liked by 2 people

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