The demonisation of migrants by the British government – how it began in post War Britain

Alternative title: There has never been and there is no such thing as fair immigration controls – Part 2 – The Commonwealth and Immigration Act of 1962.

The Alien Act was the first legislation passed in the UK Parliament with the aim of restricting immigration. It was passed in 1905 and primarily targeted those Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland. This first attack on migrant rights in the UK is very well covered in this article by Daniel Randall on the Labour Campaign for Free Movement website.

The next big change in UK migration law was the Commonwealth Immigrant Bill of 1961 which passed into law in 1962. As the name implies the Bill was aimed at restricting immigration from the British Commonwealth which had comprised a significant element of the immigration into the UK in the 1950s. As similar Acts afterwards, it wasn’t couched as being permanent legislation: its long title claimed that it was “an Act to make temporary provision for controlling the immigration into the United Kingdom” (my emphasis).

Immigration into Britain from what had been the colonies and were now becoming Commonwealth countries had always existed. But after World War II that had accelerated. However despite the increased immigration from the Commonwealth, throughout the 1950s the majority  of immigrants continued to come from the Irish Republic, in excess of 40,000 a year.

Migration from the Commonwealth had been made easier through the Labour Government’s Nationality Act of 1948. That Act had introduced into UK law the definition of a British citizen or rather the concept of ‘Citizen of the UK and Colonies’ (CUKC). The Act gave to all peoples in the British Empire/ Commonwealth the right to a British Passport and the consequent right to free movement within the new Commonwealth.

Britain extended citizenship to the its former colonies partly to maintain its imperialist influence when there were increasing demands for independence and democracy. Granting common citizenship also had the advantage of allowing workers to be more easily brought to Britain to rebuild its still war-damaged economy. It also simplified the emigration of British workers to Australia, Canada and throughout Africa.

Following the 1948 Act, in June of the same year, the passenger liner Windrush brought the first large tranche of West Indian migrants who were to form the Windrush generation.

Reasons for West Indian emigration to Britain

Deprived of serious investment, the economies of the West Indian colonies had neither diversified nor grown. So for many West Indians looking for a future, a job or an education, there was little hope other than to emigrate.

Up to 1952 workers in the West Indies had primarily chosen the US as their emigration destination. It was geographically far closer and less costly to get to. 41,000 had migrated there during the US’s war years 1942-46: many to work in the booming US arms industry.

But in 1952 the US Senate passed the McCarran-Walter – Immigration and Nationality Act. The Act was introduced at the height of the McCarthyite reaction in the US. Its prime mover, Democrat Senator McCarran amongst other things was a prominent supporter of General Franco. The Bill pitched its attack on migrants as one against ‘subversives’ and ‘undesirable foreigners’ and their rights of access to the US. The racism of the bill was so extreme that even President Truman vetoed it, only for that veto to then be overturned by the Senate.

In the debates around the Bill, amongst the ‘undesirable’ races to be monitored and restricted were Jewish immigrants – because of their propensity for radicalism. But black workers from the West Indies were also demonised. It is not difficult to understand why.

In the 1940s a massive internal migration restarted in the US. 5 million black workers moved from the Southern States to the North West and East Coast cities. It was later to be called the ‘Second Great Migration’. For racist reactionaries like McCarran, the growth of significant black populations in American cities was a significant political threat. They feared what was to eventually happen ten years later – that black workers in the cities in the northern states would use the organisational opportunities those cities provided and would help build a national movement for civil rights of all black Americans.

Those like McCarran who wanted restrictions on immigration from the Caribbean didn’t want West Indian workers joining with indigenous blacks in the possible creation of an educated, organised black working class movement. So from 1952 onwards the Act restricted immigration to a maximum of 800 a year – from the whole of the West Indies to the whole of the US!

So after 1952 and being blocked from entry to the US, West Indians looking for a future inevitably and increasingly turned to Britain – which was only too keen to welcome them into its factories, foundries and hospitals. For Britain was short of labour with its full employment economy of that time.

Immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain. From Teresa Hayter’s “Open borders: the case against immigration controls”

Particularly active in recruiting Caribbean as well Asian workers was the UK Department of Health, led from 1960 by its Tory minister Enoch Powell!

The changing nature of British racism

In spite of the immigration possibilities, racism was as rampant in 1950s Britain as ever. The ideology of empire, the conflicts and occasional wars with people in the colonies wanting independence: these allowed all sorts of racist sentiments to be expressed in the media and in parliament.

The far right organisation formed in 1954 was the ‘League of Empire Loyalists’. It brought together old fascists from the Mosley’s BUF as well as younger elements who were to form the leadership of fascist groups over the next 20 years. People such as Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, Martin Webster began in the Empire Loyalist ranks. The name it chose ‘Empire Loyalists’ drew attention to its priority – maintaining the privileges and power of the British Empire, resisting the independence movements and maintaining white power in the colonies, opposing the liberals who wanted to negotiate self-rule with the indigenous peoples. These were their concerns. For them immigration was not the primary target. Not yet anyway.

To the extent that the Tory Government feared that immigration might be electorally damaging to them, it tried to semi-secretly restrict black immigration. They didn’t want to block migrant entry at British ports. Instead they leant on Commonwealth administrations to restrict their processing of paperwork needed by migrants.

In the main the Tories kept away from racist political attacks on their migrant populations. They needed migrants economically, they didn’t need populist racism – at least during the 50s when the ‘never had it so good’ optimism was electorally sufficient to keep them in power.

That is not to say that the Tories opposed racism – they didn’t. There was widespread racism quite openly in Britain in the 50s: in employment, housing, from the police and on the streets. The racism was directed not only at immigrants from the West Indies and Asia but also those from Ireland. But that racism was not combatted at any level by the Government – nor significantly by any other agency in education, in the labour movement or legislatively.

So it is little surprise that in 1958, in both St Anns in Nottingham and Notting Hill in London, ‘riots’ took place targeting West Indians. Anti-migrant racism started to be an issue that the right thought they may be able to use electorally.

And not only the right of the Tory Party. The Daily Sketch quoted Labour MP for North Kensington, George Rogers, talking on the “effect of the ‘tremendous influx of coloured people from the Commonwealth’ “ and saying that “overcrowding has fostered vice, drugs, prostitution and the use of knives. For years the white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up.”

Undoubtedly these sentiments would have been heard louder amongst the Tory rank and file. Sure enough the Tory Party conference in 1959 called for immigration controls.

Whilst it didn’t figure much in the 1959 general election campaign by 1961 the Tory government decided to act. The Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was moved in October 1961.

The arguments about the Bill

In focusing solely on immigration from the Commonwealth, the Bill immediately encountered opposition from not only Labour benches (Labour Party leader, Hugh Gaitskell called the bill a “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”) but also some Tories – who were even more hostile to Irish than they were to black immigrants!

Like Senator McCarran’s views about ‘undesirable’ Jewish immigrants in the US, some Tory MPs argued that action was more of a priority against immigrants who were in the words of Tory MP John Vaughan Morgan “Irish Republicans”, i.e. from the Irish Republic. After all they argued, immigration into Britain from the Republic was over half of the total immigration, the Irish Republic was not in the Commonwealth and had been neutral during the then recent World War Two.

The ‘liberal’ Tory Home Secretary Rab Butler countered that relations with the Republic of Ireland were good – and they were. Although both governments had a mutual blind spot on the severity of the problems in the Northern Ireland statelet which were to explode seven years later.

At the time there was a shared belief that the borders between the Republic and the UK would progressively come down – one way or another. Therefore the UK government thought that immigration controls directed at Eire would be politically damaging. Certainly they would be economically damaging in the short term. Irish migration was beneficial to both economies – workers from Eire comprised over half of Britain’s much needed migrant labour force whilst the Irish economy was stagnant and unemployment was high.

In the words of Labour MP Patrick Gordon-Walker Butler’s Irish exemption was a “fig leaf to preserve his reputation for liberalism. Now he stands revealed before us in his nakedness. He is an advocate now of a Bill which contains bare faced open race discrimination”.

The Tory Bill was passed with no dissent from Tory benches.

The consequences of the Act

The Act like all legislation to limit immigration did not reduce racism. The very opposite – it opened up a period where immigration remained low but racist agitation against it went through the roof.

The Monday Club, an anti-migrant, pro-apartheid Tory Party faction was founded in 1961. It soon became a cross-roads where fascists, outside of the Tory Party throughout the fifties, could meet up with others attracted and recruited to an increasingly racist Tory Party.

The extent of this rank and file Tory racism was soon revealed in the notorious 1964 General Election campaign. Tory candidates in some constituencies used either inflammatory predictions of immigration (“300,000 immigrants: This could happen if you vote Labour”, Wyndham Davies, Perry Barr) or used openly racist calls (“If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour.” Peter Griffiths, Smethwick).

At the time both the crude racism of Peter Griffiths’s campaign and the populism of that of Wyndham Davies caused outrage and disquiet – even in Tory circles. Whilst the crude racism of Griffiths was not openly repeated, the populism of Griffiths became increasingly common in the Tory Party.

Worryingly, the ‘nigger for a neighbour’ Tory campaign in Smethwick gave them a spectacular success in winning a safe Labour seat – that of Patrick Gordon Walker, who had spoken so strongly against the 1962 Immigration Act. So despite causing immediate embarrassment to the Tory Party, particularly its liberal wing, it gave the Tory hard right some important lessons for the future. 

They might have compared the Smethwick result with that in 1959 in Kensington North, the constituency in which Notting Hill lay. The veteran fascist Oswald Mosley had only got 7.5% of the vote whereas Griffiths had won the seat!

Mosley was unable to capitalise on the violent racism in Notting Hill in 1959, Griffiths successfully related to a stream of racist ignorance in 1964. Open fascism failed, but the crudest racism worked.

Also and more importantly, by 1964, it was now acceptable to demonise migrants, MPs were doing it, governments were doing it, legislation had been passed.

Out of government from 1964, some Tory politicians increasingly looked to populist racism to restore their electoral fortunes. This would eventually lead to Powell and his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 and the victory of Thatcher as Tory leader with her 1978 interview references to Britains being ‘swamped by people of a different culture’.

In government from 1964, Labour didn’t repeal the 1962 Act that it had rightly denounced when the Act had come before Parliament. Instead, it bent to the growing anti-migrant narrative. The Labour government actually tightened immigration restrictions both in 1964 and 1965. They ended the migration of Commonwealth citizens who came without an existing job offer and they reduced the number of migrant vouchers available.

And then in 1968 they made an even more significant and disgraceful redraft of the legislation. Panicking in response to the possible migration of Kenyan Asians who were being racially victimised in Kenya they Introduced a distinction between those Commonwealth citizens who ‘belonged’ – those with parents or grandparents from the UK (overwhelmingly white) – from those who, in the words of Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan, “did not belong to this country in the sense of having any direct family connection with it”.

But more on Labour government’s 1968 attacks on migrants in the next essay.

Further reading and references

  1. The Labour Campaign for Free Movement is pulling together some excellent resources to argue against immigration controls. Including this one mentioned in the text of the 1905 Aliens Act by Daniel Randall
  2. The pamphlet of No-one Is Illegal by Teresa Hayter, OPEN BORDERS The Case Against Immigration Controls is an essential pamphlet to read

Other sources from which information has been drawn

  1. The Passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, a Case-Study of Backbench Power
  2. West Indian Immigration

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