Official responses

The historiographical debate around the official responses to the arrival of nonwhite immigrants in the immediate postwar period is a lively one. For a long time, the historiography portrayed an image of a liberal elite being progressively forced by an illiberal public to crack down on non-white immigration. However, from the late 1980s onward this idea was increasingly challenged and ostensibly a consensus emerged that portrayed a picture of successive governments in the immediate postwar period being pre-occupied with the notion of race and Britishness while formulating their policy responses.15 More recently however, this consensus has also been challenged and from the 1980s onward the role of racism in formulating policy has been highlighted as key factor. Such a position is convincing considering the tiny numbers of non-white immigrants that arrived in the late 1940s and just how much concern was aroused in government over the issue. In June 1950 a Cabinet Committee, GEN 325, was created to determine ‘whether the time has come to restrict the existing right of any British subject to enter the United Kingdom’.16 The Tory government in 1951 seemed less concerned with immigration, perhaps influenced by the comparative lack of press interest in the years following Windiush, but behind the scenes some felt it remained a pressing issue. Winston Churchill reportedly told Ian Gilour in 1954 that ‘immigration is the most important subject facing this country ’ and further articulated his fears to Sir Hugh Foot when he stated, ‘We would have a magpie society: that would never do’.17 Churchill was by no means alone in expressing racist views with some other cabinet voices expressing apprehension over interracial contact.18 Such prejudiced views regarding miscegenation were common among the establishment. For example, Sir Alfred Bossom, chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, raised few eyebrows when he argued that with

the progressive increase of non-whites over the whites, and influenced by the unlimited ability to travel . . . intermarriage between people of different racial stock will increasingly become the usual thing. Consequently these mixed social traditions in families will most likely be accompanied by the deterioration in standards of behaviour and morals and a lessening of the appreciation of the finer graces of life.19

This aversion to interracial reproduction would eventually become manifest in government policy.

While some were opposed to miscegenation due to its perceived effect on white racial stock, others were more concerned by the possible social problems. One Home Office civil servant stated that ‘sooner or later action must be taken to keep out the undesirable elements of our colonial population’ and with an eye on the possible racial tensions felt their arrival was ‘a formidable problem’. Conversely Clement Attlee refused to take it ‘too seriously’.20 Aware of the delicate nature of the issue, the Home Office, Colonial Office and Ministry of Labour entered a dance of obfuscation and evasion until the Colonial Office was bureaucratically outmanoeuvred and left to deal with the Windrush’s arrival.21

While it is important to avoid characterising the West Indian, Indian and West African immigrants as ‘a block whose sole distinguishing characteristic is the colour of their skins’,22 the fact that these immigrants were not white is clearly of importance. As Robert Winder points out, ‘a country which had recently seen off thousands of German bombers, and was absorbing 120,000 Poles with negligible fuss, was quaking at the prospect of a few hundred migrant workers from the Tropics’.23 Layton-Henry reiterates the point, stating that

It is extraordinary that, at a time when Irish immigration was estimated to be 60,000 per year, immigration controls should have been considered in order to prevent the entry of a mere 3,000 people who as colonial and Commonwealth citizens, were British subjects.24

In fact within a few years of the end of the war Britain absorbed some 345,000 Europeans from across the continent, including 78,500 from Eastern Europe, with a view to plugging the labour shortage.2’ While Colin Holmes questions the consensus that the Poles and other European immigrants received ‘negligible fuss’ when moving to Britain,26 it is clear that the government seemed far more concerned with black and Asian immigrants in the same period. The racial dimension of opposition to the arrival of West Indian immigrants becomes starkly clear when viewed in conjunction with the comparable lack of governmental fuss at white European arrivals during the same period. The reaction from both Labour and Conservative governments in the immediate postwar period betrayed a deep concern and frequently an air of hostility among the ruling elite towards non-white immigrants.27

However, some recent contributions to the historiography have questioned the consensual position on official responses being driven by racism. Randall Hansen, for example, calls the consensual position ‘a sloppy and inadequate account’28 and instead posits that

such racists as there were did not drive policy towards Commonwealth migrants; that there were moments when politicians and civil servants took a principled stand against racism and won the argument; that throughout the post-war period British policy-makers were, taken as a whole, more liberal than the public to which they owed their office; and that, as a result, the “racialization” thesis is too sweeping and exaggerated to be anything but an impoverished account of the British state’s varied responses to post-war migration.29

Whether one fully agrees with Hansen or not, he certainly makes a case for adopting a more nuanced position when analysing official responses to the arrival of non-white immigrants in the immediate postwar period.

However, by the end of the 1950s there is no question that official attitudes had hardened, and as Hansen explains, ‘By January 1961, it was clear that the free entry policy’s days were numbered’.30 What followed was the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Gavin Schaffer, while discussing the passing of the Act, in part brought about by the fallout from the Notting Hill Riots, explains how, ‘We can see in this legislation a political mirroring of the views and concerns of Britain’s conservative biologists and eugenicists, who shared the government’s desire to prevent as far as possible further black/white racial mixing in Britain’.31 While one might debate the drivers of official reactions to non-white immigration in the immediate postwar period, it seems that by 1962 the causes were more obvious.

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