London: Following the Second World War, Britain raised a call for “immigrants of good stock” to aid in the rebuilding efforts in the country. The demand, however, was aimed at white immigrants from areas in Eastern Europe that had been equally devastated by the war, such as Poland and the Baltic states.
Instead what occurred, much to the horror of the government, was the arrival of migrants from former colonies, such as the West Indies and India. Because of their status as citizens of the Commonwealth, such migrants enjoyed unrestricted access to the country.
The arrival of the Empire Windrush, in 1948, bearing 492 immigrants from the West Indies to London symbolised the change in migration patterns in the UK, as well as solidifying fears about “coloured” migrants coming into the country.
The first real influx of people from the Indian subcontinent began in the 1950s and 1960s, however. The 1948 Nationality Act had granted the right of free entry into Britain to all former imperial subjects, but that did not mean they were welcome.
In 1955, a draft White Paper was produced by the Colonial Office which argued that policies aimed at restricting entry into the UK would be inherently racially biased, given that the majority of migrants were not coloured but in fact Irish. Nonetheless fears motivated by the presence of the outsiders continued to grow, exacerbated by a perception that new migrants from Pakistan and India were unskilled and unable to speak English.
These fears led to the first major set of restrictions in the form of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The Home Secretary of the time, Richard “Rab Butler”, a Conservative minister who first made a name for himself by helping to pass the 1935 Government of India Act, oversaw the establishment of three distinctions of work visas for those who did not possess British passports. This was also the first time a cap was established, limiting the number of migrants to 30,000 per year.
Despite their vociferous opposition to the Act, once a Labour government was formed in 1964 the popularity of the Act meant they were reluctant to abolish it. On the contrary, it was strengthened a year later by reducing the number of visas that would be granted per year to 8,500, as well as tightening entry requirements.
It is important to note that the fears of immigration, inflamed by racist rhetoric at the highest levels of Whitehall that Britain was being invaded by non-Whites who would steal jobs and housing from God-fearing Englishmen, were utterly incorrect. By the end of 1966, less than 2 percent of all immigrants to the UK were non-Whites; and data collected by the Runnymede Trust showed that the total population of coloured migrants in the UK was 1.6 million in 1951, and 3 million in 1971.
But the inflammatory remarks at the highest echelons of political office would continue, culminating in several further pieces of restrictive legislation specifically aimed at stopping Indian migrants from entering the country: even those seeking refuge.
In 1967, the Kenyan government, which had achieved Independence under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta four years earlier, announced an aggressive “Africanisation” policy towards communities which resided in the country but still retained their British citizenship.
This adversely targeted the Indian Kenyan population who were deemed to be disloyal and faced severe economic and political discrimination in favour of the native black population. Because of this many decided to take advantage of their citizenship, and left to seek their fortunes in Britain.
The British government had been closely monitoring the situation in Kenya. The decisions of the Kenyatta administration alarmed them greatly, because these were non-White citizens returning home; and there existed no legislation that could be used to stop British passport holder. Yet.
In 1986 the Second Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in just three days of Parliament. Expressly aimed as a response to the East African Indian exodus, the new Act made all British passport holders subject to immigration controls unless they, a parent, or a grandparent had been born or naturalised in the UK.
More than 200,000 Indians from Kenya were affected by the Bill, which in one fell swoop violated both their rights as British citizens and as refugees.
The Times of London at the time called the move by the Harold Wilson government the “most shameful measure that Labour members have ever been asked to support by their whips.”
Home Secretary James Callaghan publicly refuted all claims that the Bill was “racialist in origin or concept.” In private however, as declassified documents in 1999 revealed, a desire to keep non-White British citizens out of the country was the major impetus behind the act.
“A reasonable case could be put up in reply to international criticism on the ground that the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense and that the obligations imposed, for example, by the European Convention on Human Rights do not therefore apply,” wrote cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend in a confidential memo dated 14 February to the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Ever the cautious one, Wilson had ordered Callaghan to further research Trend’s argument and ensured that it was airtight before the bill was debated in the Parliament.
British hysteria and racial prejudice, already galvanised by the Labour government’s act, would culminate barely two weeks later in the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech by hard-right Conservative MP Enoch Powell.
Opening with an allusion to the Latin epic The Aeneid, Powell went on to say that the British government had to put their own kind — White, Christian, English — ahead of any migrants; perhaps the most blatant articulation of racism that post-war Britain had seen.
“We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population,” he said. “It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
While he was lambasted by members of his own party, Powell, who has since become a figurehead for the assorted far right organisations in contemporary Britain, ranging from fringe parties like UKIP and the British National Party to Neo-Nazis, captured public sentiment perfectly. Indeed, his comments indirectly led to a surprise victory by the Conservative party in the 1970 General Elections.
Zealous in their responsibility to stop this imagined “flood” of immigrants, the Heath government would pass the last of the great restrictive acts in the 20th century: The 1971 Immigration Act. Carrying on from its predecessors, this piece of legislation eliminated the right of permanent migration for workers from the Commonwealth, instituted new work permits which form the basis for the current work visas, and expanded on the rights of “patrials” as defined by the 1968 Act.
This Act would face its first challenge in 1972, when the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of the country’s Indian community which numbered around 80,000 at the time. While Amin’s decision was motivated by a backdrop of Indophobia, similar to the actions of Kenyatta a few years earlier, his methods were far more brutal: denouncing them as “bloodsuckers,” the dictator warned that Indians who remained in Uganda after 8 November would be imprisoned in military camps.
Recognising the very real threat to their lives, the British Government established the Uganda Resettlement Board despite criticism, and through it helped permanently resettle 28, 165 members of the Uganda Asian community by 1973.
British immigration restrictions would begin to ease as the new millennium approached, as multiculturalism and EU mandates on freedom of movement began to play a role in policy decisions.
The rhetoric employed during the Brexit campaign, playing on fears of outsiders and blaming immigrants for a lack of economic growth — effectively articulating a return to the old position of “Britain for the British” — may have played a part in the recent restrictions on immigrants to the country, particularly from India.
Given their history, perhaps that isn’t so surprising, however. In the wake of the collapse of the Empire, British legislators concealed their uncertainty, concerns, and discriminatory behaviour towards those they once ruled over under a thin veneer of English tolerance.
And depending on which party triumphs on Thursday, that veneer, already weakened by the decision to exit the European Union, may crack.
This is the second and final part of a series on British immigration policy towards Indian immigrants. The first part looked at current legislation and the proposed changes in the manifestos of the three major parties.
Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 07:48 AM