Race and Nation in Post-War Britain: the ‘whitewashing’ of Britain?

Race and Nation in Post-War Britain:
the ‘whitewashing’ of Britain?
• 1. The 1948 Nationality Act
• 2. Increasing Concern about ‘Coloured’
Immigrants: Why?
• 3. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrant’s Act
• 4. White Britain?
• 5. Multi-Cultural Britain?
1: 1948 Nationality Act
• Citizenship extended to
members of
(subjects to citizens)
• A liberal moment in
inclusiveness of
national identity?
• Symbolised by arrival of
HMS Windrush, 1948
• Relation to post-war Labour shortage
• Relation to fears of population decline: Royal
Commission on Population, 1949
• Response to decline of Empire: attempt to
shore up via strengthening bonds of
Commonwealth (alongside official support of
emigration to old dominions: 1.5m, 1946-50).
• Royal Commission on Population, 1949:
‘Immigration on a large scale into a firmly
established society like ours could only be
welcomed without reserve if the immigrants
were of good human stock and were not
prevented by their religion or race from
intermarrying into the host population and
becoming merged with it.’
The other immigrants
• Windrush a symbol, but Caribbean and former
colonial immigrants a minority: fewer than
1000/year in 1940s
• Via European Volunteer Workers scheme,
345,000 workers recruited post-war; emphasis on
good stock and importance of integration
• Irish: 1946-62 about 50-60,000 enter UK labour
force each year. By 1951, 0.75m British Irish born
(largest immigrant group). Under 1948, Irish have
rights of British subjects.
2. Yet, increasing concern about the
‘coloured’ immigrants
Why does concern about ‘colour’
• Rise of immigration in
response to new US
immigration restrictions
in relation to Caribbean:
20,000 mid 1950s
• Tensions over race
• Wendy Webster,
Imagining Home:
anxieties about ‘home’,
protection of women …
• Focus on ‘home’ as key in
national identity,
therefore perceived
threat to home is also
experienced as a
perceived threat to
national identity
• ‘Race riots’ in
Nottingham and
Notting Hill in London in
• Issues of housing,
• Role of far right
• Relation to youth
• ‘Dark Strangers in Our
Midst’ (Chris Waters,
Journal of British
Studies, 1997)
• Even liberal sociological
discourse constructs
colour/integration as a
problem and
contributes to discourse
of colour as key factor
in national identity
• Legacy of the myth of ‘the
people’s war’ and cultural
homogeneity of WWII
• Immigrants seen as threat
to this
• But also without war as
spur to ‘people’, the
bonds of this imagined
community are weaker,
and one way to imagine
the nation is against the
new outsiders
• Context of
decline exacerbates
• Loss of confidence in
post-war vision of
• Projection of fears
about race conflict via
images of violence in
end of Empire (Webster
on films of the era)
3. The 1962 Commonwealth
Immigrants Act: Continuity or Change?
• New categorisation: A (jobs to go to); B (skilled); C
• Category C to be controlled by vouchers (target of the
economic migrant)
• Drafted to appear colour blind, but aims to control
coloured immigration (eg Irish not included)
• In fact causes surge of immigration to beat deadline
and of dependents fearing further restrictions
• Attacked by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell as
surrendering to ‘racialism’
4. White Britain?
• Shift to emphasis on race relations and view that
keeping immigration down is key element
• Idea of a British/English way of life
• Powell: ‘The West Indian does not, by being born in
England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a
United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact, he is West
Indian or Asian still’
• 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act: no entry to
British passport holders from Commonwealth unless
parent or grandparent born or naturalised in Britain
• In fact, 1971-83: more people leave Britain than enter
• Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain (1977):
‘racism was a substitute in Modern Britain for
a true sense of national identity in that the
“English”, unlike most Western people (and
Wales and Scotland lacked a myth of “the
• Post-Powell race/immigration taken out of
mainstream politics (though now re-emerging?)
• But is this partly because limits had been set?
• Failure to extend race discrimination legislation to
policing creates new area of tension in 1970s:
controversy over SUS law; debate about
‘mugging’; explodes in Brixton riots of 1981; but
‘institutional racism’ remains according
McPherson Report (1999) on death of Stephen
Lawrence in (1993)
• 1970s movements of
asserting Black identity
• Rastafarianism
• Politicisation of racism and
anti-racism (National Front
field 90 candidates in
second election of 1974)
• A new Black British
scholarship exposes relation
between colour and
national identity: Paul
Gilroy, There Ain’t no Black
in the Union Jack
5. Multi-Cultural Britain?
• Cultural racism leads to
withdrawal and
politicisation of
minorities; and also
embrace of difference in
reaction vs cultural racism
• Local authorities (eg GLC)
respond with new multicultural policies in 1980s
(reaction to riots)
• Or (contra-’Rivers of Blood’) idea
that Britain perhaps stands out
for its long-history of multiculturalism (and good race
• Pluralist acceptance of turbanwearing among Sikhs
• Limited use of hard-line
assimilation eg bussing
• David Feldman, ‘Why the English
Like Turbans: Multi-Cultural
Politics in British History’ in David
Feldman and Jon Lawrence (eds.),
Structures and Transformations in
British Historiography (library
• Anglican schools
• However tensions
remain, highlighted by
publication of Salman
Rushdie’s Satanic Verses
in 1989 and growing
concern about muslim
• Reaction against multiculturalism (David
Cameron, 2011 – ‘state
multi-culturalism has
failed’) – context of
concerns about
• Runs alongside histories
of assimilation (sport)
and cultural hybridity