British immigration policy, race relations, and national identity crisis

by James J. Atkinson
University of Notre Dame London Programme
Professor Clive Bloom
14 May 2003

“An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.” 1

On 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury, Great Britain, bringing with her 417 Jamaican immigrants from the West Indies, the first of many in the great influx of Commonwealth migrants to the mother nation. Surely, Britain had seen immigrants come to her shores before, but this voyage signalled the beginning of a much larger inflow of coloured immigrants than she and her native people had ever experienced. At the end of the Second World War, labour demand skyrocketed as the United Kingdom was in dire need of reconstruction. Coloured immigrants from the Commonwealth states of the former British Empire supplied this increased demand for low skilled and unskilled labour in post-war United Kingdom. From 1948 through the 1970s immigration from these former Empire regions, such as the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Africa, and the Far East, continued to flow into Britain. Today, Britain is truly a multi-ethnic society, as celebrated by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

This multi-ethnicity, however, does not sit well with many of this scept’red isle’s natives, and has even been attributed to causing the current crisis of national identity in Britain. This paper will chronicle the rise of multi-racial Britain since Empire Windrush and the various immigration acts passed to control the subsequent issues of race relations. It will also explore the impact of such immigration policy on race relations and how the rise of multi-ethnicity in Britain has led to a national identity crisis: “Who are the British?” Finally, possible solutions to Britain’s racism and nationalism will be looked at.

The unskilled labour shortage that resulted in the years following the Second World War can be attributed both to Britain’s need to reconstruct and the reallocation of British labour to skilled work. This shortage could only be filled by substantial immigration, and where better to receive a large influx of immigrants than from Britain’s very own Commonwealth states? These countries “provided a ready-made source of recruitment.” 2 The 1948 British Nationality Act gave citizens of Commonwealth countries special immigration status, allowing them to freely “enter, work, and settle with their families.” 3

The 1960s, on the other hand, brought about controls to limit the immigration of Commonwealth citizens for the first time. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act required any migrant to obtain a voucher before being given leave to enter. There were three kinds of vouchers that applicants could obtain: Category A vouchers were issued to those who had already acquired a job in Britain; Category B vouchers were for those who did not yet have a job secured, but clearly possessed special skills that would be beneficial to British society; Category C vouchers were issued on a first-come, first-serve basis to those who fell into neither A nor B. The Category C voucher, however, was abolished by Labour in 1965 when they came to power.

The 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act distinguished those UK passport holders who had a right of entry and abode in Britain and those who did not. A passport holder had to be born and naturalised in the UK or have a parent or grandparent who had been born, adopted, or naturalised in the UK, a principle known as patriality. What this Act effectively accomplished was retaining the right of entry for many citizens of the ‘old’ Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and Canada, while removing this right from the ‘new’ Commonwealth citizens. Skin colour was not mentioned in the Act, but this is clearly the effect that this Act was designed to bring about, the differentiation between those whose skin colour is white and those who are coloured.

The 1971 Immigration Act restricted opportunities of entering Britain even more. Those who did not meet the requirements of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act now had to obtain a work permit every 12 months in order to remain in Britain. This act ended almost all new primary immigration from ‘new’ Commonwealth, or coloured, countries. Family reunification is now the main source of continued settlement in Britain from these countries. 4

In 1981, the Nationality Act declared all who had qualified for right of abode according to the 1968 and 1971 Immigration Acts to be British Citizens. Only British Citizens and European Union Citizens are free of immigration control. Mason interestingly points out, “Children born in the UK to non-British citizens do not acquire British citizenship unless they can satisfy the requirements of patriality. Such children could become stateless.” 5 Most recently, in 1996, the Asylum and Immigration Act placed increased restraints on those wishing to seek asylum in Britain.

From 1948 up until 1962, Britain experienced massive waves of immigration from Commonwealth states while the government maintained a laissez-faire stance. Why then in 1962, did the government begin to place restrictions on immigration? To answer this question, one must first look at the consequences of this massive wave of unrestricted immigration of Commonwealth citizens into British society to meet the increasing demands for unskilled labour in the early post-war years. The large influx of coloured labourers into predominantly white British cities eventually began to lead to social strain: “the arrival of large numbers of migrants, particularly in inner city areas with the most acute housing problems, inevitably exacerbated already serious shortages and supplied ready-made scapegoats on whom already extant problems could be blamed.” 6

In the eyes of many whites, the new arrivals of coloured ethnicity were causing shortages in resources and eventually began to take their jobs after the demand for unskilled labour began to subside in the 1950s. Journalists Mike and Trevor Phillips point out that “natives of the British Isles saw themselves as being at the head of the hierarchy of the British nations [and] the idea which underpinned this role and held the whole structure together was a belief in the racial supremacy of whites born in Britain… [and] the British had a destiny to rule over ‘lesser races’.” 7 The letter from eleven Labour MPs to Clement Attlee, quoted at the beginning of this paper, further demonstrate the racist atmosphere of this time immediately following the Second World War.

Integration of these new arrivals from the ‘new’ Commonwealth states was essential. But Arthur Marwick, Professor of History at the Open University, points out that: “The British, at the best of times, are a xenophobic people. For their part, the immigrants had long-standing and deeply felt cultural and religious traditions of their own. To hope for integration, let alone assimilation, was perhaps to hope for too much.” 8

These increasing strains on societies resources eventually led to overwhelming white hostility toward these coloured immigrants, which in 1958 manifested itself in the form of the Notting Hill riots in the West London community. Afterwards, a conservative campaign mounted to begin to control immigration of these coloured people into Britain. It was the view of these conservatives and more radical right-wing nationalists that only through the strictest immigration policies could race relations be improved. In other words, Britain would no longer have a problem with race relations if no more coloured immigrants were allowed to further strain the system. Therefore, in 1962, the British government laissez-faire policy toward immigration ended with the passage of the Commonwealth Immigration Act. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech only further inflamed public resentment toward immigrants.

Today, the ultra right-wing British National Party (BNP) is on the rise as the threat of global terrorism has sparked new public fears about the effectiveness of immigration policies and the consequences of a multi-ethnic Britain. There is a growing disillusion of poor whites in many de-industrialised areas of Britain, which has resulted in campaigns against racial equality. 9

Responses to the rise in nationalist parties and racism came in the form of race relations acts. First enacted in 1965, the original Race Relations Act set up a race relations board to deal with the relatively new problem of racial tensions throughout the United Kingdom. The Act itself, however, did not go far enough to actually bring about any real changes in racial attitudes. The 1968 version of the Act still did not go so far as to carry any weight in enforcement.

In 1976 the Act was again updated and, according to Anthony Lester, an author specialising in human rights, “established a body of law, which was broad in scope and was unique in Europe. It is, however, drafted too technically, and contains unnecessary exceptions and limitations.” 10 This amendment to the Race Relations Act, however, did establish the CRE, “a publicly funded, non-governmental body set up to tackle racial discrimination and racial equality.” 11 Today the CRE is responsible for promoting and celebrating the benefits of multi-ethnicity in Britain as well as assisting in investigations against racial discrimination.

In 2000, the Race Relations Act was amended to provide further protection against discriminatory acts. According to the CRE, “The Race Relations Act of 1976, as amended by the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000 makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone on grounds of race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origin.” 12

One of the biggest obstacles of race relations policy and immigration policy is that their messages differ and oppose one another. While immigration controls give the message that coloured people should be kept out of Britain, race relations policy gives the message that they are welcome members of British society. To add to the strain of this inconsistency, Britain seems to be experiencing an identity crisis. As former General Secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Sarah Spencer argues,

Post-war immigration to Britain has, it appears, contributed to a national identity crisis. Having lost its imperial, military, economic and sporting prowess, Britain is no longer confident of its role and cultural identity. Some British, or more accurately, English people, doubting whether their culture is resilient enough to survive perceived dilution by other cultures, feel threatened by immigrants who may have different customs and values and do not, in Lord Tebbit’s terms, adopt England’s cricket team as their own. 13

This national identity crisis has called into question the very meaning of the word “Britishness.” What is Britishness? Clearly, the Irish, Scots and Welsh have strong national identities linked with their respective nations. But they do not necessarily consider themselves British. The English, on the other hand, are caught in the middle. Are they English? Are they British? And now, how do they cope with coloured people taking over their land and jobs and resources? Certainly then, the post-war wave of coloured immigration has led white Britons, mainly Englanders, to question their national identity.

Equally so, however, the national identity of the coloured immigrants has been called into question. Who and what are they? Is someone living in India in the early post-war years already British, being a member of the Commonwealth? Or does he become British only after immigrating to the British Isles? Terms such as black Briton or Asian Briton have come into use in our language. But, is there really a secure feeling of national identity for these first- and second-generation Britons from the former Empire nations?

The fact will remain that a single national identity for Britain is impossible to define. According to Spencer, “Identity implies a distinct, homogenous, common culture, marked by common values, shared understandings and loyalties…. Like individuals, a nation does not have one identity but many…. Nevertheless, the sense of national anxiety is real.” 14

On 10 October 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (MEB) called for the government to make a formal declaration that the UK is a multi-ethnic society. Basically, the government was being asked to rethink what it means to be British. The chairman of the MEB, Lord Bhiku Parekh, says such a declaration would be “a statement of who we are,” a way of saying to ethnic minorities and the world that the UK cherishes its diversity. 15

In September 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett set up a controversial “Britishness” test for would-be immigrants. He “mentioned two things in particular – forced marriages and genital mutilation – which he said were certainly not part of Britishness. But stating in any detail what are characters of Britishness is a challenging task.” 16

Immigration, therefore, has caused both white British resentment toward coloured people and sparked a national identity crisis. But why has this happened and what can the government do to correct these problems? Spencer argues that although current immigration policy and its presentation by government are damaging race relations, immigration controls certainly should not be withdrawn. After all, there are a limited number of resources available in Britain. It would not be economically possible to allow everyone to enter. The question is not, then, whether or not to control immigration, but rather, “what kind of immigration controls the UK should have and how to ensure that their impact on race relations is a positive one.” 17

The current UK immigration policies are stated in negative, defensive tones. In 1971, the Government released a statement: “Immigration law in this country has developed mainly as a series of responses to, and attempts to regulate, particular pressures rather than as a positive means of achieving preconceived social or economic gains.” 18 The problem is that no government since this time has attempted to redress this situation, which Spencer argues is necessary to improve race relations. Immigration laws must be positive and focus on the social and economic benefits that immigrants bring to British society, rather than negative and inconsistent with current race relations policy.

Strict immigration controls and its language have negatively affected race relations in Britain since the 1960s. New threats of international terrorism from abroad and asylum seekers have renewed the public’s cause for alarm. The small rise of the BNP in the last local elections has signalled that race relations in Britain are getting worse, not better. Clearly, the government must redress the issues of racism in Britain by reforming the language, goals, and presentation of immigration policies. Only through positively accepting immigrants of colour as beneficial to British society can Britain hope to move forward into more positive race relations and comfortably incorporate multi-ethnicity into a new national identity.

Image: HMT EMPIRE WINDRUSH © IWM (FL 9448) | Image Link


1. Letter to Clement Attlee signed by eleven Labour MPs, 22 June 1948, two days after the Empire Windrush had brought 417 Afro-Caribbean migrants to the UK. Cited in R. Skellington, ‘Race’ in Britain Today, London: Sage (1992), p.51.

2. D. Mason, Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, Oxford University Press (2000), p. 23.

3. ibid., p. 25.

4. All chronology and details of the Immigration Acts from D. Mason, pp. 26-28.

5. D. Mason, p. 28.

6. ibid., p. 26.

7. Phillips, Mike and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998.

8. A. Marwick, British Society Since 1945, London: Penguin Books (1990), p. 164.

9. Guest speaker, Head of External Affairs for the CRE, 15 April 2003.

10. A. Lester, “From legislation to integration,” Race Relations in Britain, Tessa Blackstone et al. (ed.), London: Routledge (1998), p. 25.

11. CRE: About the CRE,

12. CRE: Law: Race Relations Act,

13. S. Spencer, “The impact of immigration policy on race relations,” in Blackstone et al., p. 83. Lord Tebbit suggested that the ‘cricket test’ would determine Britishness. Immigrant communities should support England even when it was playing their country of origin. This was, according to Tebbit, “not a test of Britishness, but a test of integration” (BBC News).

14. Spencer, p. 84.

15. BBC News, “What is Britishness?” 11 October 2000,

16. BBC News, “What is Britishness anyway?” 10 September 2002,

17. Spencer, pp. 84-5.

18. ibid., p. 85.