Harold Wilson’s Labour government was the first to introduce legislation, the Race Relations Act 1965, to combat racial discrimination by making it illegal in such places as hotels and cinemas. It was brought in to challenge the 'colour bar' - the covert, but sometimes more open, practice of banning non-white people from using public services or entering public places. The Act also established a Race Relations Board, the name of which, probably unintentionally, implicitly acknowledged that racial identity and awareness are a fundamental attribute of people of all races and that this could give rise to potential conflict. A second Race Relations Act, in 1968, brought employment and housing within the scope of the law. At the same time further restrictions on immigration were introduced, the number of vouchers issued to prospective migrants was limited to 5,000 and the right of entry was removed from British passport holders whose parents or grandparents were born outside Britain.
These measures reflected the twin track approach of the political parties at the time, of trying to keep further migrants out but giving fair treatment to those already here. The policy implicitly reflected the political consensus of the mid sixties, that 'coloured immigration' (as it was then termed) was undesirable and needed to be firmly controlled. In 1965, Roy Hattersley future Labour Deputy Leader, justified support for immigration controls by saying: 'Without integration limitation is inexcusable; without limitation integration is impossible', thus openly endorsing the view that restricting numbers was good for race relations. He further claimed that 'social problems' could occur if immigration was not controlled and emphasised the need for integration, 'We must impose a test which tries to analyse which immigrants... are most likely to be assimilated into national life'. So three main strands marked this period, the need for the immigrants to assimilate, the imposition of supposedly ‘firm but fair' immigration controls implicitly designed to exclude non-whites and legislative measures aimed at outlawing racial discrimination.
So why were non-white people allowed into Britain in the first place? At the end of the last war, Britain was an almost completely racially homogenised country, since over 99.9% of its people were White European. There were small pockets of other races, mainly Chinese and West Indian, in some of the larger ports such as Liverpool, London and Cardiff, and tiny numbers scattered elsewhere. During the war many non-white colonial citizens and black Americans serving in the armed forces were stationed in Britain, but nearly all returned home after the end of hostilities. For most British people in the early post war years, meeting a person of a different race would have been a rare experience.
If young people then living in cities such as London, Leicester and Bradford had been told that by the time they reached retirement age over a third of their neighbours would be non-white people from India, the West Indies or Africa, they would have reacted with a combination of incredulity that such a situation could have been allowed to happen, and alarm for the future of their country and communities. If they had been further informed that such change brought considerable 'enrichment', 'diversity' and economic benefits to their localities they would have greeted such patently extraordinary views with indignation and incomprehension. If they had then been warned that to question the wisdom of allowing so many non-white immigrants into the country, would invite certain vilification, likely dismissal from their employment if they worked in the public sector, or even a risk of prosecution, they would have thought that the country was suffering from some kind of collective insanity. Yet now, as we all know, these events, and more, have come to pass. So it is worth examining how, often through the best of intentions, we got ourselves into this crazy, yet perilous situation.
The problem arose because of the recklessly broad legal definition of British citizenship in the British Nationality Act 1948, which included not only the white population of Britain, but also the hundreds of millions of people of many different races living within the various colonies that comprised the British Empire (or Commonwealth as it later became), all of whom had the right to enter and live in Britain. The start of mass third world migration into Britain began when the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948 with nearly 500 Jamaican men aboard looking for work. Discussions took place in Parliament on whether the men should be turned back, but the Colonial Secretary decided that they could land as long as they had British passports. He added that there were unlikely to be any problems as few of them would want to stay longer than a year anyway. This was just the first of many instances of self-delusion displayed by politicians on this subject.
Throughout the fifties there was a constant stream of new arrivals from the West Indies and the Indian sub continent. Their reasons for coming to Britain were wholly commendable as they sought to better themselves by moving to a country with low unemployment and a relatively high standard of living. Many only expected to stay for a few years and then return home when they had saved enough money. However, in the event, the vast majority stayed and were joined by their dependants, which helped swell the numbers. Although no criticism should be attached to the immigrants for seeking improved opportunities, nevertheless both the immigrants themselves and, more especially, the politicians of the time, can be criticised for not anticipating the consequences of this migratory trend.
Many of the immigrants believed they were coming to the 'mother country' where they would receive a warm welcome, a belief that may have been encouraged by the cult of Empire and later Commonwealth unity that was fostered by the royal family and the political establishment of the time. However, the new arrivals failed to anticipate a widespread characteristic of human nature, that large numbers of outsiders, particularly those who are clearly visibly different, are rarely welcomed into established communities. Although this outlook can be interpreted as uncharitable, and not one to be commended, it nevertheless is a trait that appears common to most, if not all, societies. By definition a community must exclude those people who do not belong to it, and it is for those within a community to decide whom to accept as one of themselves.
The first attempt by politicians to deal with the matter came as early as 1950 when eleven Labour MPs wrote to Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, informing him of their view that, 'an influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life.' The Home Secretary responded by setting up a cabinet committee to look at 'ways which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of coloured people from British colonial territories.' However, fatally establishing a trend of inaction that was to be followed by successive governments, nothing was done as large-scale immigration was thought to be unlikely.
The continuing inflow of non-white colonial citizens into Britain did not go unnoticed by the Conservatives when they came to power in 1951. Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed his concern and asked what could be done to tackle the problem. The Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, established a Civil Service working party which concluded that legislation would be needed to halt further immigration. However, Maxwell-Fyfe argued that 'as there were only 40,000 coloured immigrants living in Britain' there was insufficient justification for tightening the law. Although a draft immigration Bill was considered by the cabinet in 1954, the view was taken that political difficulties, particularly the fear of alienating Commonwealth and colonial leaders, outweighed the need to introduce such measures given the relatively little public interest shown in the subject. The Cabinet accepted that social problems and white resentment might arise if large numbers of immigrants did settle in Britain, but did not consider the issue to be then sufficiently serious to warrant taking the necessary legislative action. Meanwhile the numbers coming in continued to grow, estimated at 3,000 in 1953 and no less than 42,000 in 1955.
Most of the parliamentary voices questioning the Churchill government's lack of action came from within the Labour Party. For example, the Swindon MP, Thomas Reid asked in June 1953 how many immigrants had settled in Britain since 1945. He was told that no figures were kept and that the Home Office had no powers to obtain such information. The Conservative cabinet appeared to have little idea of the considerable changes that were taking place in some urban working class areas, since most Tory MPs sat for constituencies far removed from the problem. In December 1954, Reid asked the new Home Secretary, Gwilym Lloyd George, if he would introduce legislation giving the government 'control over the immigration to this overcrowded island, of aliens, and citizens of British Dominions and Dependencies, of whom the latter can now enter regardless of their health record, habits, culture, education, need for them economically or otherwise, or of the wishes of the British people' Lloyd George dismissed his concerns by airily claiming that he was 'not yet able to make a statement'.
The government continued to procrastinate and failed to grasp the nettle by introducing measures to end further immigration to prevent what Churchill had termed a 'magpie society'. At this time it was Labour MPs who most urgently wanted the matter to be addressed, unsurprisingly since their natural areas of support, the working-class inner city districts, were beginning to be transformed by large numbers of immigrants. Labour MPs representing such constituencies reflected the growing resentment of their white working class constituents at this unexpected and unwelcome change in their communities, a development over which they had no control. Trade unions leaders also raised fears that the new immigrants would form a cheap source of labour undercutting their members’ wages or even displacing them altogether. However, the position of the Labour Party and the trade unions on immigration was soon to change radically.
Until the end of the fifties the issue of Commonwealth immigration received relatively little publicity. This was to change with the Notting Hill riots in August 1958 which brought the subject centre stage and into the national spotlight. These riots took place over five nights and appeared to have been instigated largely by white 'teddy boys' provoking local black residents. However, the clashes brought home to an alarmed British public just how easily racial conflict could spread in Britain, as had happened in some US cities. As a consequence of the riots the government came under increased public pressure to end the 'open door' policy on Commonwealth immigration and to introduce controls.
However, some large employers, such as the NHS and London Transport had, by then, started to actively recruit immigrant workers because of the difficulty they were experiencing in filling low paid jobs. Faced with this situation the best response would have been to either improve efficiency or raise wages. But these employers, both private and public, for their own self-interested and short–term reasons, chose instead to keep their costs down by exploiting this new cheap source of labour. Consequently the indigenous workers in areas were immigrants had settled lost out twice, they saw their communities transformed, and their income kept low due to the increased competition from the new arrivals. The politically correct class often try to argue that third world immigration is necessary because it allows jobs to be filled that white people are not prepared to do themselves. This is nonsense since, in areas where few immigrants have settled, the indigenous population still do these jobs as they have always done. The immigrants came of their own volition, aided and encouraged by some employers for their own ends, whilst successive governments failed to foresee the consequences.
However, increasing public concern caused both by the riots and by the sharp increase in the rate of arrivals, eventually convinced the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan to take some action. The result was the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962 which required all Commonwealth citizens seeking employment in Britain to apply for a work voucher, the intention being to control the numbers of unskilled workers. Unfortunately, the new legislation was clearly too little, too late, and failed to tackle either the scale or nature of the problem. However, it did at least establish the principle of non-white immigration control and as result was denounced by Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour opposition leader, as 'miserable, shameful and shabby' and who promised to repeal it when Labour came to power. Gaitskell had previously declared in 1961 'The Labour Party is opposed to the restriction of immigration as every Commonwealth citizen has the right as a British subject to enter the country at will.'
However, his successor Harold Wilson, far from reversing the Act, instead tightened its provisions. In the 1964 general election the Labour candidate for Wandsworth Central issued a leaflet correctly reminding voters that the 'Tory Immigration Act has failed…immigrants of all colours and races continue to arrive here.' Wilson must have felt that his decision to reverse Labour policy was vindicated by the success of the Conservative candidate in the Smethwick constituency, Peter Griffith, who won the seat from Labour in the general election, against the national trend, by mounting a strong personal campaign against immigration. Wilson denounced Griffith as a 'parliamentary leper', with some justification, as his campaign literature included clearly offensive material. Nevertheless, Griffith’s success plainly showed that Labour’s earlier policy of supporting open-ended immigration was unpopular with many working class supporters. As leading left winger Richard Crossman recorded in his diary: 'Ever since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote loser for the Labour Party, if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come and blight the central areas of our cities.' However, instead of taking firm action to control the growth of the non-white population Governments would start to vilify those who warned of the consequences.