‘The British race will, to the end of time, remain profoundly proud of the glorious achievements of the old British Empire.’ So said the Conservative politician Duncan Sandys in 1962. He added that he was equally proud of having converted the empire ‘peacefully and amicably into the new independent Commonwealth – a development without parallel in history’. At the time, many people in Britain, including millions who were not Tories, believed that. Some still do. The myth persists that decolonisation after 1945 was a dignified, planned process. Its advance may have been jostled by the impatience of half-educated agitators, but the empire’s intention had always been to lead all its territories and races towards ‘responsible self-government’ and – conceivably – to independence.
Such nonsense! It’s still humiliating that anyone accepted that bedtime story. As Ian Patel writes in We’re Here because You Were There, decolonisation ‘was from a British perspective uncontrollable, unwanted and unexpected. Direct imperial rule was dissolved largely in two currents of anti-colonial nationalism in Asia in the 1940s and in Africa in the 1960s.’ Speaking as one who spent his National Service trying to kill Malayan challengers to the queen’s dominion, I would remind Patel how much violence and counter-violence was unleashed before those nationalisms achieved their ends: riots and strikes often put down by gunfire, guerrilla uprisings, the murder of white settlers, the deportation and resettlement of whole populations, atrocities committed by colonial police forces.
Patel’s point is that visions of the British Empire, insofar as they became coherent in the 19th century, were as white as an Anglican surplice. They projected a loose but immense confederation of white Anglophone races, centred on the mother country but dominating the globe. Although Canada, Australia and New Zealand would be at the core, this ‘third British Empire’ would extend wherever British – that is, white – settlers could establish control. Such ideas had to edge round two problems. One was the defiant existence of the republican and anti-colonial United States. The second, obvious well before the British acquired half the population of Africa, was the Raj: the non-Anglo-Saxon, non-white millions of India. J.R. Seeley, author of The Expansion of England (1883), was an early prophet of the English world empire. He thought that a modest admixture of ‘Caffres and Maoris’ would not seriously mar its unity, just as he believed that minorities speaking Celtic languages ‘utterly unintelligible to us’ did not mar the ethnic Englishness of the United Kingdom. But he saw that India simply wouldn’t fit into his Anglosphere, and he never found an answer to that.
Self-governing ‘dominions’ emerged from the muddle of imperial possessions to form the Commonwealth of Nations (the word ‘British’ was dropped from the name in 1949), which later came to include almost all the colonies, protectorates and overseas dependencies that had been under the Union Jack. The confluence between colonialism and immigration – the theme of Patel’s book – was initially a joining of two currents of displacement. The first was the torrent of British emigrants moving to the empire. A 1901 survey found that nearly three million ‘natives of the United Kingdom’ were settled in empire countries, almost all of them in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This white outflow, welcomed enthusiastically by dominion governments, paused only temporarily during the world wars. The second torrent, well highlighted by Patel, was the great shift of populations within the empire, a process paralleled in the tropical possessions of France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany. As the African slave trade ended, ‘free’ or indentured labour was imported to exploit colonial resources and build infrastructure. Chinese workers and their families poured into Malaya to operate its tin mines and rubber estates; Indians were recruited to work on Caribbean plantations and then moved into East Africa as the British pushed their way up from the coast towards Lake Victoria and the sources of the Nile.
Initially, these huge population transfers were managed by colonial authorities. But it was not long before white settler minorities, especially in South Africa, began to protest at the arrival of an ever increasing number of supposedly threatening and non-white immigrants and their families. Racist legislation to block ‘coloured immigration’ was passed in Australia in 1855, when the colonial government of Victoria tried to stem the inflow of Chinese workers heading for the goldfields (it was futile: four years later the Chinese population had risen to nearly forty thousand). British Columbia passed a Chinese Regulation Act in 1884, directed against imported labour. In South Africa, a Colonial Patriotic Union was formed in Natal in 1896 to resist further ‘Asiatic’ (meaning Indian) immigration; the young Gandhi found himself classified as a ‘coolie lawyer’. In Kenya Colony, white settlers threatened armed violence if no limits were set to the influx of Indians, who were soon providing not only manual labour but almost the whole retail and services sector in East Africa.
Britain’s earliest immigration controls were not concerned with Africa or India. The 1905 Aliens Act was aimed at arrivals from the Russian Empire, especially ‘undesirable’ and ‘diseased’ Jews. It was not until the 1930s that the gathering independence movement persuaded Westminster to offer non-white India ‘dominion status’. This, as Patel points out, upset the ‘racial hierarchy’ which had distinguished the Commonwealth from the British Empire. In 1949, independent India became a republic, destroying ‘allegiance to the crown’ as a condition of Commonwealth membership. Attacks on the British colonial system had been building up not only within the empire but internationally, growing more strident as Britain exploited the manpower and natural resources of the empire during the Second World War. But the idea of importing colonial labour into metropolitan Britain, let alone the fear of uncontrolled and voluntary ‘coloured immigration’, had scarcely entered the establishment mind.
It was the lack of that anxiety which made possible what Patel calls ‘one of the more astonishing pieces of legislation ever passed by a British Parliament’: the 1948 British Nationality Act. It ‘converted the status of all those who had previously been British subjects into the new status of “citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies” … One historian estimates that the 1948 Act granted no less than 600 million people across the globe full rights to move to and live in Britain.’ Nobody in government seems to have wondered how many people might use those rights. James Chuter Ede, the Labour home secretary, merely observed that ‘we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be regarded as men and brothers of the people in this country.’
How about ‘as women and sisters’? Until 1948 a British woman (not a man) who married a foreigner automatically lost her nationality and passport. The act immediately and retrospectively corrected that. (Though Patel does not go into this, the urgency came from the plight of the many young women, largely Scottish, who had married Polish soldiers during or after the war and had returned with them to Poland. A few years later, the onset of Stalinism brought the arrest of their husbands as ‘imperialist agents’, and stranded many of them in the peasant countryside, often with no money, young children and only a few words of Polish, harassed by the secret police and deprived of any right to ask the British Embassy for help. The Nationality Act rescued them, licensing British diplomats to drive about Poland distributing bundles of fresh passports.) The official purpose of the act was to elevate and refresh the lofty image of a powerful, global and united British Commonwealth and Empire: what the young queen in 1953 would call ‘an equal partnership of nations and races … a worldwide fellowship of nations of a type never seen before’. The words were hopeful and unreal, much like the Nationality Act itself. As Patel’s book acidly shows, British governments would spend the next forty years floundering in hypocrisy as they tried to find ways to get round the act, while pretending that they still held to its promise of a global, generous and overarching British citizenship. The Westminster problem, put crudely, was this: how can we let the whites into Britain and keep the blacks and browns out, without collapsing the Commonwealth and violating international rules against racism?
The Empire Windrush, bringing eight hundred Caribbean passengers to Britain, docked at Tilbury on 21 June 1948, while the act was still going through Parliament. Here again, myth has fogged up the truth. It’s vaguely believed that Britain deliberately recruited Jamaicans to relieve the desperate postwar labour shortage. But the opposite was true. Although one London paper flew out a photographer to meet the ship (‘Evening Standard plane greets the 400 [sic] Sons of Empire’), the Labour government was appalled. Yet it could see no legal way to stop the immigrants landing and settling in Britain. Workers were being recruited from Europe, not least from among the 130,000 Polish servicemen now being demobilised and from German and Italian ex-prisoners of war, but shipping in ‘coloured’ immigrants from the colonial empire was out of the question. In fact, the Windrush had only put in at Kingston, Jamaica, because it was half-empty, and the captain – hoping to cut his losses – had put an advertisement in the local paper offering berths to London. The passengers were not illiterate labourers, but workers able to pay their own fares (£48 cabin class, £28 on the troop deck).
The immigrant flow widened and persisted. By the end of the 1950s, there were 210,000 ‘non-whites’ living in Britain, 115,000 of them West Indian. Occasional race riots were nothing new in England, but in 1958 the fury of white mobs over five days and nights in Notting Hill and Nottingham seriously alarmed the authorities. The Economist wrote that ‘the liberal line – uncontrolled immigration – can be held for a few more years, but not indefinitely.’ That same year the immigration figures from South Asia began to rise ‘exponentially’, making the ‘Paki’ a target of racial abuse and prejudice.
Something had to be done. Under Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, the devious Rab Butler was tasked with preparing a Commonwealth Immigration Act. The universal right of entry under the 1948 act was now restricted to people who were seen to ‘belong’, through birth in the UK or through holding a passport issued to ‘a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ by a British authority, not a colonial or dominion one. Butler told his colleagues that the 1962 act’s ‘aim is primarily social and its restrictive effect is intended to, and would, in fact, operate on coloured people almost exclusively’. It was followed by legislation designed to make sure that white settlers from Rhodesia or Kenya could keep their ‘unfettered’ right of entry.
Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian activist who founded Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, called the 1962 act a ‘colour-bar’ law which imposed ‘second-class citizenship … at a time when apartheid and racialism is under attack throughout the world’. The act wasn’t very effective: families were allowed to join immigrants who had already arrived, and the leakiness of the ‘employment voucher’ system meant that, according to one estimate, ‘between 30,000 and 50,000 African-Caribbean or South Asian people entered Britain per year between 1963 and 1989 (with the two exceptions of 1972 and 1984).’ Anti-immigrant feeling continued to simmer and the Times chuntered on about ‘the dark million’. In the late 1960s Enoch Powell began his fanatical campaigning and seemed to attract mass support. Pressure for new, even tighter immigration legislation was building up.
It was now, a few years after Kenyan independence in 1963, that the British government became reluctantly aware of the Kenyan Asian crisis. Something like a hundred thousand Kenyan Asians had preferred to remain British citizens under the terms of the 1948 act rather than take up Kenyan citizenship, and their passports, issued by the British High Commission in Nairobi, preserved their automatic right of entry to Britain. As Patel explains, this loophole had been kept open to reassure the white settler minority that they could still come and go as if nothing had changed. Kenyan Asians were not meant to be included, but there seemed to be no decent or legal way of keeping them out. The British authorities simply had to hope that few of them would want to move to the UK.
Throughout East Africa, the African population resented the South Asian minorities, perceiving them as an integral and exploitative part of the colonial system. It had long been obvious that they would stand or fall with that system, which had brought them to the continent only a few generations earlier, and that majority rule would uproot their social and economic position – if nothing worse. In Kenya, Africanisation began immediately, and new residence permits were refused to Asians whose presence was not ‘of benefit to Kenya’. A flow of emigration to Britain began (bringing with it Patel’s own father and his Gujarati grandparents). At first the figures were modest. But in 1967 – as well-founded rumours spread that the Labour government was preparing to shut the free-entry loophole – the flow thickened into a panic-stricken torrent, until by February 1968 almost two dozen flights a day were leaving Nairobi for London, bringing five thousand people a week. Patel quotes the Indian writer Dom Moraes:
Daily they came in their hundreds, a brown tide scumbling over London Airport … They came with trunks and baskets, pathetic sacks tied with rope, satchels, cardboard cartons and all the goods they could carry. Gratefully they stepped onto British soil, glad … that they had reached a place they could call home. They were astonished to be confronted by a prolonged roar of fury from the British population.
The reason for the rush was the imminent 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, described by the then head of the Commonwealth Office, Michael Purcell, as ‘a complete botch and a really classic piece of Home Office sophistry’. Free entry was now restricted to those who had been born or naturalised in Britain, or had a parent or grandparent with that qualification. The act violated provisions of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Absurdly, it denied thousands of individuals the right to enter the country of which they were a citizen. It rendered most Kenyan Asians effectively stateless, and provoked Indira Gandhi to consider taking India out of the Commonwealth. Like the rest of the world, she now saw British colonial and immigration policy as ‘unashamedly racist’.
The Conservative attempt in the 1950s to construct a Central African Federation controlled by white Rhodesians had collapsed when black Nyasaland – the future Malawi – rose in rebellion. But even after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Britain continued to arm South Africa and obstruct international action against apartheid. Two fantasies of greatness were in conflict: the outworn vision of a global British ‘family’ radiating from the mother country, and the idea of the Commonwealth as a mighty moral example, showing the races of the world how to live in peace and unity. Both fantasies shared the belief that Great Britain was not an ordinary nation but – even in the post-imperial period – one summoned to follow a messianic destiny.
One day in August 1967, a yacht anchored off a quiet beach near Sandwich in Kent and offered a preview of the distant future. Eight men came ashore in a dinghy. A woman watching noticed that they were ‘coloured’ and rang the police, who came and arrested them. ‘Long live Queen Elizabeth! We like your queen!’ one of the men said hopefully. It was no good. They were all taken to prison and then flown back to Pakistan. In those days, it turned out, you were entitled to remain in Britain if you could escape detection for 24 hours. The 1968 act put a stop to that. This was pretty much its only achievement, and it was replaced in 1971 by yet another Immigration Act, which this time introduced the ominous term ‘patrial’.
Britain became a member of the European Economic Community on the day the 1971 act passed into law. The European millions were soon free to enter the UK and find work there, while people arriving from the Commonwealth had to prove ‘right of abode’ through ‘patrial’ ancestry in the UK, register with the police and remain subject to deportation by the home secretary. Patel calls patriality ‘the most bald-faced attempt yet to make British citizenship a two-tier system based indirectly on race and attachment to the soil of Britain itself’. He goes on to suggest that ‘the 1971 act represents the ultimate source of today’s “hostile environment” for immigrants.’ The patrial concept ‘was transparently designed to favour those with ancestral ties to Britain’; Robert Carr, the Tory home secretary, told his officials that it was politically essential that ‘our family ties with people in Australia, New Zealand and Canada should be given special recognition.’ The British Nationality Act of 1981 caught up with reality by defining ‘British citizenship’ geographically for the first time, in relation to the British Isles, and dropping the pretence of a surviving imperial or supranational identity.
By then, Britain had discovered a different way of tackling a sudden immigration crisis. In Uganda, Idi Amin had seized power in January 1971 and – following the instructions he’d been given in a dream – set about the violent expulsion of non-Africans. Uganda, fertile and tropical, had very few white settlers but a population of eighty thousand South Asians. Some were technically British citizens under the old rules, but since Uganda had been a protectorate rather than a colony, others were ‘British protected persons’ with no automatic right of entry to the UK. Britain’s response to this emergency was instant and unexpected:
By contrast to Harold Wilson’s government in 1967, Edward Heath’s ministers almost immediately publicly accepted their responsibility for Ugandan South Asians … This was a noteworthy decision, not least because public support in Britain for non-white immigration was extremely low. An August poll recorded that only 6 per cent of respondents believed that Britain should accept ‘Uganda Asians with British passports’.
The Heath government ‘decided to frame the event not simply as an expulsion of those carrying British nationality, but as a humanitarian and refugee emergency. This was a deft, if perhaps transparent, act of political imagination.’ By defining the Uganda Asians as refugees rather than arguably British immigrants, Britain could call on nations far beyond the Commonwealth and on international bodies (such as the UN High Commission for Refugees) to share the burden and take in some of Amin’s victims.
‘By April 1974,’ Patel writes, ‘Britain had admitted over 100,000 East African South Asian British citizens and British protected persons during the preceding nine years.’ They faced sullen racial prejudice, which diluted only gradually after the 1981 Nationality Act narrowed the scope for ‘coloured immigration’ and as xenophobia was manipulated to focus instead on white newcomers from the European Union. But Patel senses that dregs of the old imperial narcotic are still swilling around in the bilges of the British state. The debates around Brexit, for instance,
betrayed a faith that Britain might effortlessly restore its Commonwealth links … Euphemisms for colonialism inevitably followed … the hostile environment created by the 1971 Immigration Act has become a rationale for the British state that is every bit as immovable as the refusal to examine its imperial past … Dreams of an imperial Commonwealth, and simultaneously the maintenance of a hostile environment for migrants, appear to live on without apparent contradiction.
It’s not too much to say that Patel’s book – with its wonderful title – has opened a new perspective on Britain’s imperial past. By analysing the contortions of governments seeking to suppress non-white immigration while at the same time professing the majesty of a universal and non-racial Commonwealth, Patel shows how shallow the empire’s roots were in the British popular imagination. Imperial triumphs, the feats of whiskered generals in desert or jungle, were celebrated like football wins. But apart from the upper crust and the military caste, few felt much identification with the empire’s self-myth – and least of all with its ‘coloured’ inhabitants. Some of us remember intoxicated French crowds in the 1950s bellowing: ‘Tous français de Dunkerque à Tamanrasset!’ Who could imagine an English crowd roaring: ‘All Brits, from Aberdeen to Kuala Lumpur’? Unlike the French, the British never pretended that a non-white colony could be transformed into an overseas district of the metropole.
Another virtue of this book is its insistence on the importance of Indian influence on British policy as the empire dissolved. From 1945 on, Jawaharlal Nehru and his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit used the platform of the United Nations to attack apartheid and British support for the South African regime, and to persuade the majority of Commonwealth countries to condemn the covert racism of successive British immigration laws. Later, Indira Gandhi would resist British pleas to accept more Indians fleeing East Africa unless she was assured that they would eventually be allowed to settle in the UK. It soon became clear to British governments that the Commonwealth – now transforming itself into a league of testy postcolonial nations – would not survive if India chose to scuttle it.
Patel’s survey has gaps. Concentrating on East Africa, he has little to say about older immigration from the subcontinent to the North of England, or the Bangladeshi settlement in East London. He might also have analysed the way the Cold War threat was shamelessly exploited by Britain and other European powers to prolong their colonial empires. But nobody has produced a more astute obituary of ‘a progressive British idealism that believed itself uniquely gifted in world governance, including the governance of race … British officials believed that the Commonwealth empire was the only entity that could progressively solve the problem of race in the world.’ Today, it’s the right of asylum rather than the right of citizenship that is being twisted and cut back by the Nationality and Borders Bill now going through Parliament. The ‘illegal migrants’ staggering onto the Kent and Sussex shingle seldom come from Britain’s lost imperium. But they aren’t white. As Patel writes, ‘in the struggle between imperial idealism and a reactionary nativism … it is a British nativism that has recently made its hostility the more loudly known.’