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Immigration to Britain in the 20th Century

Updated on September 15, 2013

After the Second World War came the end of the British Empire and the subsequent decolonisation of many British colonies. The Empire was transformed into the Commonwealth, and until the foundation of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, citizens of the Commonwealth could freely migrate to Britain. This possibility was accompanied by the migration of thousands and thousands of people, therefore holding many consequences on society in Britain thereafter.

The impact of this migration was sincere, as it created a different society in Britain. With overwhelming numbers of foreigners, native Britons were forced to live with and respect the migrants. This took a long amount of time, and therefore put Britain to a test, as many political movements, strikes and demonstrations were out into practice against immigrants. Coexistence was not peaceful at first, as immigration was a major issue and it proved to be important in the respect that it tested the will and the acceptance of British people towards immigrants. For the most part, discrimination was turning into aggression despite some attempts to peacefully welcome the arriving immigrants, like in 1961 when London university students tried to set an example by showing goodwill and welcoming immigrants. They were forced to take such action as a lot of tension was created, subsequent to the arrival of a high number of immigrants, and they made an attempt at improving a difficult situation.

By 1961, over 130000 immigrants were entering Britain every year and with the natural decline of the post-war boom, immigrants were beginning to take the blame for the gradually increasing amounts of unemployment. Numerous scandals erupted within the political community of Britain, and many laws limiting immigration were forced to be put in place. After the approval of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, further action was taken such as the Race Relations Act of 1965 and 1968, and the Immigration Act of 1971. These acts generally were a response to the problems that immigration caused within Britain; they made the conditions for entry in Britain stricter and stricter, limiting the numbers of incoming immigrants. By 1971, Britain possessed one of the toughest immigration controls in the entire world which proves that immigration had an important impact on Britain as it manoeuvred politics and forced such reforms.

Moreover, the subject of immigration was important in the respect that it created, or even developed some political ideas. A certain number of native people from Britain did not appreciate the presence of foreigners; some believed that they were stealing their jobs, and taking their places in society when they were not "true British citizens". Such feelings increased the popularity of the National Front and the Union Movement founded by Oswald Mosley in 1948. Immigration was important in the way that it changed British people's attitude and way of thinking; in 1959 Mosley was even a candidate for the election. He was not elected, but a surprising total of 8.1% of electors voted for him, proving that British mentality had swayed. The Union Movement ran an intense campaign battling against immigration, and his success of mustering 8.1% of the vote proved the increase of white extremism. Equally, Enoch Powell later continued to act against immigrants and in 1968, he suggested repatriating all Commonwealth immigrants, and despite his dismissal, his views attracted the attention of many people who shared and supported his views, creating political tension.

Finally, immigration was the main cause of a British, multi cultural society. Through many problems, Britain had learnt to adapt and evolve. With this development, British society evolved and multiculturalism was born. New cultures emerged and were integrated to the society. Immigration consequently enriched British society.

The famous Indian artist, Balraj Khanna
The famous Indian artist, Balraj Khanna

A more equal society?

Despite the racial conflicts that arose in response to the soaring immigration after 1945, one may notice that British society eventually evolved, for better or worse. It adapted from the war years, possessing a purely British society, to contemporary years with a modern multicultural society. It would be possible to discuss whether Britain became a more equal society from 1945 to 2000 by studying the impact of immigration on Britain, and the eventual and partial acceptance of immigrants to create a multicultural society.

To come to the conclusion that by 2000 Britain possessed an equal society, it is necessary to highlight that from 1945 until 1970 there was a certain level of inequality and discrimination. Several accounts of people residing in Britain explain how certain attitudes towards foreigners were very negative, with a Flight Sergeant at an RAF base proposing for Britons to "kill a wog a day". The thoughts and feelings recorded by some of the immigrants equally show their point of view, showing how they felt in response to the offensive attitudes of certain native Britons. An Indian painter, Balraj Khanna, famously stated that he cried at night, due to the poor conditions that he was forced to live with. Immigrants lived in the poorest, smallest homes in the worst areas from 1945-1970. Therefore, we notice a great level of inequality as the newly arrived immigrants faced worse conditions and the rest of the population. If they had jobs, they had the worst pay, and they possessed the worst homes. Even until 2000, the unemployment rates of foreigners were always superior so those of white, native Britons; shown by the Scarman report.

However, after Powell and the strong times of the National Front and the Union Movement, the acceptance and integration of foreigners was slowly beginning. By 1975, it was as Roy Jenkins had described racial integration; he believed it to be "equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity" that was tolerated. The immigrants were slowly but successfully beginning to be assimilated by the time that the second generation of immigrants were living in Britain. In general by 1975, the youth was adapting to the immigrant cultures whilst the second generation of immigrants were adapting to British culture, since it was the only culture that they truly knew. People were beginning to be accepted, and racism was decreasing. The children of the first generation of immigrants often felt British, or wished to feel British, which shows that they were allowed to be assimilated to the society, and they felt that they effectively were being assimilated. Furthermore, to counter the fact that foreigners were living in the worst conditions, by 1976 when the second generation of immigrants was born, Mark Bonham-Carter, Chairman of the Racial Community Relations Committee fought for equality amongst all Britons, stating that Britons black community should have “equality of opportunity”. The mentality for an equal society was there, and the reality was slowly coming into place with the Race Relations Act of 1976 which made racism an offence, and generally made discrimination unlawful in society.

Thereafter, after acknowledging that assimilation was taking place, we may explore the effects and consequences of this assimilation. Logically, a nation that would possess numerous cultures would be enriched, and this was the case. An example that would explain the successful assimilation of immigrants resulting in a successful event would be the Nottinghill Festival. People of different origins take part, socially and artistically, and since it's creating in 1965, the festival has been a success, with people enjoying each other’s company and talents no matter from what origin they may be. This proved to be an example of mutual tolerance for it was a festival where people from different backgrounds cooperated, which would reinforce the fact that society was gradually becoming more equal.

Through the progressive establishment of an equal society from 1975 onwards, culture spread through the country and Britain was enriched in different ways. New sports emerged, and older sports were further developed with the acquisition of new people to put them to practice. Unlike in the 1950s, foreigners were not being targeted or threatened. As the assimilation progressed foreigners became, at first, a matter of importance as they enhanced literature and cuisine. A radio programme called Caribbean Voices emerged, having the goal of promoting foreign writers. Not only did it strengthen the literary influence of foreign writers, it ran until 1991, which proves that the British society was slowly accepting the immigrants and their different cultures; this proves that a multicultural society was being developed and British society was becoming more equal than it was before. Culture was also bolstered though a different form; by the cuisine. The example of British cuisine is fundamental in showing an assimilation of immigrants of Asian origin; by 1970 over 30% of people who ate in restaurants regularly went to Chinese restaurants. Finally, it is important that even in the religious aspect; immigrants were tolerated and even respected in some cases. Their religious beliefs even helped British society to become more equal, as the numerous religions that emerged helped in slightly decreasing the impact of Christianity in Britain, therefore minimising the difference between the home religion and other religions.

In conclusion, it would be fair to say that in the period of 1945-2000, Britain had become a much more equal society than before; within British society were people coming from numerous countries and a mutual tolerance was setting down upon the society. Even though racism continued to be frequent, many people were often surprised at how quickly and how effectively integration was being achieved.


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