Today many people are struck by the vast differences in English society and that as shown in old films and television programmes. Just watch an old Ealing comedy like Passport to Pimlico or a repeat of the original Avengers. You’ll notice that everyone is white. There is no actual consciousness of this fact, however. It is just taken as part of the natural order of things, ‘the way things are’ — or were.
Thirty or forty years later the situation has changed. England is now a multi-cultural and multi-racial society. This trend began, ironically enough , under the postwar premiership of Winston Churchill – a fervent racist and Anglo Saxon supremacist. The facts about Churchill are borne out in Andrew Roberts’ fascinating book, Eminent Churchillians.
As Roberts explains, in Churchill’s view, “Negroes were niggers or blackamoors, Arabs were worthless, Chinese were chinks or pigtails, Indians were babus and South African black tribes were Hottentots”. Only the Jews came out ahead in Churchill’s racial characterisations; he regarded them as the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.
So, how did Britain begin its transformation from a homogeneous European society into today’s ‘rainbow society’ when Churchill was in charge?
Roberts discounts the theories of a deliberate conspiracy to import a pool of cheap labour. He argues that it was not so much a policy as a lack of one which led to mass coloured immigration. It began owing to a loophole in the Attlee government’s British Nationality Act of 1948 which in the height of post-war enthusiasm for the ‘Commonwealth ideal’ — “a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of her post-imperial weakness” — granted ‘Commonwealth Citizenship’ to over 800 million people worldwide, with equivalent rights to those of British subjects. Every one of these people was in effect granted the right to settle in Britain.
The multi-racial society began with a trickle, when 492 West Indians arrived at Tilbury docks in June 1948. However, the new arrivals concentrated in largely working-class areas of London where they began to cause concern among trade unionists and natural Labour supporters. The first attempts to do something came in a letter to Prime Minister Clement Attlee from eleven Labour MPs who wrote that, “an influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life.” In 1950 the Labour Home Secretary set 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.” Nothing was considered necessary, as large-scale immigration was not thought likely.
Churchill returned to government in October 1951. Advice in 1952 from a welfare officer at the Colonial Office, that immediate steps be taken to forestall future problems, was ignored or downgraded by the new Tory government. During Churchill’s premiership the rate of immigration increased sharply. It increased from around 3,000 in 1953 to 11,000 in 1954 and 42,650 in 1955. In 1961, 136,400 arrived.
Roberts says that all of the former ministers in Churchill’s cabinet whom he interviewed regretted in hindsight that the 1948 loophole was not closed sooner.
The Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, said in 1952 that legislation would be needed to stop further immigration. No urgency was thought necessary, so a Civil Service working party was set up to look at the situation. The body took 13 months to report back to the Cabinet. In short, it told them what they already knew. Only legislation could halt further mass immigration. Manxwell-Fyfe argued that as there were only 40,000 odd coloured immigrants living in Britain there was no justification for antagonising liberal opinion by tightening the law. The Cabinet did realise that there would be social problems and white resentment if large numbers of immigrants did settle in Britain. However, they did not regard the problem as serious.
As Roberts points out, this was typical of the reactive politics of the paternalist liberal Tories of the Churchill and Eden governments. None of the Cabinet members who presided over the most significant change in Britain’s history had any idea of the real changes going on in urban working class areas. Most sat for rural constituencies and were far removed from the ‘front lines’.
Apart from the far-sighted Marquis of Salisbury, the only voices questioning the Churchill government’s lack of action came from within the Labour Party. The Swindon MP, Thomas Reid asked in June 1953 how many immigrants had settled in Britain since 1945. He was told by the Home Secretary that no figures were kept. A month later he was told that the Home Office had no powers to obtain such information.
A former Labour pensions minister, the Sheffield MP John Hynd, obtained the first parliamentary debate on the issue in November 1954. He complained that the government had no comprehension of the real scope of the problem. He expected to be fobbed off with remarks that everything was under review. He was.
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 heath record, habits, culture, education, need for them economically or otherwise, or of the wishes of the British people.” Lloyd George brushed this off by saying that he was “not yet able to make a statement”. The government continued to procrastinate, and lost all opportunity to restrict immigration and prevent what Churchill had feared, but done nothing about – a ‘magpie society’.
It is interesting to note that it was members of the Labour Party who most vociferously wanted something to be done. This, as Roberts notes, was not strange. Their natural areas of support, the working-class inner city areas, were settling-in large numbers of immigrants. Labour MPs were reflecting the growing white working-class resentment.
It was not until 1961 that the Macmillan government finally brought in the first restrictions on immigration – three years after the Notting Hill disturbances and long after the main changes had taken effect – but British society had changed forever. By this time, as Roberts pointed out, Labour under Hugh Gaitskell had embraced the liberal position and staged a strong campaign of opposition to any immigration controls. The reasons for this must be the subject of another study; Roberts does not speculate on it. Could it be that senior Labour politicians realised that the new arrivals who replaced the indigenous white working-class in the inner city constituencies had votes and could be persuaded to vote Labour?