Skip to main content

History offers Britain an important lesson on shutting down immigration

Updated Wednesday, 1st August 2018
Britain’s struggle to come to terms with immigration is starting to look like a case of history repeating itself argues Dr Tendayi Bloom and Dr Katherine Tonkiss.

Immigration on map Immigration was at the centre of the EU referendum debate

The rate of hate crimes reported in the UK has rocketed since the country voted to leave the European Union in June, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

In 2013 we published research on the parallels between British discontent about migration in the 2010s and in the late 1960s – a moment perhaps best known for the end of Commonwealth free movement and Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.

Following the referendum, our findings have taken on a greater resonance. Britain’s struggle to come to terms with immigration is starting to look like a case of history repeating itself.

Both in the 1960s and now, the UK encouraged immigration, failed to manage it properly and then tried to deconstruct free movement arrangements. The question now has to be, where does the UK go from here? And there are some important clues in history.

The Commonwealth Immigrants Act

In the 1940s and 1950s, migration from Commonwealth countries helped efforts to rebuild the UK after World War II and to bolster Britain’s depleted workforce.

In 1948 the UK and Colonies citizenship was created. Accordingly, every citizen of the Commonwealth had the right to reside in the UK. Estimates suggest this could have meant as many as 800 million people.

There were arrivals from all over the Commonwealth. But host communities were not offered enough by way of assistance to integrate the new arrivals. The anti-immigrant feeling spread, as did racism towards ethnic minorities in the UK. In 1967, the National Front was created specifically in opposition to non-white immigration into the UK.

Then, in February 1968 the Commonwealth Immigrants Act introduced the rule that entry would be restricted to people who at least had a grandparent born or naturalised in the UK. Many millions of people suddenly found themselves shut out.

Commonwealth Day Flags Flags of Commonwealth member states hang in Parliament Square on Commonwealth Day (2012)

The road to Brexit

Fast forward more than three decades and European immigration increased – particularly in the years after the EU expanded towards the east to include former Communist states in 2004 and 2007.

At the time, there was a surge of opposition to immigration. Yet, once again, there was little debate among mainstream politicians about the social support that might be needed to make the change work. This left space for the growth of radical parties such as the British National Party and the more recently formed UK Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP was founded in 1991 to oppose the Maastricht Treaty but became more visible in 2004, when it began speaking out more loudly about migration from Europe. That year, it won 12 seats in the European parliamentary elections. It went from strength to strength following local elections and ultimately played a central role in securing a pro-Brexit result in 2016.

Just as in the 1960s, when anti-immigrant sentiment coincided with negativity towards other minorities in the UK, in recent years the mobilisation against EU immigrants has also coincided with anti-refugee sentiment and increased attacks on British Muslims.

Echoes of the past

In our comparative analysis, we found that blame for the problems and challenges often associated with immigration came to be framed in terms of racialised difference.

In the case of Commonwealth migrants, this was framed in terms of skin colour (and accent), whereas for EU migrants, language (and accent) has acted as an ethnic marker. The language barrier has been used to legitimise wider discrimination without it being immediately recognised as racism. Problems integrating European arrivals are blamed on language skills rather than any number of more complex issues.

Class also played a significant role in both cases, and has been mobilised in the rhetoric of radical groups such as UKIP. These parties have focused on the notion that mainstream politics has failed to address the concerns of British-born, working class people. They over-simplify a complex constellation of class, race and the effects of austerity measures. Successive governments have made large-scale cuts to public services in an effort to reduce spending, alongside blaming Eastern European migrants in low-paid work for overburdening services and taking away jobs.

Critically in our research, we also found how these dynamics are bound up with local-level concerns about the impact of immigration. In the absence of a willingness from central government to properly fund and support local communities to meet the needs of changing populations, or to challenge the scapegoating of migrants, in both cases hostilities grew and were ripe for exploitation by racist politics.

We found mainstream politicians mainly sought to maximise the economic potential of free movement while ignoring the social implications. They tended to ignore the potential for ruthless employers to exploit migrants and for racist parties to exploit local concerns.

Both the 1968 Act and the Brexit referendum result arose within a climate of frustration and debate about Britain’s changing position in the world. In the 1960s, Britain was coming to terms with its loss of colonial power and its changing place in the Modern Commonwealth. The 1960s saw a move from a Commonwealth-focused Britain to one which looked more towards Europe. Now we are seeing a Britain that is again changing its position globally.

Stand against racism protest Supporters of the Calais "Jungle" Refugee Camp

After Brexit

In both cases, too, the end of participation in one system of free movement was followed by talks about participation in another. For the Commonwealth, this related to European free movement which was eventually implemented in 1992. Today, as soon as Brexit was announced, talk began of free movement deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The ConversationWhoever the people moving are, the issues will be similar. What we are seeing now is unlikely to be the end of British participation in a free movement agreement of some form. It is certainly not the end of substantial immigration into the UK and emigration from it. And that is no bad thing. But history has shown us that the economic benefits need to be shared, and at the very least, adequate provision needs to be made in order to welcome new arrivals into local communities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Understanding Brexit


Become an OU student


Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?