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D. Dean, ‘Coping with Colonial Immigration, the Cold War and Colonial Policy: the Labour Government and black communities in Great Britain, 1945-51’ Immigrants & Minorities 6:3 (1987)

The article argues that the Labour government took little action to cope with large scale migration from the Empire and that there was a lack of sympathy and understanding for the isolated black residential communities which were almost totally regarded as havens for unemployed black men, unruly white women and mixed race children in the seaports that had been living in poor conditions with no recognition for nearly a century. These areas were remote and distinct from the rest of the nation due to race riots, poor social conditions and the depression. After the war with the creation of the Welfare State, a narrow-minded British society were keen to reserve these benefits for the deserving and it was believed that boundaries were to be put in place for who should receive them. Therefore, West Indians and West Africans were generally unwelcome as they were arriving in Britain.

Dean argues that on one hand, the post-war Labour government was working tirelessly to build a new partnership between London and the Colonial Empire which would secure Britain’s future position in the world. Evidence of racial incidents, discrimination and tension would lead to bad publicity in the Colonies and more black people arriving to compete for work and housing would undoubtedly create more tension.  On the other hand, the presence of black students and trainees for short periods of study was encouraged, with the aim that they would absorb British ideas and become willing to favour the Western powers in the struggle against Communism.

The author goes on to state that the British labour government in general chose to do nothing despite being faced with these challenges. For instance, it refused to introduce legislation to restrict immigration from the Colonies, whilst also declining to bring in means that would outlaw discriminatory practices or break down prejudice, largely on the grounds that such legislation would cause bad publicity and upset white sections of the population. There was also little attempt to see that the minorities had special needs upon arrival which required sympathetic treatment. It was hoped that immigration would decrease as war weariness receded, employment became more settled and those who were already settled in the country would be forgotten again.

The article begins by describing the situation of black people in Britain prior to the Atlee Government. It was acknowledged by the government that these communities had suffered even more than other sections of the population from the depression and it was admitted that their struggle was the result of forces stronger than economics: ‘During the years of the depression they suffered from unemployment, partly because of the economic depression, but more so on account of racial prejudice.’ These family units therefore became a social problem. In these areas it was mainly ex-sailors, almost entirely male. Marriage or co-habitation took place with white women, a relationship which was frequently denounced. White women were often condemned as deviant, rootless and promiscuous and post war studies as a result, gave considerable attention to the white partners and frequently these women were blamed for deteriorating race relations. Therefore, whenever government departments discussed tensions arising between black and white communities, the dangers of association between black men and white women were highlighted.

Post war Britain changed in terms of race relations after WW2. Dean highlights the point of view from Dr Layton Henry in terms of race relations, ‘that the outbreak of the Second World War caused a dramatic change in the whole situation’. It was a war in which racism and the theory of racial superiority was blamed for its outbreak, and British political warfare had highlighted this in the mass atrocities suffered. The war is said to have pushed diverse groups together and some claim that the war needs of Britain from the colonies had broken down some traditional patterns of behaviour.

There was a complicated response from the white British population that had been exposed to imperial propaganda when they were met with black colonial soldiers and workers who had been convinced that Britain was the source of compassion and goodwill.

Dean highlights that those who were actually responsible for the welfare amongst black colonials in Britain were not optimistic about race relations and they warned in 1946 that ‘it is important that it should be recognised that a colour bar exists in various forms in the country’. Therefore, it is demonstrated that clearly the war had not changed prejudice into enlightenment. The Labour government tried to bring about significant social changes. The image of a less deferential society and expectations of greater sympathy and understanding of those in the African, Asian and West Indian colonies and the black residents already living in the country were encouraged which was related in every way to the fragile position of racial relationships in the Colonies. Labour politicians considered themselves to have distinct advantages to deal with the new situation and at party conferences Labour voices could often be heard condemning aspects of imperial rule, and the majority population of Kenya and Central Africa received powerful support in the struggle against deep-rooted aristocratic white settlers or threatening capitalist enterprises. Therefore, Dean highlights that there was a noticeable shift in opinion regarding the Empire when Labour came to power.

The author then argues that in 1945 the Labour victory proclaimed the death of an older, anachronistic, arrogant empire. The Colonial Office looked to the way the labour government handled eastern European displaced persons as they were viewed as a way to help with the labour force that Britain badly needed at the time. The Colonial office therefore thought that this could also be applied to areas in the West Indies with major unemployment, particularly Jamaica where the number of unemployed was from 40,000 to 50,000. Ex-servicemen who were aware of the unemployment in their countries decided to settle in Britain rather than return to their islands. The Colonial Office desired a few organised official schemes which would enable it to cope with mass immigration. It was to discourage spontaneous, uncontrolled immigration in which people arrived in numbers with no accommodation, no prior knowledge of living conditions and prevent them being attracted to the existing black neighbourhoods. Second, schemes were to be directed towards groups with particular skills who might be able to relieve severe labour shortages and thereby not experience too much white resentment. Finally, it was necessary to discourage the notion in the West Indies that the British government was uninterested in the needs of the area and preferred white, displaced Europeans who often claimed to have fought against Britain to black West Indians who had stood at Britain’s side in war.

The Prime Minister refused to abandon the open-door policy and told his backbenchers that it was traditional that British subjects whether Dominion or Colonial origin (and of whatever race and colour) should be freely accessible to the UK. However, major concern was expressed in the Economic Policy Committee when news spread that there were to be over 400 Jamaicans arriving at Tilbury in June 1948 on the former troopship the SS Windrush. The Economic committee argued that it would create serious embarrassment and it was suggested that the Secretary of State for the colonies should do everything possible to prevent the occurrence of any further similar incidents. This mass immigration led to fears that the same could happen with other groups such as the quarter of a million Indians in South Africa who were experiencing poor living standards and racial tension and nothing was in place to prevent them from coming to Britain. This raised immediate concerns over approaching shifts of population in Britain and was a sign to Attlee that the open-door policy would have to be altered and he stated, ‘If our policy were to result in a great influx of undesirables we might, however unwillingly, have to consider modifying it’. Dean highlights that the term undesirable was never precisely defined and little recognition had been given to the Windrush immigrants who were skilled Jamaicans, had invested considerable amounts of money from their own savings to pay for their journey and that they were usually ex-servicemen with prior experience in Britain. It was therefore agreed in all government departments that a fast distribution in small groups would calm the situation and create less public attention surrounding the situation. It was also agreed that the new arrivals were not to be allowed to drift and settle into black neighbourhoods. They were to be dispersed and employed.

The arrival of more immigrants, particularly the SS Orbita in Liverpool created more anxiety over the volume of immigration in 1948. This encouraged the first major discussion through an interdepartmental enquiry, on the possible use of black labour in British industry. Participants were the Ministry of Labour, the Colonial Office and the Home Office. Dean highlights that The Home Office anxiety over immigration figures was concentrated on two issues. It was believed that the easing of restrictions in wartime, careless shipping security, particularly in the West African ports and the network connections in British seaports was encouraging a huge rise in stowaways, who were cast off in Liverpool, Cardiff or London and then found themselves in the black, unemployed communities. The Home Office were also concerned about the implications for law and order if a larger inflow of West Indians and Africans came to the country. It was thought that the colour element was the main factor which caused negative attitudes in the public. Along with this, there was the wide belief that large numbers arriving from the West Indies were arriving not to improve their opportunities or find jobs but to exploit the expanding Welfare State. Dean highlights that this was presumed whilst the harsh effects of racial discrimination or unemployment and poor living and social conditions were left without acknowledgment. The Welfare State which was viewed as the finest achievement by the Labour government and increasingly seen as in need of protection supported the notion that black newcomers were individuals stealing rights that did not belong to them and this was made known to the Prime minister by Labour MPs. Dean argues that this kind of pressure undoubtably influenced most government departments which were involved in the discussion of black immigration throughout this period.

In terms of employment, the Ministry of Labour came to the conclusion that a widespread employment of black labour in factories, farms and offices would quickly lead to tension. In particular if black and white workers had to work closely. The majority of apprehension about West Indian residents came from the Midlands and requests were made either for a very restricted admission policy or if possible total exclusion. This led to serious incidents like Causeway Green near Birmingham in 1949, where there were clashes between West Indians and other residents which led to officials mostly taking action against the black group.

The author continues to demonstrate that throughout this period the evidence of racial discrimination did cause politicians and civil servants to consider a form of response and deliberate a kind of legislation which would outlaw various discriminatory practices. There was the concern that colonial students in Britain were experiencing discrimination and racial prejudice. Therefore, enhancing anti-British feeling amongst them and making Communism more attractive. Although this could have been addressed by the government, the Conservative opposition attacked Labour for their meddling with personal behaviour and conduct and this served as a warning to Labour ministers that they should stay clear of legislation against discrimination. A number of government supporters such as Lord Farringdon and Rev. R Sorensen continued to push for legislation which would outlaw certain discriminatory practice towards black people in employment, accommodation and places of entertainment but they then faced the cautious approach from those who would be in charge of implementing such legislation.

John Lewis who was Bolton’s MP and a significant parliamentary expert on race relations at the time felt that the British public needed to have their knowledge of the Colonies and its people modernised. He therefore admitted ‘there is a need for the British public to be better educated on the purpose for which they came to this country. This links, of course with the question of less racial discrimination.’ Dean highlights that there was however a present reluctance to put forward specific educational proposals to deal with this lack of knowledge. He also emphasises that when the question of a black person possibly coming to some sort of power was put forward, the question of white sensitivities came into question and therefore discussions to assign a black person as governor came to nothing.

By the 1950s, race relations were said to be a world crisis with Britain at the heart of it and eyes were fixed firmly on the public reaction at home and abroad. Issues of discrimination, influx of immigrants or any other concern relating to white and black people were subjected to public relations exercises by government departments to avoid potential criticism from the general public.

With the influx of West Indian and West African labour and the increased number of black students undergoing extensive programmes of education in Britain, the hostility and racial prejudice they experienced was certainly an obstacle to the process of co-operation between black people and white brits. Dean highlights that at this time, the Labour government believed that it was inappropriate to create any policy that openly acknowledged restriction by the colour of a person’s skin. Instead they adhered to the hope that as war excitement diminished and employment patterns became steady, the West Indian influx, in particular, would die away. Dean concludes that the Colonial Office were very optimistic in believing that there would be no influx similar to that of those who arrived on the SS Windrush and that black communities would once again become hidden from history.


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