17 April 2018

Fifty years ago Enoch Powell gave the notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he prophesied a racial war on British soil. He argued that immigration from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan should end, and that black people already in the country should be encouraged to ‘re-emigrate’.  He believed that people from the West Indies and Asia, who were citizens of the United Kingdom and the Colonies, could not become truly British.

Twenty-five years ago this month Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a racist gang in South London. These anniversaries, along with others, such as the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, begun by white youths attacking West Indian immigrants, form the backbone of a deeply depressing story about post-war British immigration. The Windrush generation – immigrants from the New Commonwealth – were citizens of the United Kingdom and the Colonies, and they had the right to settle in Britain. Many of them were recruited on government schemes, and others were encouraged to come to fill jobs in the mines, the mills, the NHS and in transport, jobs which British workers were unwilling to take. Yet they faced a steeply uphill struggle for acceptance.

Immigration in Britain
Immigration in Britain

When problems occurred it was largely because successive governments failed to provide funding and support for integration, not because there were ‘too many immigrants’.

The political history of immigration is relatively well known. I wanted to get behind that story to the stories of the people involved. As far as I can, I try to tell the story of immigration from the point of view of immigrants. There have been accounts of British prejudice and racism towards immigrants, and there have been accounts of the problems caused by large-scale post-war immigration. But we have rarely listened out for stories of everyday immigrant experience, which I believe has a lot to teach us about British society as a whole. And that is not because the story is simple, but precisely because those everyday experiences were so varied.  Each chapter of the book is devoted to a different ‘character’ or group – the Latvian and Lithuanian women who worked in TB hospitals and mills in the late 40s, the men brought from Mirpur to work the night shifts in Lancashire mills in the late 50s, Caribbean dancers and musicians, writers and intellectuals, Irish labourers, or Punjabi women who moved to Southall and worked at Heathrow.

Immigration in Britain

We have rarely listened out for stories of everyday immigrant experience, which I believe has a lot to teach us about British society as a whole.

The book took five years to research and write. As far as possible I tried to use memoirs, stories, and reports which were written in the 1940s, 50s and 60s rather than later memories and reflections. Hindsight can play tricks with us. And I wanted to get as close as possible to the texture of post-war experience, including the language that people used. Many immigrants wrote plangently about their experiences of hardship, and many British people were disturbed and unhappy about the changes that the arrival of newcomers brought to their local areas. But there is plenty of evidence too of comedy, pleasure and excitement in the encounters between immigrants and their hosts. I tried to see all sides, and I guess the message that I would like readers to take away is that the history of immigration is complex and varied. It is tempting to tell simple stories (good hard-working immigrants versus bad and sometimes racist hosts, or scrounging and sometimes criminal immigrants versus beleaguered hosts) but those simple stories don’t get us very far at all.

What the book shows is that British society was in fact very good at absorbing large numbers of immigrants from all over the world, and that it has on the whole been enriched by immigration.  When problems occurred it was largely because successive governments failed to provide funding and support for integration, not because there were ‘too many immigrants’.

Related Articles