Forty years ago today (or yesterday), the UK border control system entered its modern phase

border-control

I do hope to write a post about the newly released 1984-85 Cabinet documents of the Hawke Government released by the National Archives yesterday, but I realised that January 1, 2013 is the fortieth anniversary of the reforms of the UK border control system that have created the system that is in place today – the implementation of the Immigration Act 1971 and the introduction of the UK into the European Economic Community. As a way of briefly discussing this, I thought I would post a very brief excerpt from an article written by myself and Marinella Marmo, which has been accepted for publication by Historical Research journal, the journal of the Institute of Historical Research in London. The title of our article is ‘The Myth of Sovereignty: British Immigration Control Policy and Practice in the 1970s’ and should be available for electronic download sometime in 2013. So here is the excerpt:

On 1 January 1973, the Immigration Act 1971 came into effect to stop ‘large-scale permanent immigration’ to Britain.[i] Introduced by the Conservative Government under Edward Heath, the Act aimed to restructure the way the immigration control system processed migrants since controls were first introduced in 1962.  The result of the Act was to bring ‘to a halt’[ii] the flow of permanent migration of workers from the Commonwealth.  In particular, successive amendments to the 1971 Act ‘have emphasized its intention to keep out black Commonwealth citizens’.[iii] By contrast, on the same day, Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC), which allowed the free movement of labour within its perimeters. It is evident from this that the concerns of the British Government were not necessarily to do with labour migration, as it opened the door for thousands of potential European workers. The British Government was concerned with restricting ‘non-white’[iv] Commonwealth migration. However at the same time, the Immigration Act did not signal the end to all Commonwealth migration, as thousands of dependents came to Britain to join those who had already emigrated before 1973 for labour purposes…

When the 1971 Immigration Act was being debated and formulated, there was no economic imperative to halt labour migration as the economic crisis struck in 1973 during the first year of the implementation of the Act. The discourse surrounding the 1971 Act primarily focused on stemming the ‘social problem’ of Commonwealth migration and the belief that strict immigration control was necessary for good race relations. Reiko Karatani wrote, ‘[i]n the end, the purpose of the IA [Immigration Act] 1971 never became clear during parliamentary debates, except that the Conservative government wished to fulfil an election pledge.’[v]

Central to the Immigration Act 1971 was the concept of ‘patrial’ and ‘non-patrial’ migrants. The concept of the ‘patrial’ had been prefigured by the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, but had been more strictly defined under the Immigration Act. The most important categories of ‘patrial’ were:

(a)…a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies who has that citizenship by [their] birth… in the United Kingdom

(c)…a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies who has at any time been settled in the United Kingdom and Islands and… been ordinarily resident there for the last five years or more[vi]

All those considered ‘non-patrials’, both alien and Commonwealth citizens, needed permission to enter Britain, except for those who migrated within the European Economic Community. The voucher system that had existed was abolished and the right of abode was now determined by the possession of an annually renewable work permit.[vii] The traditional right to settlement was no longer available to ‘non-patrials’ as work permits had to be renewed annually and ‘only after four years of working in approved jobs could they apply for the lifting of restrictions and settle’ in Britain (emphasis added).[viii]

The Immigration Act 1971 aimed to prevent migrants from obtaining the right to residency through a work voucher.  This was believed to cut down significantly on the number of male Commonwealth migrants entering Britain; hence the legislation stopping labour migration from the Commonwealth was enacted with the purpose to contain a perceived social problem. Nevertheless, the Immigration Act was not to cut labour migration completely; in fact Britain entered the European Economic Community on 1 January, 1973, which allowed the free movement of labour within the borders of the EEC. The desirability of EEC workers were that as they could freely enter and leave Britain with the rise and fall in labour demands, there was no formal recruitment campaign and thus, there was no government expenditure to transport or accommodate EEC workers. This lack of government expenditure had been one of the reasons that the government had, before 1962, favoured labour migration from the Commonwealth, who had the right to freely enter, work and reside in Britain, rather than actively recruit European workers, who had been the government’s first option in the initial post-war period. However, while the unrestricted flow of Commonwealth migrants was seen as an economic advantage, the supposed disadvantages that migrants brought to the country were emphasised as controls were introduced and then strengthened. By 1971, any economic benefit that Commonwealth migrants were to offer were prima facie disregarded in the face of maintaining ‘good race relations’ through strict controls, and labour migration from the Commonwealth was severely restricted by the Immigration Act. 

This links back to my previous post  where I argued that the idea of immigration/border control was a concept promoted by successive governments to ensure they looked ‘tough’ on immigration, which has impacted harshly on certain groups of migrants (particularly those from the ‘New’ Commonwealth and other developing and/or non-EEC countries), but in reality, hundreds of thousands of people still flow through the UK’s borders each year. Our article explores the competing elements of immigration control policy and practice in the 1970s created by these twin reforms that came into effect 40 years ago this year. If anyone is interested in reading a draft copy of the article, please let me know.


[i] John Solomos, ‘Racism and Anti-Racism in Great Britain: Historical Trends and Contemporary Issues,’ in Racism and Anti-Racism in World Perspective ed. Benjamin P. Bowser (London, 1995), 169.

[ii] Ian R.G. Spencer, British Immigration Policy Since 1939: The Making of a Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1997), 143.

[iii] Solomos, ‘Racism and Anti-Racism in Great Britain,’ 170.

[iv] For the British Government and sections of British society, the concept of the Commonwealth or colonial migrant became synonymous with the Afro-Caribbean or Asian migrant and as Ann Dummett and Andrew Nicol wrote ‘white’ Commonwealth subjects born abroad were ‘never referred to as ‘immigrants’ under any circumstances’. Dummett and Nicol argue that by the 1960s, the equation of ‘immigrant’ with ‘black’ had become the prevailing attitude. Ann Dummett & Andrew Nicol, Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others: Nationality and Immigration Law (London, 1990), 201.

[v] Reiko Karatani, Defining British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain (London, 2003), 165.

[vi] Immigration Act, 1971, Part 1, 2, (1).

[vii] John Solomos, Race and Racism in Britain (Houndmills, 2003), 63.

[viii] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British (London, 1992), 223; Italics are our emphasis.

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