The Tory imperial mindset and the road to immigration controls

Someone on twitter directed me to this review of Camilla Schofield’s new book Enoch Powell and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain by Vernon Bagdanor, which makes some quite contestable claims. The first is: 

According to Schofield, Powell sought to replace an empire based on white supremacy with an England based on white supremacy. She distorts, I think, the idea of empire. In practice, no doubt, the empire did often incarnate white supremacy. However, its ideology was opposed to racial domination. [my emphasis]

The second is:

By the 1950s, High Tories were using imperialist arguments to reject proposals to restrict non-white immigration. “It would be a tragedy,” declared the then colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, in 1958, “to bring to an end the traditional right of unrestricted entry into the mother country of Her Majesty’s subjects and quite unthinkable to do so on grounds of colour.”

Powell, therefore, was being very un-Tory in rejecting the multiracial Commonwealth and a multiracial Britain.

I won’t focus on the first claim, but the second claim seems to suggest that ‘real’  Tories opposed immigration controls and favoured unrestricted migration from the Commonwealth. Lennox-Boyd, I would argue, was in a minority position on the issue of immigration control within the Conservative Party in the 1950s and that many more Tories were sympathetic to some form of restriction on colonial migration, but were placated in the short term by its economic benefits. 

The following post discusses this point at length and how the Conservatives eventually devised the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 to ‘deal with’ large-scale non-white colonial migration. Most of it is extracted from my PhD thesis, but some might also feature in our forthcoming book on ‘race’, gender and the body in British immigration control history. 

Alan Lennox-Boyd, Colonial Secretary under Eden and Macmillan, who opposed immigration controls before being made a Lord in 1959.

Alan Lennox-Boyd, Colonial Secretary under Eden and Macmillan, who opposed immigration controls before being made a Lord in 1959.

Several studies from the 1980s and 1990s, from looking at the Cabinet documents from the 1945-51 Labour Government and the 1951-1964 Conservative Governments, have highlighted how the road to the introduction of immigration control with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 was haphazard and non-linear.[1] Their work suggests that before the implementation of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, a number of conflicting interests, such as emotional ties to the legacy of empire, economic concerns and fears of a ‘colour problem’, made the process of legislating on this area a difficult job. But while some Conservative ministers, such as Home Secretary (under Churchill) David Maxwell Fyfe and Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, asserted that unrestricted colonial migration was essential for the maintenance of the British Commonwealth, the concern over the socio-political ‘problem’ that colonial migration presented to British society was dominant in the parliamentary discourse and was only tempered by immediate economic concerns (the requirement of unskilled and semi-skilled labour in the initial post-war era) until the mid-1950s. As the economy stabilised, these concerns were featured more prominently in parliamentary debates, in the media and in debates in wider society and the call for restricting immigration from the Commonwealth became harder for centrist Conservatives to resist.

From the 1980s onwards, a new generation of immigration scholars, using the now opened archival records, revised the history of immigration control and revealed that during the 1950s, the British government had tried informal controls as the ‘solution’ to its unrestricted immigration policy before starting to ‘favour restrictive legislation’.[2] A study into the reaction of the Churchill’s Conservative Government to immigration observed that by the early 1950s, both Labour and the Conservatives had ‘instituted a number of covert, and sometimes illegal, administrative measures designed to discourage Black immigration’.[3] As Lydia Lindsey wrote, ‘There was general agreement among British officials that colonial workers were not preferred in the country’.[4] Looking at the Cabinet papers of the post-war Labour and Conservative Governments, Kathleen Paul’s Whitewashing Britain showed that the British Government was ‘never “liberal” with regard to “race and immigration” and indeed tried very hard to prevent the migration of people of colour to the United Kingdom’.[5]

Before 1955, questions had been raised in Parliament over the number of immigrants from the colonies arriving in Britain and their impact upon British society. There had been apprehension towards immigration on the economic grounds of employment opportunities taken away from British workers as well as a concern for their use of social services. However concerns were also raised in Parliament over the ‘dangerous social problems’ brought to Britain by Commonwealth immigrants,[6] with objections raised that these immigrants could enter Britain ‘regardless of their health, means of subsistence, character record, habits, culture, education, need for them economically… or of the wishes of the British people’.[7]

Most immigration scholars in the 1960s and 1970s suggested that the 1958 riots, when white youths and fascists attacked West Indians in Notting Hill and Nottingham, caused the Conservative Government to re-consider the issue of immigration control seriously. E.J.B. Rose in 1969’s Colour and Citizenship argued that the Government was unwilling to impose restrictions upon Commonwealth citizens, but after the Notting Hill riots in September 1958, the Conservative Government was ‘forced… to relinquish its grip on the principle’ of uncontrolled immigration.[8] However, the British government was not provoked by the riots into taking measures towards immigration control, as a consensus was forming between the two major parties that colonial immigration was an undesired phenomenon.

As Parliamentary debates demonstrate throughout the 1950s, there was an apprehension by some MPs from both parties about the social impact of colonial immigration. However the problems faced by newly arrived migrants in employment, housing and other instances of racial prejudice were never considered and as Kathleen Paul states, ‘notably absent… was any suggestion of possible ways to improve or solve the “problems” allegedly caused by migrants’.[9] Labour MP Fenner Brockway’s Private Members’ Bill for the prohibition of racial discrimination was brought to Parliament for debate three times before the riots and was defeated, with Conservative MP Bernard Braine describing it as ‘so inconsistent and ill-conceived that it is almost an insult to the House to consider it further’.[10]

Despite the very real instances of racial discrimination that were experienced by colonial migrants in Britain, the Conservatives opposed any legislation, declaring that ‘it would be almost impossible to prove that a person had been turned away on the grounds of colour and on the grounds of colour alone’.[11] Describing Brockway’s proposals as ‘badly drafted and ill-conceived’, Braine claimed during a Parliamentary debate on the Bill that ‘a large number of coloured people… have not experienced any form of discrimination ‘ and ‘discrimination, therefore, is something which ought not to be tackled by legislation, but… by education’.[12]

Peter Fryer stated that, ‘Between 1958 and 1968 black settlers in Britain watched the racist tail wag the parliamentary dog’.[13] This was not just Conservative and Labour politicians progressively pandering to a small racist minority, but the increasing acceptance by both parties of putting into legislation the unofficial racist measures that had existed since 1948. Between the end of 1958 and the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, the issue of immigration became increasingly politicised and synonymous with immigration from the colonies, such as the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent and West Africa. In a Parliamentary debate in the months following the Notting Hill riots, Conservative MP Cyril Osborne announced in Parliament that there was the ‘urgent need for a restriction upon immigration into this country, particularly of coloured immigrants’.[14]

In February 1961, Osborne put forward another Bill that, ‘in view of the enormous increase in immigration in recent years… and the serious social problems that are consequently arising’, urged immigration controls requiring every immigrant to have proof of a ‘guaranteed job; adequate housing accommodation; a clean bill of health; a clear criminal record and a cash deposit… to repay their return fare if they become a charge on public funds’.[15] For Osborne, immigration was the ‘most difficult, the most dangerous and most delicate problem’ facing Britain and ‘speaking as an Englishman for the English people’, he felt that ‘the problem of immigration must be tackled, and tackled soon’.[16] In the same debate, Norman Pannell declared that colonial immigration was the main problem because ‘coloured immigrants… come in greater numbers’ and that many of these immigrants from the New Commonwealth ‘come from countries… [where] there is a standard of civilisation which is lower and there are acquired habits and inclinations which conflict with the accepted pattern of [Britain]’. [17] Although some disagreed with Osborne’s proposals, the consensus that colonial immigration was a problem was being reached by the Government.

On November 1, 1961, the Conservative Government first presented the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill to ‘make temporary provision for controlling the immigration into the United Kingdom of Commonwealth citizens’.[18] The ‘indefinite continuance of virtually limitless immigration’ had to be controlled, the government declared, (falsely) stating that ‘at present there are no factors visible which might lead us to expect a reversal or even a modification of the immigration trend’.[19] Increased immigration, according to the Home Secretary R.A. Butler, posed the ‘real risk that the drive for improved conditions will be defeated by the sheer weight of numbers’,[20] putting the blame for the Conservative Government’s failure to meet housing requirements onto immigrants. Despite assurances that the bill treated all Commonwealth citizens (including Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians) equally, the true nature of the Bill as an act of controlling non-white immigration was demonstrated by Butler’s statement that:

It cannot be denied that the immigrants who have come to this country in such large numbers have presented the country with an intensified social problem. They tend to settle in communities of their own, with their own mode of life, in big cities. The greater the numbers coming into this country the larger these communities and the more difficult will it be to integrate them into our national life.[21]

This was confirmed by William Deedes, a Conservative Minister at the time of the Bill’s passing, who admitted in 1968, ‘The Bill’s real purpose was to restrict the influx of coloured immigrants. We were reluctant to say as much openly’.[22] The Conservatives presented the legislation as non-discriminatory, but in practice, Kathleen Paul wrote, ‘its restrictive effect [was] intended to, and would in fact, operate on coloured people almost exclusively’.[23]

The Bill, with reservations from the Labour Party, was passed on February 27, 1962 and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into effect on July 1, 1962. This was the beginning of the ‘numbers game’ and the ideal that ‘good race relations’ could only be achieved by strict immigration control, demonstrated by Home Secretary Butler’s statement that ‘if the numbers of new entrants are excessive, their assimilation into our society presents the gravest difficulty’.[24] While the Act greatly reduced the number of non-white colonial immigrants entering Britain after 1962, therefore placating to a certain extent anti-immigrationists in the government and wider civil society, the number of immigrants who attempted to ‘beat the Act’ was significantly higher than the numbers that had entered in the previous decade. In 1960, the total number of immigrants had been 57,700, but this number leapt to 136,400 in 1961 and another 94,900 in the first six months of 1962 before the Act became enforceable.[25] As Ruth Brown observed, ‘the racism of Britain’s Tory government led them to destroy in one single act the almost perfect symmetry which had previously existed between levels of migration into Britain and the level of demand for labour there’.[26]

West Indian campaigners against the 1962 Act

West Indian campaigners against the 1962 Act


[1] Shirley Joshi & Bob Carter, ‘The Role of Labour in the Creation of a Racist Britain,’ Race & Class, 25/3, 1984, pp. 53-70; Bob Carter, Clive Harris & Shirley Joshi, ‘The 1951-55 Conservative Government and the Racialization of Black Immigration,’ Immigrants and Minorities, 6/3, 1987, pp. 335-347; David Welsh, ‘The Principle of the Thing: The Conservative Government and the Control of Commonwealth Immigration, 1957-59’, Contemporary British History, 12/2, 1998, pp. 51-79; D.W. Dean, ‘Conservative Government and the Restriction of Commonwealth Immigration in the 1950s: The Problems of Constraint’, Historical Journal, 35/1, March 1992, pp. 171-194; Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1997

[2] Kenneth Lunn, ‘The British State and Immigration, 1945-51: New Light on the Empire Windrush’, in Tony Kushner & Kenneth Lunn (eds), The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain, Frank Cass, London, 1990, p. 172; Bob Carter, Clive Harris & Shirley Joshi, ‘The 1951-55 Conservative Government and the Racialization of Black Immigration’, Immigrants and Minorities, 6/3, November 1987, p. 337

[3] B. Carter, C. Harris & S.Joshi, ‘The 1951-55 Conservative Government and the Racialization of Black Immigration’, p. 336

[4] Lydia Lindsey, ‘Halting the Tide: Responses to West Indian Immigration to Britain, 1946-1952’, Journal of Caribbean History, 26/1, 1992, p. 63

[5] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 132

[6] Hansard, 13 June, 1951, col. 2278

[7] Hansard, 16 December, 1954, col. 190

[8] E.J.B. Rose (ed.), Colour and Citizenship: A Report on British Race Relations, Oxford University Press, London, 1969, p. 213; p. 220

[9] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 156

[10] Hansard, 24 May, 1957, col. 1607

[11] Hansard, 24 May, 1957, col. 1604

[12] Hansard, 24 May, 1957, col. 1602; col. 1606

[13] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984, p. 381

[14] Hansard, 29 October, 1958, col. 195

[15] Hansard, 17 February, 1961, col. 1929

[16] Hansard, 17 February, 1961, col. 1930

[17] Hansard, 17 February, 1961, col. 1963

[18] Hansard, 1 November, 1961, col. 161

[19] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 687; col. 689

[20] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 695

[21] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 694

[22] William Deedes, Race Without Rancour, Conservative Political Centre, London, 1968, p. 10

[23] Cited in, K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 166

[24] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 694

[25] Hansard, 18 March, 1965, col. 311-312

[26] Ruth Brown, ‘Racism and Immigration in Britain’, International Socialism, 2/68, Autumn 1995, p. 16

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One comment

  1. Nevertheless, historically, England firstly, the United Kingdom second, has been a colony since 1066. The very carefully planned social system that was created then has been adapted and endured since. The creation of a multi-ethnic country enables the same ruling clique to weather most of the random events and economic volatility that would ordinarily create a unified demand for important reform. Indeed, immigration – especially from areas previously brainwashed with imperialistic values and attitudes – has hardened a conservative and right wing nationalistic outlook. This suits Westminster as it covers up internal problems and poor governance in the UK that have been the pattern since the Tories regained power in the 1950s. Short term electioneering profit at the expense of long term benefits and collaboration with genuinely social democratic partners on our doorstep has now culminated in the extraordinary decision to exit from the EU. This decision appears to have been cloaked in apparent democracy by crowbarring a marginal majority in a fraudently run referendum with votes from Commonwealth immigrant communities fearing competition with EU Immigration and the older voters with a current life expectancy of about 5 to 10 years. The result, and none of these are likely to upset the status quo very much!

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