Britain’s Immigration Conundrum: the legacy of 1948

Yvette Cooper, Britain’s Shadow Home Secretary, has put pressure on the Conservative government to eradicate loopholes in short-term student visas which she claims is allowing thousands of illegal immigrants into the country each year. The targeting of student visa irregularities is unsurprising given Labour’s need to detract from its own appalling immigration record (legal and otherwise) when last in office. With an economy threatening to enter into a triple-dip recession, many Britons are fearing for their jobs and see foreign immigrants as cheap and fierce competition. Recent Eastern European migrants, particularly Poles, have become targets for abuse.

Nevertheless, to reduce Britain’s immigration dilemma to student visas and short-term European migration is to neglect the larger historical picture. Regardless of the global economic condition, Britain would be confronted by the challenge of an over-populated immigrant community in the twenty-first century. The root cause of Britain’s immigration “problem” is its former empire and the 1948 British Nationality Act.

After WWII, the British Empire, one of the largest in history, began to disintegrate. Unable to stifle burgeoning nationalist movements in far-flung territories, weary of war and bound by a new sense of libertarianism, Britain let go of many of its former imperial treasures.

In 1948, the Labour government came up with the inspired status, “Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”. The 800 million people of the Empire, who would later form most of the Commonwealth, suddenly acquired the rights to work in Britain without needing a visa. Immigrants flooded in from South Asia and the Caribbean, in particular, and helped fill the job gaps in British industry left by a generation devastated by war.

Immigrants flooded into Tilbury Docks after the passing of the 1948 act
Immigrants flooded into Tilbury Docks after the passing of the 1948 act

Defenders of the act often point to its necessity in alleviating the post-WWII labour shortage. It is, naturally, difficult in hindsight to appreciate the economic conundrum it created at the time. Having said that, checks were not placed on immigration at an early stage and the seeds for an overpopulated country were sown. The attempts by the Conservative government to halt the rapid influx, with the passing of the 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Acts, came too late.

Population replacement is a natural phenomenon. However desperate Britain’s labour shortages were in 1948, they were never going to last for ever. The “baby boomer” generation of the 1950s, when birth rates escalated, was a natural response to the losses of the war years. Yet, coupled with immigration from Britain’s former colonies, the population increase became unsustainable.

What is clear is that the immigrants themselves are not to blame. They were given an opportunity of economic advancement and a higher standard of living that they took with both hands. Most served Britain admirably. At the same time, from as early as the 1950s, and particularly during the economic downturn of the 1970s, they were made scapegoats for Britain’s ills. This feature of British blame apportioning has not gone diminished.

Economics and immigration are inextricably linked. Above: Notting Hill race riot
Economics and immigration are inextricably linked. Above: Notting Hill race riot

Accession to the European Union was not in itself an exacerbating factor. The EU was formed as a small core of economically-advanced states purportedly acting in each other’s interests. Many of the initial members’ populace had no desire to move to Britain because it offered little more than their own host country provided. However, the unnecessary growth of the EU could not have been foreseen and the accession of poorer, underdeveloped nations recreated the conditions of 1948. Britain was once more seen as a land of opportunity, despite the inherent racism and xenophobia of much of the population. With immigration regulations within the EU relaxed between member states, Britain’s borders once again became more permeable and no domestic legislation was invented to counter the problem.

In 2001, 60,711 people in Britain were Polish-born. Poland joined the EU in 2004. In 2011, the figure was 579,000.
In 2001, 60,711 people in Britain were Polish-born. Poland joined the EU in 2004. In 2011, the figure was 579,000.

The directives handed down by the EU make it impossible to put a massive halt on immigration. The problem lies in the fact that, despite administrative barriers, it has been too easy for initial worker visas to turn into permanent residency cards.

Britain may have been better able to handle European immigration in the 21st century had the 1948 act not been implemented in such an unbounded fashion. Whether Britain was morally committed to offer citizenship to its former colonial subjects is another matter. The act upset the natural forces of population balance and created the conditions for an overpopulated island.

Of course, hindsight is always a wonderful thing and foresight is often so sorely lacking.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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