Gurminder K. Bhambra illustrates historical differences in the treatment of white migrants and non-white citizens to the UK in the fourth article of a series curated for Windrush Day by Kiri Kankhwende

Seventy years ago, on 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush entered the Thames and close on 500 West Indians, with British citizenship, disembarked at Tilbury Dock. This rather mundane event – of Commonwealth citizens moving within the bounds of the Commonwealth – has, subsequently, become foundational to mythologies of the changing nature of Britain.

These mythologies continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political significance in light of Brexit and the attempts by the government to deport its own citizens as part of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants. To put Windrush – and the Windrush scandal – into perspective, however, we need to look at the broader context of other population movements into Britain at the same time.

In the five years after the end of the Second World War, close on 100,000 Eastern Europeans from Displaced Persons camps in Germany and Austria were recruited to work in Britain and, over the same period, around 100,000 Irish people moved annually to Britain. The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, in addition, gave 120,000 Polish people the right to settle in Britain. This period of post-war European migration is thus claimed by Deakin as ‘the most intensive this country has ever experienced’ (1970: 23). It is notable, too, that Britain took no Jewish people from European camps.

By the 1951 Census, there were around 650,000 Irish and Polish born migrants in the UK contrasted with about ‘17,000 persons born in the Caribbean living in Britain’. A decade later, the foreign-born population was about five per cent of the total; out of the top ten sending countries, 8 were white and only 2 were darker nations. There were 683,000 people born in Ireland, 121,000 from Germany, 120,000 from Poland (to take just the top three white populations) and from the darker countries, there were 157,000 from India and 100,000 from Jamaica.

The debates in Parliament, however, focused on the arrival of darker-skinned citizens rather than the lighter-skinned ‘aliens’, despite the fact that the total white foreign-born population was about ten times that of the ‘coloured’ British population. The construction of darker citizens as aliens was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race rather than in relation to any legal status.

To this end, the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962, 1968, and 1971 were enacted precisely to restrict the freedom of movement of these darker citizens. These Acts were passed with the quid pro quo being to establish racial equality within the state with the simultaneous passing of the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968.

The standard accounts of political citizenship align it with the contours of the nation-state, and ‘aliens’ are (or can be) admitted to citizenship. The defining of British citizenship, in contrast, has been predicated on the basis of making citizens into immigrants on the basis of an explicit racial hierarchy (Karatani 2003). The Windrush scandal was the epitome of this move with those who had initially had citizenship being stripped off it by virtue of changes to the law to deter illegal migrants.

Brexit and the ensuing exclusion of non-UK EU citizens from the body politic is another layer in this inglorious history and cannot be understood outside of it. In such a context, no non-UK EU citizen can be sure that their residence has provided them with any rights that are secure.

The current British polity is deeply structured by race such that the state and its practices are themselves racialized and exclusionary. The issue of race is not simply about those who look different being present within British society, but about how the state is itself constructed on an explicit racialized hierarchy.

The recent attempts by the government to deport its darker citizens comes out of this racialized deep state – a state that had seemed to be in the process of transforming in the period after the 1960s, with official endorsements of multiculturalism and commitments to racial equality, but which is rearing its ugly head once again as nativism trumps democracy.

Deakin, Nicholas 1970. Colour Citizenship and British Society: An Abridged and Updated Version of the Famous Report. Panther Books: London.
Karatani, Rieko 2003. Defining British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain. Frank Cass: London.

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Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex @GKBhambra

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.

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