In January 1955, Winston Churchill, generally lionised as a British hero, made a bold suggestion in one of his cabinet meetings. With a general election likely to happen within the year – one that he would not, in the end, contest – he tried to persuade his colleagues to adopt a campaign slogan that was similar to the rallying cry of the far right in the decades that followed. ‘Keep England White’, he suggested, would be a good message.
The prime minister, who had been heavily involved in the Boer War, Britain’s bloody colonial adventures, and in creating the 1943 Bengal famine – which is estimated to have killed 3 million people – was adamant that restricting Caribbean migration was ‘the most important subject facing this country’. Objecting to people of colour coming to the UK, in 1954 Churchill told the governor-in-chief of Jamaica, Sir Hugh Foot, that their presence would create ‘a magpie society’, adding ‘that would never do’.
Churchill’s views on matters of race and migration were hardly abnormal. Before and after the 1955 election, politicians from the left and the right complained that people of colour coming to the UK would threaten the very idea of the nation and undermine Britons’ standard of living by taking jobs and housing. Immigration, how it was understood and the legislation that would be introduced to ‘control’ it, was inseparable from race and racism.
‘Race is something we make,’ philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah tells us, ‘it’s not something that makes us.’ Invented to control and govern populations, race has never had any biological basis; it’s racism that gives it meaning. Race hasn’t always existed in the way we understand it now; it was a term used, for instance, to talk about class. Intended for a middleclass audience, one London weekly newspaper described ‘the Bethnal Green poor’ as ‘a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing’. But over the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries, the racial hierarchy was solidified. Forming a justification for colonialism and slavery since the colonisation of the Americas in 1492, and then backed up by the scientific racism of eugenicist Frances Galton, as well as academics, politicians and thinkers – in other words, significant sections of the elite – it increasingly came to be believed that visible differences were a sign of much deeper ones. Humans have inherited a biological essence related to skin colour and bodily features, they said, and this biology decides our abilities. ‘Race is everything: literature, science, art, in a word, civilization,’ scientist Robert Knox declared in 1850.
As they plundered, exploited and brutally controlled colonies and the people in them, all to enrich Britain as part of the growth of the capitalist project, colonialists swore by the racial hierarchy. Whiteness was not simply a descriptor; it was used to give anchor to the idea that Europe was the place of modernity and civilisation. White Europeans – in particular white upper-class men – were thought inherently modern and sophisticated; their black and brown counterparts, the opposite. The former, human; the latter, not. These ideas live on, subtly drawing a line between the developed and the developing, the advanced and the backward.
During Empire, the colonised needed to be civilised, and it was the responsibility of white Britons to do just that. ‘Is it not strange to think, that they who ought to be considered as the most learned and civilized people in the world, that they should carry on a traffic of the most barbarous cruelty and injustice, and that many . . . are become so dissolute as to think slavery, robbery and murder no crime?’ wrote abolitionist and philosopher Ottobah Cugoano in 1787.
Yet, to this day, national myths abound of Britons nobly leading the charge against slavery. In fact, when slavery was abolished in Britain, slave owners were granted, using taxpayers money, £20 million in compensation, or the equivalent of around £17 billion today, the largest public bailout until the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Conveniently ignored are the facts that slaves and their descendants never saw a penny of compensation and the UK then played a significant role in forcing millions of people into bondage and indentured labour.
As working classes at home agitated for and began to win democratic rights in the early twentieth century, the Empire was used to give coherence to a country deeply divided along class lines. People were told it wasn’t just the elite that benefited from the imperial project, but also the country as a whole; white people’s sense of self and of the nation was defined by their relation to the colonised. In one mass marketing campaign, which came in the form of posters, lectures, Empire shops and a library, the public were encouraged to ‘buy Empire’ and made to feel that as consumers they were helping keep the Empire alive. Racial superiority and all its ideas of differing humanity seeped into popular culture: adverts for household goods as mundane as soap or cocoa were marketed on images that showed black people as inferior to whites.
But race was not only about skin colour or physical features. After visiting a Warsaw ghetto in 1949 and witnessing the treatment of Jewish people in Poland, the preeminent sociologist and author W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that the global colour line – which he’d understood at the beginning of the 1900s as the way black and brown people were segregated and treated differently because of their skin colour – was ‘not even solely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics’. ‘No,’ he explained, ‘the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men.’ The widely disseminated idea that there are ancestral differences between groups of people which determine people’s abilities, instincts and ways of being, then, was not only denoted by skin colour.
This thinking shaped the ways migrants have been perceived in recent history. Immigration hasn’t always been top of the political agenda; neither has there been a single, uniform treatment of the diverse groups of migrants, but certain groups have been marked out and racialised as different, unwanted and even threatening. These ideas, targeted specifically at Jewish migrants, formed the backdrop of the UK’s first modern immigration controls.
Escaping pogroms and riots in Eastern Europe and anti-Jewish policies in Russia, at the end of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of Jewish migrants were arriving in England. Antisemitism has a long history in this country; Jews, along with Roman Catholics, didn’t have the same rights as Protestants until the nineteenth century. But these people, mostly orthodox in their views, were poorer and less anglicised than the existing Jewish population; with their arrival, the Jewish working class grew in size and the existing occupational and cultural profile of Jewish people in England radically changed.
‘Immigrant’ and ‘Jew’ became interchangeable, and ‘concerns’ exploded about the supposed social ills that Jewish migrants brought with them to East London, one of the principal areas where they settled. Politicians claimed the country’s identity would be diluted by their presence, and The East London Advertiser attacked Jewish people as incompatible with the English way of life: ‘People of any other nation, after being in England for only a short time, assimilate themselves with the native race and by and by lose nearly all their foreign trace. But the Jews never do. A Jew is always a Jew.’ In 1906, one writer in the weekly socialist newspaper the Clarion described Jewish people coming into the country as ‘a poison injected into the national veins’.
Arriving during economic downturn, in language eerily similar to contemporary arguments that migrants undercut wages and change UK culture, Edward Troup, then Home Office permanent secretary, claimed that ‘large numbers of aliens from Eastern Europe who had settled in east London and in other populous centres had lowered the wages in some of the unorganised trades to starvation point and their habits had a demoralising effect in the crowded areas in which they settled.’
The UK’s first ever substantial legislation to deal with immigration – the Aliens Act 1905 – was aimed at limiting the number of Jewish people, as well as the number of poor people, coming into the country. And, so, class and race met, as they so often do, in the reasoning behind immigration ‘controls’. Foreign nationals were forced to register with the police and there were limits on where they could live. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 stipulated that people who wanted to become British citizens had to have ‘good character’ and ‘an adequate knowledge of the English language’.
The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1918 then gave the home secretary the right to rescind naturalisation certificates given to German citizens and barred any enemy from being naturalised in the ten years after the end of the war. Restrictions that had been applied to certain migrants were extended during what would become the period between the two World Wars; the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919 required all Jewish ‘aliens’ to carry ID cards that prevented them from taking certain jobs, made it illegal for them to promote industrial action, and dictated that they must tell authorities if they would be away from home for more than two weeks.
It wasn’t only Jewish people who were the focus of government attention. The 1919 Act also legalised different rates of pay for British seamen along the lines of race. Between the First and Second World Wars, the government tried to keep out Asian and black seamen arriving at UK ports. Fears of a mixed race population helped drive the restrictions introduced in 1925: British subjects of colour who landed in ports across the country had to register themselves and clock in with officials if they were going to move; all the while the possibility of deportation loomed over them. This signalled what was to come in the following decades; the racial categories created during colonialism underpinned the debate and they would continue to do so for years to come.