The Colour Bar at the Border

For decades, 'concern' about immigration to Britain sought to preserve the racial hierarchies of the empire – and imperial notions of 'us' and 'them' continue to affect our political discourse today.

Those of us people of colour whose origins lie in the British Commonwealth have a pithy response to the seemingly endless challenges to the legitimacy of our presence in this country. As the anti-racist writer and campaigner Ambalavaner Sivanandan put it, ‘we are here because you were there’. That phrase provides both the title for Ian Sanjay Patel’s groundbreaking new book on Commonwealth immigration, and the illuminating frame of its analysis.

Patel lays bare the opportunistic and ultimately racist ways in which post-war British politicians and officials defined the ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘here’, and ‘there’ that Sivanandan referred to. For the purposes of their neo-imperial system—now freshly rebranded as a ‘Commonwealth’—‘we’ and ‘you’ and ‘here’ and ‘there’ were all as one: a happy family of nominal equals, under the benign paternal hand of the Anglo-Saxon metropole.

For the purposes of British immigration policy, however, ‘we’ was incompatible with ‘you’, and ‘here’ was quite separate from ‘there’. All were defined and understood along racial lines. London’s aim was to preserve both its imperial power and the racial hierarchies and ordering on which that system was built.

The post-war Commonwealth was a combination of crown colonies under direct imperial rule, together with former colonial possessions (such as Australia, Canada, and India) where Britain sought to maintain economic and strategic privileges as well as political influence. In an effort to bind this disparate international polity together in the face of imperial decline and anti-colonial struggles, the British Nationality Act of 1948 was passed. This extended citizenship rights to all peoples of the Commonwealth, including rights of entry and residence. As Patel puts it, ‘after 1948, a non-white person born in colonial Kenya or Jamaica had enjoyed identical citizenship, on equal terms, to Winston Churchill.’

But beyond some efforts to recruit Commonwealth labour to aid in Britain’s post-war reconstruction, there was no desire to see these non-white citizens actually exercise their right to come to the ‘mother country’. The racism expressed to these newcomers verbally and physically on the streets, and through discrimination by landlords and employers, was essentially shared by the governing class, and thus treated as ‘legitimate concerns’, to use the notorious modern phrase. British racism determined that even the relatively small numbers that arrived were too many, by definition.

So from 1962 onwards, successive Conservative and Labour governments legislated to erect by increments a colour bar at the UK border. This could never be explicitly codified without openly violating the liberal values by which British power sought to define and legitimise itself. Instead, legislation was drafted Jim Crow-style to create ostensibly technical tests and distinctions whose de facto effect would be one of racial exclusion.

These barriers were enshrined in legislation in terms of ‘connection’ and ‘belonging’. Your homeland may have been bled dry for centuries to enrich Britain’s governing class, your family exploited for generations as slaves or indentured labourers, but none of this formed the basis of a legitimate connection to the United Kingdom. Such legitimacy was defined instead by whether you, your parents, or your grandparents were born in Britain, which overwhelmingly (and by conscious design) equated to whether or not you were white.

If you were, you could come to the UK and settle in numbers that were never of the slightest concern. If not, your citizenship of the so-called ‘Commonwealth’ turned out to be of a different category.

But the effect of this legislation was so blatant that its nature and intent could not seriously be denied. The Economist described the Labour government’s 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act as one which ‘restricted the entry of many holders of British passports, simply and solely because they are brown.’ In 1973, the European Commission on Human Rights declared that for certain numbers of those affected, the 1968 Act was ‘racially motivated and designed to harm a specific racial group.’

The last people to be fooled by official denials were black and brown Commonwealth citizens themselves, and the governments of their home countries. As anti-colonial victories accumulated, Britain found itself increasingly outnumbered at the UN General Assembly by states determined to establish international norms and treaties proscribing racial discrimination. At a time when it was reliant more on soft than hard power, Britain’s international reputation was taking a battering, not least within the Commonwealth itself.

But while this was a source of real concern in London, what ultimately mattered more was the determination to keep Britain white, or at least as white as possible. In 1981, a new British Nationality Act was passed that ended any last vestiges of the notion of Commonwealth citizenship.

There are few criticisms to level at Patel’s work, and none are major. He is right to say that Britain’s famous imperial retreat from ‘East of Suez’ in 1971 masked considerable continuity in terms of ongoing military power projection. The point that imperial power was never given up willingly is a crucial one to make. But he overstates the case by implying that the 1971 withdrawal is effectively a myth. In the Persian Gulf above all it was real (if incomplete), and decidedly unwelcome from the point of view of Britain’s client monarchs.

The book’s primary analytical frame is one of human rights, particularly in respect of citizenship, and it is an effective and telling one. But Patel might have emphasised the economic dimensions of the story a little more as well. Britain is a capitalist power, empire was a capitalist endeavour, and race has been a perpetual organising factor for as long as capitalist imperialism has existed. Patel does not ignore this, but it would have been good to hear a little more about how the legal reordering of the imperial polity between the 1940s and 1970s inter-related with the substantial economic reordering that was unfolding at the same time.

By no means do these points detract from what is undoubtedly a landmark contribution. Patel has performed a valuable service by situating post-war immigration firmly within the process of imperial decline, and demonstrating how racism from the heart of government affected Britain’s changing foreign relations and its domestic sense of self. A particular insight is that moments of anti-immigrant backlash often accompanied anxieties about loss of imperial status. There is much to reflect on here, as those same anxieties continue to toxify British politics today.