Marking 50 years of Commonwealth immigration controls

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By Don Flynn (MRN)

2012 seems to be a year overloaded with special events and anniversaries, with the London Olympics and the Queen’s 60th Jubilee grabbing all the headlines. Here’s one you might be in danger of missing though: this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Commonwealth Immigrants Act.

MRN is planning a programme of work this year which will reflect on the Act, and on today’s attitudes towards migration within the Commonwealth and beyond.

The legacy of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 signalled the first attempt of a British government to control the immigration of people who, in some instances, were not only citizens of what was then still called the British Commonwealth, but also a sizeable number of people who, like all those born in the UK, were deemed in law to be ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ (for more background info you can listen to the Immigration, Racism and Law – MRN podcast).

Back in 1962 the groups which Parliament had set its sights on restricting were people from the countries of the Caribbean region. Across the previous decade they had been coming to the UK in numbers that amounted to, at first, around ten thousand, and later rose to fifty thousand a year. Looking for work in factories and construction sites, hospitals and schools, they played a role in easing labour shortages in the ‘bottleneck’ industries and services of a Britain which, in the 1950s, was still undergoing the painful business of reconstruction after the war years.

The significance of the 1962 legislation, and the reason why we should be marking it even after 50 years, is that it laid down the first template for immigration controls exercised on a massive scale. Controls which had been attempted up until then, such as the 1905 Aliens Act, had equipped border officials with the power to act against particular categories of incomers, such as the East European Jewish refugees who were travelling in the cheapest steerage class on passenger ships. Outside these groups, the state had no major interest in interfering with entrants to the UK.

Things had changed by the middle years of the twentieth century. The state assumed a central role in directing the economic affairs of the country, and was more responsive to political pressure about which groups had legitimate claims to protection and support in the UK. At this time tensions which came to be described as ‘racial’ began to flare up across the country, most notoriously in Nottingham and Notting Hill in west London in 1958.

These events strengthened new perspectives that ‘coloured people’ were incompatible with the British way of life. Though initially contested by the Labour opposition, with the party’s leader Hugh Gaitskell describing it as “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”, by the time of the change of government in 1964, the approach embedded in the Act had become unassailable.

Indeed, it was a way of thinking about immigrants which was taken up and renewed by the Labour government in response to the prospect of the arrival of Asian UK citizens who were being displaced by the ‘Africanisation’ policies of governments in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act contained explicitly racial provisions, making distinctions between British citizens descended from British-born parents and grand-parents – so-called ‘partials’ – and those who were citizens because of a connection with a former or existing British colony.

By the late 1960s these ideas of distinction and difference were embedded across the political spectrum. Whether from the mainstream of the left or the right, ethnicity was thought of as a key component of citizenship. The ability of those with different skin colours to be ‘proper’ British citizens was called into question by populists on all sides.

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on, as the Arab proverb reminds us. The controversies of forty and fifty years ago are half a lifetime in the past, but the things that were said and done at that time continue to ring down to our own time.

In 1962 the political class in Britain imprinted on our mass culture the idea that humanity can be divided into its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ segments, and that skin colour was a sensible rule-of-thumb to guide policy-makers and administrators in the difficult task they had in ruling an increasingly complex and diverse society.

Today’s migration challenges
Come the 1990s, this was made more complex by the new structures of global society which required an ethos of equity and partnership to support deals between the new big players on the international scene. The old racial presumptions were not such a reliable guide for this task, but the notion that state policy could still be taken forward by ideologies which sustained the view of a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ humanity.

Now in 2012 we can see a version of the racialising and divisive moods of the 1960s present in state policies which extend across themes like ‘the War on Terror’, ‘the Clash of Civilisations’, intellectualised themes which disparage Muslims for lacking the ‘apps’ which support genuine forms of modernity, and, most pertinently for a migrants’ rights network, which order participants in global labour markets into categories of ‘the brightest and the best’ and those who are to be refused entry.

But the world of the 1960s produced its own resistance to the racialising modes of thought which were embodied in measures like the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, and which held back the worst of the danger it represented. Ideas nurtured in the social mainstream in those days, like the inherent inferiority of people of colour, are present only at the extremes nowadays, though their capacity to hurt, kill and pollute, remains.

MRN – Commonwealth programme 2012
Knowing this is the best reason to review what we have gone through since that first Commonwealth Immigrants Act, and over the coming months MRN will be looking for opportunities to open up reflection on this topic. Over the course of the coming months, we will be holding a series of small roundtables to reflect on these issues, culminating in June with a public conference which will support debate about the legacy of the CIA, and reflect on meeting the challenges faced by people who migrate today. We will also ask what relevance the Commonwealth has to solving the current predicaments of immigration in the 21st century.

We welcome all your ideas on how to take this work forward during the next year. If you would like to undertake some activity in your area to mark the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, please do get in touch with us.

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