Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire

Luke de Noronha:

Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre, and I’m really excited that our latest Short Takes comes from Ian Sanjay Patel, author of the new book We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire (Verso, 2021). This important book provides a global history of post-war migration to the UK, offering fresh insights into the relationship between migration, citizenship and decolonization. Ian is an LSE Fellow in Human Rights at the London School of Economics, and I am really grateful that he is joining us to tell us a bit more about this exciting and urgent book.

Ian Sanjay Patel:

In this Short Take, I’ll be discussing my new book, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire, published by Verso. The title of the book is adapted from A. Sivanandan’s well-known aphorism, ‘we are here because you were there’, which captured with a simple elegance the irrefutable relationship between post-war migrants now in Britain and the British empire. 

In the book, I use Sivanandan’s aphorism in a deliberately expansive way, moving beyond a single relationship between imperial heartland and colony, or home and abroad, to discuss the multiple, often overlapping relationships between places and peoples in the age of empires and, later, the age of decolonization. The phrase ‘we are here’, then, referred to more than one arrival within the British imperial world, and this was often a forced arrival rather than a free one. Equally, the phrase ‘you were there’ referred not simply to a perceived Anglo-Saxon community supposedly native to Britain, but to former and more recent generations of white settlers who had left the shores of the British Isles. 

If I had to summarise the book in a single sentence, I would describe it as a global history of post-war migration and of Britain’s imperial constitution and trajectory after 1945 – and the connections between the two. A good deal of the story of migration and Britain, both before and after 1945, takes place off domestic site, overseas, within the practices and legacies of colonial governance, and, later, within the regional and nationalist politics of postcolonial states. 

Telling this story means confronting any number of myths: that post-war Britain was more about change than continuity; that non-white post-war migrants were ‘immigrants’ rather than British citizens or Commonwealth citizens; that the end of direct imperial rule meant the end of British imperialism; or that imperial British citizenship ended in the 1960s in line with the transfer of sovereign power to former colonies. In truth, at the level of British nationality and citizenship, decolonization did not begin in Britain until 1981 and the British Nationality Act of that year. In other words, British nationality and citizenship remained imperial throughout the age of decolonization and until 1981. Equally, despite the ending of formal empire, certain British politicians, officials and diplomats used the Commonwealth to reimagine British imperialism for the global post-war era and move it towards various kinds of structural power.

Thinking transnationally about both Britain and migration after 1945 is less a device than an accurate means by which to follow the contours of British history itself. Most accounts of post-war migration, for example, begin with the 1905 Aliens Act passed by the imperial parliament in London. But immigration as we know it today begins somewhat earlier in the white-settler colonies – in today’s Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. Immigration laws were devised by Anglo-Saxon settlers to protect their colonies from ‘Asiatics’ (Chinese, Japanese, South Asians). In other words, migration and immigration laws were occurring in intra-imperial and settler-colonial contexts, as white emigration from Britain flourished, as indentured labourers were moved from India to the so-called sugar colonies after the abolition of slavery, and Indian immigrants were encouraged to settle in the British East Africa Protectorate, among other forms of forced migration or economic migration under imperial auspices. Historically, any discussion of non-white migration to Britain must begin with the story of white emigration from Britain. 

The mutually reinforcing and enabling relationship between migration and empire existed well before 1945. But one piece of legislation in particular transformed this relationship in the immediate post-war years, resetting the legal architecture of post-war migration as well as Britain’s imperial constitution. The 1948 British Nationality Act set the tone for post-war Britain. It was greeted by a New York Times headline that declared: ‘British empire gets new nationality act’. In other words, the 1948 Act was in fact non-national and might have been named the British Imperial Nationality Act. 

The 1948 Act was momentous because it gave rights of entry and residence in Britain to millions of non-white people around the world, on the basis of their connection to existing crown colonies or independent Commonwealth states. The true motivations behind the 1948 Act were squarely imperial – namely, retaining and rearticulating the scheme of British subjecthood for the post-war world, and keeping a soon-to-be-republican India in the Commonwealth. The afterlives of the 1948 Act were manifold as the age of decolonization continued and, yet, successive British governments refused to dismantle the imperial structures of British nationality, instead passing immigration laws as so many bandages on nativist wounds as the imperial heartland became home to more and more non-white migrants.  

In the book, I am at pains to describe the various legal statuses of post-war migrants to Britain, who were either British citizens (citizens ‘of the United Kingdom and Colonies’) or Commonwealth citizens, both of which groups had unrestricted rights of entry and residence in Britain between 1948 and 1962. (Things become rather more complicated after 1962.)  As the Trinidad-born activist and migrant Claudia Jones wrote at the time, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act had created ‘a second-class citizenship status for West Indians and other Afro Asian peoples’ attempting to migrate to Britain. The 1962 Act gave the lie to Harold Macmillan’s attempts to claim the so-called ‘wind of change’ as an example of British benefaction and leadership at the level of shifting global values.

One of my main concerns in the book is to show the ways in which post-war migration was deeply implicated in international politics. The course of post-war migration has to be understood in terms of the vagaries of Britain’s role in world politics after 1945, as it attempted to marshal its imperial Commonwealth to contend in the making of the post-war world. Decolonization was not so much a choice, or a turn inwards towards domestic affairs, as an adaptation to shifting international realities, norms and values – most immediately at the level of self-determination, anti-colonialism and racial equality. 

Yet Britain’s attempt to shape the post-war world by way of its imperial Commonwealth did not fully die with the end of direct imperial rule. With surprising tenacity, in a series of deaths and rebirths, various British officials presented the Commonwealth as simply the latest and most evolved iteration of British liberal imperialism into the early 1970s, as it absorbed the sources of and arguments for British imperial power, both real and imagined, in the post-war decades.  

Britain’s post-war self-image was heavily self-deceived, based among other things on a supposed structural ‘Anglocentricity’ in world politics. More effective efforts at worldmaking during the age of decolonization were an extension of the struggle against colonialism, and were envisioned by postcolonial leaders in India, the Caribbean and Africa. Especially at the United Nations, Britain was routinely criticised on its imperial record and the terms of decolonization by global south states and new postcolonial states. India and later Jamaica became significant brokers of racial equality and international human rights in the first post-war decades. By contrast, Britain, alongside its Commonwealth partner until 1961, apartheid South Africa, found itself increasingly at odds with global efforts to foster international equality. 

As Britain passed exclusivist and racially discriminatory immigration laws in the 1960s and early 1970s, a range of international figures concerned with international racial equality criticised British immigration policies and argued that British decolonization contained unreconstructed efforts to rejuvenate British imperialism. Postcolonial leaders such as Indira Gandhi, Julius Nyerere, Hastings Banda, and Eric Williams – as well as a slew of postcolonial diplomats, writers and intellectuals – criticised British immigration policies and cast doubt on the future of the Commonwealth. Yet Britain wanted to have it both ways: it wanted to retain the supposed imperial unity and ambition provided by the Commonwealth, including imperial structures of citizenship, and yet pass exclusivist immigration laws based on race. There was an internal struggle between British imperial idealism and post-war British nativism, as Britain’s reputational power only continued to wane internationally.

The racism against so-called ‘coloured immigrants’ in Britain was conceived politically in terms of ‘belonging’ among officials and politicians, as white violence took place on British streets in the late 1950s and beyond. But it was in the 1960s and early 1970s when this hostility transposed itself into law and the key immigration policies of the post-war decades. In particular, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and 1971 Immigration Act saw the tiering of British nationality along racial lines. 

Towards the end of the 1960s, there was an associative realm within the minds of British officials in which non-white migrants conjured and embodied the stymied imperial ambitions of the Commonwealth and Britain’s embattled place within the international public sphere. Then, in the late 1960s, British politicians, officials and journalists started to conflate what they saw as conjoined domestic and international crises, as the fate of empire in Aden and ‘east of Suez’ mixed with fears over further non-white migration and domestic and transnational forms of black power and Maoism. Ever implicated in world politics, the racial imagination of British politicians, officials and journalists was constantly interacting with real and perceived forms of transnational black solidarity during the 1960s, as well as the memory of colonial governance and the imagined final destiny of British liberal imperialism.   

Yet still Britain refused to dismantle its structures of imperial citizenship. Instead, beginning in 1967, officials at the Commonwealth Office and Foreign Office (and in the merged FCO after mid-1968) conducted in secret a global racial census of non-white British citizens resident outside Britain. Soon afterwards, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act was the first time that an immigration law was levelled at British citizens per se, as large numbers of South Asian British citizens resident in Kenya found themselves stateless after the 1968 Act came into effect, despite still being described as British citizens in law. If Britain could not make good its supposed claim on post-war world politics, all that was left to it was its sovereign power at the level of citizenship, borders, belonging and migration.  

Britain also tried to prevent further arrivals of non-white migrants by way of diplomatic interventions. One of the more important revelations of the book is the great significance – previously overlooked – of British-Indian relations to post-war migration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These included many diplomatic attempts by British officials to foist British citizens and British Protected Persons – in particular, these were South Asians in East Africa – on to Indira Gandhi's government for permanent settlement in India. Indeed, the postcolonial politics of East Africa and South Asia, and Britain’s bilateral relationships with certain key states (among them India and Kenya), would often dictate the exact terms of migration to Britain and immigration policies in the late 1960s. Britain tried – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding – to exploit India’s complicated relationship after 1947 with so-called overseas Indians, despite the fact that the overseas Indians in question were often British citizens. 

Technically, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and the 1971 Immigration Act are examples of indirect racial discrimination. Yet the effects of the 1968 Act on certain individuals were later found to be an example of racial discrimination and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights in 1973. During this same period, and unbeknownst both to the British public and the United Nations, both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath’s governments were responsible for the forcible displacement of Chagossians – long-standing inhabitants of the Chagos archipelago – during the preparation of the British Indian Ocean Territory (created in 1965) for US military purposes in the context of the Cold War. Indeed, the forgotten episodes of the end of empire are too numerous to discuss here.

By the end of the book, one sees that there were remarkable correlations between the exclusions levelled at non-white would-be migrants after 1945 and British post-war imperialism. The Commonwealth served to kick the question of the end of empire into the long grass, leaving instead a clutch of episodes in which Britain overplayed its imperial and reputational power while doing its best either to conceal or explain away its abuses at the level of structural and sovereign power and human rights, including its policies on immigration. Indeed, Britain appears to remain the more deceived on many of these questions and histories.