The Cabinet Papers banner

Origins of Commonwealth immigration

Labour shortage and a declining population

After the Second World War, there was a labour shortage in Britain which was coupled with concern over the declining population. In 1948, the government set up a working party to consider employment of colonial labour. The working party did not recommend large-scale immigration because of the fear of discrimination against immigrants.

Spontaneous movement from the Caribbean (where unemployment was high) began in 1948 with the symbolic arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, carrying people to Britain in the hope of finding employment. There were no restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, and as British subjects, they had full rights of citizenship. This principle was reaffirmed in the British Nationality Act of 1948, although large-scale immigration was not envisaged at the time.

Increased immigration

For the next five years, immigration from colonies remained at no more than 2,000 per year. This increased in 1954 and had reached over 135,000 by 1961. In 1950, the Cabinet considered instigating checks on the movement of non-white people into Britain. Existing policy of dispersal and assimilation was not found to be effective and a further review was called for.

The committee of ministers that addressed immigration in 1951 argued that the problem of immigration was a minor one, and advised against the reversal of the long-standing policy of allowing British subjects access to the United Kingdom. Over the next few years, immigration was largely ignored. However, when the number of West Indians entering the United Kingdom increased after 1954, the Secretary of State for the Home Office, Gwilym Lloyd George, raised the idea of legislation to prevent free movement of colonial immigrants.

Discrimination and immigration restrictions

In 1955, the Colonial Office produced a draft White Paper on immigration restrictions and an inter-departmental committee prepared a report on the associated economic and social problems of Commonwealth immigration. The Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, argued that draft proposals aimed at West Indian immigration were racially discriminatory, as the large majority of immigrants were Irish. In 1956, on advice from a specially convened committee of ministers, the Cabinet shelved legislation plans against Commonwealth immigration.

Notting Hill riots

Two years later, in 1958, Lord Hailsham produced a draft Bill but Cabinet decided there was still no immediate need for legislation. The racially charged Notting Hill riots put immigration firmly back onto the political agenda. The Cabinet again considered legislation, but members were unwilling to proceed given the proximity of a general election. The policy was to persuade Caribbean governments to limit emigration. A deportation Bill was also prepared.


The National Archives Newsletter Icon

Send me The National Archives’ newsletter

A monthly round-up of news, blogs, offers and events.