The interactive parts of this resource no longer work, but it has been archived so you can continue using the rest of it.

Citizenship home page
Citizen or subject Rise of Parliament Struggle for democracy Brave New World
The struggle for democracy
Making history
Citizenship 1906-2003
Post war immigration
Civil rights now
Edward Heath - European citizen
Local history
Document studies
The Welfare State
Women's rights
Quiz page

Postwar immigration

When the Second World War ended in 1945, it was quickly recognised that the reconstruction of the British economy required a large influx of immigrant labour. The Royal Commission on Population reported in 1949 that immigrants of 'good stock' would be welcomed 'without reserve', and potential newcomers from the Caribbean and elsewhere soon became aware of the pressing needs of the labour market in the UK.
Race Relations Act, 1968 - opens new window
Race Relations Act, 1968
Document (132k) | Transcript
'Strange voices in the street', 1960 - opens new window
'Strange voices in the street', 1960
Document (167k) | Transcript

Immigration from Europe

The appeal for new workers was, however, aimed primarily at white Europeans, who had dominated immigration to Britain during the century before the Second World War and still played an important role after 1945. Even in the 1970s the Irish remained the largest immigrant community in Britain. In the years immediately after the war, new arrivals came from all over Europe. These included a small number of German prisoners of war, a larger number of refugees from the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (130,000 Poles arrived during the first few years after the war, and 14,000 Hungarians after the failure of the 1956 uprising in Hungary), substantial numbers of Irish and Italian labourers, and a wide variety of displaced persons from refugee camps throughout Europe.

Immigration from the Commonwealth

Postwar immigration also attracted, for the first time, large numbers of workers and their families from outside Europe - mainly from the Caribbean and from India and Pakistan, the two separate states created by 'partition' after Britain relinquished its Indian empire in 1947. During the 1950s, in particular, Britain's non-white immigrant population increased rapidly in size.

Nurses in snow
Nurses in snow Immigration from the West Indies was encouraged by the British Nationality Act of 1948, which gave all Commonwealth citizens free entry into Britain, and by a tough new US immigration law introduced in 1952 restricting entry into the USA. The symbolic starting point of this mass migration to the 'mother country' was the journey of the SS Empire Windrush from Kingston, Jamaica, to Tilbury, Essex, in June 1948. On board were almost 500 West Indians intent on starting new lives in Britain.
From the Indian subcontinent, the majority of immigrants arrived in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. Although often lumped together as one group by white Britons, these newcomers in fact came from a variety of backgrounds. They included Hindus from the Gujarat region of western India, Sikhs from the eastern Punjab region, and Muslims both from the west part of Pakistan and from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. Nurses in snow
Immigrant centres, 1969 - opens new window
Immigrant centres, 1969
Document | Transcript

Racism in Britain

Assessing how these immigrants have been welcomed in Britain since the 1950s is a complicated task. There was, and still is, a minority of hardcore racists, with policies based on the idea of 'keeping Britain white' and banning all immigration. Groups such as the British National Party (BNP) have remained on the extremist fringe of British politics. It is also true that black and Asian immigrants faced various degrees of hostility and racial prejudice in postwar Britain. Surveys conducted in the mid 1960s, for example, revealed that four out of five British people felt that 'too many immigrants had been let into the country'.

This view has expressed itself in racist violence relatively rarely - the flashpoints in Britain during the past 50 years have largely been confined to poor areas where local white and black communities compete for scarce jobs and housing. But it has frequently been represented by more casual and insidious forms of racism. Anti-immigrant feelings have also been inflamed, both directly and indirectly, by agitation for tighter immigration controls - usually proposed when there is not an acute labour shortage. Nurses in snow
Nurses in snow

Race relations legislation

The Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000 was introduced as a result of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry of 1999. This was held in response to the campaigning of the black community following the flawed investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The inquiry's report acknowledged the existence of 'institutional racism' in the police and other organisations. The Scarman Report, produced as a result of unrest in Brixton, in south London, and other urban areas in 1981, also called for reform.

Since the 1960s Britain has developed a substantial body of race relations legislation. Various Race Relations Acts (1965, 1968, 1976 and 2000) have provided a statutory basis for stamping out racial discrimination in employment and other areas. To reinforce this legislation, organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality (created as part of the 1976 Race Relations Act) have tried to ensure that the principle of racial equality is put into practice. Nurses in snow
Nurses in snow

In the 21st century, Britain is a multi-racial society. The huge contributions made by the various immigrant communities to Britain's economic and social development since the Second World War are now widely recognised. Their role in creating a more diverse and tolerant society is indisputable.

For more about immigration to Britain since the Second World War and during the previous century, link to Moving Here, which focuses on the experiences of the Caribbean, Irish, Jewish and South Asian communities from the 1840s to the present.

back to top of page