Archive for the ‘Commonwealth’ Category

Britain Sixty Years Ago (VI): Immigration and the Myths of Integration   Leave a comment

Recent debates about migration to Britain from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and elsewhere are somewhat reminiscent of those which began to be heard in the late fifties in British politics. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtually open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and their practices. This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.

In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When some five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country. Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt.

However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom. In places like Coventry, there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Welsh, Irish and Indian migrants who had arrived in large numbers from the mid-thirties onwards. This continued after the war, with coloured workers, in particular, being kept in low-paid factory jobs by foremen and union shop-stewards alike. Although the small wartime community in the city had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, this was still a relatively small number compared with white migrants from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially Ireland, as can be seen in the tables below:

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The sub-continental ethnic minority communities were described by many contemporary Coventrians as quiet and peace-loving, ‘colonising’ some of the more rundown housing stock along the Foleshill Road to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry at the time, the Indian minorities were anxious to protect their own culture and identity. As early as 1952, the City Council had granted Pakistani Muslims land for separate burial facilities and for the building of a Mosque. Despite being relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian and Pakistani communities were, however, not immune from the sort of racial prejudice which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas… They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room. 

These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute miners whom my grandfather helped to find accommodation and work in the Walsgrave and Binley areas on the outskirts of the city. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities.  The former was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the latter, amounting to only 1,200 even by 1961, and the idea of alcoholic or methylated Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus staggering along the Foleshill Road stemmed from a complete ignorance of other religious and ethnic cultures, even when compared with other prejudicial statements of the time.

Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966,  but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).

In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home. Neither were Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. As with the Welsh and Irish migrants before them, the prejudice against the wartime Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation, strengthening the need for ethnic identification and compensatory status, reinforcing minority group solidarity and building the Polish community into a social entity. These conditions defined the ethnic vitality of the community, giving shape to its social, religious, economic and political life, in addition to enabling it to meet every need of Polish immigrants in Britain. By the end of the next decade, it could be observed that:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over 500 are practising in Britain or dentist (80 Polish dental services), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

Anti-Semitism also remained common in the popular literature of the 1950s, and the actual practices of the British upper middle classes towards ordinary Jewish communities remained, as they had done before the war, close to the colour bar practised by Americans. Before the war, Jewish working people had been barely tolerated as servants and shopkeepers. The centres of Yiddish-speaking in London until the early 1950s were the East End districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and Stepney (the latter subsequently formed part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, which was widely populated by the Bangladeshi community from the 1980s). The influential major Jewish school in the East End, the Jews’ Free School, which had up to five thousand pupils in the early 1900s, saw itself as a citadel of anglicisation through to the 1950s, since Yiddish was regarded, not as a language in its own right, but as a corrupt form of German, itself still labelled as the language of the corrupt and oppressive Nazi regime. Even before the Second World War, irrespective of their attitudes towards religion, many Zionist groups throughout Europe had promoted Hebrew and stressed their rejection of Yiddish as the product of the Diaspora. Popular Jewish youth clubs in Britain, in common cause with the schools, had also promoted anglicisation and had also been highly successful in producing a generation oriented towards sports, dancing and mainstream British leisure pursuits.

Nevertheless, there also remained substantial Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The fundamentalist, or Orthodox communities, had already established themselves in the Stamford and Stoke Newington areas of Greater London before the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that these communities grew to significant sizes. For many of them, continuing to speak Yiddish, rather than using the modern Hebrew of Israel after 1948, was an act of defiance towards Zionism. It was therefore not surprising that, as early as the 1950s, it was a very common response of both first and second generation British Jews from the mainstream communities to deny all knowledge of Yiddish. Of those who did, only a tiny minority would be heard using it in public, even as late as the early 1980s, though that decade also, later, saw an enormous increase in Yiddish.

In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the numbers of Ashkenazi Jews were swollen by a significant proportion of the relatively few Holocaust survivors who were allowed to settle in Britain and still further boosted by some hundreds of Hungarian Jews who left Hungary after the 1956 Uprising, after which they suffered further persecution from the Kádár regime. I have written extensively, elsewhere on this site, about the Hungarian refugees who arrived in Britain in the winter and spring of 1956-57, and we know that of the 200,000 who fled Hungary during those months, some 56,000 were officially admitted to the UK. Of course, in addition to the Jews who had already settled in London and Manchester, these latest arrivals were from all religions and classes in Hungary, not just the élite army officers, landowners and capitalists who had fled the Fascism of the Horthy and Szalási regimes, but all those fearing repression and reprisals, or seizing the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living in western Europe.  Among them were many of Jewish origin who had converted to Protestantism or Catholicism, along with the original adherents of those religions. The fifty-six exiles comprised a wide range of landless peasants, unskilled workers, craftsmen, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Marika Sherwood emigrated first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Although returning to Hungary for regular visits to relatives, her Hungarian was English-accented and of the ‘kitchen’ variety. While her son maintained an interest in Hungary, he spoke only a few words of Hungarian, and his wife and friends were all English. Marika’s roundabout route to Britain was far from typical of the Hungarian exiles there who left their native land in the late forties and fifties, but her rapid assimilation into English life certainly was so. Unlike the Poles, the Hungarians did not establish separate support networks or religious and cultural institutions, though at the height of the exodus the Hungarian Embassy sponsored nine British-Hungarian associations. The oldest one, in London, was founded in 1951 and conducted its meetings in English. In the following twenty years, its membership dropped by half, from 150 to 75. In one area the membership included only ‘fifty-sixers’, as earlier immigrants either died or moved away, but in two others there were remnants of earlier migrations. Marika Sherwood’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:

The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions. We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why. When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism  which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants. 

The fact remains that almost as soon as the first post-war migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, was quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Perhaps, therefore, we should not act quite so surprised that such attitudes still continue to fall as readily from the lips of Labour as well as Tory politicians in the twenty-first century as they did sixty years ago.

Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas. There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent had begun almost immediately after its independence and partition, as a result of the displacement of both Hindus and Muslims, but it had been small in scale.

Sikhs, mainly from the Punjab, had also arrived in Britain, looking for work in the west London borough of Southall, which quickly became a hub of the subcontinent. Indian migrants created their own networks for buying and supplying the corner shops which required punishingly long hours, and the restaurants which had almost instantly become part of the ‘British’ way of life. By 1970 there were more than two thousand Indian (especially Punjabi) restaurants, and curry became the single most popular dish in the UK within the following generation. Other migrants went into textile production and the rag trade, growing relatively rich compared with most of their British ‘neighbours’, who were (perhaps naturally enough) somewhat jealous of the people they viewed as ‘newcomers’.

So immigration continued through the fifties without any great debate. Much of it was not black but European, mostly migrant workers from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France and other countries who were positively welcomed during the years of skill and manpower shortages. There was a particularly hefty Italian migration producing a first-generation Italian-speaking community of around a hundred thousand by 1971, adding to earlier immigration going back to the 1870s, and even as far back as the 1400s. Migrants who moved to the UK before the Second World War settled in different parts of Britain, including the south Wales valleys, where they set up bracchi shops selling coffee, ice cream and soda among other goods. Their links within the catering trade and subsequent competition encouraged dispersion. Chain migration led to the settlement of groups coming from the same area in particular locations, similar to the patterns experienced by Welsh migrants to England in the inter-war period.

After 1945, the destination for the mass-recruited Italian migrants, coming almost exclusively from the rural areas in southern Italy, were towns where industrial settlements required unskilled labour, like the brick-making industries of Bedford and Peterborough, or rural areas needing labour for agriculture. In later decades, as Italian migration to Britain declined, the proportion of migrants from the centre and north of Italy increased at the expense of that from the impoverished south. Areas associated with the mass recruitment of the 1950s witnessed the formation of close-knit communities of people whose personal histories were similar, who came from the same region or neighbouring regions, often from the same village. The home dialects were often mutually intelligible and therefore played a great role in community interaction. It was often a crystallised form of dialect, that, outside its natural environment, did not follow the same evolution as the dialect back home. Instead, these dialects were heavily loaded with English borrowings. Even something as simple as a ‘cup of tea’ was usually offered in English, as it represented a habit acquired in the new environment.

Throughout the 1950s, there was constant and heavy migration from Ireland, mainly into the construction industry, three-quarters of a million in the early fifties and two million by the early seventies, producing little political response except in the immediate aftermath of IRA bombings. There was substantial Maltese immigration which caught the public attention for a time due to the violent gang wars in London between rival Maltese families in the extortion and prostitution business (many of them were originally Sicilian). In addition, there were many ‘refugees’ from both sides of the Greek-Turkish Cypriot conflict, including one of my best friends in Birmingham, a second-generation Greek Cypriot whose family owned a restaurant in their adopted city and continued to attend Orthodox services. Again, apart from the enthusiastic adoption of plate-smashing and moussaka-throwing in such restaurants, there was little discernible public concern.

The first sizeable Greek Cypriot group arrived in the inter-war years and was composed of young men in search of education and work. On the outbreak of the Second World War, most of them were conscripted as ‘overseas nationals’ and served as British soldiers in various parts of the world. After the war, more significant numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and suitable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the subsequent struggles and invasions. By the 1980s, the Greek Cypriot population in Britain had reached two hundred thousand. Although there were small Greek communities in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, by far the largest proportion of the Greek speech community was concentrated in London. In the national context, the numbers of Greeks was relatively small. Within the capital, however, Greeks formed a significant minority, and the number of recorded Greek-speakers there only began to decrease in the 1980s, though still constituting one of the largest bilingual groups in Inner London schools.

Greek Cypriots, although leaving behind a sometimes bloody conflict, left their island homes mainly as economic migrants. The majority of them came from lower socio-economic groups, setting out with high aspirations, confident about their hard-working nature and grounded in the strong sense of solidarity binding them to their compatriots. Once in Britain, they worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, hairdressing and grocery-retailing, as well as in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries. In the villages of Cyprus, most women’s work had been confined to the household and the fields. In Britain, though still undervalued and underpaid, a substantial number of women went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small family run factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piece-work rates.

Mother-tongue teaching was provided by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 1950s. Increasingly, however, this role was taken over by various parents’ groups. The longest-standing of these is the Greek Parents’ Association in Haringey, which dates back to 1955. Other parts of London and the country slowly took their lead from this, and classes were established in Coventry in 1963, and much later, in 1979, in Bradford. Children spent between one and four hours per week in these community-run classes, with the average attendance in the region of three hours. A pressing issue in these classes has been the place of the Cypriot dialect. While parents wanted their children to learn standard modern Greek (SMG), many British-trained teachers felt that the Cypriot dialect should also have a place as a medium of instruction.

Migration from Turkey and Cyprus followed very different patterns. Cypriot settlement preceded emigration from Turkey, dating back to the 1950s when the British government was actively seeking labour. In the 1960s, the birth of the Republic of Cyprus and the subsequent fighting between Greek and Turkish communities further encouraged migration to Britain, often in a bid to gain entry before the enactment of increasingly stringent immigration legislation. With the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey in 1974, a further nine thousand Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees fled to Britain. It is impossible to tell how many of these came from each ethnic group since only place of birth information was recorded on settlement in the UK, not ethnic identity. Migration from Turkey itself only began in the 1970s. Cypriot Turkish has traditionally been accorded low status, often dismissed as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘pidgin Turkish’, although Turkish Cypriots have defended the legitimacy of their own variety and, since 1974, have resisted linguistic assimilation from mainland Turkey. 

Chinese migration, mainly from the impoverished agricultural hinterland of Hong Kong, can be measured by the vast rise in Chinese fish-and-chip shops, takeaways and restaurants since the mid-fifties, when there were a few hundred, to more than four thousand by the beginning of the seventies. Their owners were speakers of the Cantonese dialect.

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A Jamaican immigrant seeking lodgings in Birmingham in 1955

Thus, if there were clear rules about how to migrate quietly to Britain, they would have stated first, ‘be white’, and second, ‘if you can’t be white, be small in number’, and third, ‘if all else fails, feed the brutes’. The West Indian migration, at least until the mid-eighties, failed each rule. It was mainly male, young and coming not to open restaurants but to work for wages which could, in part, be sent back home. Some official organisations, including the National Health Service and London Transport, went on specific recruiting drives for drivers, conductors, nurses and cleaners, with advertisements in Jamaica. Most of the population shift, however, was driven by the migrants themselves, desperate for a better life, particularly once the popular alternative migration to the USA was closed down in 1952. The Caribbean islands, dependent on sugar or tobacco for most employment, were going through hard times. As word was passed back about job opportunities, albeit in difficult surroundings, immigration grew fast to about 36,000 people a year by the late fifties. The scale of the change was equivalent to the total non-white population of 1951 arriving in Britain every two years. The black and Asian population rose to 117,000 by 1961. Although these were still comparatively small numbers, from the first they were concentrated in particular localities, rather than being dispersed. Different West Indian island groups clustered in different parts of London and the English provincial cities – Jamaicans in the south London areas of Brixton and Clapham,  Trinidadians in west London’s Notting Hill, islanders from Nevis in Leicester, people from St Vincent in High Wycombe, and so on.

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405,000 people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1958, mostly single men.

The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserves special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results. Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so that it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.

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In the 1960s, women and children joined their men: 328,000 more West Indians settled in Britain.

More important in the longer-term, a rebelliousness was sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties, and the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white but Welsh-immigrant-led nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.

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Landlords and landladies were often reluctant to rent to blacks. Once a few houses had immigrants in them, a domino effect would clear streets as white residents sold up and shipped out. The 1957 Rent Act, initiated by Enoch Powell, in his free-market crusade, perversely made the situation worse by allowing rents to rise sharply, but only when tenants of unfurnished rooms were removed to allow for furnished lettings. Powell had intended to instigate a period during which rent rises could be cushioned, but its unintended consequence was that unscrupulous landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, himself an immigrant, bought up low-value properties for letting, ejecting the existing tenants and replacing them with new tenants, packed in at far higher rents. Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties.

 

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Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British, or rather the white English. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country. Numerous testimonies by immigrants and in surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones, until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.

Only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell would, at this stage, only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. For the Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks.

White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted below, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. Their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory-marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants.  As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has written, in the ‘society of affluence’,  which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following respondent to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.               

‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motor-cycle lad who said, of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge, talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, near my birthplace, and spread to the capital the following day.

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In my next post, I want to deal with these events in more detail. For now, I will pause with the paradox of the year in which I was born, 1957, just forty days before Harold Macmillan told the good burgers of Bedford, no doubt some of them Italian immigrants, that most of our people have never had it so good. Today, it feels as if the British, myself included, have spent the last sixty years trapped inside that paradox, that illusionary ‘bubble’. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s commentary, combining it with the well-known ‘East End’ song, we have been blowing bubbles, but they always seem to burst, just like our dreams. When the mists and myths clear, we are still the same country we were born into sixty years ago. The Sixties’ ‘Social Revolution’ never really happened. The poor are not only still with us, but they are there in greater numbers. The ‘economic miracle’ has dissipated, and the one per cent of the adult population who owned four-fifths of all the wealth still do. The ‘Macmillenium’ is long since over, as this millennial generation is the first since the Industrial Revolution not to have as good as its predecessors, let alone better.

 

Main sources:

Andrew Marr (20007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed., n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that the Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

MOOC pic

India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

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