Books

When race wars came to Britain

Black bus conductors played a part in breaking down racial prejudice (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Lovers and Strangers: an Immigrant History of Post-War Britain
By Clair Wills, Allen Lane, £20

West Indians were not numerous in 1950s London. On double-decker buses, passengers were often astonished to see non-white “clippies” (conductors), and would even ask to pat their hair for “good luck”. Thus London Transport played its own small role in breaking down race prejudice in post-war Britain: members of the British public were allowed to encounter black people for the first time and even talk to them. Unfortunately, the sense of camaraderie did not last.

Clair Wills’s immigrant history of 1950s and 1960s Britain is haunted by the race “disturbances” that convulsed Britain in 1958. Violence erupted first in Nottingham, then, more grievously, in London. White youths (“teddy boys” to the press) went out to beat up West Indians and “Pakis” in Shepherd’s Bush and the area then known as Notting Dale, between the factories of Wood Lane and the now middle-class streets of Notting Hill, roughly where the fire-blighted Grenfell Tower stands today. Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and other hoodlums were rallying the disaffected to go out “nigger-hunting”. So began four days of the worst civil unrest the United Kingdom was to see until the Brixton riots of 1981. The events of 1958 dramatically altered the way West Indians and Asians viewed the host country, and helped to dispel myths of imperial Britain as protector of “subject peoples”.

A recurring theme in Wills’s history is the black and Asian immigrant’s discovery that Britain was not only unmindful of the Commonwealth but also disinclined to help. Italians selling ice-cream were made to feel more welcome than West Indians or Pakistanis, although Italy fought on Hitler’s side in the War. But, as Wills suggests, when the British speak about immigrants, they do not usually mean white people. For all their immersion in British history and culture, many Jamaicans were struck dumb on their arrival in Britain. How could Britain look so different to the way it had been depicted in the posters back home? The biggest surprise was not the glum clothes or unsmiling faces, but the cockney patois people spoke. Many Commonwealth citizens had fully expected the British to be like the white colonials they had known while at school. The spectacle of white road-sweepers – Caucasian hands doing the black man’s perceived work – was a truly astonishing reversal of roles. Another shock was the sight of British women with their hair in rollers in public. What sort of life could spring from such squalor? The British lion must have become a very minor power, it was thought, if its people could look so run-down.

In 1945, according to Wills, it still just about “made sense” to regard Britain as an imperial power. Every one of Britain’s imperial subjects and citizens of the Commonwealth – one quarter of the world’s population – had the right to live in Britain as British citizens. All that changed in 1962, however, when the British government under Harold Wilson passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. By imposing tough new restrictions on entry into the UK, the Act discriminated heavily against “coloured” Commonwealth citizens. It was a humiliation for long-settled Barbadian, Indian or Pakistani immigrants to have to provide evidence of their British citizenship.

In Wills’s view, the Commonwealth Act was plainly a reaction to the “hysteria” unleashed by the Nottingham and Notting Hill riots four years earlier. Enoch Powell’s “populist racist politics” did not help, though it is too easy to dismiss Powell as a swivel-eyed scourge of the neo-liberal values of “assimilation” and “integration”. As Tory health minister between 1960 and 1963, he invited Commonwealth citizens from India, Pakistan and the West Indies to come and work in the NHS; thousands responded.

In scholarly pages, Wills chronicles the thousands of Europeans who also settled in Britain at the war’s end. Many of them had reached these shores via the 726 Displaced Persons (DP) camps scattered across liberated Germany, and were riven by feelings of pain and foreboding. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had suffered a triple occupation – Soviet, Nazi, Soviet. A single occupation can divide a country for generations, as it did France – a threefold occupation was something more long term and humanly corrosive. As a result of the Stalin-Hitler depredations, vast areas of eastern Europe had simply disappeared from the map.

Generally, European refugees were welcomed by the British people, perhaps simply because they were white.

Special opprobrium was reserved for Commonwealth citizens married to white British women. British calls for racial purity puzzled many newcomers from the West Indies, as racial mixing was not new to them. Chinese and Indian indentured labourers had long married into the African slave populations of the Caribbean. Ahead of their time, many West Indians knew that Britain too was going to be racially mixed one day.

Wills’s book, superbly researched and written, is the beginning of wisdom in these things.