Post-war Britain: how changing political and social contexts affected the integration of British immigrants

As shown through post-war British immigrants, immigration across open borders has not lead to full societal integration. When evaluating why this is, three main factors are considered.

1. Changing ideas about nationalism and national economic self-interest

2. Racial and religious differences between natives and immigrants

3. Influence of opposing British leaders/ divisive politics

At its peak, the British Empire dominated world trade, labor, and industrialization. Britain was known for being “the motherland” to its many colonized countries – recognized as a multicultural hub filled with opportunity for incoming migrant groups and local British workers. Specifically, London, as Britain’s capitol, had many pull factors such as relative wealth, peace, and security that became more attractive as global economic and political stability was declining. After World War II, many Eastern European countries suffered push factors of severe wars, poverty, and dysfunctional institutionalism that pushed out unprecedented waves of mass migration to Britain. Some immigrants were escaping recession in search for economic opportunity, while others were fleeing immediate persecution.

In this way, Britain is multicultural in the purest sense; but as history has shown, being a multi-cultural hub doesn’t necessarily mean being an inclusive one. Today, despite its prosperity, Britain is more politically polarized than ever, and immigration issues underlie some of this polarization.

Recent poll showing polarized public opinion surrounding whether impact of British immigration has been positive, negative or neutral. As shown, results are split and there isn’t a significant majority opinion.

Trends of post-World War II British immigration demonstrate how open or exclusive the nation was to integrating immigrants amidst changing economic and social contexts. Despite Britain’s public support for allowing free movement across its borders, inclusion and tolerance of immigrants often varied based on external threats and internal nationalism. Notably, even during times of less political polarization and turmoil, successful integration into British society was often prohibited due to racial and religious differences between immigrants and Britons, status of British economy and resource availability, and opposing party leaders.

POST-WAR IMMIGRATION TO BRITAIN

How Britain’s changing economic global status affected general integration and acceptance of immigrants into British society

Significant polarization surrounding immigration often stems from differences in initial push factors: beginning with whether immigrants are economic migrants escaping national poverty or refugees fleeing persecution. This distinction is sometimes unclear, and has created global unrest for centuries. If immigrants become increasingly successful in their new country’s economy, nationalism can intensify due to insecurity, and the social divide between local citizens and newcomers deepens. This begs the question: is British nationalism overpowering its solidarity? And if so, is this national polarization negatively affecting levels of immigration acceptance and integration?

In post-war Britain, this cycle happened repeatedly. After World War II, Britain’s economic, social, and political status deteriorated fairly quickly – creating a shift in the country’s overall functionality, and more specifically, in how Britons accepted incoming migrant groups. Britain’s social and economic instability led to a need for mass migration- regardless if immigrants were economic migrants or refugees. During broken circumstances, increased multiculturalism meant more specialized division of labor, man power, and intersection of ideas working towards re-building the nation’s once-prosperous economy.

Image symbolizing relationship between nationalism (British flag) and immigration (fence). This powerful photo demonstrates the power of nationalism; it’s blocking and taking over the passageway immigrants use to enter.

Immigrants were needed; but needed for national self-interest. In the 1950s, knowing that countries such as the Caribbean islands, Jamaica, Pakistan, Bangladesh were in recession, the British government encouraged waves of migrants to work in British labor markets. Wanting to flee their deteriorating economic and social conditions, immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Caribbean settled across Britain. Suddenly, the idea of multiculturalism was more appealing to the British government because it meant that hard labor could be diffused to incoming immigrants- regardless of whether they were seeking immediate asylum or economic prosperity. As the number of Caribbean and Asian migrants steadily grew and helped rebuild the city ground-up, London’s economy, transport system, and industrialization boomed.

Notably, during these times of economic prosperity, immigrants weren’t posing much threat to local communities. If anything, they did what the government intended and repaired and advanced the nation’s infrastructure and economy.

However, as more waves came and were increasingly successful within British labor markets -that they helped to rebuild- social resentments resurfaced and nationalistic tendencies spread rapidly.

Nationalist marches taken to the streets. Xenophobic, prejudice ideals became the common discourse surrounding British immigration. The sign above reads Britain for the British.

Many Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants who arrived to London in the 1960’s were qualified teachers, engineers and doctors. As they became more successful within British labor markets, they posed threat to Britons for competing jobs, housing, and schooling. During this time, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between economic migrants and refugees. Because of increasing xenophobia and national institutionalism, British authorities started categorizing all immigrants the same- which created large governmental backup and dismissal in granting asylum to those fleeing immediate danger.

In this way, Britain’s acceptance of advancing multiculturalism was contextual; once migrant groups were no longer needed to help rebuild the city, they were unable to integrate into British society. As tensions and the divide between Britons and immigrants grew, xenophobic attitudes enforced the narrative that all immigrants were un-welcomed, regardless of their reason for coming.

How religious and racial differences affected integration and acceptance of immigrants

Religious differences between local citizens and immigrants also contributed to the divide between locals and immigrants. In particular, Muslim immigration suffered because Bangladesh and Pakistani groups had to try and integrate into a pre-dominantly secular, atheist culture that looked down upon their religious practice.

Religious affiliation in Britain (recorded in 2011). Britain was and remains multicultural; the state puts its money and resources behind minority cultures. However, similar to most European states, the majority of Britons are Christian or Atheist and, unlike Muslims, don’t associate religion with national identity.

When analyzing why immigrant religion can be problematic, I considered three main factors:

1. Religious backgrounds of immigrants: Islam

2. Religiosity (if any) of native population: Majority Christian or Atheist

3. Historic relations between the state and religious groups: Muslim expansion into Christian territories and Christian imperialism in Muslims territories have created instilled fear and resentment on both sides. Relations between Muslims and Christians across the globe have become increasingly polarized, often led by anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Due to these fundamental differences (among others), Muslim immigrants were forced to form communities of their own so they could maintain as much of their cultural and religious way of life as possible. The main concentrations of Pakistani immigrants settled around the outskirts of London in boroughs of Redbridge, Newham, and Waltham Forest. The Bangladeshi immigrants (now well over 150,000) in London spread across Tower Hamlets, Camden, Westminster and Newham – with Brick Lane as the heart of the community (now known as “Banglatown”). However, these Muslim communities have fallen victim to severe anti-Islamic rhetoric (Islamophobia), and are referred to as no-go zones by over a third of Britons. In this way, anti-Muslim prejudice and discourse assimilated into British culture; not only preventing Muslim immigrants from integrating into the rest of society, but also discriminating them for their racial and religious identities.

How different British leaders/ divisive politicians affected integration and acceptance of immigrants

Increased party polarization and divisive British leaders also played a crucial role in how post-war British immigrants were treated upon arrival, and later integrated into the native culture. From 1976-1997, the conservative party was mainly in control, which meant less governmental support for immigrants seeking asylum and seeking economic opportunity. Nationalist leaders were often out-spoken about their xenophobic views towards immigrants, which influenced the public’s opinion and furthered the divide between the native population and minority groups. During this time, instances of institutional racism resurfaced; as shown in Enoch Powell‘s infamous 1968 “rivers of blood” speech:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.”Powell

Despite being fired soon after the address, he remained an icon for the far-right London community- further normalizing discrimination of “the other” and promoting nationalistic ideologies that increased the exclusion of British immigrants.

Imperialists like Powell believed Asians and Africans to be racially inferior, which prevented them from assimilating into British society in the way white Australians or Polands could, for example. He, like many British authorities, wanted Caribbean and Jamaican migrants to work for the welfare system, help rebuild the economy, and then leave so they couldn’t “steal jobs” from Britons or reap benefits from labor markets they helped to build.

However, in the 1990’s, there was a global shift towards governments following more liberal, democratic principles. In Britain, this was proven when left-wing politician Tony Blair won the 1997 election and began the New Labour movement. In contrast to politicians like Powell, he was outspoken about the benefits of immigration, describing it as “good for a country. It brings fresh energy.” According to the Guardian, between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled, and Britain’s population increased by more than 2.2 million.

“If you’ve got communities that feel they’ve been left behind – that believe they’re being changed by immigration, that they don’t have job opportunities, that they’re disregarded and that they they’ve got no stake in a future which embraces globalization, you’ve got to address that issue.” – Blair on immigration policy reform

Controversy surrounding Blair’s open pro-migration and globalization ideology was fueled in May 2004 when he oversaw the admission of ten new states to the European Union. The British government maintained its open borders which led to a mass influx of almost 600,000 Eastern European migrants. The nation underestimated the power of its labor markets (they estimated 13,000 immigrants), thinking their economy could draw in enough money to support these new waves of mass migration. The national government couldn’t fund enough housing, public transport, schools or policing and the local legislation systems had to pick up slack they didn’t have to begin with.

The lack of governmental support for refugees fleeing persecution of war only created more conflict. The Labour party’s system for assessing applications of citizenship, residency, and asylum claims was becoming ineffective.

“We developed a massive backlog, particularly on asylum where we had cases waiting literally five years to be solved. It was a complete nightmare and led to a sense of complete ungovernability of the whole system and that I think has undermined confidence in it.” – 2004 Home Secretary, Charles Clarke

Under law, states are required to accept refugees seeking immediate asylum but not economic migrants fleeing from national poverty. Due to the EU expansion and different from previous waves of post-war mass migration to Britain, modern migrants were increasingly searching for economic opportunity– which many argue provoked British right-wing nationalists to become more intolerant and political divisive. Notably, many Muslim, Asian and African immigrants were not economic migrants searching solely for job opportunities, many were fleeing prosecution and feared for their lives. But this distinction was becoming increasingly difficult to understand; and caused the British government to often neglect or overlook issues of immigration altogether.

Where are we now?

In general, the modern majority supports immigration and protection for refugees, but also believes some migrating into the country are not in explicit danger and instead seeking economic prosperity. Older generations tend to be more skeptical, and worry the system is being manipulated. Younger generations, however, are increasingly pro-globalization and multiculturalism. Many other demographic factors other than age such as wealth, social class, education, and geographical distribution contribute to conflicting immigration support.

National attitudes towards immigration are important when evaluating how well immigrants can integrate into society. As shown, percentage of negative attitudes about immigration have decreased by almost 40% since 2011, and positive attitudes have increased by over 25%.

Post-war British immigration caused drastic demographic changes in very little time. However, mass migration across open borders doesn’t necessarily lead to the acceptance or integration of immigrants into British culture. When immigrants never fully integrate into the society they live in, they feel isolated, misunderstood, and unsupported by their local neighbors and government officials. As seen through post-war Britain immigration, more waves of immigrants come and minority groups expand, which means more people aren’t fully integrated in society, and the divide becomes more extreme.

Due to changing economic and political contexts and levels of nationalism, racial and religious differences between natives and newcomers, and the influence of divisive British leaders, immigrants have never been fully integrated or accepted in British society. And as Britain is currently experiencing great political polarization between its own citizens, immigration has been at the forefront of the debate. In many ways, British nationalism is overpowering the state’s solidarity; which leaves the future of immigrants somewhat ambiguous. After all, perhaps in a few years, they will no longer be the ones in the minority.

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