A Well-Deserved Jubilee Celebration; But Should We Celebrate Our Approach To Migration?

Published by: Sinéad Mangan-Mc Hale

Published on: 30 Jun, 2022

Sinéad Mangan-Mc Hale Linked-In profile

A decade-by-decade snapshot of the UK’s approach to migration

The first article in a series of decade-by-decade snapshots of the UK’s approach to migration starting in the 1940s and looking towards changes in the 50s and 60s.

As the bunting and flags come down after a June weekend of celebration for the Platinum Jubilee of HRH, Queen Elizabeth II, TogetherintheUK (TGIUK) would also like to offer their congratulations to Her Majesty for seventy years of dedication. As the whole country celebrated with great pride, TGIUK wanted to reflect on the seven decades of immigration and asylum in the UK during her reign. There is much to be proud of, but there have been, and still are, low points in our history of welcoming migrants and refugees.

While the general public may often not distinguish between migrants and refugees, there are crucial distinctions. 


According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.


According to the UN, while there is no formal legal definition of an international migrant, most experts agree that an international migrant is someone who changes their country of residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status.

The 1940s

The Windrush Era

Post-war Britain was a country struggling to rebuild its economy. The key priority was the physical reconstruction of its infrastructure, focusing on solving the significant shortage in housing. The newly launched National Health Service (NHS) (1945) was immediately successful, with demand exceeding all expectations but leaving a lack of medical staff. At the same time, the Migration Museum reported that in the years immediately after the war, more than two million people emigrated from Britain. While many were war brides, displaced people, and returning military, many were also young men and women desperate to start a new life in a country not torn apart by war. With so many people emigrating from the UK, it was clear that an influx of migrant labour was required to rebuild the country. And as stated on The National Archives website, “The Royal Commission on Population reported in 1949 that immigrants of ‘good stock’ would be welcomed ‘without reserve’”. Two significant initiatives boosted migration to the UK. In 1947, the UK offered British citizenship to thousands of displaced Polish people and those who had fought for Britain in World War II (WW2). Secondly, the government introduced the British Nationality Act of 1948, which granted subjects of the British Empire the right to live and work in the UK.

The end of the 1940s saw the arrival of migrants from India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean, most notably the landing of the SS Empire Windrush from Jamaica with almost 500 West Indians keen to start a new life in Britain. Between 1947 and 1970, according to the National Archives, nearly half a million men and women,  known as The Windrush Generation, came to the UK. TGIUK featured the story of Harold and Carmen Bowen, who went to the UK to rebuild its foundations.


Setting up the NHS

While the decade started as challenging with many cities still bomb sites, harsh rationing and a housing shortage, by the mid-1950s, Britain’s economy was booming again. While the country mourned the death of King George VI in 1952, they celebrated the official coronation, some eighteen months later, of Queen Elizabeth II, with processions, parades and street parties. Just as the nation did to celebrate her platinum jubilee a few weeks ago.

The 1951 census recorded 162,339 Polish people living in the UK, many of who were refugees displaced after the destruction of Poland during WW2. England was to welcome even more refugees after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. As per a NATO 1957 report, almost 200,000 fled the arrival of the Soviet Union in Hungary. As a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, Britain is reported to have received approximately 30,000 political refugees.

With the development of the NHS and London Underground, to name but a few, migrants continued to arrive from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent. As the National Archives records, the workers from the Indian subcontinent were,

“… often lumped together as one group by white Britons, these newcomers came from various backgrounds. They included Hindus from the Gujarat region of western India, Sikhs from the eastern Punjab region, and Muslims both from the west part of Pakistan and from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971.”

But all was not well amongst some British citizens who felt threatened by the influx of overseas “non-white” workers. Their racist attitudes were inflamed by associations such as the Union Movement and the White Defence League, encouraging anti-immigration rhetoric. A series of race riots took place in the county of Nottingham and the Notting Hill area of London in 1958.

The 1960s

Overseas nurses in the NHS

The ‘swinging sixties’ saw a transformed Britain; emerging from the darkness of post-WW2, the country embraced a sense of freedom. A youth-driven culture materialised that saw dramatic changes in art, music and fashion. With a growing population adding pressure to an already stretched NHS, Britain experienced a shortage of nurses and doctors. During the sixties, several recruitment campaigns were for trained doctors from overseas. Indeed the Conservative Health Minister (1963) Enoch Powell (who later called for stricter immigration rules) praised the 18,000 Pakistani and Indian doctors saying they

                “provide a useful and substantial reinforcement of the staffing of our hospitals and who are an advertisement to the world of British medicine and British hospitals.” 

And by 1965, between 3,000 and 5,000 Jamaican nurses tended to patients in Britain. 

At the same time, as a recognised need for professional and manual overseas workers, the UK began implementing tighter controls on immigration in the 1960s (and 1970s). Against a rising background of concern at the rise of “non-white immigration” into the UK, particularly from Conservative Members of Parliament, the Conservative Government introduced the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act controlled Commonwealth passport holders’ freedom to live and work in the UK. Non-UK passport holders of the Commonwealth now needed to apply for a work voucher, which was graded based on employment prospects. Following Enoch Powell’s “River of Blood” speech, outlining his belief that immigrants did not want to integrate and that British people would suffer. The address led to his dismissal, but his message influenced many anti-immigration and nationalist movements.

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