After an international cataclysm that shakes Britain’s finances to their foundations, a large influx of foreigners helps us to achieve a measure of recovery. Legally entitled to come here, they take on hard, unskilled, poorly paid jobs that the natives reject. And they make other vital contributions to the economy and to society as a whole, not least in saving public services from collapse. Yet they are accused of swamping the country, adulterating its culture, lowering wages, living in squalor, exacerbating the housing shortage and leeching off educational and social services. Overcrowding, painfully evident in North Kensington, is undeniably a problem, and there are others. But in the main this charge sheet is based less on solid evidence than on anti-alien animus. Politicians, some of them chauvinist ideologues, others inspired by personal ambition, have exploited the mood of xenophobia.
This looks like a description of our present state, as we teeter on the brink of Brexit, but it’s actually a sketch of postwar Britain. In this ground-breaking book, Clair Wills chronicles the experiences of immigrants to Britain at that time. As she says, those who write about the period in general (such as Peter Hennessy and Dominic Sandbrook, neither of whom appear in her bibliography) cover the salient topics: austerity, the welfare state, the Cold War, the growth of affluence, the decline of deference and the rise of youth culture during the 1960s. They also pay proper attention to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which prompted London dockers to march in his support after he was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet and produced a spike in attacks on immigrants – just as anti-EU rhetoric appears to have given rise to an increase in such incidents today. But in these general narratives, the newcomers who arrived from abroad after 1945 are peripheral figures. Wills puts their lives and their role in the reconstruction and diversification of war-torn Britain at the centre of her picture. She does not ignore politics, but hers is essentially a human story. It focuses on a variety of characters, such as ‘East Enders’, ‘Drinkers’, ‘Dancers’, ‘Carers’, ‘Scroungers’, ‘Troublemakers’, ‘Homeowners’, ‘Broadcasters’, ‘Bachelors’ and ‘Lovers’.
Their experiences are examined via an impressive range of sources: British archives, Italian memoirs, Punjabi letters, Irish ballads, Trinidadian calypsos. These conjure up, as Wills says, a world of smog, Spam, dried eggs, bomb sites and crammed lodging houses. Newly disembarked West Indians, such as those who sailed on the Empire Windrush in 1948, were first struck by the drabness of England, then by the cold, but what really shocked them was the sight of white people doing manual work. Unlike the Irish, who came with dread in their hearts, they expected to be welcomed as citizens of the British Empire. But almost at once their hopes were dashed. They encountered atavistic prejudice, particularly in the shape of ‘No Coloureds’ signs and discrimination in the workplace. Bosses and trade unions ensured that dark-skinned strangers were hired last and fired first, and given the worst jobs.
The BBC did take on a few well-educated West Indians to write and broadcast for its General Overseas Service. Henry Swanzy, the producer of a programme called Caribbean Voices, gave them generous support and encouragement, though he looked on them as children and saw his job as ‘a kind of do-gooding parish tea (almost kindergarten) affair’. He certainly presided over a racial ghetto. When V S Naipaul, then living in ‘dirt and discomfort’ with a cousin in west Kilburn and washing in the public baths, asked to do some features for the Overseas Service, he was laughed out of the room: it was ‘as though I had said I wanted to write the bible’. Acting as the arbiter of West Indian culture, the BBC promoted what the Dominican journalist Edward Scobie called ‘singing Nigger Minstrels, all dressed up in “massah’s clothes” and making massah laugh’. The Black and White Minstrel Show was attracting audiences of twenty million by 1964, as Wills notes, and she might have added that it was the Queen’s favourite programme.
The Irish, too, were patronised over the airwaves, cast as idle, drunken, fighting, feckless Paddies, as sentimental Emerald Isle troubadours, or as romantic sages aureoled by Celtic twilight. To guarantee the authenticity of their broadcasts even writers and producers had to act as stage Irishmen of one sort or another. W R Rodgers, for example, was later mocked for trying to convey a dark, peasant wisdom by speaking in ‘gnomic pseudo-proverbs, indecipherable to the rational mind, indeed probably meaningless’. But incoherence, provided it sounded Hibernian, was ‘no barrier to popularity’, observes Wills, citing Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1956 television interview with a sozzled Brendan Behan (though I seem to recall that Mugg not only asked the questions but answered them). Nevertheless, Irish performers, such as Eamonn Andrews and later Terry Wogan, managed to use the blarney to razor-sharp effect.
Racial stereotyping was almost universal. After the war, officials from the Ministry of Labour admitted 85,000 European refugees and displaced persons, selecting them on criteria appallingly reminiscent of those used by the Nazis – Balts were preferred to Slavs. Muslim immigrants assumed that white women were immoral because they didn’t cover their legs or heads, whereas the locals regarded them as prostitutes if they consorted with black men. Isolated by religion, culture, language and poverty, immigrants huddling together in slums (497 households occupied just 26 Paddington dwellings, for example) were deemed irretrievably backward. Often the stereotypes were contradictory. Immigrants took white jobs and lived on the dole. They stole our women and imported their own in order to breed like rabbits. Foreign landlords were both enterprising capitalists assisting their own people and Rachmanite thugs who used snakes and shrunken heads to oust sitting tenants. Police reports strove to indicate a pattern of immigrant criminality yet the authorities had to acknowledge that the newcomers were at least as law-abiding as the natives.
Almost from the first, immigration was seen not as a boon but as a problem. This feeling became especially acute after the 1958 riots in Notting Hill and elsewhere, in which white youths aimed to ‘get rid of these niggers’. Often the victims were blamed for the violence and Oswald Mosley vilified them during the election campaign the following year. A witness recorded some of his phrases: ‘blacks round our necks – black sweat shops – black brothels … one law for the blacks & another for the whites – forcing the blacks on us’. He urged the deportation of many immigrants, including ‘the Maltese & Cypriots, the vice mongers. They aren’t European.’ Although there were no large-scale deportations, Harold Macmillan’s government imposed curbs on Commonwealth immigration, a policy continued by Harold Wilson, though he also passed the Race Relations Act in 1968. The border restrictions encouraged those who had previously considered themselves migrants to settle permanently and to summon their families to join them. It ended their dream of going home and their existence in what Wills calls ‘a peculiarly disorienting temporal limbo where their efforts to earn money in the present were directed towards a future which they imagined as a return to the past’.
Lovers and Strangers is a sophisticated, original and liberal-minded study. Some of Wills’s assertions may be open to question. Was curry really a ‘dirty word’ in the early 1960s? Weren’t protests about all-night West Indian parties more objections to noise than part of ‘a struggle over the legitimacy of expressing Caribbean culture in a British city’. It must be said, too, that the book can be heavy going. For all its human content, augmented by Wills’s personal reminiscences of her Irish immigrant family, it has none of the exhilaration of, say, David Kynaston’s broader social history of the same period. Still, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand not only the transformation of British society after the war but also its character today. As I write, the fourth Viscount St Davids has just been jailed for inciting violence against Gina Miller and stating that such ‘bloody troublesome first generation’ immigrants should be sent back ‘to their stinking jungles’.