Race Matters

British Citizenship and the Windrush generation

By Sundeep Lidher

The threats of deportation facing individuals who arrived in Britain from the West Indies between 1948 and 1971 have been alarming. As has the government’s response. The historical amnesia which has dominated reporting around these cases is also cause for concern.

We have been repeatedly reminded of the valuable contributions made by these individuals - as tax-paying, law-abiding, long-term residents, who responded to invitations to rebuild post-war Britain. This ‘good immigrant’ narrative is problematic. Not only because it diminishes the agency of West Indian arrivals, many of whom moved to Britain independently of ‘official’ recruitment schemes, but mainly because many of the individuals in question were not, in fact, immigrants on arrival. Any analysis of the current fallout must accurately engage with the legal dimension of the historical relationship between ‘Windrush generation’ arrivals and Britain. Namely, the institution of British citizenship.

In 1948, the British Nationality Act provided a definition of British citizenship for the very first time. It did so in globally-expansive terms. The Act aimed to re-establish some degree of uniformity on nationality questions across the Commonwealth in light of emerging definitions of local citizenship in places like Canada.

Under the Act of 1948 British-born and colonial-born people were, in legal terms, one and the same. Anyone born in Britain or in a British colonial territory became a ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ (CUKC or ‘British citizen’). All Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies were also British subjects. The Act recognised Citizens of Independent Commonwealth Countries (CICC or ‘Commonwealth citizens’) as British subjects too, and afforded them the same rights in Britain as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies.

So, from 1 January 1949, whether a person was born in Britain, in a British colony or an independent Commonwealth country he or she had the same legal rights in Britain. At least in theory. These rights included unrestricted entry and settlement, access to the labour market, voting rights, entitlement to welfare benefits and eligibility for Parliamentary office.

In terms of the rights it extended to those born in colonial territories and independent Commonwealth countries, the British Nationality Act of 1948 didn’t change a great deal. It legally encoded the privileges that had, until that point, been attached to British subject status.

Despite the legislative assertions of 1948, not all British and Commonwealth citizens were imagined as equals. Whilst definitions of British citizenship remained formally expansive until 1981, successively restrictive immigration laws determined precisely which categories of British and Commonwealth citizen could make claims to unrestricted entry and settlement in Britain, and which could not. Qualifications based on passport origin (1962), on parentage (1968), and on ‘patriality’ (1971) differentiated between categories of British and Commonwealth citizen for the purposes of entry. This differentiation operated primarily, but not exclusively, along race-based lines. In carving hierarchies of access to Britain, these restrictive laws also carved hierarchies of citizenship. British and Commonwealth citizens who fell afoul of evolving immigration requirements were subject to criminalisation and deportation.

Racialized gatekeeping practices, institutionalised from 1962 onwards, and which continue to determine our hostile immigration environment today, have long historical roots in Britain. Demands currently being placed on ‘Windrush generation’ arrivals for documentary evidence of their entitlement to remain in the UK have direct historical parallels. History shows that these requirements have - often wilfully - frustrated the entry and settlement of individuals who otherwise had legitimate claims to live and work in Britain.

For example, legislation regulating the entry of aliens from 1914, and bureaucratic machinery policing alien seamen in 1925 became sources of harassment for British-subject seafarers of African and Asian descent. Those who were unable to provide documentary evidence of their British subject-status were forced to register as aliens.

Later, in 1949, the Home Office re-established requirements that demanded documentary proof of status for anyone seeking entry to Britain who claimed to be a British subject. Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and Citizens of Independent Commonwealth Countries who were unable to satisfy these requirements would be refused leave to land. British officials simultaneously liaised with overseas authorities in a bid to make it more difficult for West Indians, South Asians and Africans to obtain the necessary travel and identity documents to enter Britain – despite their citizenship status. 

In the early part of the last century, these mobility controls turned targeted categories of imperial subjects into aliens in Britain. In the latter half, similar controls eroded the rights of certain categories of British and Commonwealth citizens, turning them into immigrants.

Frustratingly, historical illiteracy continues to dominate public discourse around post-1948 migrations. Stories of colonial and Commonwealth arrivals must be re-framed to recognise their status as citizen-migrants. There is also a broader need to teach and understand British histories that unpick the complex processes that have determined who has come to be defined as ‘British’ over time, and why. Histories of empire, decolonisation, migration, racism and anti-racism are also histories of inclusion and exclusion, of both citizens and migrants. Proper engagement with these histories will help us to make better sense of how the past has shaped - and continues to shape - who 'belongs' in modern Britain. The Windrush deportations are just the tip of the iceberg.


Sundeep Lidher is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge and Researcher on the Our Migration Story project at The Runnymede Trust.

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