Patel’s We’re Here Because You Were There is an important analysis of the racist logic of imperialist politics behind changing immigration policy, finds Jamal Elaheebocus

Ian Sanjay Patel, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire (Verso 2021), 352pp.

Immigration has been the political tool of much of the ruling class for decades, and their manipulation of the issue has resulted in restrictive immigration laws and the inhumane treatment of immigrants in Britain. By the mid-1960s, immigration had become a political obsession, fuelled by racism certainly, but also by a failure to come to terms with Britain’s imperial position, both past and present. The ruling class wanted to maintain the idea of an empire, to which people in ex-colonies would remain attached, without admitting any reciprocity to all these supposed citizens of ‘the United Kingdom and colonies’ (p.4).

Ian Sanjay Patel captures the ruling class’s inability to come to terms with its global status in We’re Here Because You Were There: ‘Britain wanted to have it both ways’, both retaining leadership of the empire refigured as a Commonwealth, but restricting non-white entry into the UK (p.8). He shows how the end of empire was intertwined with the introduction of racist immigration policies after World War Two, creating a hostile environment for immigrants.

Patel draws on a wealth of letters, memos and other writings from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as nationality and immigration legislation brought in at the time. He uses this to make an argument that as the empire declined, national identity could no longer be derived from imperial presence, which resulted in a shift towards restrictive and racist immigration policies. This is persuasive in many ways, but it does leave unexamined some important elements which shaped the British ruling class’s priorities.

The relatively open policy of the late 40s and 50s was necessitated by the acute post-war labour shortage, but racism ensured that imperial citizens from the Caribbean or the sub-continent could be corralled into low-paid and low-status work. As the economic situation changed in the 1960s, restricting immigration became a greater priority, but the contradictions that Patel examines in the law and politics of British citizenship remained. So ever since, the constantly shifting interests of British capitalism in relation to both imperial and domestic policy, has meant a more or less open racism in government policy.

Patel’s argument is interwoven with stories of people who immigrated into Britain from former colonies and their experiences of racism in Britain. Patel creates both a detailed analysis of the post-war approach to immigration as the empire declined, and also a powerful narrative of life as an immigrant in post-war Britain.

Immigration laws and racism

Patel gives a concise overview of post-war immigration, centred around nationality and immigration legislation brought in at the time, to show the shift from imperial nationality to a focus on preventing immigration from the former empire.

The 1948 Nationality Act gave everyone in Britain, its colonies and independent Commonwealth countries the right to British citizenship, which entailed the right to enter Britain. Patel argues that this was an attempt to maintain imperial unity and to retain ‘old ideas of subjecthood and allegiance … but presenting them as citizenship’ (p.58).

As the 50s and 60s progressed, more people of colour from colonies and Commonwealth states moved to Britain, using their right to do so as British citizens. At this point, argues Patel, the British ruling class was conflicted; they had a desire to maintain imperial unity and hold on to empire, while also desperately trying to avoid a large number of non-white people moving into the country.

This conflict resulted in a series of immigration laws to reduce the number of non-white British citizens entering Britain, as both parties became preoccupied by race. The first that Patel outlines is the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which came about after the Commonwealth Migrants Committee decided that ‘too many coloured persons were settling here’ (p.76). The Act meant only those born in Britain or holding a British passport had the right of entry to Britain.

This was followed by the 1968 and 1971 acts, which restricted the right of entry to British citizens who had a parent or grandparent born in Britain. They also expanded the ability of the home secretary to deport people without trial or appeal. Patel argues that this effectively discriminated against non-white citizens in colonies, who were far less likely than white settlers to have relatives born in Britain or hold a British passport.

Patel uses the last section of the book to focus on two immigration crises which occurred as a result of this conflict between imperial unity and anti-immigrant sentiment. These are the Kenyan South Asian Crisis of 1967 and the Ugandan South Asian Crisis of 1972.

In both scenarios, the respective governments introduced legislation which excluded south Asian British citizens who held British passports from citizenship of Kenya or Uganda. In Kenya, the British government refused to take responsibility for the situation and passed the 1968 act to ban Kenyan south Asians from entering the country freely. They also attempted to convince India to take in many of the immigrants.

The situation in Uganda was similar, but this time the British government framed the issue as a refugee crisis, despite the Ugandan south Asians having British citizenship. They managed to convince a range of countries to take in immigrants.

Both crises reflected the conflict between the desire to hold on to an imperial status through the Commonwealth, but also to restrict immigration. The depiction of these crises showed the suffering that immigration laws caused for people of colour.

Decline of empire and persistence of British imperialism

Patel convincingly breaks down the narrative that decolonisation was simply the reversal of colonialism, and that it occurred peacefully as imperial powers merely gave back land to indigenous people. Rather, decolonisation became ‘the continuation of empire by other means’ (p.98), and would not have occurred at all had anti-colonial resistance not been so strong.

The main ways in which British imperialism persisted, Patel argues, was through the creation of the Commonwealth and through imperialism disguised as development, such as the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which sent doctors and teachers to former colonies.

However, Patel clearly depicts how attempts by imperial powers, particularly Britain, to maintain control over postcolonial states became increasingly difficult as countries like India and Pakistan utilised the UN and the Commonwealth to challenge Britain’s racist agenda.

This resulted in the creation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, marking the start of anti-racism being incorporated into international human-rights law. Here Britain’s self-image became self-deceiving, argues Patel, as it attempted to appear to the international community to oppose racism, while passing racist immigration laws and fuelling domestic racism.

Lessons for today

The post-war situation described by Patel is disturbingly similar to the hostile environment and anti-migrant sentiment expressed by the British ruling class today. To this day, as Patel says in the epilogue, ‘dreams of an imperial Commonwealth, and simultaneously the maintenance of a hostile environment for migrants, appear to live on without apparent contradiction’ (p.281).

The Windrush Scandal and the current government’s efforts to prevent refugees and immigrants settling in Britain support in general the points that Patel makes in the book: the British state has still failed to come to terms with its imperial past and continues to fall back on a ‘reactionary nativism’.

Overall it is a powerful analysis of post-war migration and its complex relationship with the end of empire and the persistence of British imperialism. The argument would be strengthened with a greater emphasis on the economic and class motivations for the various shifts in policy, but it remains a fascinating insight into the thinking of the ruling class at the time, and the way in which a colonial mindset is still integral to the way with which immigration is dealt.

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