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From the Archive: Immigration and Political Discourse from the 1960s to Brexit

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Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 14th April, 2022 18 min read

From the Archive: Immigration and Political Discourse from the 1960s to Brexit

The issue of immigration has been a particularly contentious issue for the past decade in Britain. Fueled by migration from the Middle East after the Arab Spring in 2011, as well as frictionless freedom of movement within the European Union (EU), the UK has controversially closed the door on widespread immigration. As this fierce public debate around immigration has raged on, it makes sense to take stock and see how the immigration debate unfolded in previous decades. Our latest collection, Policymaking and Revolutionary Politics, 1924-1991, drawn from the Political Committee papers of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), offers a window into how the contentious immigration debate unfolded during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Political Committee of the CPGB was the de facto leadership body of the party when the ruling Executive Committee was not in session. As such, the Political Committee became “the main directive body within the party” (Morgan, 2020), reacting to unfolding events and deciding important official policy positions. Generally, the collection offers a variety of leftist perspectives on key events in both international and domestic politics. Therefore, the collection provides a useful resource by illuminating how the immigration debate developed in 1960s Britain. Using this as a foundation, this text shall draw parallels to the immigration debate that Britain has experienced in the past decade.

 Migration in the Post-War Period

After the Second World War, Britain was suffering not only massive economic damage, but a drastic labour shortage after losing so many young healthy men on the battlefields of Europe. This gave rise to the British government encouraging its colonial subjects to move en masse to Britain to fill the labour shortage. The arrival of this new ‘Windrush’ generation, named after the first steamship that docked into London, started in 1948 and ended with the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act 1971 by Edward Heath’s government. This remains one of the most pivotal periods in the formation of Britain's current demographic makeup, with large numbers of Caribbean and Indian migrants arriving for the opportunity to rebuild the devastated post-war Britain.

Mass migration was controversial from the start, with the still colonial British establishment shocked at the number of Caribbean migrants arriving on Britain’s shores. In June 1950, a Cabinet committee was established to investigate "ways which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of coloured people from British colonial territories" (quoted in Turner, 2003). Thus, from the start, we need to recognise the emergence of the unofficial hierarchy of immigrants that was established by the British state and in public attitudes more generally. It was clear that the UK desired the ‘right’ type of immigrants, from the white, English-speaking Commonwealth countries like Australia and the United States. Discrimination on the basis of colour would become key to the Communist Party of Great Britain's criticism of the political establishment.

Contesting ‘Racialism’ in British Immigration Policy

The Communist Party of Great Britain pamphlet titled “Stamp Out The Racialist Menace!"

In 1965, the Communist Party of Great Britain published a pamphlet titled “Stamp Out The Racialist Menace!” (pictured above), which proclaimed that immigrants in Britain were being used as scapegoats to cover the failings of both government and exploitative capitalist business practices. The line taken here is unsurprising, given how Marxists largely saw nationalism as undermining the international solidarity of the working class in their struggle against capitalism. In this pamphlet, the CPGB official line links “racialist” attitudes to fascism and Nazism, playing on the lingering trauma of the Second World War and trying to demonstrate that racism is a short road to the horrors of fascism. 

The CPGB was well received for its anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War, so there might also have been an element of inciting memories of the CPGB’s ‘finest hour’ in British politics. In 1945, the Soviet Union was popular with the British public, having spent four years as Britain’s close ally against Nazi Germany. By proxy, the CPGB was also a beneficiary of this newfound respect, earning over 100,000 votes and returning two MPs to the House of Commons at the 1945 General Election (Beckett, 1995: 98). Consequently, by likening anti-immigration views to fascism during the Second World War, the CPGB was attempting to use its historical credibility to influence the contemporary debate on immigration.

From the discourse contained within this pamphlet we can see many continuities between the anti-immigration arguments of the 1960s and the anti-immigration arguments of today. The CPGB correctly identifies the common trope around immigration that has unfortunately persisted in British society. Namely, that immigration represents a major threat to economic and social security in Britain because of the perceived pressures that it puts on the National Health Service, the housing sector, and the labour market. In his analysis of the UK’s Brexit debate, Stuart Gietel-Baston has stated that politicians and media outlets weaponised this same myth and presented the electorate with an ‘oversimplified’ perspective on the nature of immigration (2016: 674-675). By now, we are all very familiar with the idea that immigrants are “stealing” British jobs or houses. Indeed, United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage echoed these sentiments when he stated that ‘unprecedented’ immigration was causing a ‘strain’ on ‘every part of our national life’ back in 2013 (Grierson, 2018: The Guardian).

The alienating discourse of the immigration debate remains multifaceted and we can see continuity not only in economic arguments but the precise prose of the language. The CPGB leaflet refers to anti-immigration rhetoric labelling movement into Britain as a “flood”, and utilised imagery of a natural disaster that wreaked havoc on infrastructure and people. This language is eerily similar to David Cameron’s use of the word “swarm” to describe the arrival of refugees from countries affected by the Arab Spring during the 2010s (Cameron, interviewed by BBC News: 2015).

Numerous other studies have shown how prominent this pervasive choice of language has become in British society. For example, Charlotte Taylor aptly explores how the language that the British print media used to describe Afghani refugees serves as a ‘metaphorical frame which depicts them as non-human’ (2014: 390). Additionally, Areil Spigelman (2013) finds that, after the ascension of Poland to the European Union in 2004, the British press consistently identified Polish immigrants with the dehumanising language of natural disasters. Thus, although nearly sixty years have passed since the CPGB called out hostile language directed towards immigrants, powerful sections of society still persist in using this rhetorical device.

Another key argument the pamphlet contains, one which was noticeably absent from the Brexit debate is the idea that immigrants actually represent ‘an asset’ to Britain. The pamphlet outlines immigrants' contribution to vital services and to ‘economic and social life’ in general. Stuart Gietel-Baston (2016: 677-678) notes that during the Brexit debate this positive argument about immigration was missing from public discourse. Entrenched hostility towards immigration from politicians and the media, who had long blamed immigrants for societal ills, had become an accepted truth that no one was willing to challenge. The Labour Party’s turn to embrace anti-immigration policies, an episode farcically captured when the party started selling a mug with the slogan ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on it (Bush, 2015: The New Statesman) is symbolic of this shift. Almost nobody was willing to make a positive case for immigration in Britain. This raises a broader point about political discourse in this country. For all its obscene Stalinist tendencies, with the dissolution of the CPGB in 1991, Britain lost an important progressive political voice that argued for unfashionable causes and vulnerable groups.

The Communist Party of Great Britain pamphlet titled “Stamp Out The Racialist Menace!" 

The next page (pictured above) goes on to discuss the hierarchy of ethnicities that dominated British thinking towards immigration during the 1960s. The document outlines the disparity in accepted immigration applications from white countries when compared to their non-white counterparts. As the pamphlet suggests, the chance of being accepted from a majority white country was almost double the chance of being accepted from a majority non-white country. Although not official policy, this evidence demonstrates a potent bias that persisted amongst British elites who had cut their teeth during the era of the British Empire. In comparison to contemporary society, evidence suggests that this hierarchy of ethnicities still lingers on in Britain’s collective memory. As Afua Hirsch has noted, immigration ‘has always been a byword for the problem of people who are racialised as undesirable’ (2018). British power and identities have derived their authority from being synonymous with whiteness. To use a recent example, some (Hedayat, 2022: The Guardian) have contrasted how white Ukrainian refugees have been warmly received in Britain compared to those non-white refugees seeking to leave Afghanistan, a country that Britain has been intimately involved with during two decades of conflict.

From 'Rivers of Blood' to the ‘Hostile Environment’

This poster, inspired by the Race Relations Act of 1968, was produced in order to encourage social and ethnic harmony in the wake of significant migration to the UK.

Borrowed from our Propaganda and Government Information, 1939-2009 collection, the above poster, inspired by the Race Relations Act of 1968, was produced in order to encourage social and ethnic harmony in the wake of significant migration to the UK.

1968 was a key year in the debate around immigration to the United Kingdom. The Labour government passed the Race Relations Act, which made discrimination on the basis of race illegal in certain areas of public life. In the public debate surrounding the bill, a key flashpoint emerged when Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, gave his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech.

In his much remembered intervention, Powell argued that unchecked migration from the Caribbean would turn Britain into a new America, a country which, he argued, was increasingly dominated by non-white people. Although the speech was more openly hostile than the political establishment was willing to say publicly, with newspapers denouncing Powell and Edward Heath sacking him from the shadow cabinet, polls conducted at the time suggested that a majority of people agreed with the sentiments of the speech. In many ways, much like the Brexit vote, this speech marked a moment in which simmering tensions over immigration boiled over and demonisation of immigrants became increasingly accepted in public discourse.

 Political Committee Weekly LetterThe above file is a ‘Weekly Letter’ produced by the Political Committee. The purpose of these Weekly Letters was to allow the CPGB leadership to riff on a range of socio-political developments in the UK and abroad.

As the file above demonstrates, the CPGB joined the chorus of voices condemning the content of the “Rivers of Blood” speech, accusing Powell of delivering ‘a speech advocating fascist discrimination against coloured people’. The Political Committee of the CPGB also addressed the troubling issue of working class support for such sentiments through its reference to the London dockers and midland factory workers who had come out in favour of Powell. It was often a feature of CPGB policy that it had to balance its progressive ideals with the attitudes of the working class people it wanted to join their cause. Nevertheless, the policy position taken here remains significant for its unapologetic defence of immigrants in Britain. Since 1965, the CPGB’s line had not changed much, with the Political Committee stating: ‘the Government's failure to deal with such vital social problems as housing and education plays into the hands of all those who try to paint a fictional picture of Britain being dominated by black immigrants’. Much like in the previous document, this situates anti-immigrant views within the framework of capitalism, and suggests immigrants are scapegoated because of the establishment’s failure to provide ordinary people with a good standard of living.

Despite this promising rhetoric on the part of the CPGB, it is clear that its progressive attitudes to immigration never cut through in the way they were intended. By the late 1960s, the CPGB was becoming increasingly discredited in the eyes of the British public. In 1968, the Party’s hardline attitude in support of Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia contributed to declining membership figures and exposed the party to accusations that it was a puppet of Moscow. The fact the CPGB had adopted a similar attitude in response to Soviet intervention in Hungary, in 1956, merely compounded the issue. This captures one of the tragedies of the CPGB: for all its progressive rhetoric in the domestic sphere, its reliance on Moscow for funds and political support largely damaged and undermined its credibility as a reliable voice on progressive issues in Britain.

Powell’s fiery anti-immigration speech left a long legacy; one which is still debated today. A widely quoted Gallup poll conducted shortly after his speech suggested that 74% of the public agreed with what he had said (Brown, 2001). Some researchers have even suggested his speech significantly contributed to the Conservatives 1970 election victory. The Conservative Party’s assumption of power brought with it the Immigration Act of 1971, which ended the right of Commonwealth citizens to settle in Britain permanently (Puzzo, 2003: 73). This marked the start of, what was, at the time, the most severe and restrictive immigration policies in British history. On remembering the speech fifty years on, Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable recalled how the speech had created an ‘ugly climate of racism’ (Savage, 2018: The Guardian). Much like the vote to leave the EU, Powell’s speech was the smoking gun which created the space in which anti-immigration attitudes could proliferate openly, eventually ushering in a new era of tight immigration policy.

Tragically, the same generation of migrants that felt the fury of Powell and those who scorned non-white migration, also felt the biting animosity of the British ‘hostile environment’ introduced by Theresa May. The ‘hostile environment’ was intended ‘to weaponise total destitution and rightlessness, so as to force migrants without the right to be in the country to deport themselves’ (Webber, 2019: 77). Due to the dilapidated and chaotic nature of the British state in the wake of the Second World War, thousands of ‘Windrush’ immigrants were never issued paperwork by the Home Office. To add insult to injury, in 2010, the Home Office destroyed landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants (BBC News, 2020), further obscuring the true legality of people’s right to be in the UK. This means that at least hundreds, and probably thousands, of people have been subject to denial of access to public services and even deportation, despite spending their entire adult lives in the UK. 

Moreover, by drawing so much attention to the problem of illegal immigration in the UK, the policy of ‘hostile environment’ further legitimised the dehumanising discourse discussed earlier in this essay. Jamie Grierson (2018: The Guardian) has argued that this policy was a deliberate ploy by the Conservative Party to counter the electoral threat of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party, who were making waves with fiery anti-immigration rhetoric. Unintentionally or not, the ‘hostile environment’ spotlighted the already bloated place that the issue of immigration had in national rhetoric. Again, through highlighting the familiar spectre of the ‘bad’ immigrant, this policy further poisoned perceptions and dehumanised all immigrants in the eyes of the public.

 A long hangover

It is remarkable how little has Britain’s attitude towards immigration has changed in over sixty years. The immigration debate of the 2010s is best viewed through the prism of continuity with the debates of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of existing in separate vacuums, decades apart, the 1960s and 1970s immigration debates instead built the foundation for anti-immigration attitudes to persist in society. Nothing is more symbolic of this continuity than the fate of many of the Windrush generation, who arrived as children and struggled for acceptance, before many felt the cold discrimination of the state during the period of the ‘hostile environment’ from the 2010s until today. During the 1960s and 1970s, the CPGB provided an important voice in the defence of immigrants, making a popular case for accepting immigration. The absence of this organised voice during the 2010s was a great loss for public discourse, and for those immigrants who have contributed so richly to Britain’s history.


Beckett, Francis. (1995) ‘Uncle Joe Says Stand on Your Head’ in Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party, John Murray Ltd, pp. 90-102.

BBC News (2015) 'David Cameron: 'Swarm' of migrants crossing Mediterranean’, accessed at:

Brown, Derek. (2001) ‘A new language of racism in politics’ in The Guardian, accessed at:

Bush, Stephen. (2015) ‘Labour’s anti-immigrant mug: the worst part is, it isn’t a gaffe’ in The New Statesman, accessed at:

Gietel-Basten, Stuart. (2016) ‘Why Brexit? The Toxic Mix of Immigration and Austerity’ in Population and Development Review, vol. 42, issue 4, pp. 673-680.

Hedayat, Nelufar. (2022) ‘The response to Ukraine is laudable. But as a British Afghan, I’m a little jealous’, accessed at:

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Taylor, Charlotte. (2014) ‘Investigating the representation of migrants in the UK and Italian press: A cross-linguistic corpus-assisted discourse analysis’ in International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, Vol. 19, Issue 3, p. 368 – 400.

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Whipple, Amy. ‘Revisiting the ‘Rivers of Blood’ Controversy: Letters to Enoch Powell.’ in Journal of British Studies, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 717-735.

Webber, Francis. (2019) ‘On the creation of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’’ in Race & Class, 60(4), pp. 76–87.

Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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