The British Nationality Act, 1948

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The British Nationality Act, 1948

Postby Nathan » 05 Apr 2014, 12:12

It might be of interest to read what went on behind the scenes in the House of Commons when the British Nationality Act of 1948 was passed (referring to the chapter from p.45 to p.61 of "Citizenship and Immigration in Postwar Britain", by Randall Hansen), which made no distinction regarding British subject status between those living in the Dominions, soon to become fully independent countries in their own right, and the colonies, likewise soon to become independent. Unfortunately I don't exactly understand what the legal position was before 1948.

This piece of legislation was what gave the right to enter Britain to the Commonwealth citizens that made up the first wave of immigration from the Windrush onwards, but it seems that the potential for large-scale migration just wasn't considered likely enough to take into account, and the principle of not discriminating between the white Dominions and the non-white colonies was more of a priority, as was keeping links with colonies then starting to make their voices for independence heard.

Lord Altrincham wrote:We on these Benches would lament any tendency to differentiate between different types of British subjects in the United Kingdom. Hitherto, it has always been our proud boast that all British subjects have equal rights in the United Kingdom. Whatever you may say at the outset, if you create a distinctive citizenship it is bound to set up a tendency towards differentiation.

It's interesting to read how the 500 Jamaicans who got into the Empire Windrush weren't part of any invited migration party, like I'd always thought was the case, and caught the Government by surprise. The Minister for Labour said at the time while the ship was still crossing the Atlantic that he hoped "no encouragement would be made for others to follow their example, but their arrival could not be obstructed".

The Colonial Secretary at the time realised the potential of what the legislation allowed for, and released a memo insisting that the Government was opposed to permanent New Commonwealth immigration: "every possible step has been taken by the Colonial Office and by the Jamaican government to stop these influxes". The Colonial Secretary at the time was Arthur Creech Jones, who whether accurately or inaccurately is the man reported to have claimed that "there was nothing to worry about, because they (the term I have often seen attributed to him here in place of "they" is much more offensive!) wouldn't last one winter in England".

Creech Jones's successor released a memorandum with a title that I don't really know what to make of from a modern perspective about the problems arising from "Coloured people from British colonial territories". The response was to warn potential immigrants of the difficulties they would face in finding accommodation and employment when they got here.

Despite the Cabinet's belief that an increase in colonial immigration would create serious domestic problems, the Committee of Ministers decided against control, largely because "the United Kingdom has a special status as the mother country, and freedom to enter and remain in the United Kingdom at will is one of the main practical benefits enjoyed by British subjects, as such".

The report the committee released went on to state that "it would be difficult to justify restrictions on persons who are citizens of the United Kingdom and its colonies, if no comparable restrictions were placed on other Commonwealth countries". The political class of the day felt free to explicitly use the term "coloured people" in the title of a report, but felt constrained to beat about the bush when getting down to the nitty-gritty of the report's content.

The arguments then sound so similar to those more recently regarding Eastern European immigration. The politicians knew deep down that they didn't really want certain types of people to come, and that not all types of immigrants are truly equally desired by the public, rightly or otherwise, but sticking to the high-minded principles of freedom of movement and of not being seen to discriminate came first.

The book is available to read online here: ... 48&f=false
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