Factors that encouraged or hindered the integration of different ethnic minority groups in twentieth-century Britain

Integration means to bring ‘into equal membership of a common society those groups or persons previously discriminated against… ‘1 There are legal, socio-economic and cultural aspects to integration. The legal aspects concern the rights Britain grants its minorities. True integration can only be achieved when basic human rights as well as the right to permanent residence, to passive and active voting, to employment, education and social security are not withheld from minority groups.

From a socio-economic perspective, integration requires the reduction and eventual absence of segregation in social and economic life, both vertical such as hierarchies of income, prestige, education and horizontal like for example separation of residential areas, or uneven distribution of organisations of the same kind such as firms and schools2. Finally, in a liberal and pluralistic society cultural integration means to allow different cultures within a single democratic state so long as they fulfil two essential conditions:

First that they respect the basic constitutional liberties and rights of all residents and citizens in this society, and second that no culture becomes so enclosed in itself that it does not leave space for internal dissent, for a change of affiliation (including individual assimilation into the dominant culture) or for individual contacts between groups (including intermarriages). 3 This concept of cultural integration is significantly different from the traditional nationalist4 idea that equalled integration with assimilation.

Undoubtedly, the latter notion still held considerable popular appeal in twentieth century Britain. Twentieth century Britain saw the immigration and full or partial integration of a variety of very different ethnic minorities. Ethnic minority is here defined as any group “whose members see themselves as sharing certain cultural characteristics, such as a common history, language, religion, or family or social values which distinguish them from the majority of the population. “5 The sets of factors that hindered or encouraged integration of these groups overlap to a considerable extent.

Yet, due to the special characteristics of the distinct ethnic minorities – their social, cultural and economic make-up and the different times at which they arrived – each of these groups also experienced peculiar difficulties and/or advantages with respect to integration. For instance, Russian and Polish Jews immigrating and integrating into Edwardian Britain faced very different social, cultural and economic circumstances than, say, the main body of Indians arriving in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The Irish are in many respects a special case among Great Britain’s ethnic minorities. Throughout the 20th century they have constituted the largest ethnic minority group in Britain and arguably the culturally and ‘ethnically’ least different. The first great influx of the Irish occurred in the 19th century after the potato famine in the 1840s and thus falls outside the timeframe of this essay. Yet, the twentieth century saw two more major waves of Irish immigration one from 1931-61 and the other in the 1980s.

Both were mainly caused by economic push (in Ireland) and pull (in Britain) factors, although a desire to escape the clutches of family and church seem to have played a role as well, especially amongst young females. Legally, there was no hindrance to Irish integration. Between the 1800 Act of Union and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 the Irish were citizens of the United Kingdom with all rights this entailed. The Irish Free State remained a member of the British Commonwealth until its declaration of a republic in April 1949.

Even thereafter, however, Irish citizens resident in the UK enjoyed all the rights of citizenships, including active and passive voting rights. 6 Hence, if anything the legal circumstances can be viewed as favourable to Irish integration into British society. It was a combination of cultural and socio-economic factors that acted as the main hindrance to Irish integration, especially in the first half of the 20th century. The overwhelming majority of immigrants coming from the Emerald Isle were rural, unskilled Catholics and as such doubly suspect to Protestant urban Britain.

Up to the mid 20th century, most Irish lived in desolate, but tightly knit communities dominated by the Church, very much segregated from the English population. Anti-Irish hostility was deeply embedded in Britain. The English writer J. B. Priestley expressed a common sentiment when he wrote: “… the Irishman in England too often cuts a very miserable figure. He has lost his peasant virtues, whatever they are, and has acquired no others… [could the Irish be repatriated] what a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease [there would be]”

It is no wonder that poor Irish immigrants, even in the 1950s confronted with signs declaring ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’, did not mix well with the economically better off British. 7 Yet, the cultural and socio-economic factors that had for so long hindered Irish integration began to decrease in importance after the Second World War. The new generation of immigrants took part in the 1950s consumer boom and was generally more interested in spending its time in foul dance halls than in church.

Furthermore, the clearance of inner city slums, for instance in Manchester in the late 1950s and 1960s dispersed the traditional Irish working-class communities and thus removed much of the Catholic Church’s institutional presence and therefore influence. In addition, In any case, many of the attributes that had historically separated Protestants and Catholics disappeared with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in the early 1960s. It is thus the result of improvements in the socio-economic sphere and of cultural changes that removed the obstacles to integration.

Today, although the Irish retain and prise their distinct cultural heritage, they form a cohesive part of British society. Another factor that made the Irish less alien in the eyes of the British was the influx of new, stranger strangers. As the nineteenth century came to a close the public’s attention shifted to another group of immigrants: Eastern European Jews. Engulfed in economic misery and victims of savage pogroms, masses of Russian and Polish Jews began to pour into England, an estimated 120,000 between 1870 and 1914. 8

Public pressure rose as organizations like the British Brothers’ League were established, launching a vociferous campaign against Jewish immigration. It lobbied for the introduction of restrictions on immigration arguing that “the East of London is rapidly becoming the dustbin of Europe, into which all sorts of human refuse is shot. “9 So great became the concern that an official inquiry was commissioned and alas the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration set out to uncover the “character and extent of the evil”. 10 In 1905 an Aliens Act was passed to prevent the “entry of aliens of certain undesirable classes”.

Though obviously motivated by concerns about the immigration of Jews it was not expressedly directed against the Jews as a ‘racial entity’. Before the interwar period racialist theories were still confined to extremist fringes of political opinion. And even when racial theories and violence flared up after 1918, it had no effect on legislation. Furthermore, it should be noted that although the first generation of foreign immigrants lacked citizenship rights such as the right to vote, no openly discriminatory legislation against those Jews living in England was introduced.

Whoever made it into the country was free to try his luck and immigrant children born on the Isle’s soil automatically received British nationality. In other words, legal factors did not significantly hinder Jewish integration. Again it was a combination of socio-economic and cultural factors. Socio-economic insofar as most arriving Jews were dreadfully poor and unskilled. They crowded into London’s East End and low-skilled jobs such as shoemaking and tailoring. Crammed into quasi-ghettos such as the borough of Stepney, they were easy to identify as a target to vent frustrations at.

On the cultural side, the inability of most newcomers to speak the English language and their lack of acquaintance with the (urban) English way of life certainly contributed to native feelings of ‘being overrun’ by a foreign horde. Yet another factor played a role in preventing the integration of the Jewish immigrants and in effect almost bringing about the dis-integration of established English Jews. This were the conspiracy theories that made the rounds in the interwar period, most famously the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’.

The bizarre theory proclaimed the Jewish people to be a homogeneous block of conspirators possessing nearly supernatural powers and led by cunning masters of deceit towards world domination. Although exposed as a hoax by a series of London Times articles in 1921, the Protocols and similar absurdities continued to arouse suspicion. They created a most cruel situation where Jewish immigrants were looked down upon as filthy riffraff of inferior genetic make-up, yet at the same time the assimilation and social advancement of English Jews was interpreted as threatening take-over of power in the state.

Only the turmoil of the Second World War and the tragedy of the Holocaust effectively put an end to this Jewish quagmire. As in the Irish case, the Jewish ghettos melted in the rising sun of economic recovery after Word War 2. Slum clearing and a strong emphasis on education dispersed the Jewish community and ensured social mobility and near complete integration for the second and subsequent generations. And after all, the Russian and Polish Jews had at least had the decency to be white. Not like the 417 Jamaicans that arrived onboard of the Empire Windrush on June 22, 1948.

They were not the first, for small colonies of African, Asian and Arab seamen, liberal professionals, politicians and potentates had a long history in Britain. But they heralded a new age of mass immigration of non-Europeans, and rapid growth of their communities once arrived in England: In 1951, the combined Caribbean and South Asian population of Great Britain amounted to less than 80,000; by 1961 it had reached 500,000, or about 1 per cent of the population; by 1971 it was about 1,500,000, or roughly 3 per cent of the population; and by 1981 it was 2,200,000 or 4. per cent. The 1991 census figure puts the ethnic minority population at just over 3,000,000, or 5. 5 per cent of the population. Even tough the concentration of these minorities in certain areas, notably in Greater London (~50%)11, might have created a different impression, the overall number of non-white ethnic minorities is not particularly high. For instance, non European permanent workers made up 7% of the French population in 1990. However, it cannot be denied that growth of non-European immigrant populations in England was rapid.

During the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s immigration was mainly driven by the economic opportunities the post-war boom created. The Caribbean influx peaked in the period 1955-64 and came to a standstill with the onset of the mid-1970s recession. Immigration from India and Pakistan peaked in the period 1965-74 and continued, albeit at a much lower rate, into the 1980s. This was because in contrast to the gender balanced Caribbean immigration, the early movement from South Asia had been predominantly male and the later migration largely a process of family reunion. 2 Initially legal factors were particularly favourable not only for immigration but also integration. As late as 1948 the British Citizenship Act confirmed UK citizenship for all people who were citizens of British colonies, former colonies or Dominions. In this way, almost a quarter of the world acquired the right to entry and settlement in the United Kingdom, and many were happy enough to trade their instable and deprived home countries for booming Britain. Yet, white Britain was deeply disturbed by the rapid increase of the coloured population.

An indication of this is the sudden rise to popular hero status of Tory politician Enoch Powell following his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Held in April 1968, Powell told fantastic stories of white, (need it be added? ) upright old-age pensioners hounded by barbaric blacks with their negro-excrements and gloomily predicted that the rapidly increasing ethnic minorities would soon organize and ‘overawe and dominate the rest [of society]’. 13 The government reacted to the attacks from the right and popular clamour with an ever increasing legislation to limit further immigration.

The first big step was the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which made commonwealth citizens subject to immigration controls. It ushered in two decades of further changes to immigration and nationality law that would transform the UK from one of the world’s most open countries to the ‘fortress Britain’ it is today. However, even though immigration control was constantly strengthened and justified in terms of the alleged danger posed to British society by ‘coloured’ immigrants, both Labour and Tory governments have tried to balance control of potential immigrants with legislation that encouraged integration.

Thus were passed the Race Relation Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 which prohibited discrimination in employment, training, education, housing and the provision of goods and facilities. In terms of integration, the role of the law was therefore, on balance, a positive one. However, socio-economic and cultural factors stalled integration. British national identity had always been ‘white’ in its self-perception. There was a great degree of mistrust as the coloured ethnic minorities increased.

Prejudices were reinforced because the first generation of immigrants usually lacked the means and skills to escape poverty which was then attributed to cultural inferiority. Furthermore, even in the last third of the 20th century there has been a considerable degree of institutional racism, despite the Race Relations Acts. What is more, the great economic downturn in the mid-1970s has directed much frustration against recent immigrants which in turn reacted with violent outbreaks, such as in the early 1980s.

Yet, anti-discriminatory legislation, the economic success of many immigrant groups (notably the Indians and Chinese) and the coming to age of a new generation used to a multi-cultural, multi-coloured environment is more and more countering these effects and thus removing both cultural and socio-economic barriers to integration. The history of many significant ethnic minority groups, such as the non-Jewish Poles, the Black Africans and Chines has been omitted in this essay for lack of space.

Nevertheless a number of general conclusions can be drawn from the minority groups that have been examined. I have analysed the factors influencing integration of ethnic minority groups by dividing them into three broad groups – legal, socio-economic and cultural. It has emerged that legal factors were on the whole encouraging integration. Only in the late twentieth century do significant amounts of restrictive legislation develop, and even then it is mainly directed against potential immigrants, not against ethnic minorities living in the country.

Notable is thus the almost complete absence of explicitly discriminatory legislation which had been so widespread in other European countries, especially in the first half of the century. The main obstacles to integration have therefore been socio-economic and cultural factors. Immigration into 20th century Britain was first and foremost economically motivated. This has resulted in a self-selection process where the majority of each of the successive waves of immigrants was poor and lacking education.

This resulted in initially concentrated and destitute living conditions which reinforced pre-existing stereotypes (about ‘the Irish’, ‘the Jews’, ‘the Blacks’) in the native population, causing hostile reaction with very direct ramifications in the job and housing market. This created further injustice, more prejudice and therefore a viciously self-perpetuation barrier to integration. However, we have seen that historically most immigrant populations have been successful in overcoming initial hostility through determination and eventually economic and social advance.

A great degree of integration is simply a matter of mutual habituation. Even today, despite media-campaigns against ‘illegal immigrants’ which seem to be very much based on the still prevalent racism rather than any real concern against actual illegal immigration, British Society is slowly embracing the concept of a multi-cultural society. Together with the (albeit slow) economic success and advance in the social and cultural sphere this might well be the means by which ‘coloured’ ethnic minorities can break the cycle of disadvantage.