2 March 1968
Immediately after midnight, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 became law. Its official aspiration was to introduce new restrictions on all Commonwealth immigrants, although it was openly acknowledged that its real raison d’etre was to prevent the arrival of thousands of Kenyan Asians with British passports who faced the prospect of forcible repatriation under president Jomo Kenyatta’s programme of ‘Africanisation.’
Seventy years earlier, Britain had brought over 32,000 indentured labourers from India to construct Kenya’s railways and by the 1960s many of them had set up small businesses or were working as doctors, teachers or civil servants. When Britain granted Kenya independence in 1963, it gave Kenyan Asians the choice of adopting Kenyan nationality or applying for British passports, and many opted for the latter. By 1967, these non-Kenyans were forced to take up work permits and threatened with deportation, so up to a thousand a month began arriving in Britain, as their British passports entitled them to do. The press reacted with hysterical headlines over the ‘uncontrolled flood of Asian immigrants’ that would ‘swamp’ Britain’s social services.1 White settlers from Kenya were also arriving in Britain, but that wasn’t deemed to be a problem, and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 was consequently designed so that they were effectively exempt from its restrictions, as the new law did not bar the right of entry to Britain to anyone who had at least one parent or grandparent of British origin.
At the emergency cabinet committee meeting where the legislation was considered three weeks earlier, Home Secretary James Callaghan had arrived ‘with the air of a man whose mind was made up. He wasn’t going to tolerate any bloody liberalism.’2 He was thinking of the likes of George Thomas, the Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs, who pointed out that ‘legislation of the sort proposed would in effect discriminate against the Asians from East Africa because of their colour,’ and that ‘this would contradict all that we had said on the subject.’3 Other ministers also acknowledged that it appeared to run counter to international law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless a majority remained determined to take a tough line, justifying the legislation on the grounds that ‘the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense,’ and agreeing that they would press ahead regardless of the serious ethical and legal objections.4
- ‘Kenya Immigrants: An Extra Burden that could Swamp Birmingham’s Social Services,’ The Birmingham Post, 14 February 1968 p. 1 and on 15 February, the Daily Mirror, under a front page headline ‘Mirror on Immigration: A Free for All ? Or Government Control ?’ declared that ‘the country now faces the prospect of an uncontrolled flood of Asian immigrants from Kenya.’
- Richard Crossman’s diary entry for 13 February 1968 cited in Mark Lattimer, ‘When Labour Played the Racist Card’, The New Statesman, accessed online at url https://www.newstatesman.com/when-labour-played-racist-card
- George Thomas cited in Marie Benedicte Dembour, When Humans Become Migrants: Study of the European Court of Human Rights with an Inter-American Counterpoint, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015, p. 85.
- Quotation from confidential memorandum from Sir Burke Trend, cabinet secretary, to the prime minister Harold Wilson, dated 14 February 1968, and cited in Mark Lattimer, ‘When Labour Played the Racist Card’, The New Statesman, accessed online at url https://www.newstatesman.com/when-labour-played-racist-card
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