"Is it cos they is black?" British society and its colonial immigrants in the TV series "The Kumars at No. 42" and "Ali G"

Term Paper, 2003

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)




Ethnic minorities in Great Britain since 1945
Reasons for immigration to Great Britain since 1945
British immigration policy since 1945
Nationalist sentiment and racism in Great Britain today

“The Kumars at No. 42” and “Ali G”
The Kumars at No. 42
Ali G


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources


British society has undergone a considerable change of its composition in the past fifty years. Unprecedented numbers of immigrants came to Great Britain after World War II. The traditional population, which had been rather homogeneous until then, was confronted with foreign-looking people who came from former colonies and whose identities seemed anything but British. Since then, the proportion of non-white Britons of the population has risen steadily. Their influx was increasingly made difficult, when the voices against such immigrants grew stronger. The national self-image of a white British nation became more and more problematic. At present British self-understanding is undergoing a shift away from the traditional viewpoint to an awareness of changed circumstances.

In this setting the essay at hand will investigate signs of that shift in two British TV series formats, namely “The Kumars at No. 42” and “Ali G”. It will show how remaining tensions between the immigrant and the traditional population are being dealt with and how new ways of coexistence are negotiated. The main focus will be an analysis of strategies to break down old imperial structures and sublime ways to question British self-images. Both TV series have their own ways of turning the imperial tables and presenting British society in a critical light.

The essay is divided into two parts. In the first section, an overview of British immigration history since 1945, followed by a discussion of British national sentiment will be given. The second section analyses the strategies of the two series against this backdrop.

Ethnic minorities in Great Britain since 1945

The impact of the two TV series dealt with in this essay cannot be understood without knowledge of the history of ethnic minorities in Britain since the end of World War II, as the themes dealt with in the series are closely interlinked with this episode of recent British history. This chapter will give an overview of selected aspects of this phenomenon. A first section will describe corner points of immigration politics and flows of colonial immigrants to Britain. The second part moves from this mainly historical view to a description of the development of national sentiment and racism.

Reasons for immigration to Great Britain since 1945

In the past fifty years, roughly counted, there has been a big change in the composition of the British population. Although the country has seen waves of immigration of different ethnic groups for centuries[1], a nation that understood itself as predominantly homogeneous developed within the past few centuries. The British nation was a “white nation”. Since the famine in Ireland in the 19th century there had been a considerable inflow of Irish to Britain, but except from that other immigrant groups were diminishingly small. In 1953 the non-white community in Britain was estimated to approximately 40,000 (Layton-Henry 1992: 10).

In the aftermath of World War II, however, this picture changes dramatically. A number of factors caused the migration of a relatively high number of colonial subjects to Britain. Already with the end of World War II workers from the West Indies who had been recruited to serve for the mother-country during the war and were intended to go back home after it, were reluctant to do so for several reasons (Layton-Henry 1992: 11). The government put a lot of energy into the attempt to repatriate them and indeed by the middle of 1947 the majority had left Britain (Spencer 1997).

One of the major reasons for the relatively sudden commencement of colonial immigration was the changing relationship between the centre and periphery of the British Empire. The Empire dissolved into autonomous territories, whose migration policies could no longer be controlled from London. From the point of their independence, former colonies decided in their interest; India and Pakistan for example issued passports to their citizens more freely than this had formerly been possible under the influence of the Colonial Office (Spencer 1997: 22).

At the same time the government was keen to attract labourers for the reconstruction of the country. Immigration from overseas was supposed to fill the heavy labour shortage, which had been caused by the war. At the beginning the main source of labour for post-war reconstruction was the whole European continent, amongst others Polish and Italians were attracted to work in Britain (Spencer 1997: 39). By 1947 the Colonial Office raised the point that the government should consider the possibility of recruiting British subjects from the Commonwealth. Furthermore, Governors or Officers Administering of West Indian Islands rejected the British policy to employ European workers. They pressed London to use their people for the reconstruction of the United Kingdom (ibid).

Another major factor for the growing numbers of colonial immigrants were initiatives started by the British economy independent from government. Several companies in the rubber and textile sector started advertising campaigns in Punjab newspapers, which aimed to attract workers to emigrate to Britain to find relatively well-paid work. London Transport, the British Hotels and Restaurants Association and the Ministry of Health recruited workers in the Caribbean (Layton-Henry 1992: 13). These attempts were mainly designed to bring high numbers of unskilled labour for the low-wage sector into the country (Ballard and Ballard 1977: 21).

Whereas it is clear that the flow of colonial immigrants began after World War II, no exact date for its launch can be given. Commonly the arrival of the immigrant ship Empire Windrush in June 1948, which brought several hundred immigrants from the Caribbean, is named as this starting point. Firstly the name surely offers a good image for the new immigrant wave. Secondly this occasion was cause for the first memorandum to be circulated among the Cabinet Ministers. Yet the Empire Windrush was not the first vessel that brought several hundred migrants from the Caribbean – a fact that is wiped away by the dynamics of national memory (Spencer 1997: 49-50). The large-scale influx of colonial immigrants to Britain did not commence before the middle of the 1950s, as can be seen from the fact that the non-white population comprised only approximately 40,000 by 1953 (cf. above). According to official estimations in 1955 the net immigration numbers rose rapidly: Whereas 2,000 new immigrants were counted in 1953 and 11,000 in 1954, the year 1955 saw approximately 42,000 new immigrants enter Great Britain. The net immigration numbers have been irregular since then, but never dropped under 21,000 and for example in 1964 rose to 136,000 (Layton-Henry 1992: Table 1.1, p.13; Spencer 1997: Figure 1, p.119). Whereas these numbers suggest that the immigration policy held all doors open to immigrants, the truth is somewhat different.

British immigration policy since 1945

Colonial subjects, that is citizens of former colonies, were simultaneously British subjects. In theory they all enjoyed the equal right – independent of race or religion – to settle in the United Kingdom, whereas foreigners, according to the Aliens Act of 1905, were subject to restrictions. This “cherished illusion of apologists for the Empire/Commonwealth” (Spencer 1997: 22) has to be qualified. The British government, like large parts of the population, had strong antipathy against colonial immigration and acted accordingly. From the beginning the British government, respectively commissions initiated by Ministries, repeatedly debated the matter. An Interdepartmental Working Party was set up in 1948 to enquire the issues raised by the Colonial Office that Caribbean workers be employed for the reconstruction of the country. The Working Party found that there was no overall labour shortage and that workers from the colonies could only satisfy the need in the health service. Spencer reports that the minutes of the meetings contain a record of entirely negative attitudes to colonial labour (Spencer 1997: 40). The Ministry of Labour found a number of areas of labour shortage, but their publication aroused complaints from workers unions. A conference chaired by the Ministry of Labour concluded that colonial workers would be discriminated where white labour was available. It was found that many company owners would refuse to employ more than one or two ‘coloured’ workers at a time (Spencer 1997: 41).

Publicly, the government boasted with the fact that Great Britain still offered free immigration to all Commonwealth citizens, whereas all dominions such as New Zealand, Australia or Canada had introduced immigration restrictions short after their independence from Britain. In reality, however, the British government did not refrain from introducing restrictions due to altruistic reasons. Rather it feared political difficulties, domestically and internationally, that might be aroused by openly discriminating immigration rules. Another factor that kept the government from making legislative changes was the fear of retaliation against British business men and disastrous effects on relations with Commonwealth states (Spencer 1997: 82).[2]

Nevertheless, from the beginning ways were found to make immigration to more difficult to some ethnic groups than for others. For example London pressed India, Pakistan and the West Indian colonies to control the issue of passports of those whose ‘financial position was not sound’ (Spencer 1997: 31), an attempt which was successful in the case of the sub-continent and some islands of the West Indies; but Jamaica, for example, refused to introduce such restrictions. As a further measure the government distributed films and pamphlets that had been produced in the worst places of the United Kingdom to deter colonials from an emigration to Britain. The government also sent out officials to negotiate with former colonies and persuade them that letting their population go to Britain was a bad decision.

Despite the government’s opposition against the influx of colonial immigrants and the unofficial attempts to regulate it, the number of colonial migrants in Britain grew steadily.[3] The Commonwealth Immigrants Act from 1962 introduced the regulation of the immigration flow, but it still allowed high immigrant numbers. The final step to bring Caribbean, Indian/Pakistani and African immigration to a halt was the 1971 Immigration Act. It finally abolished the historic categories ‘alien’ and ‘British subject’ and replaced them with the essentially racially-defined categories ‘patrial’ and ‘non-patrial’.[4] In effect the rights of non-white Commonwealth citizens to migrate to Britain was abolished, whereas the door was kept open for the white population of the Commonwealth.[5]


[1] Immigration to Great Britain is not a new phenomenon. Instead the flow of ethnic groups, which the present British population originates from, has a long history (Layton-Henry 1992: 3). Invaders like the Angles, Saxons, Normans have successively populated the country. This has to be borne in mind when talking about immigration to Britain – the population as it is composed today is the result of centuries of immigration.

[2] Salman Rushdie (Rushdie 1992b: 133) writes that the Macmillan government ran a large-scale advertising campaign. I was unable to find evidence for that in Spencer (Spencer 1997) and Hansen (Hansen 2000). I do not want to neglect Rushdie’s account, but I will follow Spencer and Hansen in my explanations, since they deal with the topic in more detail. Furthermore, according to these works, the tendency of British governments throughout the 1950s to 1980s was that they were opposed to colonial immigration.

[3] The growth of the percentage of ethnic minorities was simultaneously enforced by the high numbers in which white Britons left the country.

[4] For a more detailed explanation of the act’s mechanism see (Hansen 2000: 192-193; Spencer 1997: 143-144).

[5] While the rules for immigration were openly changed in 1971, the inflow of immigrants from the Commonwealth remained high. The Ugandan exodus was one reason for this, another was the movement of dependants of immigrants from the sub-continent (Ballard and Ballard 1977: 33-34; Spencer 1997: 145). The influx of immigrants from the Commonwealth continues until today. The net inflow of immigrants from all Commonwealth countries 1992 to 2001 was 41,600 per year, similar to that of the 1950s (National Statistics 2003). The percentage of ethnic minorities grew steadily since the end of World War II. While in 1953 Britain’s ethnic minority population was diminishingly small, it rose to 4.5% in 1988 (Layton-Henry 1992: 14) and reached a high of 7.9% (4.6 million of 58.9 million) in 2001 (National Statistics 2001).

Excerpt out of 22 pages


"Is it cos they is black?" British society and its colonial immigrants in the TV series "The Kumars at No. 42" and "Ali G"
University of Leipzig  (Institute for Anglistics)
Novels of the Indian Diaspora
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
505 KB
British, Kumars, Novels, Indian, Diaspora
Quote paper
David Glowsky (Author), 2003, "Is it cos they is black?" British society and its colonial immigrants in the TV series "The Kumars at No. 42" and "Ali G", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/21513


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