The History of Multiculturalism and Immigration in the United Kingdom and Right-Wing Reactions

Term Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


2.Brief history of British multiculturalism

3.Reasons for the influx of immigrants after World War II

4.Reactions from the Right

5.Multiculturalism in the UK today

6.The subject as a school topic






Multiculturalism has been a part of the United Kingdom ever since it set out to establish its world-spanning empire, ranging from the small British Isles to vast parts of North America, Australia, the Caribbean, large parts of Southeast Asia and India.

The massive expansion of British power over almost a quarter of the world’s surface did not only spread British culture to those places and can still be felt there today (language, law, customs, etc.), but also gave incentive for many of the people under British rule to seek a new life in the heart of the empire: England and its many cities, from Leeds to Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and finally London, the beating heart empire.

However, it was not until the end of the Second World War in 1945 that immigration to the UK really took off and shaped the face of the UK so noticeably. Until then British society in the home islands had been relatively homogenous, consisting mostly of Caucasians from the UK itself or immigrants from places like Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Non-white citizens were present, but not in the numbers of today. All that changed when World War II ended and colonialism and especially British colonialism came to its end, with many countries in Asia and Africa declaring their independence from the UK and other colonial powers, such as France, which went through a similar development.

This term paper will be covering a relatively broad range of topics, starting with a brief history of how British multiculturalism came to be and where the emigrants came from, the reasons for the influx of emigrants coming to the UK, how the once relatively homogenous population reacted at that time, the state of multiculturalism in the UK today and finally, clarify if the topic is relevant for todays students. Though the main focus will be on the reaction from the right side of the political spectrum, illustrated by Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech from 1968 and the formation of right-wing groups and parties with clearly anti-multiculturalist and racist motives.

2.Brief history of British multiculturalism

The United Kingdom had several waves of emigrants, though the first were Europeans arriving in the 19th century.

Among the first to immigrate were the Irish[1], fleeing from the potato famine and the subsequent hunger and poverty. The Irish had (foolishly) switched a large part of their diet to the potato and planted only few other crops. When the famine hit in the mid 1850’s, large parts of the crops were destroyed, leaving many Irish to die of hunger or impoverished. Since Ireland was an agricultural land with few alternatives for those seeking work, many left the island to seek their fortunes overseas, i.e. in America or in England. They were not always welcomed with open arms, mainly due to the anti-Catholicism[2] in England and were forced into the poorest sections of the cities, elbow to elbow with the poor English already living there. Violence and hatred between the groups sprung up quickly. But as anti-Catholicism in the UK began to subside, so did the animosity towards the Irish and the social group adapted to their new home.

Another large group which immigrated to the UK were Jews[3] fleeing from tsarist Russia in the late 19th century, due to political instability following the failed assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II. Pogroms erupted in many parts of the country, forcing many Jews to flee hostile and often openly anti-Semitic Russia. One of the destinations for many was, apart from the USA and Palestine/the later Israel, the United Kingdom. Again, like with the Irish Catholics, Jewish immigrants were not welcomed with open arms. Christian anti-Semitism[4] could look back on a long and carefully cultivated history and many old stereotypes were revived with the arrival of this new wave of immigrants. But like the Irish, the Jews adapted and assimilated, often becoming successful merchants after starting out as street vendors or peddlers.

When the Nazis under Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, his fascist dictatorship gave incentive for many Germans (Jews, politicians, critics, artists and others persecuted) to leave Germany[5] and seek refuge in the UK, France and Switzerland. In general the UK became a safe haven for those seeking refuge from Nazi control in Europe, from Germans, Austrians to French and Scandinavians as well as Poles and Italians. Until 1939, before the outbreak of war, it was possible to immigrate to the UK through official means[6]. The number of emigrants accepted in the UK was limited, with many turned back upon arrival or moved into containment camps, especially Germans and Italians. Legal immigration ceased when the Allies declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 and (somewhat) free passage between the countries screeched to a halt. Now refugees had to reach the UK by other means, e.g. crossing the channel by boat in secret or make their way through neutral countries like Switzerland.

Overall, the immigrants from the European mainland did not have the major impact of later waves of emigrants[7] from the second half of the 20th century. Britain remained relatively homogenous, due to the immigrant’s (somewhat) similar culture (values, religion, customs etc.) and ethnicity. With these groups also being relatively small, they were also more likely to assimilate into British society and adapt rather than forming their own subculture and, in the worst case, segregate themselves from the rest of British society.

The big change came in 1948 when the passenger ship Empire Windrush [8] arrived in the UK, carrying just under 500 emigrants from the West Indies. They became known as the “Windrush Generation[9], the first large wave of non-White emigrants to hit the UK. They had come to the UK because of several reasons: prices for overseas voyages were cheap, their own countries were often poor[10], Britain needed a workforce after WW2 and they were citizens of the Commonwealth, meaning that they had the right to settle in the UK. Generally immigrants went to work in the heavy industry, like foundries, or the textile industry. The coexistence was, as with most new wave of immigrants arriving, not always peaceful (more on the topic in chapter 4.1). Public reactions were not exactly enthusiastic. Many saw the need for more labour to rebuild the country, others watched nervously as more and more coloured immigrants arrived. Immigrants were often met with open or subdued racism, especially blacks, against which old stereotypes and prejudices where revived. Immigrants often also faced racism and discrimination[11] at work and in their new neighbourhoods. But over time (though slowly and not without difficulties) Britain adapted to the new citizens and vice versa, bringing their culture with them and changing the face of many neighbourhoods in the major cities, foremost in London. And though laws were created to stem the flow of emigrants coming to the UK (Commonwealth Act[12] in 1962 and later revisions), no real efforts, which politicians like Powell called from, were ever taken to reverse the process. Efforts were taken to stem the flow of emigrants, but was never fully stopped.


[1] Panayi, Panikos “Multicultural Britain: a very brief history” http: (last access: 18.03.13)

[2] Ebd. (last access: 01.04.13)

[3] Martenstein, Harald. Die Vision von einem neuen Leben. In: GEO EPOCHE Nr. 20. 11/2005. Page 127.

[4] Panayi, Panikos “Multicultural Britain: a very brief history” http: (last access: 22.03.13)

[5] L. Meyerink, Kory. Germans in England. (last access: 09.04.13)

[6] Ebd. (last access: 28.03.13)

[7] BBC. Short History of Immigration. http: (last access: 10.03.13)

[8] Mitchell, Michael (ed.). Ethnic Diversity in the UK. An Imagined Community? Langenscheidt, 2010. Print. Page 10f.

[9] BBC The Windrush Generation. (last access: 05.04.13)

[10] Hill, Clifford. Immigration and Integration. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1970. Print. Page 93.

[11] Hill, Clifford. Immigration and Integration. A Study of the settlement of coloured minorities in Britain. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1970. Print. Page 149ff.

[12] Ebd. Page 11f.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The History of Multiculturalism and Immigration in the United Kingdom and Right-Wing Reactions
University of Paderborn  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Teaching Multicultural Britain
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ISBN (Book)
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history, multiculturalism, immigration, united, kingdom, right-wing, reactions
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Julian Göhren (Author), 2013, The History of Multiculturalism and Immigration in the United Kingdom and Right-Wing Reactions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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