For over ten years, from about 1954 to 1966, Commonwealth immigration was the principal, and at times the only, political issue in my constituency in Wolverhampton. Between those dates entire areas were transformed by the substitution of a wholly or predominantly coloured population for the previous native inhabitants, as completely as other areas were transformed by the bulldozer.
My uppermost feeling on looking back upon those years is of astonishment that this event, which altered the appearance and life of a town and had shattering effects on the lives of many families and persons, could take place with virtually no physical manifestations of antipathy.
This speaks volumes for the steadiness and tolerance of the natives. Acts of an enemy, bombs from the sky, they could understand; but now, for reasons quite inexplicable, they might be driven from their homes and their property deprived of value by an invasion which the Government apparently approved and their fellow-citizens – elsewhere – viewed with complacency. Those were the years when a ‘For Sale’ notice going up in a street struck terror into all its inhabitants. I know; for I live within the proverbial stone’s throw of streets which ‘went black’.
‘Why?’ the people used to ask me, ‘is the Government bringing these people into our country in ever-growing numbers? And where is it all to end?’ I tried to explain that the law of England could not distinguish between one British subject and another and that therefore the inhabitants of India, Africa and the West Indies were all the same in law as the inhabitants of Wolverhampton.
It was a fiction, perhaps a romantic fiction, but one which could only be maintained if no practical effect was given to it. Year after year, in government and out of it, I begged colleagues to bring the law into line with reality; but the majority of Ministers and Members had no personal knowledge of what was happening in a few concentrated areas.
At last the rising flood of immigration which came on the post-election boom of 1960 forced the Government – but oh, how slowly and timidly – to make our law like that of every other country on earth, in recognizing the difference between its own people and the rest. To subsequent generations it will seem incredible that this was not done until almost a million Commonwealth immigrants had entered.
Even when the Act began in 1962, the inhabitants of the areas affected still could not believe the menace was over. That reassurance came to be felt only after the limitation had taken effect, and after the facts of life and the loss of Smethwick and Leyton had driven the Labour Government to maintain and enforce it.
The net intake from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean since 1962 has been as follows:
1966 43,110 (first ten months only).
In any one year this rate of inflow is imperceptible; but 50,000 a year would still mean an additional net immigration from these countries of 1¾ million by the end of the century.
There are two other factors which reinforce the significance of these figures. The Registrars General estimate that the United Kingdom will have nil net immigration by about 1975; but note how the balance is arrived at:
30,000 from Eire;
60,000 from the Commonwealth;
30,000 from foreign countries;
120,000 U.K. citizens.
The figures are obviously highly conjectural; but they illustrate the effect which the combination of immigration with emigration can have on the composition of the population.
The remaining factor, obviously, is natural increase. Like all population projections, any estimate of this is bound to be also conjectural. One estimate is that by the end of the century it will have been sufficient to raise the total coloured population to about 3 ½ millions, or 5 per cent of the whole.
But this is in the future. For the moment, compared with the past decade or so, there is a feeling of stabilization; the immigrants are ‘shaking down’ and ‘shaking out’, rather than visibly increasing; and the subject has disappeared below the surface of public consciousness.
In my own constituency (where I estimate that about 10 per cent of the population are immigrants from Asia or the Caribbean) I have the impression that, as no doubt elsewhere, the first phase, the sudden impact of Commonwealth immigration, is over.
I am going to prophesy, however, that there will be subsequent phases, when the problem will resume its place in public concern and in a more intractable form, when it can no longer be dealt with simply by turning the inlet tap down or off. Long before the coloured population reaches 5 per cent of the total, a proportion will have filtered into the general population, mingled with it in occupation, residence, habits and intermarriage. On the other hand, the rest, numerically perhaps much the greater part, will be in larger or smaller colonies, in certain areas and cities, more separated than now in habits, occupation and way of life.
The irregular pattern of population and living which grew up higgledy-piggledy in the early years of immigration will have been tidied up. It is for these colonies, and the problems thereby entailed on our descendants, that they will curse the improvident years, now gone, when we could have avoided it all.
A number of lines of least resistance converge on the preservation of the immigrant colonies: for causes both external and internal they soon become self-perpetuating, and a number may have done so already.
How, then, are the dangers at least to be minimized? The one undeniable and obvious action is to limit the size of the problem by virtually terminating net immigration. I think it not impossible that if this were done a small but significant net emigration might soon follow, especially given aid, inducements and encouragements to immigrants to rejoin families in their countries of origin or to return thither when they encounter prolonged unemployment or other economic difficulties.
Only if the situation were thus numerically stabilized would it be practicable to apply methods of dispersal, though these will never affect more than minorities, and those the minorities which are anyhow most easily assimilated to the general population.
The best I dare to hope is that by the end of the century we shall be left not with a growing and more menacing phenomenon but with fixed and almost traditional ‘foreign’ areas in certain towns and cities, which will remain as the lasting monuments of a moment of national aberration. Even this relatively happy outcome, however, implies that vigorous action to limit and if possible reduce total numbers is taken as from now. I fear it will not be.