Migration to Britain: The Significance of a Historical Approach

Date01 December 1991
Published date01 December 1991
Migration to Britain:
The Significance
a Historical Approach
Since the late 1950s, use of the words immigration, migrant and immigrant in Britain
have been understood to refer to migrants from the British Caribbean and the Indian
subcontinent. Within popular and political discourse, an immigrant is, by definition, a
“coloured” or “black” person. Following the signification of New Commonwealth’
migration to Britain as a problem, or as giving rise to problems, by a range of political
forces from the late 1950s (there was a more secret signification within the institutions
of the British state from 1947), academic researchers have been involved in the critical
analysis of these processes. The output is now extensive and refracts the use of a number
of different theoretical paradigms.
Within the discipline of sociology, this migration and its consequences have been
widely conceptualised using a racialised scientific discourse. Notions of “race” and
“race relations” have predominated in both Marxist and nowMarxist traditions, to the
extent that both can be considered to have operationalised a single problematic which
have identified as the “race relations” paradigm (1982, 1984). Attempts to gain a
scientific status for these notions, where this is explicitly tackled, entail a legitimation
of the common sense discourse of “race” which is grounded in nineteenth century,
European pseudo-science. This discourse was extensively and routinely employed
during the nineteenth century to comprehend the British colonial enterprise and, more
specifically, social relations between the colonisers and the colonised. Consequently,
the British colonial situation became widely understood as a “race relations” situation:
those who were colonised were usually understood to be a distinct and inferior “race”,
a biologically distinct population whose future depended upon their assessed capacity
for “civilisation” under the tutelage of the superior “white” British “race”.
The post-194s migration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent was a
migration from the colonial situation, albeit one undergoing political decolonisation.
The migrants, while being juridically British subjects, were signified
the public arena
using the discourse generated to comprehend the colonial situation and, particularly,
those who were colonised.
Consequently, they were implicitly and explicitly conceived of as distinct “races”:
references to skin colour (usually by use of the descriptor “coloured’)), to blood and to
of Glasgow, Glasgow
“stock” were common. But if these migrants were members of one or more “races”, then
it followed that the British people too belonged to a “race”. Hence, there was a simplistic
logic to the popular conclusion that “coloured immigration” had brought about a “race
relations” situation in Britain, and to the view that the colonial situation had been
Sociological and much Marxist analysis has reified this discourse, giving it a spurious
scientific legitimacy. Additionally, it has centrally employed the concept of racism to
describe and to explain the political and ideological consequences of this migration, as
well as the material and structural position occupied by the migrants and their British-
born children. Use of this concept followed logically insofar as the nineteenth century
doctrines of “race” had, by the end of the 1930s, begun to be described as racist (Miles
1989a: 42; see also 1989d). That is to say, the product of much biological theorising
during the nineteenth century was analysed in the mid-twentieth century as a specific
instance of ideology, that is, as racism. It followed that the colonial enterprise of the
nineteenth century came to be understood as being, at least in part, founded on, or having
given rise to, racism.
There has, therefore, been a close and complex articulation between the public and
the academic (notably but not exclusively within the discipline of sociology) responses
to, and attempts to comprehend, post-1945 migration to Britain from the New
Commonwealth. Much of the sociological research and writing has consistently
challenged the official discourses and the explanations that they implicitly and
explicitly contain. But, in other respects, that articulation has taken the form of a
official discourses, accounts and explanations by sociological research
and writing. In addition to the legitimation of the reification of “race”, there has also been
a legitimation of official accounts of, and assumptions about, the composition of
migration flows and of the British population of migrant origin.
a large extent, this
has been by default rather than by intention.
Most sociological research and analysis since the mid- 1960s has assumed that the
post- 1945 migration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent has been either the
most important or the only migration to Britain. It is certainly not the only migration to
have occurred, and furthermore it can only be regarded as the most important in
specific sense. The occurrence of other migrations, along with the contextualisation and
the relativisation of the importance
Caribbean and South Asian migration, is
adopting a longer term, historical perspective on migration to Britain.
Broadening the historical canvas on which we seek to work is not inimical in principle
to those who implicitly or explicitly present New Commonwealth migration as the sole
and/or most important post- 1945 migration. For example, a great deal of work has been
devoted to demonstrating that those migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-
continent who arrived after 1945 were not the first “black” people to arrive and to settle
Britain. As
their labours, there is now a substantial collection of work
documenting the history of African, Indian and Caribbean migration to Britain, and the
historicity of the African, Indian and Caribbean presence
Britain (e.g. Fryer, 1984,
Visram, 1986; Ramdin, 1987). Thus, not only is the history of British intervention
emergent world capitalist system intimately bound up with the labour power of
colonised peoples
at least three different continents, but equally British domestic
history is founded
part on the labour power and presence of these same colonised
peoplcs. As one recently emergent tradition of scholarship might express
domestic history is therefore not just
“white” history
“black” history.
historical analysis is considered to have important implications for the way
which we analyse post- 1945 migration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent,
the consequences of that migration, we can legitimately enquire about the

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