Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown […]
you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
The unmistakeable lyrics above are from the Bob Dylan classic The Times They Are A-Changin. In recent days Britain has been coming to terms with the fallout of having voted to leave the European Union. One unpleasant aspect of this process of national soul searching has been an uptake in hate speech. Unflattering signs have been cropping up targeting Eastern European migrants living in the United Kingdom, at the top of the page.
In many cases, the race or nationality-related abuse being doled out is being prefaced with statements to the effect of “we voted leave so you must get out of our country now”. Many Brits have expressed frustration at the numbers of citizens of Eastern European EU countries using their right to free movement within the EU and taking up residence in the country. In the mid-2000s it was the image “Polish plumber”, coming to the UK and undercutting the wages local workers had been used to. Think tanks like MigrationWatch UK have long been sounding the alarm over the skyrocketing numbers of Poles in the UK and the irreparable this was viewed as doing to the UK in the area of net migration. Polish migrants now make up one of the largest contingents of foreign born residents of the UK, outstripping all other nationalities save for Indians. Since 2014, Bulgarians and Romanians have been added to this category, as both countries had movement restrictions into the UK lifted that year.
Signs like one above have drawn the ire of many in the UK, in whose view Brexit coming to fruition means that nationalism and racism have been allowed to come into the mainstream and be voiced with a level of candour (to put it politely) many never thought they would see in 2016. A look back at Britain’s not too distant past shows that the hatred now rearing its ugly head is but a repeat performance by today’s Brits of the expression of their parents’ and grandparents’ angst. The target in an earlier era was migrants from Commonwealth countries.
Prior to 1945, all citizens of the Commonwealth were considered British subjects and thus there was no explicit legal framework presenting a barrier to them entering the originator of the Commonwealth, the UK, in a situation not unlike what now obtains for EU citizens, who are able to move throughout the bloc freely.
The Commonwealth Exchange think tank – which promotes a reforging of the close ties that once linked the UK and Commonwealth countries – explains that the British Nationality Act of 1948 established the status called “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies” (CUKC). Individuals with this status were able to settle in the UK without any hindrance. At any rate, given that the wave of post-War decolonisation was just getting underway, the number of people around the world with this status and the concomitant right to live in the UK began to dwindle almost as soon as the status was created. Two Commonwealth Immigration Acts – the first in 1962, followed by another in 1968 – began chipping away at the rights CUKC provided under the 1948 Act.
With their stated aim of stemming a Commonwealth migratory flow that British authorities feared could soon become unmanageable, the combined effect of the two pieces of legislation was meant to be to numerically limit Commonwealth citizen entries to the UK and, further, to make it such that only those CUKC status holders who could prove British ancestry could retain an absolute right to move to the UK. Soon after the 1968 law, the 1971 Immigration Act aimed to slow immigration flows even further. Specific migration-related advantages previously accruing to Commonwealth citizens were all but discontinued at this point, except for those who had proof of ancestry. This particular tightening of British immigration policy coincided with the UK’s overtures to join the European Economic Community – the precursor to the modern-day European Union.
However, it is widely known what is said about the proverbial “best laid plans”. Contrary to their intended goal, the immigration laws mentioned above spurred a wave of Commonwealth entries into the UK the likes of which had not been seen in previous years. As Britain’s Empire was coming apart at the seams, citizens from the myriad of countries and territories of which it was comprised responded to the news of an impending hardening of entry requirements by moving to the UK in droves so as not to be caught offside once the new tough rules took effect, a phenomenon which came to be referred to as the “beat the ban” rush. Most of the migrants concerned by this rush were Asian and West Indian. All told, the number of Commonwealth migrants in Britain grew exponentially, multiplying several times over from a modest 20,000-odd in the early 1950s to pass the 100,000 mark by 1961.
The climate in Britain at the time – from the late 40s on through the decolonisation wave of the 1960s and 70s – was one in which xenophobia was anything but uncommon, and the popular resentment among the working class British of the new non-British and non-white faces in their midst found outlets of expression in discrimination of all sorts, running the gamut from employment-related and landlords flat out refusing to rent to black or Asian people regardless of their ability to pay for lodging all the way to open hostility as seen in the 1958 Notting Hill and Nottingham riots. This was, after all, the era of Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, in which he bemoaned the levels of immigration then being allowed and declared that laissez faire British immigration policy was tantamount to fiddling while Rome burned, predicting that the high numbers of foreigners were a recipe for disaster and all out social upheaval. The reaction to Commonwealth migrants can be summed up by the following sign.
Against the backdrop of the social storm clouds that had begun gathering over Britain due to the numbers of Commonwealth migrants arriving in the country – or due to poorer Britons’ knee jerk reaction to the perceived economic and cultural threat this represented, according to who you ask – several countries from Britain’s erstwhile Empire put in place restrictive measures of their own, meant to stem the flow of emigrants to some extent at the source. These measures included making it more difficult for people to get passports, requiring them to prove their knowledge of English and asking that they show that they had the finances necessary to move to the UK and at least subsist there.
Clearly, no such country of origin measures could be relevant in the EU context. Freedom of movement enjoys primacy of place as a key matter of policy in the EU – so much so that the now Britainless EU has told British authorities that there can be exception to that very provision if they want to retain access to the EU market.
Thankfully, there have been no violent eruptions associated the current situation. Hopefully there won’t be because everyone from all points along the political spectrum, on either sides of the debate – except for the scaremongering members of the English Defence League – can agree that such an event would only worsen an already poisonous situation.
Bob Dylan said that “the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin’”. The coming months will reveal whether the UK or the EU will have been the loser at first and which will end up winning in the long run. David Bowie’s timeless lyric has it that “time may change me, but I can’t trace time”. The similar signs some 5 or 6 decades apart show that time doesn’t appear to be changing the UK that significantly, at least in that one respect. The times they are a-comin’ full circle, one could say. These are literal signs of the times.