Immigration into Britain was not new to the postwar years. Irish immigrants had long been an important part of Britain’s workforce in many cities including Liverpool, Coventry and London. Many Liverpudlians speak of their Irish roots, or the Irish influence on the city’s long tradition of music-making. Asian and Black British people formed small but significant sections of the populace in port cities and towns as well as in London (largely because of the legacy of slavery). Italian communities had strong roots in towns and cities like Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where Italian ice-cream sellers and cafes were already being enjoyed in the 1900s. And many British people had Jewish roots, often because their ancestors had fled persecution in various parts of Europe and Asia through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many Jews worked in the textile and clothing industries in large cities like Leeds and London.
The situation did change in the late 1940s, though, largely because Britain needed more workers. The British government also began actively encouraging immigration to meet labour demand in Britain, primarily from the Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean. Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, offers a gripping account of life in Britain for Caribbean migrants who had grown up viewing Britain as ‘home’ – but found themselves often treated as outsiders when they arrived. In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of migrants from India and Pakistan increased, both because of the stresses and strains caused by Independence from Britain and the Partition of India and Pakistan, and because of continuing demand for labour in Britain. Many of these migrants believed they would only stay in Britain for a few years, but as their family ties and friendships grew, many ended up staying far longer, even a lifetime.
The ‘white working class’ are often accused of racism in the media, but the migrants who speak here make 3 important points that undermine this. Firstly, they point out that class can cut across racial divisions, not least because many white working class people recognised that they themselves were migrants of some sort. Interviewees from Coventry point out that ‘Coventry kids’ came from all over the world, and from all over Britain: many Coventrians had parents who came from north-east England, Wales, Scotland or further afield. Secondly, while immigrants did experience racism, this was not confined to any particular social group. Sadly, many experienced prejudice from employers, schoolteachers, and neighbours at various times. But thirdly, the so-called ‘white working class’ communities provided homes for most immigrants, often with tolerance and support. Workers and refugees from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean tended to settle in working-class areas (and be settled there by local councils) because they could afford the housing and these areas were usually near factories and other workplaces. Immigrants speak of the friendship and support they found among neighbours and workmates that helped them to settle and create a home in cities like Liverpool and Coventry. Today, inner-city and working-class neighbourhoods remain among the most racially mixed in Britain, and often play leading parts in educational and cultural initiatives that promote antiracism, second language learning and cultural exchange.