The History Thread takes a critical look at Attlee’s Britain

77 years ago today, the people of Britain went to the polls – Nazi Germany had been defeated, the Japanese Empire had yet to surrender. It took three weeks for the results to be announced, with ballot boxes kept under armed guard as votes from overseas servicemen made their way back to Britain. Churchill headed back to London from the Potsdam Conference, not bothering to pack properly as he was certain he would be re-elected.

He was wrong.

Churchill at his final election rally in Walthamstow Stadium – he was booed and heckled by the crowd.

The Labour Party, led by Clement Attlee, gained a majority of seats in Parliament for the first time. The party had stood on a socialist platform of full employment, nationalisation of key industries, an expanded system of social security, a massive house-building programme and the creation of a National Health Service. This formed the basis of the “Post-War Settlement”.

A lot of the achievements of the Attlee government have been undermined since the “Neoliberal Turn” of the 1970s, even by the Labour Party itself when it regained power in 1997. However, lots of left-wing people in the United Kingdom still look to the Attlee government as a source of inspiration.

Poster for Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 (2013)

The problem with this attitude is that is obscures the actual behaviour of Attlee and his colleagues. The Post-War Settlement has not faced the same amount of critical analysis as FDR’s New Deal and British politics is the worse for it.

When critiquing Attlee’s administration, we could discuss the attempts to maintain the British Empire through extreme force, with atrocities being committed in India, Egypt and Malaya.1 We could discuss how the Welfare State was orientated around the needs of industry, with people outside the labour market – the disabled, women, the elderly – often receiving benefits below subsistence level. Instead, we will focus on one area where the Attlee government was particularly lacking – protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.

The Anti-Jewish Riots of 1947 & government complacency2

When Labour assumed office, they also assumed responsibility for Mandatory Palestine – a territory created by the League of Nations after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Many Holocaust survivors now wished to emigrate to Palestine; the British government had maintained immigration restrictions since the 1930s. Some Jewish people tried to emigrate without permission; the British government responded by interning them in camps on Cyprus.

Mandatory Palestine

Political violence soon followed, with the Irgun3 setting off bombs at King David Hotel, Jerusalem (requisitioned as an army HQ) and at the British Embassy in Rome in 1946. These events were reported in the British tabloids in extremely inflammatory terms, with baseless speculation about when “Jewish terrorists” would strike the mainland. In April the next year, an unexploded bomb was discovered in the Colonial Office at Whitehall, leading to an even more hostile atmosphere.

Things came to a head during the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1947. The Irgun had hung two British Army sergeants in retaliation for the execution of three of their members by the British authorities. The media covered these deaths in sensationalist terms – the Daily Express carried a large picture on the front page, showing the officers as they were discovered under the headline “Hanged Britons: picture that will shock the world.”

There were political demonstrations in cities across the country. They became a stand-in for all discontent – fuel shortages leading to mass unemployment, an intense housing shortage, rumours that “black marketeers” were hoarding goods for their own benefit. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did not help matters – an authoritarian antisemite, he had made remarks about the Jews of Europe “pushing to the front of the queue” and he had insinuated that “Israelites” were hoarding fuel.

In Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, the economic downturn was at its most intense. The demonstrations soon turned into riots. “Get the Jews, get the stuff and get into the shops” was one shout heard in Manchester. Walter Lever, a Jewish resident of the city, recalled:

“Cheetham Hill Road looked much as it had looked seven years before, when the German bombers had pounded the city for twelve hours. All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass.”4

The violence soon spread across the country. In London, the windows of the Raleigh Close synagogue were smashed. Plymouth synagogue was daubed with fascist slogans. Gravestones were uprooted in Birmingham’s Jewish cemetery. The City of Liverpool experienced such extreme disorder, lasting over five days, that the Lord Mayor resorted to a public appeal “to assist the police in the prevention of attacks on property and shops supposedly owned by Jews“.

The riots eventually fizzled out, but they were not treated especially seriously by the government. Arrests were made, people were prosecuted, no-one died so why investigate further? Home Secretary Chuter Ede dismissed the riots as mere “hooliganism … rather than an indication of public feeling.” There was no public enquiry, no strategy to counter antisemitism in public life. Today, the riots are largely forgotten.

“Compulsory repatriation of undesirable Chinese seamen”5

Britain’s empire was dependent on hundreds of thousands of sailors, not only those serving in the Royal Navy but everyone involved in ferrying goods and provisions across the world. Chinese emigrants played a large part in the global shipping industry – some made their way to Britain, where Liverpool became host to the oldest Chinatown in all of Europe.

Chinese sailors at a Liverpool hostel, 1942

The total mobilisation of the World Wars brought even more Chinese seamen to the West, with as many as twenty-thousand serving in the Battle of the Atlantic. But after VJ Day, they were no longer needed – the government, in collusion with multiple shipping companies, moved to deport these men back to China.

At a Whitehall meeting in October 1945, it was alleged that the Chinese sailors had “caused a good deal of trouble to the police, but it has hitherto not been possible to get rid of them”. It was alleged without evidence that “over half (were) suffering from VD or TB” and that those who had married British citizens had chosen wives “from the prostitute class“. There was no place for them in Attlee’s England.

A few days later, the Liverpool police and immigration officers began a city-wide manhunt, searching boarding houses, private homes and businesses. There are oral accounts of wagons prowling the streets and seizing men by force, of men hiding in cellars and attics to avoid being deported. This went on for over ten months, with no acknowledgement from the government of what was happening and with no right of appeal for the Chinese sailors being targeted.

By the summer of 1946, Liverpool immigration inspectors were reporting that fourteen-hundred “off-pay and other undesirable” Chinese had been deported. They left behind over three-hundred wives and children who often had no idea what had happened to their husbands – some believed themselves to be abandoned, some were unable to cope and had to give their children up for adoption.

To add insult to injury, when Labour MP Bessie Braddock attempted to contact the Home Office about this injustice, she was informed that “it might embarrass the immigration officer, Liverpool, the police and the shipping companies concerned” if the government brought any deported Chinese sailors back to Britain.

The Windrush Generation – “I hope no encouragement will be given to others to follow them.”

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain faced massive labour shortages – not only did a colossal amount of equipment need to be replaced, more than two million citizens emigrated to the “White Dominions” in order to escape the deprivations at home. Churchill6 was so concerned that he pleaded with the public:

I say to those who wish to leave our country, “Stay here and fight it out”. If we work together with brains and courage, as we did in days not long ago, we can make our country fit for all our people. Do not desert the old land. We cannot spare you.7

Desperate, the government looked to immigration to fill the gap. In 1948, with cross-party support, Labour passed a new Nationality Act. This reaffirmed that all British subjects had the right to settle and work in the United Kingdom, but the falling cost of international travel meant that non-white people from the colonies could now make the journey.

On 22nd June, the Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex. Eight-hundred of the passengers came from the Caribbean – Pathé news recorded this moment for posterity:

Stay until the end for a Calypso classic!

The government’s response was decidedly ambivalent. Some Labour MPs wrote to Attlee expressing their concern about the “influx of coloured people” a few days after the ship arrived. The PM offered a lukewarm defence of the arrivals:

I think it will be shown that too much importance – too much publicity too – has been attached to the present argosy of Jamaicans. Exceptionally favourable shipping terms were available to them, and there was a large proportion of them who had money in their pockets from ex-service gratuities. These circumstances are not likely to be repeated…

Minister George Isaacs stated to Parliament soon after that “I don’t know who sent these men… it is bound to result in difficulties… I hope no encouragement will be given to others to follow them.” We should also remember that at this time, it was perfectly legal to deny people housing or jobs because of their race. The Windrush migrants often found themselves in the worst jobs and had a great deal of difficulty claiming what the Welfare State supposedly entitled them to.

By 1950, Attlee’s government had decided to arrange an enquiry into “(checking) the immigration into this country of coloured people from the British Colonial Territories.” Future governments followed their example – as a historian concluded in a recent Home Office report, “during the period 1950-1981, every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation was designed … to reduce the proportion of people living in the United Kingdom who did not have white skin.”

Sources and Further Reading

Britain’s last anti-Jewish riots

The Impact of the Jewish Underground upon Anglo-Jewry: 1945-1947

The Secret Deportations: how Britain betrayed the Chinese men who served the country in the war

The Windrush story was not a rosy one even before the ship arrived