Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era

In This Review

Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era

By Kathleen Paul
Cornell University Press, 1997
253 pp. $39.95
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This well-researched study argues that "the qualifying of national identity derives from almost 50 years of manipulation of the politics of citizenship in Britain," leading to the replacement of "formal definitions of citizenship" by "racialized images of national identity" -- an evolution Paul deplores. She begins by discussing the 1948 British Nationality Act, which consolidated the "common, imperial status" of British subjects and established a new citizenship for the United Kingdom and colonies that included British subjects of color. Paul then proceeds to show that separate policies were set for four different migrant groups. Despite the labor shortage at home, "British stock" was encouraged to emigrate to the old, that is, white, dominions, and one and a half million did so between 1946 and 1960. The labor problem was handled through the recruitment of 345,000 aliens, many of whom were refugees from Central and Eastern Europe and intended to become British. Irish migrants were treated as "neither subjects nor aliens"; or rather, they were given the privileges of subject-hood and became part of the "community of Britishness" while remaining Irish citizens. The most difficult problem was that of "coloured" colonials eager to settle in Britain, and thus to challenge the "hierarchy defined by race, gender, and social class" hidden behind the system of formal legal equality. The arrival first of Jamaicans, then of Pakistanis and Indians, threatened the old notion of "separate black and white communities with informally unequal rights," and finally led to the 1962 Nationality Act, which divided British subject migrants into three groups, of which the third was unskilled laborers in search of work, who would be numerically controlled. In 1981 a new act divided British nationality into three tiers: British citizenship, British dependent territory citizenship, and British overseas citizenship; only the first group has a right to live in the United Kingdom. Whether or not one accepts Paul's conviction that the evolution resulted from elite preferences rather than from popular prejudice, one must acknowledge the vigor and clarity of this treatment of an important issue.