Immigrants and British Labour's Response, 1870-1950

Kenneth Lunn looks at the dynamics of the labour movement's reaction to new migrants.

Most considerations of the British labour movement's responses to immigration have been concerned with attitudes directed towards New Commonwealth migrants arriving in Britain after 1945. Studies before this date have generally been sketchy introductions to the later period. Since attitudes towards blacks in Britain are the product of a long history of racial stereotyping, discrimination and racism, this emphasis is not surprising. Given current attempts to define the presence of blacks and Asians in contemporary Britain as a race relations 'problem' the concentration of analysis on the origins of that problem is also understandable.

However, even the existing literature on black/white relations in British society reveals a range of responses, not all of them hostile and negative. Historians of other phases of immigration are also in the process of assembling an adequate account of the complexities of racial attitudes in British society: the way in which negative stereotypes are constructed and articulated and the variety of responses evoked. 'Host society' attitudes are not necessarily fixed and incapable of change. Too frequently, immigrants have been treated either as passive objects of hostility or as undifferentiated groups of people, or often as both. But social history allows majority/minority relations to be seen as something dynamic and evolving rather than static.

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