They used to tell us, `go back home'

They can laugh now. But life in Britain for Barbara Phillips and her immigrant mother has been no joke. By Randeep Ramesh
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The Independent Culture
When the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury a little over 50 years ago with its human cargo of 492 West Indians, the warmness of the British welcome more than compensated for the nation's damp and dreary climate. "Five Hundred Pairs of Willing Hands" ran the headline in the Daily Worker. "Welcome Home" topped a piece in the London Evening Standard.

Those hoping to settle in Britain today would find the populist press less accommodating. According to the Sunday Times earlier this month, "the cost of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain will reach pounds 2.1bn in 1998, equal to 1p on income tax".

"Shut that door" screamed The Sun the next day, and the Daily Telegraph went a step further, calling for the Government to "repatriate the hundreds of thousands of people already living in Britain illegally".

The reason for the change in the country's mood lies with recent history. Post-war Britain was a bomb-blasted shell with labour in short supply to fill the menial jobs the population thought beneath them. The Commonwealth provided a readily available source of cheap labour.

By 1956, London Transport was recruiting directly from Jamaica and Barbados. A Tory health minister called Enoch Powell even invited West Indian nurses to work in Britain. The nation could afford to welcome non-white immigrants.

However, the dream of a better life for many of those who came to stay was shattered in a few short months. The hospitality was soon replaced by hostility.

"They used to say `go back home'," says Mandy Phillips, who came to Britain in 1960 from the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica. "You know, Black this, Black that. White people did not want black people. They did not want dogs. They did not want the Irish. I can remember walking past a church on a Sunday and then these children started throwing bottles. It was a shock."

By 1960, there were about 150,000 West Indians and 60,000 Indians and Pakistanis in Britain. The new settlers were all citizens of the UK, thanks to the 1948 Nationality Act which conferred British passports to residents of the Commonwealth.

"Everyone was going to England. Everyone said it was better in England," recalls Mrs Phillips, who settled in Notting Hill.

Mrs Phillips was 29 in 1960 and paid $375 for a 19-day trip on a boat - the Sorriento - which took her from the West Indies to Britain via Barcelona in Spain and Genoa in Italy. "I only came to stay for two years. And here I am, nearly 40 years later."

Like many other new settlers, Mrs Phillips took a job she was over-qualified for. In her home town of Roseau, Mrs Phillips was a manager of a local store - in her own words "a businesswoman" - but her first job in Britain was packing biscuits in a factory for pounds 5 a week.

A report in 1955, entitled The Colour Problem, had already identified the seething discontent - fuelled by ignorance - of the host nation to the newly-arrived. It estimated two-thirds of Britain's white population held a "low opinion of black people or disapproved of them". A third resisted any contact with non-whites, would not allow mixed- race marriages, would not work with black people or allow them into their house and felt they "should not be allowed in Britain at all".

Worse still was the poor housing conditions many black people found themselves living in. Mrs Phillips lived in a west London town house - where she and her family had only one room. "There was no hot water, no central heating and only one toilet in a house with three floors full of people".

The crude racism of the Sixties was enough to ensure black people were not keen on integration. "Mostly I knew other Dominicans. We used to keep in touch by writing to each other - because none of us could afford telephones," says Mrs Phillips. "We had parties, drank wine and Guinness and listened to Blues music. I was polite to white people, but I did not invite them to our parties. They did not invite us to theirs."

But the days of importing economic migrants were numbered. It took just three days to pass the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act - created to stop Kenyan Asians with British passports entering the country. But it was the late Enoch Powell who closed Britain's door. Powell's incendiary speech made him a parliamentary pariah, but his call for strict immigration controls were heeded by both Labour and Conservative politicians.

The then Tory frontbencher's "Rivers of Blood" speech ushered in a new era which culminated in the draconian 1971 Immigration Act. According to the London Research Centre: "1971 marked the end of black immigration for settlement."

This did not make it any easier for the next generation growing up in Britain. Mrs Phillips' daughter, Barbara, was born in 1963. Leaving school after her O-levels, she joined the TSB bank in Hammersmith. "I was one of the only two black faces in the whole of the south-east. The staff all used to use words like wog, nigger, and paki and expect me not to be offended. I went to see the manager and all he said was: `wog means western oriental gentleman'. I left soon after that."

"I then worked in BHS and the same things happened there. I worked in Alfred Marks (a recruitment agency) and one employer told me they did not take black staff. So I went to see him to ask him why and when I walked through the door, the boss looked everywhere - the floor, the ceiling, the door - but not at my face."

After her experiences in the job market, Barbara went back to school, paying her way through university. Now 35, she runs her own marketing and public relations company, Brownstone Communications. "Things are much better now, but you still get advertising agencies who look at you in a funny way if you say `why not put a black face in?'"

Britain has gained enormously from its ethnic diversity. Yet foreigners from outside the European Union, who do not have the support of an employer or pounds 200,000 in cash, have only two ways to stay in Britain. Either they have a spouse or parent already in the country, or they must convince suspicious Home Office officials they are fleeing a disaster of almost Biblical proportions.

The status quo not only blots Britain's liberal credentials, it implies that immigration hinders, rather than helps, the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Business has given rise to success stories such as financier Carl Cushnie, who came to Britain in 1963 as a teenager from the West Indies, and employs 40 people in his pounds 100m company. Sport is enriched by boxer Naseem Hamed, whose family hail from Yemen, and footballer Paul Ince, ethnically West Indian.

Tough immigration laws will end that and much more. According to Labour MP Keith Vaz, some Indian restaurants have been waiting for up to two years for a suitable chef to be allowed entry. Emigration, not immigration, is now commonplace. Last year, the BBC's Black Britain estimated that nearly 40,000 West Indians had returned since 1994 to the Caribbean after living in Britain for more than 20 years.

"They had just had enough," said Mary Slater, whose parents returned to Jamaica this year. "This is my home, but I don't think it was ever my parents'."