10 Pages

Fitting in?

In the late 1940s, the dominant discourses of national identity in Britain were very different from those that now characterise discussions of belonging. Ideas about multiculturalism, about cultural integrity and about diversity and difference had no purchase at that time. Migrants to Britain in these first post-war years were not only officially designed ‘aliens’ but also regarded as such in the popular imagination. Their ‘difference’ was not celebrated nor seen as an interesting or valuable addition to British society but, rather, was regarded as a reason for suspicion. Correspondingly, the debates about migrant identity and belonging were set centrally within the notion of assimilation. Migrants were conceptualised as strangers, rather than as ‘others’, as in contemporary debates. It was their difference from the hegemonic norm – the version of white, middle class, middle England version of English identity that was most highly valued in the early postwar decades – that set them apart from the host society whose customs, manners and conventional practices they were expected to conform to as quickly and as closely as possible. It was their duty to start to ‘fit in’, rather than that of the host nation to accept and tolerate their difference and even to change itself as the population became more diverse. Thus, in the first months after the arrival of the EVWs, the Ministry of Labour sponsored a series of lectures on the ‘British way of life’ which, as Tannahill (1958, p 68) notes, ‘almost inevitably sounded slightly smug or irrelevant to alien ears’. Worse, the maintenance of national languages and customs by EVWs was regarded with suspicion by British officials who attempted to discourage displays of national identity: an insensitive reaction to the plight of people who had lost their homeland and hence their nationality.