Exile, Discrimination and Integration
The story of Britain’s Ugandan Asians 40 Years on
To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, Joe Mulhall examines the racism refugees encountered on their arrival in UK – and how their presence made a lasting difference to our country.
Get out or go to jail. That was the stark choice that the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin gave to the countries 60,000 Asians in 1972.
Forty years ago this August, tens of thousands of families were given 90 days to leave their homes and possessions or face internment in military camps. Around half of those exiled would find their way to Britain and change the face of the country forever.
While the decision to grant the Ugandan Asians asylum has proved to be an overwhelming success, enriching Britain both culturally and economically, at the time not everyone was pleased to see them arrive.
The Britain that greeted the exiled Ugandan Asians was already an uneasy tinderbox of racial tension and anti-immigration sentiment. It was only four years since Enoch Powell had delivered his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which received widespread support.
Powell (pictured) articulated many people’s growing concerns regarding immigration and the changing demographic in parts of urban Britain. Hence, the early estimates that claimed 70,000 destitute, non-white immigrants were on their way to Britain caused an unprecedented surge in popular discontent.
The Labour-run council in Leicester, seemingly paralyzed by fear, put a notice in a Ugandan newspaper discouraging people from settling in the area:
“In your own interest and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda Resettlement Board and not come to Leicester.”
The National Front, then Britain’s leading far-right party, had only recently emerged from a volatile internal struggle that had seen John Tyndall take control. However, Idi Amin’s decision to expel the Ugandan Asians breathed a new vitality into a marginalized party that had been racked by internal division.
Tyndall and the NF greeted Edward Heath’s compassionate decision to grant asylum to many of those forced into exile with a ruthless but astute political campaign. Martin Webster, deputy leader of the party, instantly saw the possibilities for recruitment offered by the imminent arrival of thousands of non-white immigrants. They seized upon this rapidly growing fear with uncharacteristic speed, holding a demonstration outside Downing Street less than 24 hours after the alarming news from Uganda had begun to percolate through Britain.
They also held pickets outside Heathrow and Manchester Airport to ensure arriving Ugandans were made to feel as unwelcome as possible.
In large part due to NF agitation, the Smithfield meat porters went on strike and marched to the HQs of both Labour and the Conservatives in scenes reminiscent of their support for Enoch Powell several years earlier.
The result of the NF’s swift opportunism was a rapid swelling of their rank and file membership. The last four months of 1972 saw the party gain 800 new members and a handful of new branches sprang up around the country.
Many of those on the right of the Conservative Party, such as members of the Monday Club, felt intensely alienated by the attitude of the Heath administration and were angered by their leader’s seemingly ‘soft’, or even ‘disloyal’, decision to grant asylum to exiled Ugandans. Many of these traditionalists would find their way into the ranks of the NF over the next year.
Idi Amin became the best recruiting officer the NF had ever had.
They took this momentum into the West Bromwich by-election in May 1973. With tensions remaining high as increasing numbers of Ugandan Asians settled in the Midlands, Enoch Powell weighed into the debate. Powell, MP for Wolverhampton South West, the neighboring constituency, refused to endorse the Conservative candidate David Bell as he believed him to be too soft on the issue of immigration.
The National Front claimed Powell’s refusal to endorse Bell as a tacit endorsement for them. Remarkably, Martin Webster, a man who was recorded as saying: “We are busy setting up a well-oiled Nazi machine in this country” only five months previously, received 16% of the vote and saved his deposit for the first time in the NF’s history.
Come the local election in June the NF’s tactics became clear. With many Ugandan Asians choosing to settle in Leicester, the NF stood 16 candidates in the town. Their ugly campaign against paid dividends and received over 20% of the vote in three wards, averaging over 15%.
National Front threat
It was clear that popular discontent and fear over mass immigration from Uganda was ripe for exploitation and the NF intended to milk it as best they could.
In the year following Idi Amin’s decision to expel all Asians from Uganda, the National Front shifted from an internally-fractured irrelevance in the hinterland of British politics, to a major political threat with the ability to impact mainstream political discourse. The party reached over 14,000 members and managed to stand 303 parliamentary candidates at the 1979 general election.
Their adept exploitation of the arrival of around 30,000 refugees at the beginning of the decade formed the bedrock of the party’s growth and success during the rest of the decade.
However, the reticence shown by others was not motivated by right-wing ideological bigotry. In many areas with a large influx of Ugandan Asian immigrants there was a fear of rapid change and concern over issues such as housing and jobs which were not motivated by xenophobia or racism.
Cities such as Leicester changed dramatically and while it is now clear that the presence of Ugandan Asians has enhanced the tapestry of British life, for many people living in these areas this was not immediately obvious.
That said, Britain in the early ‘70s was not universally racist, hostile and unwelcoming. Many people showed great understanding and compassion towards the plight of exiled Asians with some even welcoming their arrival.
Hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers helped by providing warm clothes to those temporarily housed in disused barracks in places such as Yeovil, Greenham Common and Tywyn in North Wales. Church and community groups, together with Citizens Advice Bureaux, rallied together to aid the new arrivals.
In the years that followed, many of those who originally greeted the Ugandans’ arrival with trepidation, markedly changed their opinion as their original fears proved misguided.
In the face of the racist campaigning of the far right and reticence of those who feared change, Ugandan Asians went on to forge one of the most successful and thriving immigrant communities in Britain. While Amin could strip them of their possessions he could not take away the skills and determination that allowed them to build new lives out of the ashes of the old.
Having come to Britain penniless and destitute, many with just the clothes on their back, Ugandan Asians have risen to the top in all walks of British life.
With hindsight it is clear that those who victimized the Ugandan Asians for “coming over here and taking ‘our’ jobs” have been proved spectacularly wide of the mark – it has been estimated that they created 30,000 new jobs in Leicester alone.
A British story
The success story of Ugandan Asians in Britain goes well beyond economics. The arrival of tens of thousands of people in the winter of 1972 left an indelible mark on Britain’s cultural landscape. What at first seemed alien and exotic, and to some scary, has in many ways become very British.
Not the traditional fabricated view of Britishness with cricket greens and warm beer, but an exciting, vibrant, and colorful Britishness.
In many ways the despotic cruelty of Idi Amin (pictured) set this country on the road to becoming the vibrant multicultural nation that it is today. So 40 years on from their arrival, the successful integration and the huge contribution to British society made by Ugandan Asians is a striking reminder that while the far right will always trumpet the perils of immigration, it can, and should, be viewed as an opportunity and not a threat.