University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘More diverse and culturally inclusive’: Post-war immigration and its impact on British culture

In this blog, recent BA (Hons) History with Politics graduate Phil Matthews reflects on the impact immigration has had on British culture in the post-Second World War era. Phil, who wrote the blog as part of his assessment for the second year module ‘Working with the Past’, coordinated by Dr Mike Esbester, describes how many aspects of British culture changed as a result of mass immigration into the country in the latter half of the twentieth century. Britain, Phil notes, transformed into a multi-ethnic society and benefitted massively from immigrants bringing their own country’s cultures with them. The twentieth century normalised the multi-cultural society that we live in today, Phil concludes, and also normalised public figures of colour from various different cultural fields. 

HMT Empire Windrush.


Culture involves the characteristics, traits and habits of a group of people. Many aspects of British culture changed as a result of mass immigration into the country in the latter half of the twentieth century. Spencer highlights a massive change in the population demographic due to migration, stating that ‘between 1940 and 1990, communities of Indian subcontinental, Caribbean and African origin have grown from a small fraction of 1% of the total population of Britain to almost 6%’.[1] As a result of immigration, Britain transformed to a multi-ethnic society, thus leading to greater cultural diversity as a result. This blog will emphasize the transformation that multi-culturalism had on several cultural facets, including sport, cuisine, music, and entertainment.

It would be beneficial to state initially why mass immigration occurred. Britain encouraged mass immigration from the Commonwealth countries after the Second World War via the 1948 British Nationality Act, which was described by Hanson and Desmond as a step towards the ‘world’s most liberal immigration regime’.[2] Britain chose to introduce this legislation due to labour shortages as a result of the war. This led to ‘the consequent creation of new ethnic minority communities in Britain’.[3] Transport systems and other institutions, such as the newly founded NHS, needed staffing. The ‘Windrush generation’ were one such group that came in 1948 to make a new life in Britain. The 1948 Act has been amended many times to tighten up immigration controls, but throughout the twentieth century, Britain saw a migration boom, which later changed British culture in numerous ways.

Image: John Barnes playing for England. nationalfootballmuseum.com


One cultural aspect that changed massively as a result of immigration and cultural diversity in the twentieth century was sport. Sport became more diverse and culturally inclusive as the century progressed into its latter years. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were not many non-white and foreign players, and it was not welcomed by everyone as racism was rife in football. John Barnes came from Jamaica and emigrated to London with his family aged 12 years. Barnes was only the second black player to play for Liverpool, which led to frequent racial abuse. Bananas were thrown at him even by his own team’s supporters, and he was subject to abuse from opposition supporters and players and club staff. [4]  Football became more tolerant for two reasons. The first reason is anti-racist bodies being set up in the 1990s, including the Commission for Racial Equality, the Professional Footballers Association, the Football Trust and the Football Task Force, which ‘organised or endorsed campaigns such as Kick Racism Out of Football and Show Racism the Red Card’.[5] These organisations helped enforce and punish racist behaviour in football. The second reason is that more foreign and British players of colour feature in the Premier League today. A current example that can be used is Manchester City’s and England’s Raheem Sterling. Sterling moved to London from Jamaica with his parents when he was five years old. He is widely regarded as one of the best players in the Premier League and suffers less racial abuse than John Barnes had to endure. While it is still far from perfect, racism in football has become less frequent since the 1970s and 1980s. This shows how immigration and the cultural diversity that came with immigration changed sporting culture, particularly in football.

Image taken from Unsplash


Another cultural aspect that changed hugely as a consequence of immigration and cultural diversity is food and cuisine. Food from the countries of migrants, particularly food from the Commonwealth, has been brought and adopted into British culture, for example curries. Increased immigration changed eating habits in Britain. This was partially as a result of the British Empire, but as Panayi argues, the development of cuisine in Britain was most prominent after 1945, because of ‘increasing international trade or the influence of multinational companies’.[6] The influx of immigrants, particularly after the 1948 British Nationality Act, also contributed heavily to this, Panayi notes, arguing that ‘[b]efore 1950 in an age of Total War and before the spread of affluence, concepts of British – as opposed to foreign foods – hardly existed. This situation changed as a result of post-war immigration and brand labelling’.[7] This shows that immigration changed the culture of cuisine, by making British cuisine more varied over the course of the twentieth century.

Bob Marley


A third cultural aspect that varied tremendously as a result of immigration and cultural diversity is music. As multiculturalism became more prominent in Britain, music became more diverse. As Scheding notes, migrants brought ‘their music with them’.[8] One example of music that became prominent in Britain is hip-hop, which originated in the Bronx in the 1970s. It was often provocative and politically powerful. Scheding states that ‘In the UK, rap music transformed from an imitation of US styles in the 1980s to carving out something more unique’.[9] It has become more popular in the twenty-first century too, enjoying ‘a renaissance in the mid-2010s’.[10] Another example of increased cultural integration in British music was the introduction of reggae music from the Caribbean. As Curley notes, Chris Blackwell was the ‘single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music.’[11] He founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 and returned to England a few years later with Bob Marley, a global figure not just in music, but in popular culture in general. These two examples show how much music varied across the century alongside more cultural integration and immigration.

In the entertainment industry, there are now more people of colour on the screens to reflect the more multi-cultural society that we live in today. Policies were brought in to make television more diverse, such as public service broadcasting which ‘included recruitment measures, targets and specialist slots and multicultural departments’.[12] Some entertainment companies sought to reflect the increasing cultural diversity in Britain, such as the BBC, which had ‘separate African-Caribbean and Asian Program Units for a period’.[13] This policy was aimed to specifically better Black and Asian representation in the media. This shows increased efforts to be culturally diverse in the entertainment industry, in line with a more multi-cultural society as a result of immigration.

It is important to note that mass immigration was not supported by everybody in Britain. Toby Skevington notes that at times receptions for immigrants of colour were ‘generally unwelcoming’.[14] Lauren Mclaren also notes that immigration created ‘widespread concern about political and social  community and about social identities’.[15] Hostility and discontent towards mass immigration was prominent in the 1950s amongst some White communities in Britain. This led to disturbances such as race riots occurring in Nottingham and London. Notting Hill of 1958 was an example of a ‘white riot against Notting Hill’s Afro-Caribbean community’.[16] Nine White youths received five-year prison sentences for these acts but this did not change some of the public’s desire to cut immigration. Enoch Powell referred to immigrants as ‘dependents’ in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 and called for immigration controls to be tightened.[17]  Some people saw this as racist and hysterical, but others supported what he said which made Powell’s speech extremely divisive. The later years of the twentieth century saw more distancing from the 1948 British Nationality Act, which was extremely inclusive towards migrants coming in.

Immigration controls were tightened over the course of the twentieth century, and mass immigration was not wholly supported, but this did not change the huge cultural impact that immigrants would have over British culture. Immigrants brought their own country’s cultures with them to Britain, such as sport, cuisine, music and entertainment. The twentieth century normalised the multi-cultural society that we live in today and normalised public figures of colour from various different cultural fields.



[1] Ian R G Spencer. 2002. British Immigration Policy since 1939 the Making of Multi-Racial Britain. Routledge.

[2] Randall Hansen and Desmond King. 2000. “Illiberalism and the New Politics of Asylum: Liberalism’s Dark Side.” The Political Quarterly 71 (4): 396–403.

[3] David A Coleman. 1987. “U.K. Statistics on Immigration: Development and Limitations.” The International Migration Review 21 (4): 1138–69.

[4] John Goddard and John O.S. Wilson. 2008. “Racial Discrimination in English Professional Football: Evidence from an Empirical Analysis of Players’ Career Progression.” SSRN Electronic Journal 33 (2).

[5] Goddard and Wilson. “Racial Discrimination”.

[6] Panayi Panikos. 2010. Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food. London: Reaktion.

[7] Panikos. Spicing up Britain.

[8] Florian Scheding. 2018. “‘Who Is British Music?’ Placing Migrants in National Music History.” Twentieth-Century Music 15 (3): 439–92.

[9] Scheding, “‘Who Is British Music?’”.

[10] Scheding, “‘Who Is British Music?’”.

[11] Bob Curley. 2020. “Chris Blackwell on Bob Marley, James Bond and Jamaica.” Caribbean Journal. November 15, 2020.

[12] Sarita Malik. 2013. “‘Creative Diversity’: UK Public Service Broadcasting after Multiculturalism.” Popular Communication 11 (3): 227–41.

[13] Malik. “‘Creative Diversity’”.

[14] Tony Skevington. 2000. “Immigration into the United Kingdom since 1945.” English and American Studies, (35), 95-110.

[15] Lauren McLaren. 2011. “Immigration and Trust in Politics in Britain.” British Journal of Political Science 42 (1): 163–85.

[16] Camilla Schofield and Ben Jones. 2019. “‘Whatever Community Is, This Is Not It’: Notting Hill and the Reconstruction of ‘Race’ in Britain after 1958.” Journal of British Studies 58 (1): 142–73.

[17] Liu and Elliott. 2014. “Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech This Is the Full Text of Enoch Powell’s So-Called ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech, Which Was Delivered to a Conservative Association Meeting in Birmingham.

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