British Imperial Thought, British Nationality, and Overseas Indians after 1947
Within British imperial thought, the transfer of sovereign power to India and subsequently other former colonies was not perceived as the final end of British imperialism, but simply its latest, evolved iteration in the form of the Commonwealth of Nations, which absorbed the sources of and arguments for British imperial power, both real and imagined, in the postwar decades. This talk explores the relationships between British imperial thought and British nationality after 1947. The ideas of British liberal imperialism evolved after 1947 to inform the creation of a new imperial scheme of British nationality for the postwar world. This was not simply a commitment, among British political elites and lawmakers, to sustain British subjecthood in the postwar world. It was at the same time a more ambitious project that sought to stabilise British imperialism itself by way of an imperial constitution for the Commonwealth of Nations, not least by way of imperial forms of British nationality. The immediate context for the creation of imperial British nationality (the 1948 British Nationality Act) was a negotiation between British and Indian officials with respect to India’s future relationship with the Commonwealth. British imperial thought betrayed a faith that imperial British nationality would maximise the perceived ‘Anglo-centricity’ of the new, multilateral Commonwealth of Nations and secure soon-to-be-republican India’s lasting membership within it. By the turn of the 1960s, imperial British nationality had led to non-white migration to Britain, and in turn to a new domestic political sensibility: fear of ‘coloured immigration’. As the 1960s drew on, postwar British liberal imperialism maintained an ever-finer balance between nativist immigration controls and imperial nationality, including unreconstructed dreams of a British-led imperial Commonwealth. This led finally to a dénouement in 1967 (and new laws in 1968 and 1971), when British officials uncovered a preponderance of South Asians among non-white British citizens resident in former colonies, and East Africa in particular. As a whole, the postwar trajectory of British nationality reveals the ambition and subsequent routing of British imperial thought in the first postwar decades.

Dr Ian Sanjay Patel is BJS LSE Fellow in Human Rights, where he has been based since 2017. Prior to this, he was Senior Teaching Fellow in International Relations at SOAS, University of London, and before that Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the International State Crime Initiative at King’s College London, School of Law. He gained his PhD from Cambridge University. He specializes in historically grounded approaches to human rights, justice, and migration. His research interests include international politics, intellectual history, global history, the politics of knowledge, and race and immigration. His book, We’re Here Because You Were There, examines the history of immigration in the context of the end of the British empire. It presents a transnational study of British imperialism and migration, with a focus on South Asian migration from East Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s. Drawing on archival materials, the book reveals correlations between twentieth-century trends in British imperialism and immigration, with an emphasis on the immigration crises of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Date: 22 November 2021, 16:00 (Monday, 7th week, Michaelmas 2021)
Venue: Online with Zoom
Speaker: Dr Ian Sanjay Patel (London School of Economics)
Organising department: Faculty of History
Organiser: Zobia Haq (University of Oxford)
Organiser contact email address:
Part of: South Asian Intellectual History Seminar
Booking required?: Required
Booking email:
Audience: Public
Editor: Zobia Haq