Transience Participation: The Politics of First Generation Pakistani Migrants in the UK (Post-1945)

Post-1945 migrants to the UK from Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent more widely generally consisted of single men who were seen as, and who saw themselves as, transient economic migrants. In the early days of migration Pakistani Muslims were reluctant to take part in British politics for four main reasons: first, their interests were still very much in the politics of their home countries – they followed these affairs keenly; second, there was a preoccupation with work; third, they were unfamiliar with the system; and, fourth, there was a myth of return. I argue that family reunification reduced this reluctance. Family reunification signalled an important step in developing a relationship between Pakistani Muslim immigrants and the British political system. As wives and children arrived, there was an increased interaction with the wider institutions of British society, such as the Home Office, for visas, and schools, as children were entered into the educational system. Family reunification signalled the end to the myth of return and it became increasingly clear that the transience of the economic migrants had been replaced by settlement. With this increased interaction came an awareness of the need for political voice. Family reunification and greater contact with the institutions of British society saw the beginnings of the Muslim political identity and political mobilisations around this Muslim identity started to develop.

Transience Participation

In terms of participation in the political system, there was little significant activity. Many Pakistanis, like other immigrants, were not on the voting register, even though, being citizens of the New Commonwealth and Pakistan, they did have the right to vote and take part in the political system of the UK. Participation was not an option which many Pakistanis spent much time thinking about. This was for a number of reasons: including unfamiliarity with the system, a preoccupation with work, and the myth of return. Their interests were still very much in the politics of their home countries – they followed these affairs keenly. Family reunification was the important event which brought about the change in relationship between the Pakistanis and the host society. It was the arrival of wives and children into the UK which inspired Pakistani Muslim immigrants to become mobilized – an almost entirely male mobilization – into the political system. This can be seen on issues such as religious assembly in schools.

Any organization at this stage was largely informal and mainly to help with settling in. In the early days, migrants turned to biraadari (kin) members and fellow villagers for help.[1] Welfare associations arose from the genuine need for welfare in the 1960s. Although the associations are in theory open to all and have elections to each post, the presidents operate as patrons do in Pakistan.[2] Anwar distinguishes between “formal” and “traditional” leaders. Formal leaders are those who represent ethnic communities through their organizations, whether elected, nominated or self-appointed. They are mainly educated and are professionals, who have contacts with the wider society.[3] In contrast, traditional leaders draw their support from kinship groups. Their leadership depends on age, length of stay in the country, and sometimes the number of relatives sponsored and patronized. The traditional leaders usually play their part in intra-ethnic situations and formal leaders depend on their support in an inter-ethnic situation because sometimes the traditional leaders are more effective in mobilizing support, particularly on religious issues.[4] The role of ethnic minority leaders and these organizations is crucial as they provide the channels of communication with wider society.[5] So, during the phase of transience participation, ethnic organization and social and cultural groups proliferated to take care of welfare needs. But, when it came to participation within the mainstream political system there was a great reluctance on the part of the immigrants: we will look at the reasons for this in greater detail.

The Myth of Return

Muhammad Anwar suggested “the mythology that [Pakistanis] are in Britain to save, invest and eventually return to their villages back home” as the cause of their “resistance to change and non-participation on an individual level in British Institutions.”[6] The myth of return had an impact on the relationship between migrants and their participation in the British political system organizations. As Banton points out, one of the prime reasons “why New Commonwealth immigrants have given little support to organizations founded in their name has been that, to start with, many of them have planned to return to the countries from which they came.”[7] For the pioneer generation, the “myth of return” justified a socio-economically motivated migration.[8]

Some argued that the myth of return represents an effective way for migrants to maintain and control their distinctive culture and social structure”.[9] Lord David Pitt tells the story of when he was a Labour party candidate in the 1970 by–election in Clapham. He introduced himself to a Jamaican woman and she replied: “me, I came here to get milk, not to take the cow!”[10] Getting involved in the social and political life of the UK was simply not seen as logical for people who would eventually spend their lives elsewhere.

Home Politics

The second reason why Pakistani immigrants were reluctant to participate in the British political system was their interest with Pakistani politics; this concern for politics of the homeland is similar for other migrants. Layton-Henry notes that: “some ethnic minority groups may have an intense interest in the politics of their country of origin and also in relations between Britain and their homeland”.[11] Amongst the Pakistanis, Werbner emphasizes that there was: “a continued commitment to Pakistan”.[12] This is especially true amongst the leadership within the UK who wanted to retain links with leadership in Pakistan: “the stress in the community is thus on the valuable links with Pakistan that leadership in such societies facilitates”.[13] Pakistani Muslim immigrants were very much involved in the politics of their home countries. Indeed, Ali Arshad, the Pakistani Ambassador, urged them to “vote here, not in Pakistan” during a visit to Bradford in April 1986.[14] In this vein, the then Lord Mayor of Bradford, Councillor Ajeeb, a first generation Pakistani, noted: “Bradford had 50, 000 people who had a special relationship with Pakistan and that this figure was expected to grow by the end of the century to almost 20% of the city’s population.”[15] Nevertheless, it was argued that the: “extent to which the younger generations either could, or would be inclined to be associated with the internal politics of Pakistan is debatable.[16]

Pakistanis in the UK are affected by the politics of Pakistan. They keep up to date with Pakistani affairs via newspapers and satellite television. The links with the homeland were not severed. The availability of newspapers and satellite television aided this, as did marriage practices, as the young men went back “home” to get married. Another contributing factor to the maintenance of such trans-national linkages may have been the conditions of life in the UK. One reason why immigrants were keen to retain and maintain their links with Pakistan is offered by Raza. He argues that this desire for political linkages has to do with self-esteem. While the Pakistani immigrants may have worked in factories in the UK, being at the bottom of the social hierarchy, the very fact of their immigration puts them at the apex of the social hierarchy in villages in their country of origin. This acts as a source of pride and: “proves to them that their migration has not been in vain”.[17] As such, for many of the older generation the lowly position in British society is compensated by the much higher social position which they may enjoy in Pakistan.[18] The point is that for the immigrant Pakistanis, their involvement in politics is not with the affairs of the chosen place of settlement, but with the homeland. A place they would have a higher political standing.

Preoccupation with Earning a Living

Another reason for the reluctance to take part in the political life of their adopted country was due to work. Work did not afford them the luxury of taking part in political and social life, even if this had been something which they had wanted to do, for representation and organization are only worthwhile if individuals or groups have a future in a particular place. If that future is elsewhere, then, apart from very basic requirements, such considerations are not possible. The difficulties of everyday living in a new country were the most important preoccupations for ethnic minorities in their early days of settlement.[19] Many Pakistani immigrants were too busy working and saving, “too busy establishing themselves in Britain to have had much time to spare for political activities.”[20] Asian immigrants saw themselves first and foremost as guest workers. So, involvement in social and political life of the UK was limited. As Rex notes: “In this situation the forms of group membership available in, and the institutional arrangements of, the society of settlement have no moral value in themselves, but are seen simply as alien. Even racial or ethnic discrimination may be accepted as a given circumstance, and the efforts of the individual concentrated on getting what he or she can out of the society in material terms, despite such discrimination.”[21]

This was of course, made more palatable by the belief that it was transitory. In this situation, the immigrants “will set up what arrangements are necessary to sustain his or her family and community life while in exile, but will not expect that these arrangements should have more than an emergency nature. There will be no claim that he society of settlement should become ‘a multiethnic society.’”[22] There was no need for such claims because it was believed that, when the migrants left, Britain would be as homogeneous, as it had always been. So, whilst Pakistani immigrants clubbed together for mosques and small-scale provision within the UK, their first priority was to earn a living. Long shifts in factories and mills were also a barrier to any real involvement in local politics, even if the desire had been there.

Unfamiliarity with the System

The fourth reason for the limited participation of Pakistani immigrants in the mainstream political life of the UK was an unfamiliarity with the system. Following on from the myth of return, participation in the political and social life of the UK made no sense in terms of time (this could be better spent earning more money to aid their faster return to the homeland) and effort – why try to become familiar with an unfamiliar political system, when the length of stay in the society is so short. Nevertheless, this was soon to change with family reunification.

Family Reunification

With family reunification the South East Asian communities: “lost its transient character”[23] Increased contact with wider society meant an unfamiliar system gradually became more familiar.

With the arrival of kith and kin there is a greater pressure to conform to the religious and/or cultural norms, because often “group membership is not purchased in pennyworths. No individual can decide to have just 73% membership of a group. It is often all or nothing.”[24] As Banton (1985) notes, the Asian men were “ready to conform externally to English expectations if that helped them obtain good wages. As their wives and daughters joined them, so little bits of Punjabi culture were reassembled in British cities”.[25] As wives and children joined the single male migrants already resident in the UK, there was a rise in the adherence to Islam. As Jolly argues: “The moral and centripetal pressure of family and social networks which re-emphasize the necessity of religious observance, since one will be judged by kin, neighbors and fellow Muslims on one’s observance. The religious and moral rectitude of each individual man, woman and youth is overseen by the community. Collective practice at the mosque, such Friday prayer or Eid celebrations, further strengthens the social and religious character of Islamic observance”[26]

This vision is reinforced by what Muslim leaders choose to see in the surrounding white culture: Western society is portrayed as follows: “meaningless, aimless, rootless, characterized by vandalism, crime, juvenile delinquency, the collapse of marriage and psychic disorders.”[27] In the 1950s and 60s, it was the men who made up the majority of the Pakistani population. In these early years, the practice of Islam was confined to praying individually and often alongside factory machinery at work. The more immigrants that arrived from specific regions, the greater the peer pressure to conform to certain customs, including prayer. The arrival of families highlighted the need for education facilities for the young. In time, this led to some form of collective prayer, often in “makeshift prayer rooms”. It was improvised and pragmatic; simply making do. To this end, more organized religious gatherings, or purpose built mosques, or madrasas, or imported Imams were not, for most of Britain, part of the picture at this time. Islamic practice among the immigrants in these years was limited to individual daily prayers, often performed alongside factory machinery. Eventually, some collective prayer was held in makeshift prayer rooms or in houses roughly converted into mosques.

It has been argued that “(…) the changing structure of Muslim populations, reuniting families, wives, children and even older kin, including the extended family which has made Islam a factor to be reckoned with. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other Muslims established their own grocery and clothes shops, their banks, their butchers, so that most every day needs could be satisfied within the communities in the areas populated by Muslims. This allowed for the organization of a way of life more akin to what used to exist in the home country, but also closer to the Muslim religion.”[28]

The growth of Muslim organizations in Britain can be observed in the proliferation of mosques, madrasas (religious supplementary schools) and Muslim associations which sprang up in a short time. In line with “the general rise of the Muslim population, the number of such institutions rose rapidly in the 1970s,”[29] linked to “reunification with families and the arrival of other families from East Africa.”[30] It was argued that “(…) while religious observance had previously slid into abeyance family reunification soon precipitated a resurgence in this area…shared religious and sectarian commitments have for the most part proved to be the catalyst around which most South Asians communities have coalesced. Hence, as numbers grew a network of mosques, gurdwaras began to spread across the country, each attracting an ever larger and more committed congregation.”[31]

For Ballard, a further consequence of family reunification was that the life-cycle rituals could now be celebrated in Britain – large numbers of guests, meant an arena for social interaction.[32] The bulk of wives and children arrived in the 1970s.[33] The structural circumstances of migration and settlement combined with the numbers and characters of the migrants to create the conditions for the reconstitutions of ethnic entities in the country of settlement. Pakistani immigrants have sought to reproduce in the British context the social characteristics which used to shape their way of life. This has been supported by a network of services, business and institutions in the field of food, banking, cultural distribution and religious observances. The establishment of ethnic and social/kin networks has been accentuated by the continuing reunification of the biraadari through the practice of arranged marriages, which mostly take place amongst kin.[34]

Family reunification raised awareness of the need for: a variety of forms of communal religious education of the young; formal associations for local and national coordination with regard to funding; and liaison with government authorities to lobby for religious accommodations and safeguard collective rights. As Vertovec argues, “The growth of such institutions also reflects the fact that by the early 1970s, immigrants had gained greater familiarity with local British administrative structures relating to: planning permission, charitable status, allocation of public resources.”[35]

Ruthven argued as follows: “It is not surprising, given the visible signs of urban decay in the inner city areas where most Muslims live, that their leaders tend to view white society at its worst. The more positive aspects of the host culture are not yet accessible: while its intellectual virtues, for example the relatively open way that social problems are reported and discussed, are turned against it. Such problems as alcoholism, drug and child abuse, discussed in Western newspapers, are by definition “Western” diseases, unknown to Islam. This attitude of moral superiority towards everything Western compensates psychologically for the experience of powerlessness: but it reinforces Muslim isolation, the sense of being a people apart in a hostile world.”[36]

Formal associations are not part of the homeland culture of the majority of Pakistanis in Britain who come from rural areas where kinship and village networks provide a sufficient basis for social organization.[37] Once there was a move towards family reunification in the UK, the situation with regards to minority involvement in the socio-political life of the UK changed. Rex notes that, “(…) those who have been treated and seen themselves as guest workers begin to see themselves as immigrants…what happens next is that the immigrant community has to work out more permanent relationships with the society of settlement. Of cultural importance here are the growth of immigrant associations and the entry of the immigrants’ children to schools.”[38]

With the settlement of family groups from the early 1970 onwards, a variety of Muslim organizations rapidly proliferated. There was a rapid expansion of Muslim organizations with the arrival of families in the 70s and 80s. All of the South Asian religious groups, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Muslims, began to organize themselves (including considerable efforts at fund-raising) and “negotiated with local government bodies for specific forms of accommodation.”[39]

Family reunification meant that the immigrants were in a very different situation in terms of participating in the political and social of life the country. If previously they had tried to merge into the political background – active only in very specific issues such as employment and housing – now they also had their families to think about. In particular, for Muslim immigrants, the contact with the school system (through their children), proved an important arena for their political mobilization. Their interest and involvement within the political establishment increased, albeit at this stage in an ad hoc and unorganized form.


[1] Shaw, A. (1994). “The Pakistani community in Oxford” in Desh Pardesh: the South Asian presence in Britain. R. Ballard. London, C. Hurst.

[2] Shaw, A. “The Pakistani community in Oxford.”

[3] Anwar, M. (1991) “Ethnic minorities” representation: voting and electoral politics in Britain, and the role of leaders,” Black and ethnic leaderships in Britain : the cultural dimensions of political action. P. Werbner and M. Anwar. London, Routledge, p. 41.

[4] Anwar, M. “Ethnic minorities” representation: voting and electoral politics in Britain, and the role of leaders,” p. 41.

[5] Anwar, M. “Ethnic minorities” representation: voting and electoral politics in Britain, and the role of leaders,” p. 42.

[6] Anwar, M. (1979). The myth of return: Pakistanis in Britain. London, Heinemann Educational, p.ix.

[7] Banton, M. (1985) Promoting racial harmony, Cambridge university press: Cambridge. p. 66.

[8] Bolognani, M. (2007) “The Myth of Return: Dismissal, Survival or Revival? A Bradford example of Transnationalism as a Political instrument”. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 33(1): 59-76.

[9] Shaw, A. “The Pakistani community in Oxford” p. 36 .

[10] Banton, M. (1985) Promoting racial harmony, p.66.

[11] Layton-Henry, Z. (1990) “Black electoral participation: an analysis of recent trends” in H Goulborne (ed.) Black Politics in Britain, Averbury: Aldershot p. 53.

[12] Werbner, P. (1990) The Migration Process: Capital, Gifts and offerings among British Pakistanis, Berg: Oxford, p. 317.

[13] Werbner, P. The Migration Process: Capital, Gifts and offerings among British Pakistanis, p. 320.

[14] Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 17 April 1986 cited in LeLohe, (M 1990) “The Asian Vote in a northern city” in H. Goulbourne (ed.) Black Politics in Britain, Avebury: Aldershot, p. 58.

[15] Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 17 April 1986 cited in LeLohe, M. (1990) “The Asian Vote in a northern city”, p.58.

[16] LeLohe, M. “The Asian Vote in a northern city”, p.64.

[17] Raza, M. (1993) Islam in Britain: Past, Present and the Future, Volcano Press: Leicester, p. 7.

[18] Raza, M. Islam in Britain: Past, Present and the Future, p. 7.

[19] Fitzgerald, 1988 cited in Goulbourne, H (1990) “The Contribution of the West Indian groups to British Politics,” in H. Goulborne (ed.) Black Politics in Britain, Averbury: Aldershot p. 95.

[20] Banton, M. Promoting Racial harmony, Cambridge, p.66.

[21] Rex, J. (1991) Ethnic Mobilisation in Britain, Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations: Coventry, p. 56.

[22] Rex, J. Ethnic Mobilisation in Britain , p.56.

[23] Joly, D. (1990) “Making a Place for Islam in British Society: Muslims in Birmingham” in T. Gerholm and Y. G. Lithman (eds.) The New Islamic Presence in Western Europe, Mansell Publishing: London, p. 33

[24] Banton, M. Promoting racial harmony, p.53

[25] Banton, M. Promoting racial harmony, p.53

[26] Joly, D. “Making a Place for Islam in British Society: Muslims in Birmingham”, p. 39.

[27] Joly, D. “Making a Place for Islam in British Society: Muslims in Birmingham” p.32.

[28] Joly, D. “Making a Place for Islam in British Society: Muslims in Birmingham” p. 39.

[29] Vertovec, S. (2002) “Islamophobia and Muslim recognition in Britain”, in Yvonne Haddad (ed.) Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens, (London: Oxford University Press), p.20.

[30] Vertovec, S. (2002) “Islamophobia and Muslim recognition in Britain,” p.21.

[31] Ballard, 1994, p.18.

[32] (Ballard, 1994, p. 18.

[33] Joly, D (1987) “Associations amongst the Pakistani Population in Britain” in J. Rex, D. Joly, C. Wilpert, (eds.) Immigrant Associations in Europe, Gower: Aldershot, p.63

[34] Joly, D (1987) “Associations amongst the Pakistani Population in Britain,” p.64

[35] Vertovec, S. (2002) “Islamophobia and Muslim recognition in Britain,” p.21

[36] Ruthven, M. (1991) The Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Wrath of Islam The Hogarth Press: London p. 72

[37] Joly, D (1987) “Associations amongst the Pakistani Population in Britain,” p.66

[38] Rex, J (1991) Ethnic Mobilization in Britain, p.58

[39] Vertovec, S. (2002) “Islamophobia and Muslim recognition in Britain,” p.22


Human Ends and the Ends of Politics

IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XXIII
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Preferred citation: Akhtar, Parveen. 2009. Transience Participation:
The Politics of First Generation Pakistani Migrants in the UK (Post-1945).
In Human Ends and the Ends of Politics, eds. M. Black and K. McKillop, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 23.