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The decades between 1948 and 1980 are often remembered as a time of mass immigration, yet almost 2 million more people left Britain than arrived in those years. Mass emigration has been an enduring part of Britain's modern history and this article explores its effects on British politics. The two world wars, the turn to tariffs, joining the EEC and leaving the EU: at these critical junctures, Britain's overseas diaspora was mobilised to reshape domestic politics and to transform the UK's global political economy. Charting the rise, fall and afterlife of Britain's ‘emigration state’ can contribute to our understanding of these events and help researchers analyse the effects of racism and empire on modern British politics.