Monday, 10 September 2018

Racism - the 1964 debate

The election of the Tory candidate for the Smethwick constituency Peter Griffiths in the 1964 general election became a national political talking point. In his campaign, Griffiths focused on the issue of race and immigration, and consequently was roundly condemned for stirring up racial hatred. It is true that some of the language used in his leaflets was unacceptable, but his critics rarely asked themselves whether his opposition to immigration might be justified. This was the time when the term ‘racist’, or the now unfashionable ‘racialist’, began to gain common currency amongst self styled progressives. It became a catch all word to denounce anyone expressing concern about the level of black immigration into Britain, and its widespread use since then has been largely successful in shutting down frank and open debate on this controversial subject.

As a result of the furore, the Spectator magazine gave a platform to three politicians of the left, right and centre, to expound their views under the heading ‘The Colour Problem in Britain’. The first article was by the veteran Labour politician Fenner Brockway, who had lost his seat at Slough in the general election because of his support for immigration. He began by proclaiming that ‘ideally there should be no restriction of immigration’ as it was contrary to the UN human rights declaration. However he accepted that in practice it could be restricted when ‘conditions require limitation, including pressure on the population and the state of the economy’, but considered that neither factor then currently applied to Britain, declaring that in any case the ‘issue of race is irrelevant to these conditions’. He condemned the Tories recent immigration legislation as being motivated by ‘agitation, prejudiced by colour feeling’. He deemed the Act to be a ‘charter for the protection of a white society’. In proclaiming this virtuous position, his idealistic rhetoric completely ignored human nature and the need to maintain social cohesion, as well as overlooking the relatively recent Notting Hill race riots, and the clearly expressed views of the majority of his constituents.

Brockway did acknowledge that the influx of large numbers of immigrants into his constituency had exacerbated housing problems, leading to overcrowding. He pointed out that fears that the immigrants were given priority over council housing were unfounded. Although, this was undoubtedly true at the time, as we have seen from the Grenfell disaster, public sector housing in more diverse communities is now largely occupied by people of ethnic origin, so his constituents’ fears about the future were not without some justification. He concluded that ‘immigration control should not be imposed upon Commonwealth nations’ but should instead be subject to ‘mutual agreement’, and that overcrowding and poor housing conditions should be overcome by a ‘gigantic nationwide crusade of house building’. However, house building at the time was high by recent standards, and a significant proportion was targeted at slum clearance. High levels of immigration only served to delay achieving that objective.

The second article by the Tory MP Sir Cyril Osborne outlined the problem from a right wing perspective. He considered the issue to be the ‘gravest crisis facing our country’, accurately describing the recent Tory legislations as ‘so moderate and so late’. He correctly analysed the cause of this government inaction as ‘they were far too frightened of Labour fanatics and of alleged Commonwealth opinion’, adding that ‘had they imposed greater restrictions years earlier, there would have been no problem in England now’. Osborne drew attention to the already high population density in the UK, the population explosion taking place in the Indian sub continent, and the high relative income levels in the UK so that ‘naturally they want to come here to share our affluence’.

More questionably Osborne judged that ‘the problem of immigration is not one of colour, but of poverty and numbers. We can absorb neither their numbers nor their poverty. That is why - and not because of their skins - restriction and control is inevitable’. Although he was undoubtedly right that the large numbers and relative poverty are important considerations, he is being somewhat na├»ve in assuming that racial identity was not a factor that weighed heavily with the electorate. Osborne declared that ‘the English people have a perfect right to protect their own way of life in their own country’. He concluded that ‘if unlimited immigration was allowed, we should ultimately become a chocolate coloured Afro-Asian mixed society’. That I do not want. Nor, I believe, do the vast majority of the working families of this country against whom the human tragedies of immigration press hardest.’ This common sense observation rather contradicts his earlier statement that ‘the problem of immigration is not one of colour’.

The third article from a centrist perspective was by the Conservative MP Christopher Chataway. He acknowledged that he had opposed the earlier immigration legislation, but now admitted that he had changed his mind on the issue, accepting that further restrictions on immigration were necessary, as a result of hearing the views of his constituents. In a style similar to the later ‘rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell he quoted some of their comments. One widow complained that ‘the coloured family who have come to live next door hold deafening parties twice a week’, using the back garden as ‘a public lavatory’. She asked the MP why ‘you let us be overrun by these people’ adding that ‘the country was a happier place before they all flooded in’. A couple of elderly sisters pointed out that’ almost every face in their street had changed colour in the past five years’ but added that ‘nobody could ask for better neighbours’. A man living in the next road complained that now ‘his wife gets solicited whenever she goes out’ leading him to consider moving away from the area.

Chataway acknowledged that ‘the problem of achieving a multi-racial society remains’, suggesting that ‘a more even dispersal of the immigrants will certainly solve the sort of problems that today arise in my constituency’. As we have discovered since then ethnic minorities have shown little desire to spread themselves more evenly around the country, much preferring to stay in their own racial and cultural ghettoes. In practice nothing meaningful was done by future governments to allay the concern of the electorate on the level of immigration. As a result chain migration would continue of people who, because of their cultural and racial differences, would likely have great difficulty in assimilating into British society, leading to intractable problems undermining social cohesion and national identity.

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