The Race Relations Bill was introduced into the Commons by the Home Secretary Sir Frank Soskice. He justified the legislation on the grounds that there should be no ‘distinction between first and second class citizens and the disfigurement which can arise from inequality of treatment and incitement to feelings of hatred directed to the origins of particular citizens, something for which they are not responsible’. He paid lip service to free speech proclaiming that we ‘cherish the right of the freest possible discussion and debate within the limits of the law’. He claimed that his ‘approach has two aspects. One is the exercise of an effective control on the numbers who come to our shores’. In practice this was an ‘approach’ that was immediately broken since there would be no meaningful control over ‘numbers’ during the coming decades. The other aspect was ‘directed to achieving the task of settling the new arrivals into our community as in every sense first-class citizens. It is to the achievement of this task that the Bill is directed’.
The Home Secretary stressed that the new legislation would deal ‘with every minority group of citizen in this country. We have chosen the words colour, race, or ethnic or national origins widely enough, we hope, to cover every possible minority group’. The intention was to deal with the ‘more dangerous, persistent and insidious forms of propaganda campaigns which, over a period of time engender the hate which begets violence’. He acknowledged that ‘certain clubs may indulge in discriminatory practices in the selection of their members, it is of the very nature of clubs to be selective, and the extension of the legislation to them would, therefore, be going much too far’. Future Home Secretaries would disagree that interfering in the decisions of club members would ‘be going much too far’. Indeed this particular measure heralded the first shot in the state hijacking of, and meddling in, many matters which had previously constituted the private domain and activities of its citizens.
The shadow Home Secretary Peter Thorneycroft opposed the Bill. He considered that this was a subject ‘which, of its nature, tends to be explosive. It is certainly one which needs to be dealt with restraint and moderation’. He outlined the Conservatives policy ‘to ensure a drastic reduction in the importation of new male immigrants into this country and to do everything that was possible or open to us, as a country, to facilitate the absorption of these new immigrant communities into our community as a whole’. In practice, under future Conservative governments, visibly identifiable immigrants of both sexes continued to enter the country in huge numbers, regardless of whether or not they wished to become absorbed into our ‘community’. Mr Thorneycroft criticised the bill for ‘widening the frontiers of criminality’. These frontiers would in time come to be greatly widened once the concept of hate crimes and identity politics took hold, including within today’s Conservative Party.
Mr Thorneycroft questioned whether the problem was ‘so widespread as to justify an important change in the criminal law’, and whether it was necessary for ‘the already overworked police force to go round making inquiries and investigations in a matter which is not the easiest field for the police force to operate in’. He considered that the use of the criminal law ‘will not work because, to start with, people are very loath to bring a prosecution at all’. On the question of free speech he believed that ‘throughout the history of this country, it has consisted in allowing people to say things which the majority thought were very wrong, or evil, or misguided. That is what free speech is about. We certainly want to be careful before we alter the law in regard to it’. These are sentiments that appear to be almost an anathema amongst today’s self styled ‘progressives’, intent on silencing viewpoints that challenge their cherished orthodoxies.
One Labour MP supporting the legislation warned that ‘it deals with an important issue, the preservation of and respect for human rights, and undoubtedly will result in reducing the grave dangers, which lie in the gross abuse of freedom of speech and freedom of the written word by those who would themselves prohibit the exercise of any such freedom’. In support of this belief he raised the spectre of the evils perpetuated in Nazi Germany, as necessary justification for the proposed restraints of free speech. This kind of alarmism would be a continuing theme employed by the left over the coming decades.
A former Conservative Home Secretary deplored ‘any form of colour bar’, and declared that ‘any attempt to arouse racial hatred fills me with disgust. But I am bound to ask whether this Bill will do more harm than good’. He wondered whether ‘it may not be more provocative to make discrimination in a place of public resort a criminal offence than simply to let healthy public opinion deal with it if ever it arises’. He claimed never to have heard of anyone in his constituency committing such behaviour and warned against ‘any encouragement of snoopers looking round to see whether they can promote a criminal prosecution because of some alleged case of discrimination’. The former minister asked whether ‘is it desirable that our law should emphasise racial or ethnic or national divisions?’ observing that ‘the age-old battle in this country was not fought to enable people to say pleasant and fraternal and acceptable things. That is not what was meant by free speech. It was fought to win their freedom to say distasteful, unacceptable, provocative, antagonistic things’.
Another Conservative MP considered that ‘the Bill places the police in an intolerable, indeed an impossible, position. They will be agents for enforcing something which, I am afraid, lacks the support of many members of the community’. He added that ‘the Bill will not have the backing of the reasonable man. He has not asked for it and, in my opinion, he does not want it, and rightly or wrongly, considers this to be unnecessary that will make the task of the police very hard indeed’. In contrast, the police today pay scant attention to the views of the ‘reasonable man’ having become the most enthusiast enforcers of hate crime legislation. The MP concluded by branding the legislation as ‘not so much a social measure; it is primarily a sympathetic political gesture’.
A further Tory MP echoed concerns about undermining the right to free speech, supporting the view that ‘it is not the function of the criminal law to articulate the conscience of society’, adding that ‘there is no right to freedom of speech which does not include the right to say things which outrage one's contemporaries’. He feared that the Bill ‘will stimulate resentment throughout the native population of this country’. In time the concerns of the ‘native population’ would almost vanish from sight in the attempt to appease the vocal clamour made on behalf of minorities, more often than not voiced by white liberals. On the incitement to hatred provisions he observed that ‘in the past we have always looked to the question whether a breach of the peace was likely to result, now for the first time we shall be looking to the content of the words which are uttered, and it is the opinion, the view itself, which will be outlawed’. This is indeed what happened; the purpose of such legislation became a mechanism for shutting down debate.
One former Conservative cabinet minister believed that ‘it is not a good thing to make classes of people specially protected on the ground of colour or race. I do not believe that many of these people want it, and do not want the feeling that they have been selected for special treatment and special protection’. He thought that ‘judging the criminality of utterances by reference to their subject matter and content, rather than by reference to their likely effect upon public order is an instrument of potential censorship’. He concluded that ‘free speech must mean freedom to say what people object to and what they resent. Although one may detest the view held, one must fight to retain the right for it to be said. I do not accept that what happened in Germany in the 1930s is a pattern of what may happen here’. In retrospect, the support of Tory MPs at this time upholding the right to free speech is one that now seems impressive, in contrast to the cowardice of many of the party’s MPs in more recent years.
The Solicitor-General, Sir Dingle Foot, closed the debate. In response to the question of what was the justification for the Bill, and where was the evidence that it was needed, he stated ‘the justification is simply this. We have in this country at the moment upwards of 800,000 coloured immigrants. The number is growing; we cannot tell how far it will grow’. He added that there can be no doubt ‘that there is a section of the community, no doubt a very small section, which is guilty of incitement to racial prejudice and racial violence.’ Thus he deemed it necessary ‘to prevent arising in this country in relation to the coloured immigrants the kind of situation which arose in relation to the Jews in this country in 1935 and 1936’, which resulted in the introduction of the Public Order Act. He concluded that the aim of the legislation was ‘to promote a deeper respect for human dignity and to eliminate racial discrimination and incitement’.
The Bill was passed, divided on party lines, supported by Labour and the Liberals, but opposed by the Conservatives. It crossed an important line; previously the law had concerned itself with the actions of its citizens, it now sought to criminalize their opinions. As such it gave the green light for future governments to expand the control of public speech under the subjective and often emotive concept of hate crimes.