Race in Smethwick

Last October the previously little known town of Smethwick, situated, ironically, on the edge of the Black Country, was suddenly shot into the headlines of every national newspaper. The town was described as “England’s Little Rock”, a “race-hate town”, were the electorate were “politically illiterate”. All of this because the controversial Councillor Peter Griffiths had unseated Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker at the General Election.

To what extent does racialism exist in Smethwick? What, if anything, gave rise to it? Does it have any basis in fact? To find the answers to these questions it is necessary to first know a little about the conditions in Smethwick which gave rise to the now notorious events of last October.

One of the first things to take attention in the town are the blocks of multi-storey council flats, towering over the slums they are replacing. Many people say that this is evidence of how much better off we are now; that this is progress. But these jerry-built dwellings, with their damp, paper-thin, warped walls and fierce draughts, are deteriorating into slums in about half the time it took for a back-to-back. The case of a man, reported in the local press recently, speaks for itself; he had had to spend the last ten months off work as a result of illness caused by the damp in his new council flat.

This one feature of the town typifies, as nearly as anything does, what sort of a place Smethwick is. Like thousands of other places, it has the thin veneer of the Affluent Society we are always being told about; but underneath there is the same old poverty.

Confronted with this, and other problems, the people of Smethwick looked for, and found, a scapegoat. Not for the first time, collective wrath fell upon a section of the community who are marked off by the colour of their skin. They overlooked the fact that racialism is no answer to inadequate housing, bad schools and social services.

It is unlikely that many Smethwick people are deep-rooted racialists. Undoubtedly, a lot of them trusted the panaceas of the politicians, in the hope that they would solve their problems. Yet with the records of inconsistency held both by Councillor Griffiths and Mr. Gordon Walker, one wonders if they themselves have any idea of how to go about it.

Griffiths has not always been so outspoken about immigration. For him, in the 1959 election the burning issue was that we should all vote in “a Smethwick man for Smethwick”, which conveniently ignored the fact that he himself is a Welsh immigrant. However, this did not cut much electoral ice and in 1964 he took advantage of the emotions aroused by the concentrations of immigrants by basing his platform on the immigrant question. In contradiction to the memorable photograph which once appeared in the local paper, showing his wife chatting over a cup of tea with a Pakistani woman, Griffiths declared that “Smethwick rejects the idea of a multi-racial society ”.

On the other side, Mr. Gordon Walker had spoken against the Immigration Bill when it was first introduced by the Tories and, although he had decided by 1964 that perhaps immigration control was not such a bad idea after all, he had already lost much support. However, the dissident Labour voters need not have worried. We all know that the Labour Party, now that they are in power, have not only retained the Act they attacked so strongly, but are actually enforcing stricter control than the Tories did.

Smethwick Labour Party are bitter about the whole affair. At their inquest on the election many speeches were made on the reasons for their defeat and on how they propose to win back the constituency. But next to nothing was said about the ways to solve the problems which face people, both white and coloured, in Smethwick and elsewhere.

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