1960s >> 1969 >> no-778-june-1969

Part 2: Labour in Panic

Link to Part 1

The Conservative victory at Smethwick in the 1964 election was not unexpected. For some time before, they had been running a skilful racist campaign which won a seat on the local council for, among others, Don Finney, who had been chairman of the local branch of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association and who was the originator of many inflammatory statements about coloured immigrants. In the May preceding the general election, the Tories won control of the council

They kept up the pressure during the general election campaign, in which they effectively cashed in on — if they did not originate—the slogan “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour”. The Labour candidate, Patrick Gordon Walker, suffered under this pressure which drove him to try to blame the Tories for immigration, saying in his election address that “. . . . the main flow of immigration happened to come in the thirteen years during which the Conservatives were in office.” This desperate counter-attack did not help him and Smethwick swung 10.4 per cent against the national trend to Labour.

It was this national swing which gave us the Wilson government and as soon the new Prime Minister could spare time from saving the pound sterling and attacking workers’ living standards he turned his attention to immigration. Results like Smethwick had proved that something more than Labour’s change of mind on the Commonwealth Immigrants Act would have to be done to erase the memory of their original opposition to control. In February 1965 Wilson complained that the Act was being “almost fatally eroded” by evasion. It was the job of the man who was the Home Secretary—Frank Soskice, whose father was an immigrant from Russia—to announce the new measures which did not abolish or liberalise the Act attacked by Gaitskell as “shameful” but made it tighter and harsher.

Naturally most of the Tories were delighted at Labour’s conversion to their way of thinking. Geoffrey Lloyd, one of the Conservative campaigners for tighter controls, was aglow about “this very realistic approach by the government.” On March 29 the government showed that they did not mind this approval from the benches opposite; Herbert Bowden, as he then was, announced that the Ministry of Labour was urgently reviewing the whole question of work vouchers for Commonwealth immigrants.

In November 1967 Roy Jenkins, who was then winning a lot of applause as a ’liberal’ Home Secretary, told the House of Commons how much more successful Labour had been in applying racist laws than the Tories. As a result of the 1965 measures, he said, the number of voucher holders coming to Britain had dropped to 5,461 in 1966 compared with 12,880 for 1965 and 14,705 for 1964. This downward trend, said Jenkins, was continuing. So there the matter seemed settled; Britain under Labour was a tight, satisfied racist state and the politicians could get on with the job of trying to run British capitalism.

The results of the next election, in March 1966, might have convinced many people that racism in Britain was firmly in check under Wilson’s control. Gordon Walker came back to Parliament; Labour regained Eton and Slough and Perry Barr. But sweetest of all to them was their victory at Smethwick where bearded, flamboyant television actor Andrew Faulds beat both the Tory Peter Griffiths and an openly Fascist candidate from the British National Party.

Delusions shattered

But any delusions about racism, and about the Labour Party’s attitude on it, were soon shattered. On December 1 1967 new immigration restrictions came into force in Kenya, which also applied to about 200,000 Asians who were living in that country but who had not taken out Kenyan citizenship. Under the Keynan independence agreement, negotiated by the Tory government, these Asians had the right to opt for British citizenship, which gave them a British passport and so the right to come freely into this country.

The man who had signed this agreement for the British government was Duncan Sandys, who had been Colonial Secretary when it was negotiated. This did not prevent Sandys raising an immediate scare about floods of Asian immigrants pouring into Britain. This scare was also worked up by prominent racists like Cyril Osborne and by one who was only just climbing onto the bandwagon but who was soon to be in the driver’s seat—Enoch Powell.

In face of this rising hysteria and prejudice the government might have remembered that they claimed to be men of principle, and stood firm. But they had learned their lesson, and although the evidence indicated that nothing like the rumoured quarter of a million Asians wanted to come to Britain from Kenya, they rushed through yet another Commonwealth Immigrants Act to deal with the situation. This new Act, apart from further tightening the controls in the 1962 Act, introduced the novel principle that holding a British passport no longer guaranteed free entry into this country.

To get round this problem, the Act provided for the application of immigration control to citizens of the United Kingdom and the colonies who, although they held British passports, had “no substantial connexion” with Britain. This vague, but ingeniously dishonest, qualification notwithstanding, the government denied that they were in a panic — and then went on to push the Bill through Parliament in a week. At any rate they could once again be consoled by the support for them from the other side. Sandys backed them and amid this approval yet another piece of racist legislation was added to the Statute Book which, just a few years before, had been clean of it.

This was the atmosphere into which, a couple of months later, Enoch Powell launched his Wolverhampton speech. At that time there was nothing more the government could conveniently legislate upon and their spokesmen tried, with some embarrassment, to make some political capital out of Powell’s dramatic and inflammatory words. The embarrassment came from the fact that it was in Labour’s traditional strongholds — places like Stepney and Smithfield — that the support for Powell was most emphatic and most violent. It was a danger signal, and not only for the Labour Party.

Defenders of the Wilson government point to legislation like the Race Relations Act as evidence of Labour’s determination to stamp out racism. In fact, such laws are merely perfunctory gestures and do nothing to disprove the old truism that no government can legislate ideas out of existence. The law now gives, in theory, legal protection to the immigrants in parts of the fields of employment and housing. In fact, discrimination carries on almost untouched; ‘No Coloureds’ no longer appears on the newsagents’ advertisement boards but all too often a West Indian or an Indian applying for accommodation finds that it has been taken. The same thing happens over employment. In some ways the laws actually stirred up racism; a popular argument, at the time of Powell’s speech, was that the anti-discrimination law made a privileged class out of coloured immigrants. And when all is said and done there is the hard, practical case of Anne Dummet, who has left her job in race relations because it is impossible in face of enormous obstacles.

Neurotic resentment

What do the Labour Party, and all the other parties of capitalism, offer as a solution? Racism cannot be separated from all the other delusions and misconceptions which are current; it cannot, in other words, be separated from the capitalist social system and all the strange, pernicious ideas which divide the working class and help to keep the system in existence. The first need, for those who want to fight racism, is to speak out loud and clear among the confusion.

Capitalism does little to unite human beings; at most times it works actively to divide them—as it is working now, for example, to divide the people of Russian and China. This often means that capitalism actually fosters nationalism and racism; during the last war British workers were encouraged to believe that the only good German was a dead one and it is only a short step from there to being told, if the interests of a ruling class demand it, that the only good Negro is a dead one.

At the same time capitalism is working a particularly pernicious trick upon the working class. As a system of privilege, it must promote the idea that acquisitiveness is a high virtue, but at the same time it cannot provide security. Thus there are millions of workers in this country, reading of the glorious exploits of their masters in the press and trying to hold at bay the ravages which industrial capitalism is wreaking on their mortgaged homes, who are desperately dependent on their jobs, their masters.

The contradiction between capitalism’s encouragement of acquisitiveness and its undermining of security has produced what can only be called a neurosis among the working class. This works in many ways. Workers who are struggling to buy a home on a mortgage often resent the existence of council houses near them, and think of council tenants as dirty and unprincipled spongers. This sort of neurotic resentment is all too easily transferred to immigrants, especially when they have a different cultural background and when they are easily distinguished by the colour of their skin.

Surge of hysteria

The result of this is that there is a vast reservoir of prejudice and fear which extreme conditions can cause to burst its banks, as happened in Germany before the war and as threatens to happen in America now. The British political parties who are pandering to these prejudices, and who think they can control the flood if it comes, are not paying enough attention to their precedents. In Germany the Nationalists also went along with racism—of the most extreme kind — thinking that if they could get a toehold on power in a coalition with the Nazis they could control the situation and eventually become its masters.

Their disillusionment came all too quickly and brutally. The Nazis rode into power on an irresistible surge of hysteria, which the crisis of German capitalism had provoked among the workers; the Nationalists were among the first to be purged. How much more would it need for the British working class to reach the same conclusions as the Germans in the 30s? And if that happened, how far would the traditional parties of capitalism be prepared to go along with it, in their efforts to cling to power? They have already shown that they are willing to compromise; where will they end up, if their attempts at appeasing racism fail?

Before we get to this there is time, and need, to assess the situation. The history of racism exposes the futility of trying to reform capitalism and how too often those who set out to reform end up worse than what they set out to reform. It shows that the only way to attack the problems of capitalism is at their root—and, as so often is the case,, this means the apathy, ignorance, and deception which are nurtured among the working class by the parties of capitalism.

Finally it emphasises that in modern capitalism the alternatives really are sanity or savagery, harmony or hatred —which means Socialism or chaos.