Fear and loathing in the West Midlands

Row houses in industrial city populated
Review of Britain’s Racist Election.  First shown on Channel 4, Sunday 15th March 2015.

Available on demand at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/britains-racist-election until 8th April 2015.

The campaign in Smethwick in the 1964 general election still has the ability to shock, not only because of the unofficial Conservative campaign slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”, but because this helped the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, overturn a three-and-a-half thousand Labour majority despite a national swing to Labour away from the Conservatives.  There is much to annoy about this documentary about the Smethwick campaign: the exaggerated and sensationalist language; the portentous music; the often glib generalisations; the repetitious emphasis of sometime tendentious key points.  Much of this is endemic to the current style book for documentary making.  Underneath this surface there is some interesting, and potentially some entirely new, material here.

Despite the claim by the makers of this documentary, the Smethwick election of 1964 is far from “forgotten”.  Many of the texts on race in Britain mention it, as do many texts about British politics in the 1960s.  Most recently, it is mentioned in David Goodhart’s The British Dream: Success and Failures of Post-war Immigration, a book that received considerable media attention when it was published in 2013.  Similarly, Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties includes an account of the election campaign in Smethwick.  David Aaronvich wrote about it in his column in The Times as recently as October 2014.  The same month Stuart Jeffries authored a feature article on Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick which appeared in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on)  Billy Dosanjh’s film Year Zero: Black Country looks at the experiences of immigrants in Smethwick and is currently on limited release.  This is an odd kind of forgetfulness.

Nonetheless, there is enough strong material here to maintain interest.  There is plenty of good archive footage, although perhaps too much of the white people from Smethwick expressing racist opinions in a variety of lurid shades.  This is balanced with a few archival clips of the black and Asian victims of this racism, given greater depth by a number of more recent interviews (although perhaps too many from ageing members of the Indian Workers’ Association to create a truly representative picture) that can leave the viewer in little doubt about the impact of such racism.

The programme does contain one potential notable addition to our understanding of the Smethwick election.  The slogan most often associated with the election was, “If you want a nigger for a Labour, vote Labour”.  It is therefore notable that in the programme Cressida Dickens (the daughter of Griffiths’s Conservative election agent, the unsuitably named Charles Dickens) claimed to have introduced the slogan to the campaign at the not-so tender age of nine (and on the evidence of the programme, has grown even less tender since).  She claims that in a campaign meeting in her father’s house attended by Griffiths, a number of anti-immigration Conservative councillors and Enoch Powell, she had suggested the slogan.  At this point one of the councillors had left the room, and the next day slogan had entered the campaign via graffiti.

Although I am unconvinced by Ms. Dickens’s self-important account, it throws some light on how the slogan was used in the campaign.  Although many accounts of the election state the slogan was used by the Conservatives in the election, it never appeared on any official Conservative Party publication.  As early as March 1964 (the general election was in October) Griffiths was publically stating that these was not the official words from the Conservative Party and not those that he would have chosen, while endorsing the feeling behind it.  The best accounts go no further than the evidence allows and argues that the slogan aided the Conservative’s victory, summing up both the existing campaign against immigration and its focus on housing.

There have been occasional suggestions that “If you want a nigger for a neighbour” was introduced by the fascist right.  This is plausible, Colin Jordan, a leading British neo-Nazi and the leader of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), was based in Coventry and had a small number of followers in the West Midlands.  But the evidence is that they only started to use the slogan after it had been popularised in Smethwick, particularly in pursuing Smetthwick’s vanquished Labour, Patrick Gordon Walker, candidate  to the by-election that had been arranged for him in Leyton, which he duly failed to win in January 1965.  Ms. Dickens’s evidence is that the use of the slogan originated in the local Conservative campaign in Smethwick and was consciously used by them.

While there is no evidence that the fascist right played any part in fomenting or canalising local anti-immigrant sentiment in Smethwick before the election, there is strong evidence that they attempted to capitalise on it afterwards.  The June 1965 meeting under the auspices of the Klu Klux Klan is presented in the programme as a reaction to the failure of local white residents to win government support for their demands on housing, but the meeting was organised by George Newey (seen in full unpleasant effect in the film) who had recently split from Jordan’s NSM.  It is likely, as the programme points out, that some of the more egregious racist attacks were the acts of these neo-Nazis, but that this coexisted with the fists and boots of racial violence more local to Smethwick.

There are other problems in the programme.  Particularly, there is repeated reference to the “white community” and the imputation of views to this group as a whole (for example “resentment [to immigrants] built in white community” and “the people stood defiant behind their newly elected MP”).  This suggests an undifferentiated mass which fails to catch the nuances of the situation.  The “white community” as a whole did not fall in step behind Peter Griffiths and his campaign.  Gordon Walker had first won Smethwick in 1945, but from then to 1959 there had been a Labour-Conservative swing of fourteen points to the Conservatives, while nationally the swing was only nine points to the Conservatives.  For whatever reason, Smethwick (like many areas in the Midlands) was becoming less of a rock solid Labour seat.  The key figure is the 1964 election, when there was a Conservative-Labour swing in Smethwick of seven points to the Conservatives, whereas nationally there was a Labour-Conservative three points to Labour.  What this boils down to is that at most, ten per cent of the voters in Smethwick had voted for Conservatives when, if they had followed national trends, they would have been expected to vote Labour.  That represented around 3,500 people, a considerable bulk who we can assume to have switched from Labour to the Conservatives because of immigration, but not the “white community” as a whole, a sizeable proportion of which was either unmoved, or not moved sufficiently, by the issue of immigration to switch their votes from Labour to the Conservatives.  Similarly, Griffiths’s defeat in the 1966 general election is understood as a result of “many in the white community [having] had enough of Griffiths’s divisive politics.”  In fact the number of votes Griffith won went up slightly between 1964 and 1966 (and a fascist candidate stood in 1966 and won another 500 votes).  Confusing the situation somewhat, unlike the 1964 election, no liberal stood in 1966, and Labour was the net beneficiary of this.  The Labour-Conservative swing was nearly eight points to Labour, while nationally it was two-and-a-half points to Labour.  Perhaps this was a return to the pre-1964 status quo, but the evidence is far from clear.

The second issues that grates through the programme is the repeated assertion that the Labour Party was “pro-immigration”.  While this was clearly the way that many saw the situation, it is at best an oversimplification.  When in 1962 the Conservatives brought forward the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill that sought to end the right of Commonwealth subjects to enter the UK, the Labour leadership’s opposition to it was not outright but careful and contingent.  They argued that the bill should not be enacted without consultation with the governments of the Commonwealth.  The bill was passed as the 1963 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which gave the government the right to set up a number of vouchers (related to employment) that would be issued to potential immigrants.  When Labour came to power in 1964 they did not repeal the Act, but rather set up a largely cosmetic consolation with the Commonwealth governments (the Mountbatten Mission) before issuing their 1965 White Paper Immigration from the Commonwealth which set the number of entry vouchers at 8,500 per annum, a stark figure in terms of the cap of 50,000 being bandied around at the moment.  In early 1968 (before Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech) Labour also shut the door to the Asians being expelled from Kenya, who were not covered by the 1963 Act.  But even at the time of the 1964 election, as many of Gordon Walker’s public statements made clear, Labour was not simply “pro-immigration”.

The programme ends with a portmanteau of clips of current politicians promising to limit immigration suggesting that what was shocking in 1964 has now become commonplace.  This is exaggerated.  The Labour Party then was happy to sign up to immigration control measures, and did so in 1965 and 1968.  The Conservatives had already done so in 1963.  What shocked most politicians were outbreaks of racist violence, in part because most politicians seek social order most of the time.  Only a few on the right and fascist right were willing to ally themselves to potentially destabilising racist opinion, and this programme shows well one example of this in the election of Peter Griffiths.  Enoch Powell, too, went down this path but it was one that took him out of the mainstream of British politics.  Only under Thatcher did the Conservatives attempt to blend such populist appeals to white racism with the need for social order, and then only to a very limited degree.  This political mainstream was happy to attempt to placate racist opinion, particularly through immigration controls; racial harmony was preached, but often policies did not match such rhetoric.  And sadly, so it remains.

2 responses to “Fear and loathing in the West Midlands

  1. Pingback: History Carnival 145: Elections, Bodies and Wars in History | George Campbell Gosling

  2. Pingback: Really Positive Response (Ltd.) | The Function of the Filth

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