Where were the Tories on the question of racism in the 1970s? This is especially pertinent given accusations in recent years of anti-Muslim prejudice within the Conservative party. Though equally, it’s astounding to see so many Asian heritage ministers in a Conservative government today when this would have been unthinkable in the 70s and 80s.
So what did Thatcher and the people around her think about race related issues in the 70s and 80s?
Alfred Sherman on race
One of Thatcher’s key advisers, Alfred Sherman, had views on ethnic minority issues that would be regarded as way beyond the pale in our more inclusive times. One such was that immigration had been from cultures that were alien to English values including “sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law”.
A recurring theme from Sherman was that waves of immigrants from ‘alien cultures’ had resulted in a loss of control of what it meant to be British. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Margaret Thatcher similarly remarked in 1978 on TV that many Britons “fear rather being swamped by an alien culture”.
He also thought the Irish were definitely inferior – being half-Irish, I take particular umbrage at that.
Winston Churchill, the Tories and racism
Behind Thatcher, on the Tory backbenches, views on immigration and race relations were unbelievably reactionary. In one debate on immigration in the House of Commons on 5th July, 1976 – some choice comments were blurted out.
Winston Churchill’s grandson, who shared the same name but not the same glittering career as the war leader, made this astonishing observation the impact of immigration:
“We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica”.
During the 1976 debate, Churchill pointed out that a West Indian had told him at his MP’s surgery that he would remove his daughter from a school, which was 75% immigrant, because she had no chance of a ‘proper English education’. Churchill added, “that man was as black as your coat, Mr Deputy Speaker”.
John Stokes, MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge claimed that a petition to the Home Office might be replied to in six weeks but an “immigrant leader” who wanted to see the Prime Minister would get an audience in two days.
He went on to claim that a vast gap existed between what he called the pro-immigrant camp – made up of race relations people, intellectuals, the media and do-gooders – and “the ordinary people who look to us in the House of Commons for protection”.
“They do not want a multi-racial society. They do not believe that integration will work”.
And so it went on with Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield, even demanding that the then Labour government apologise to Enoch Powell for the comments they had made after his notorious 1968 anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech.
Three years later, the 1979 Conservative Manifesto would include proposals for toughening up of immigration policy directly under its promises on fighting crime. It acknowledged that the ethnic minorities had made a valuable contribution to the life of the nation.
“But firm immigration control for the future is essential if we are to achieve good community relations.”