Sunday, 16 April 2017

The first Race Relations Act

This is a post about the parliamentary debates on the UK's first Race Relations Act, which was enacted in 1965.

The bill was promoted by the then Labour Government.  It sought to outlaw discrimination in public places - although not, crucially, in employment or housing - and to ban incitement to racial hatred.  The Conservative Opposition accepted the principle of outlawing discrimination, but it resisted specific provisions of the legislation.  The bill ended up being watered down during its passage through Parliament.

The second reading debate in the House of Commons took place on 3 May 1965.  Sir Frank Soskice, the Home Secretary, framed discrimination as a social evil and an obstacle to integration:
The other aspect of our policy is that directed to achieving the task of settling the new arrivals into our community as in every sense first-class citizens....  Overt acts of discrimination in public places, intensely wounding to the feelings of those against whom these acts are practised, perhaps in the presence of many onlookers, breed the ill will which, as the accumulative result of several such actions over a period, may disturb the peace.
He also expressed optimism about the future:
This is a transitional period when the new arrivals are settling in. It is bound to bring its own difficulties.  But when, as we all hope, this period has passed happily over, we must contrive to live amicably together and with mutual respect.
Nazi racial persecution was still a relatively recent memory, of course.  The Jewish Labour politicians Sir Barnett Janner and Bernard Floud referred to this in their own speeches.

A series of Conservative MPs lined up to say that race discrimination was rare in Britain.  Some of them added that the bill would just encourage troublemakers to bring vexatious legal proceedings.  W.F. Deedes complained that the legislation would be unenforceable because it lacked public support.  It would also put the police in an invidious position:
....[I]t is almost certain that in the part which they must play in implementing the Bill, the police will incur odium from all sections of the community.  If they cause to be launched too many prosecutions, they will arouse feelings among the white population.  If they do not cause to be launched enough prosecutions, there will inevitably be some feeling among the coloured population.
The most interesting contribution from the Tory benches was that of Peter Griffiths, who had won the constituency of Smethwick in 1964 after a notorious race-baiting campaign.  In the meantime, Mr Griffiths appeared to have undergone a remarkable transformation into a colour-blind liberal.  He complained that the bill was unsound in principle because it sought to "create separate legal categories of people because they have different colours of skin".  He also referred to his election campaign, and assured the House that it was his opponent who was the real racist.

Opposition to the bill was led by Ronald Bell, a barrister from the right wing of the Conservative Party.  Bell tried to mount a libertarian argument to the effect that the bill would infringe "the free play of people in a free society".  But he also acknowledged that there were more primal fears about identity and sex:
Tension will not be released by this Bill, but will be exacerbated and increased.  The tensions surely arise from the fact that very large numbers of people with unfamiliar customs have come to this country in a very short time. 
....Behind all is fear.  Fear for standards, fear for material interests, the fear of excessive fertility on the part of the immigrants, of being swamped in our own country.  They fear miscegenation.
The senior Conservative politician Selwyn Lloyd put forward the claim, which remains familiar today, that immigrants were making disproportionate claims on public services:
That is the kind of situation that hurts people—the fact that there are schools at which from 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the pupils are coloured children; that there are places where priority in day nurseries is being given to coloured children; that in the maternity hospitals the beds seem to go to coloured mothers....
The most interesting contribution was that of John Binns, the Labour MP for Keighley, who explicitly declared himself to be in agreement with Ronald Bell.  It was Binns who spoke for the nationalist working-class demographic which in our own time has become associated with UKIP:
This has been an argument between lawyers up to now.  I should like to consider the more human picture....  There is in my constituency amongst the working-class people a tremendous amount of resentment....  I do not believe that this resentment is racial prejudice.  If it is not, what is it and what is its basis?  I believe... that its basis is just cold fear.
In my constituency there are many working people who have not had any previous contact with coloured people and suddenly wake up and find large groups of coloured immigrants within their community.  I speak of Asiatics and Pakistanis who cannot speak a word of English.  They come straight from the tribal villages of Pakistan and their ideas of personal hygiene are absolutely different from ours.  They have no idea of our public health regulations and they follow a strict and, what is to Western eyes, a very strange religion....
These fears are also increased when these working men find that the immigrants in many cases have been used to lower the living standards in this country....  I have in my possession pay-slips given to me by Pakistanis which prove that they are being exploited outrageously.  Above all, people fear that it is only the working classes who will have contacts with these immigrants.  They live in working-class streets and not in the salubrious parts of the community.  They work at shop-floor level and not in management and administration.  Their children go to the already overcrowded State schools and not to private schools, which are the prerogative of the rich and the influential....
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The bill arrived in the Lords on 26 July 1965.  Lord Stonham, for the Government, reiterated that the legislation was aimed at promoting the integration of immigrant communities:
[The Government's objective is] that of assisting the integration of immigrant peoples into the community and the prevention of the spread of harmful and irrational prejudices....
In recent years we have welcomed perhaps a million Commonwealth citizens who are easily distinguishable by their colour.  They have made an important contribution, and will make an even greater one.  Their coming has created problems in our crowded island, problems which are being and will be solved by the good will and sense of our people, assisted by measures towards integration promoted by local and central Governments.  This Bill will make its contribution towards that integration, and as such I commend it to your Lordships.
He also hinted that public opinion was not yet ready to give up completely on colour prejudice: "if legislative measures are taken too far they might revolt and offend rather than guide public opinion".  Another indication of widespread racism came from Lord Simey, a professor of social science:
I have myself taught coloured students for many years, as well as worked among them.  I know how keenly they feel when English people blandly assume from time to time that because these people are coloured they are inferior.  We must be jolted out of this complacent frame of mind....
Lord Milverton, a former colonial governor, took exception to Lord Simey's views.  He was one of several peers in the debate who claimed to be speaking on behalf of the common man:
[Lord Simey] referred to the necessity for "educating our ignorant fellow citizens"....  Who are these ignorant fellow citizens?  Generally speaking, that phrase would comprise those who are in contact with the realities of the immigration situation in this country—the people who live in areas where the immigrants have congregated.  Therefore they are in contact with realities which supersede all the beautiful ideas which one may have when sitting in a Chamber like this, or when sitting in a study evolving beautiful thought on humanity....
Milverton doubted whether immigrants could even be integrated into British society.  A similar view, from a different political perspective, came from the Liberal peer Lord Wade.  Wade thought that integration was not as simple as the Government was suggesting:
I know something of the problems of the Pakistanis in the West Riding of Yorkshire....  I have got to know them and found them a very kind and friendly people.  But they do not easily mix; they cannot easily be integrated.  Some are here for only a few years, in order to earn enough to go back home and buy a piece of land....  I remember one representative of their community telling me that in Britain, if you wished to get to know people and become a good mixer and friendly, it seemed to be the normal thing to go to a public house.  But their people were forbidden by religion to go to a public house and drink alcohol, and therefore that medium of getting friendly with others in this country was not open to them.
Wade also took aim at the idea that immigrants were stealing the jobs of native Britons or living off benefits:
....I should like to refute the belief, that they, or any others who have come from other parts of the Commonwealth, have come here to take away the jobs of British workers, still less to live on unemployment pay.  I have made a point of paying regular visits to the local employment exchange, and I am quite satisfied that there are very few who are receiving unemployment pay over any long period of time.  They come here to work, and there is a need for them, the jobs are there for them.  I think the more one examines the question, the clearer it is that there is very little ground for the fear that immigrants are taking away the jobs of British workers or coming here to live on unemployment pay.
In similar vein, the Bishop of Coventry advocated
....a long-term, patient and widespread process of education which removes certain misconceptions, such as the misconception one often hears, that immigration of coloured people causes shortage of work, and that the coloured man is prospering at the expense of his host community.  This, generally speaking, I believe, is not true.  On the contrary, many coloured peoples are doing work not easily undertaken by British-born white people, and they have therefore contributed substantially to the general economic welfare of this country.  Furthermore, I believe that we ought continually to express gratitude for the kindliness and courtesy of many coloured people in such services as the Underground, on the buses, notably in hospitals, and in many other spheres of work where coloured skins are often to be seen.
The bishop went on to assure the House that fears of "mixed marriages" were overblown.  Our friend Lord Milverton was also concerned about "miscegenation".

Several opponents of the bill echoed concerns that had previously been raised in the Commons: that it would lead to spurious allegations of discrimination; and that the provisions on incitement of racial hatred amounted to an unacceptable restriction on free speech.  One such opponent was the Conservative peer Lord Derwent.  His attempt to explain his stance would be amusing if the subject were not so serious:
Let me take an example.  The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, and I get into a taxi and I say "I will pay this".  It is a long way and the fare is 10s.  I fumble in the dark and tip the driver a penny, thinking it is a two-shilling piece.  The driver, not referring to my race, or to my religion, says, "You bloody Jew", meaning that I have given him only a penny.  Under this Bill he is committing an offence....  [W]hy must we have this very wide power which might go very wrong, particularly when sometimes—if I may mention the East End of London—people are a bit outspoken?...  There may be a quarrel between a man with a fruit barrow and some Indian.  They have an argument and the man calls the Indian a damned nigger—regrettable, I agree, and it is not something your Lordships would say; but it does happen.  Under this Bill he will be committing a serious offence.
The Labour peer Lord Elton referred approvingly to John Binns' speech in the Commons.  Elton was a paid-up member of the British ruling class, but he chose to speak as a tribune of the people:
Wherever there has been mass immigration there is widespread and deep seated resentment—not prejudice against the colour of the immigrants, but resentment against their overwhelming numbers, against their sudden arrival, and against the varied social evils to which, not the individual immigrant but the mass immigration itself inevitably gives rise.  And yet, if ever a dweller in a back street wishes to voice his legitimate grievances against some distress or disorder in his neighbourhood, he knows already, only too well, that somebody, and very possibly somebody far removed from the back street and from contact with immigration, is likely to accuse him of racialism....
My Lords, those who live in these back streets can be extremely caustic about advice on racial problems emanating from the Cotswolds or from Hampstead Garden Suburb, or even from Westminster, if the source is someone who is not living in close and constant contact with an area of mass immigration.  As one of my correspondents wrote to me, "Let her come and integrate with us in Plaistow".  These people feel that their legitimate grievances have been ignored by politicians, of all Parties, who have constantly hesitated to discuss them in public.  At the General Election, there was something very like a general conspiracy of silence as to immigration....
Such claims of a "conspiracy of silence" have become familiar over the years.  It is sometimes said that the alleged conspiracy dates from Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968; but clearly similar claims were around before then.

One opponent of the bill, the hereditary peer Lord Somers, talked in terms that sound toe-curlingly patronising today:
I have no objection to the coloured man as such.  The best specimens of them are extremely admirable people....  In London to-day you see so many of these coloured people walking about the street, sometimes looking rather lonely, that one feels one wants to help them; but I do not think legislation is the way to do it.
He also drew on his experience as a public school master for enlightenment:
Unfortunately, some of these coloured immigrants from abroad suffer from that painful disease known as a chip on the shoulder, and they are only too anxious to take offence on grounds of their colour where none is meant.  I well remember a boy we used to have at Epsom College when I was teaching there.  I believe he was the son of an African chief.  As your Lordships know, boys all go through various patches of bad luck—they do not win a certain race, or they do not win a certain prize, and so on.  The others took it in their stride, but his invariable complaint to his housemaster was, "This would not have happened if I had not been black."  That was his opinion, but it was not true.
As far as the danger of bogus allegations of discrimination was concerned, Viscount Massareene and Ferrard, a landed aristocrat, had a surprisingly demotic way of making this point:
I have often been in a public house, as perhaps the majority of your Lordships have been, although perhaps some have not, and I know that if one is in a bar on a Saturday night just before closing time there are perhaps a hundred or two hundred people present, with possibly a few wild Irishmen and perhaps two or three Jamaicans, all very excited, and possibly one or two Pakistanis.  When the barman shouts "Time, Gentlemen!" there is always a rush for drinks and it could happen that, through no fault of the barman, perhaps a Jamaican would not get his last drink.  He might then get excited and "cut up rough", and then if the barman told him to leave, or had him removed, the Jamaican might lay a complaint against him.
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One can draw one's own conclusions about how far British society has come since 1965.