Britain’s race issue: now and then

Channel 4’s Britain’s Racist Election about the notorious 1964 Smethwick campaign sheds light on our current political climate, says Jasper Rees

Controversial: Peter Griffiths campaigning in Smethwick in 1964 in Britain's Racist Election, Channel 4, 10.00pm

Controversial: Peter Griffiths campaigning in Smethwick in 1964 in Britain’s Racist Election, Channel 4, 10.00pm Photo: Express & Star
Race is proving to be this election’s hot potato, with the meteoric rise of Ukiplinked by many to disquiet about immigration. This week, Channel 4 will broadcast two major documentaries on the subject: Britain’s Racist Election (Sunday, 10.00pm), which takes us back to a poisonous campaign in a suburb of Birmingham in the 1964 general election; and Things We Won’t Say About Race But Are True (Thursday, 9.00pm), in which the former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips contends that some racial stereotypes may have an element of truth.

It was the latter documentary that hit the headlines last week, when a soundbite emerged of Nigel Farage saying that he would get rid of “much of” the existing legislation on racial discrimination, claiming it “would probably have been valid” 40 years ago; in effect that Britain is no longer racist.

To get a sense of what the atmosphere was like just 10 years before that, one need only refer to Britain’s Racist Election, from which viewers can expect banned language from the start. The N-word and other associated racial pejoratives were all in common usage in 1964, and are freely quoted in the documentary. It recalls a tumultuous period in the West Midlands when immigration first became a serious electoral issue spiriting a toxic Tory candidate into Westminster, four years before Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Trevor Phillips (Photo: Richard Ansett/Channel 4)

Smethwick is now an ethnically diverse town in the region; 50 years ago, it became the frontline for the ideological battle over immigration when an influx of 5,000 West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis put pressure on housing and jobs. The feelings of white residents ran high.

“We weren’t warned that they looked different,” recalls Clarissa Dickens. “Being territorial, you protect your own. [There were] so many immigrants in one heap.” A rent strike was called when a Pakistani family was awarded a home on one estate. Immigrants were barred from pubs and clubs, and some were violently beaten. News interviews found people giving vent to race hatred: “The blacks have come here to exploit the whites,” said one.

Joan Richards, who arrived from Jamaica aged 19, is one of several immigrants who recall the terrifying welcome. “All the people would tell you to take your black stinking filthy fingers off them,” she remembers of her time working as a nurse.


Tackling taboos: Nigel Farage is interviewed by Trevor Phillips in Things We Won’t Say about Race That Are True, Channel 4, 9.00pm (Photo: Channel 4)

These problems may have been pervasive in other parts of England since the arrival of the Windrush in 1948, but there was intense focus on Smethwick because local headmaster and Conservative councillor Peter Griffiths promised to take action. The parliamentary seat was held by Patrick Gordon Walker, predicted as Labour’s next foreign secretary. It was Clarissa Dickens, the then nine-year-old daughter of Griffiths’ agent, who inadvertently supplied his campaign with a powerful slogan.

“I remember saying, ‘If you want a n—-r for a neighbour, vote Labour.’ It was on billboards the next day. That was my fault as an innocent naïve kid.” Griffiths later distanced himself from the words, but never condemned them.

Worse was to follow after Griffiths was elected. A British branch of the Ku Klux Klan established itself in Birmingham; and Griffiths backed a council move to introduce residential segregation in one street. Sightseers came from all over the country came to see the infamous Marshall Street. Among Smethwick’s visitors was the American civil rights leader Malcolm X, who talked of the road to the gas ovens.

But when Harold Wilson, who described Griffiths as “a parliamentary leper”, called a snap election in 1966, Griffiths was voted out. He resurfaced as an MP in Portsmouth in 1979 but never repented of his stance.

Half a century on, the language of 1964 is taboo even to those who may share some of Smethwick’s anxieties, give or take the odd member of Ukip caught on camera in BBC Two’s Meet the Ukippers last month. Race, it is clear, remains an explosive political issue.

From The Telegraph . Report by  Jasper Rees. 14.03.15.

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