Assessing the"liberal hour" in British race relations

Seminar Paper, 1998

11 Pages

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In this paper, I will look at the conflicts surrounding the immigration issue between 1945 and 1970. My focus will be on racial policy initiatives by the Labour government in the 1960s and on public debates on immigration.

The period between 1965 and 1968 has been called the "liberal hour" of British race relations. Does this period deserve its name? I will look at the 1960s after reviewing British racial politics and governmental policy in the immediate post-war era.

Historical backround

If we want to understand British attitudes toward immigrants in the 20th century, we have to look at the values and attitudes that were deveoloped in the colonial period. This period was a time of unique economic expansion. Saggar argues that the racism of the Empire took its cue from the requirements of an imperial and trade policy which led to viewing black people from the vantage point of superiority. He concludes that the development of racial attitudes and assumptions has been used to rationalise forms of economic exploitation.1

The decline of the Empire became obvious in the first half of the 20th century. Starting in the 1950s, Britain saw the migration of a significant number of black people from former colonies to the "mother country". When these immigrants started to compete for resources like housing and employment, Britons did not only see their privileges threatened but viewed the newcomers in the light of an ingrained racism.

Reasons for immigration

In the period of economic reconstruction after World War II, many workers were needed in Britain. The need could neither be met by the flow of Irish immigrants nor by the settlement of the so-called displaced persons from eastern and central Europe. The need for labour, especially in manual and badly paid jobs made the government seek more workers from abroad: With the implementation of the European Volunteer Workers Scheme in 1946, 450,000 workers were recruited from eastern, central and southern Europe. The campaign was in effect until 1951. Government agencies also advertised "British" jobs in India, Pakistan and in the former British colonies in the Caribbean.2 The official incentives for immigration became unnecessary after the first wave of immigration caused chain migration: Relatives and friends, mainly males, followed.

This first category of immigrants are commonly referred to as primary labour migrants. This catogory has most prominently tended to shape perceptions within the mass media and beyond when it comes to the reasons for underlying mass non-white immigration to Britain.3 The 1951 Census recorded a nominal 'non-white' population of around 75,000. By the time of the next Census in 1961, this figure had mushroomed to around 337,000.

Political reactions

In the 1950s, debates arose about whether or not to alter the existing legal basis for immigration, the 1948 Nationality Act. The proposition of those who favoured reform was the implicit promise that a change of law would help to restrict black immigration into the country. Contributors to the debate did not limit themselves to the domestic consequences of introducing controls. Many began to argue that the presence of 'too many' black immigrants was the cause of a rise in crime and of problems in housing, employment and other areas.4 When the first postwar "race riots" erupted in London in 1958, a backbench labour MP5 made the following demand, using the seductive logic of the numbers game - by equating immigrant concentration with social problems:

The government must introduce legislation quickly to end the tremendous influx of coloured people from the Commonwealth. Overcrowding has fostered vice, drugs, prostitution and the use of knives. For years the white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up.6

1960 saw the emergence of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association which constituted opposition to further immigration at grass-root level, aided by two Conservative MPs, Osborne and Pannell. The association and its supporters received considerable national publicity during 1960-61.

According to one survey in 1961, over four-fifths of all manual workers supported a fresh government initiative to curb black immigration.7 The 1961 Conservative Party conference endorsed a motion in favour of immediate control.

On of the results of the heated debate in Britain was an increase in immigration. People wishing to immigrate were certain that drastic controls would be passed. The pressure to emigrate grew, particularly for those who wanted to rejoin their family members.

Conservative policy initiatives

In 1962, restrictionist immigration laws were introduced by the Conservatives. The Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, which was passed against the opposition of the Labour Party, allowed entry only to those who were in possession of a Ministry of Labour employment voucher. The vouchers were subdivided into 3 different categories: The background of immigration was thus differentiated in relation to the needs of the economy:

Category A were allocated to those who could show that they had a specific job to take up in Britain; Category B vouchers were given to those holding specific skills thought to be in shortage and therefore likely to find jobs quickly; whilst Category C vouchers were distributed to all other applicants, though ex-servicemen were to be given priority.8

The Labour Opposition rejected the Bill, both in principle because of its impact on relations in the Commonwealth and over fears that it could damage race relations on a local level. The party leader Hugh Gaitskell attacked the Bill, arguing that its results would undermine his party's commitment to socialist internationalism.9

Changing policies in the 1960s

In some of the earliest reviews of British race relations which came out in the 1970s, the 1960s have been called the "Liberal hour" in British race relations.

On the one hand, the Labour government that came to power in 1964 put a greater emphasis on both race and social policy issues at home os that the civil and economic rights of black people were given some degree of priority by central government. On the other hand, efforts to curb immigration grew.

By 1964, the climate on the immigration question had turned once again. Labour's new chief Harold Wilson held no principled opposition to the idea of statutory controls and called for a pragmatic approach to the immigration issue. The Labour party found itself in a position where its former firm stand on the issue seemed to be far removed from grass-root sentiment. The 1964 General Election illustrated the tremendous potency of the immigration issue in British politics. Labour learned a great deal about popular opinion on this issue from the Smethwick affair.

The Smethwick Affair

Until 1964, the Smethwick constituency was held by Patrick Gordon-Walker, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, who was considered as following a soft line on immigration. His conservative challenger, Peter Griffiths, successfully mobilised public antipathy towards the presence of black immigrants in the constituency and surrounding areas. The Labour front bench was thus accused of its perceived "open door" policy. Slogans such as "If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour" were used in a campaign that Peter Griffiths eventually won after a sizable swing in public opinion away from Labour.10

Saggar argues that the impact of the affair fundamentally altered perceptions of how far governments could resist populist hostility to black immigration. But even before GordonWalker had lost his seat, Wilson had announced that Labour did not contest the need for the control of immigration to Britain.11

New policies under a Labour government

A new two-party consensus was emerging. The parties followed a similar line on the necessity for stricter immigration controls. It is often criticised that the commitment to the limitation of immigration was much stronger than to integration.

The argument that was often put forward at the time was that, as the number of black immigrants became more tightly controlled, it would become easier to integrate them successfully into a predominantly white society. As one of the better results of this new consensus, the issue of race was removed from party competition. The race issue was thus de- politicised.

After Labour entered office in 1964, they first renewed the annual provisions of the 1962 Act. But they also took steps to counter racism and improve integration. The first legislative efforts were introduced to counter racial discrimination.

In 1965, the first Race Relations Act was passed. It was based only on a voluntary mechanism to investigate allegations and offer conciliation without providing the courts with criminal sanctions against proven discriminators.12 But it had a symbolic impact: the intellectual shift in opinion was of greater significance than the precise "authority" that the new law introduced to counter discrimination.13 A weakness of the act was that it was not applicable to large areas of economic and social life such as housing and employment.

1965 also saw the publication of the White Paper Immigration from the Commonwealth, which spelled out the goals of future public policy. It proposed a further tightening of the immigration rules governing the 1962 Act, while also establishing the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI) to coordinate efforts to integrate immigrants into the community.

On the other hand, it had definite statements on immigration and control to ensure that " not outrun Britain's capacity to absorb them."14 To achieve this end, the number of annual work vouchers issued to would-be entrants were cut from 20,000 to 8,000 and the vouchers available to those without specific jobs or skills were ended altogether. Saggar concludes:

At a stroke the government had both addressed worries about the effectiveness of the original 1962 Immigration Act and, in doing so, had made more scupulous use of a law it had doggedly opposed only a few years previously.15

Roy Jenkins and the 1968 Race Relations Act

Reforms to improve the economic and social rights of Blacks were pushed ahead by the new Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. He defined the goal of government policy as the creation of an integrated multiracial society chacterised by equal opportunity, while rejecting the traditional view that policy should help to built an assimilated society, in which cultural differences would eventually disappear.

Jenkins' aim was to enact a second Race Relations Act. Since Labour only held a slender Commons majority, he felt that he had to wait: a new Bill could not be put before Parliament until a stronger working majority could be relied upon. In the meantime, he tried to lobby support for the general idea of extended legislation. In 1966 and 1967 he took several initiatives to this end. He commissioned reports on anti-discrimination laws in the United States (the Street Report) and on the scale of racial discrimination in Britain. A wide-ranging campaign was launched to influence public opinion through sympathetic newspaper articles and television and radio broadcasts.

The Bill was finally brought before the Commons in the spring of 1968. Its basic features included an extension of the earlier 1965 Act to take anti-discrimination laws into the spheres of housing and employment. The Act also brought about changes in the bureaucratic organisation of race relations: The work of the Race Relations Board was regarded as operating as a watchdog and as a co-ordinator at one and the same time. The Act relieved the Board of its latter function. To give a new impetus to "grass-root racial harmony initiatives", a new Community Relations Commission was established with a more tightly specified task of coordinating the local work of voluntary organisations.

The implemantation of the Act had been endangered by the escalation of the policy of Africanisation that was pursued by the Kenyan government since 1967. Pressure was put on thousands of Asian British passport holders to leave the country. Many of them emigrated to Britain. The flow of immigrants caused an increasingly populist debate on immigration in the U.K..16 Just before the implementation of the Race Relations Act mentioned above, a hastily drafted Immigration Act to curtail the Kenyan Asian influx was rushed through Parliament.

The Powell Affair

The Powell affair caused the greatest public row on the "race"-issue in modern British politics. The Conservative Enoch Powell tried to shift the public debate from the integration issue back to immigration control. He argued that the white population was entitled to defend their own interests against "alien invaders". Powell's Birmingham speech in April 1968 to attack the race Relations Bill shows the extent of his racist attitudes:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation, to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant- descended population. It is like a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.17

Powell tried to tear up the race consensus. He failed to split the Tories on the issue. Shortly after his speech, the Tory leader Edward Heath dropped Powell.18

In 1970, the so-called liberal hour of British race relations was definitely over. The Consevatives won the General Election, which was partly due to the use of the "race card".


It is difficult to find a single expression for the politics of race in Britain for the time between 1945 and 1970. The core of the "liberal legacy" were the three short years between 1965 and 1968. In this period, Roy Jenkins was one of the key characters to push ahead liberal reforms. To assess his contributions, one has to take into account the force his personality played in helping to raise the saliency of the race issue.

In general, one can take a pessimistic and an optimistic view on the "liberal hour" of British race relations.

The pessimistic view is that the efforts of progressive politicans, as Jenkins, were constantly undermined by "appeasers" in the Labour party who wished to fall into line with public opinion deeply opposed to black immigration. It can be said that Jenkins was able to introduce the reforms only on the basis of a stable immigration climate that resulted from Labour's decision not to repeal the Conservatives' 1962 Act. In a way, all that Jenkins and his supportes did was to successfully exploit a window of opportunity. Another flaw that needs to be addressed is that the labour strategy failed to disassociate itself from popular calls to halt further black immigration.

If one chooses a more optimistic view of the reforms that were brought about, one could say that several important anti-discrimination institutions were created against a background of latent racism. In the years to follow, the institutions were able to promote racial equality in a number of areas.


American Academy of Arts and sciences/Commission for Racial Equality/Policy Studies Institute: Ethnic Pluralism and Public Policy. Achieving Equality in the United States and Britain. Ed. by Glazer/Young. Heinemann Educational Books, London 1983.

Baringhorst, Sigrid: "Einwanderung und multiethnische Gesellschaft", in: Kastendiek/Rohe/Volle (Hrsg.): Länderbericht Gro ßbritannien. Geschichte, Politik, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Frankfurt am Main 1994.

Barkan, Elazar: The retreat of scientific racism. Changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1992.

Cashmore, E. Ellis: United Kingdom? Class, Race and Gender since the War. Unwin Hyman, London 1989.

Goulbourne: Ethnicity and nationalism in post-imperial Britain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991.

Husband, Charles (Ed.): 'Race' in Britain. Continuity and change. Hutchinson, London 1982.

Kushner, Tony and Kenneth Lunn (ed.): The Politics of marginality. Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain. Frank Cass, London 1990.

Layton-Henry, Zig: The Politics of Immigration. Immigration, 'Race' Relations in Post-war Britain. Blackwell, Oxford 1992.

Piper, Nicola: Racism, Nationalism and Citizenship. Ethnic Minorieties in Britain and Germany. Ashgate, Aldershot 1998.

Saggar, Shamit: Race and Politics in Britain. Harvester Wheatsheaf, London 1992.

Skellington, Richard and Paulette Morris: 'Race' in Britain today. Sage, London 1992.

Solomos, John: Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain. Macmillan, London 1989.


1 Shamit Saggar: Race and Politics in Britain. Harvester Wheatsheaf, London 1992, p. 33. English traders had been incorporated in the slave trade which removed millions of blacks from their indigenous homelands and transported them in sub-human conditions to work the sugar and cotton plantations of the Caribbean and southern United States. See ibid., 39.

2 See Kenneth Lunn: "The British State and immigration, 1945-51: New Light on the Empire Windrush". In: Tony Kushner and Kenneth Lunn (ed.): The Politics of marginality. Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain. Frank Cass, London 1990, 161- 174.

3 Saggar: Race and Politics, 48.

4 Ibid, 70.

5 He represented the constituency in which the London disorders had occured.

6 Cf. ibid, 71.

7 Ibid, 72.

8 Cf. ibid, 73

9 See John Solomos: Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain. Macmillan, London 1989, 51-53.

10 Ibid, 53.

11 Announcement to the House of Commons in November 1963.

12 Zig Layton-Henry: The Politics of Immigration. Immigration, 'Race' Relations in Post-war Britain. Blackwell, Oxford 1992, 48-50.

13 See Peter Sanders: "Anti-Discrimination Law enforcement in Britain." In: American Academy of Arts and sciences/Commission for Racial Equality/Policy Studies Institute: Ethnic Pluralism and Public Policy. Achieving Equality in the United States and Britain. Ed. by Glazer/Young. Heinemann Educational Books, London 1983, 75-82.

14 Report quoted in Saggar: Race and Politics, 82.

15 Cf. ibid, 82.

16 The debate was fuelled by Enoch Powell, a right-wing Conservative, who believed he had a winning issue in representing a racist tough stand on immigration.

17 Cf. ibid, 111.

18 In 1969 Powell was still so confident of his grass-root support that he unveiled his plan to create a government Ministry of Repatriation: "The West Indian or Indian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or Asian still." Cf. ibid, 113.

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Assessing the"liberal hour" in British race relations
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English: the liberal era of British immigration policy
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Assessing, British, English, British
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Paul Michel (Author), 1998, Assessing the"liberal hour" in British race relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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