Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
It is probably, a waste of my time and energy – in these days in which facts and evidence trade at so heavy a discount – to delve into the origins of a Twitter meme. But this one has always bothered me, since it is an abuse of history and a political libel. Although no Tory, I shall spring to the defence of the Conservative Party’s reputation. Every now and then, when there is a public argument about immigration or race, people take to Twitter and broadcast an image of a “Tory leaflet from 1964” to try to show that the Conservative Party is, and always has been, ineradicably racist. The image is reproduced here.
It is a curious leaflet in many ways. There is no doubt that it was published during the mid-1960s, and its crudely racist nature is obvious. But it is also notable for its illiteracy: this particular white man could not spell ‘burden’, let alone construct a grammatical sentence. If it does date from 1964, it is strange to talk about “the Conservatives once in Office”, as the Conservatives were already in office, at least until October. Nor did the Conservatives “bring up to date (?) the Ministry of Repatriation” – creating such a ministry was never Conservative Party policy.
But where, when and by whom was it distributed?
There is no ‘imprint’ on the leaflet, as required by election law, although it is possible that the imprint is on the reverse side of it, as the scanned image looks as if there is more text there. Hayes People’s History attributes it to Lambeth in 1964, presumably in connection with either the local government elections in April and May, or the general election in October. But there seems to be a connection with Smethwick in the West Midlands, where the racist slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” was doing the rounds in 1962-64. John Bean, a BNP leader, later credited a Birmingham organiser of the Union Movement for coining the phrase.
In the October 1964 general election (not, contra mythology, a by-election), the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, gained the hitherto safe Smethwick seat from Labour despite Labour’s national victory, on a wave of racist and anti-immigrant opinion.
The ‘Labour neighbour’ slogan did not feature on any official Conservative campaign literature, although it was often uttered on the streets of Smethwick, and sometimes chanted by children, allegedly with the encouragement of local Tories. No doubt some Conservative canvassers used it on the doorstep in the Smethwick campaign. Griffiths himself, discreditably, did not condemn the slogan. His response, quoted in the Times in March 1964, was: “I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people that say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.” (From the edition of 9 March 1964, as quoted in Hatful of History.)
It seems likely that a number of unpleasant little slogans were going around by word of mouth. The “Labour neighbour” slogan was nationally known by March 1964, having been used in Smethwick as early as 1962. Racist rhymes also featured in Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement campaign in North Kensington in 1959, where Mosley demeaned himself by quoting the saying: “Lassie for dogs, Kitty Kat for wogs” on an election platform. Mosley, coincidentally, had himself been MP for Smethwick from 1926 to 1931 for Labour and then the New Party, the precursor to the British Union of Fascists.
After the election, speaking in the Commons, Griffiths denied any responsibility for the ‘neighbour’ slogan – a claim that would have been completely unsustainable had the Tories in fact distributed any leaflets bearing it. The real culprits for putting it on an illiterate leaflet are to be found elsewhere.
Racist political organisations of various kinds gave assistance to the 1964 Conservative campaign in Smethwick; as is often the case, the extreme right in 1964 was fragmented between a number of small parties and ostensibly non-party groups. The BNP and the openly Nazi National Socialist Movement, under the noted jackboot enthusiast and underwear thief Colin Jordan, sent members to Smethwick with the intention of raising the national political profile of race and immigration, as did the Mosleyite Union Movement. In the authoritative Nuffield election study of 1964, A.W. Singham wrote that “the situation began to get out of hand when supporters of Mr Colin Jordan arrived to distribute crude anti-immigrants literature”.
The Nuffield study notes that “much of the new blood brought in by the campaign was not strongly partisan; it somewhat resembled citizens’ organisations in the United States”, tactfully not mentioning that the model was the menacing Citizens’ Councils that sprang up to resist desegregation in the South. It was a dangerous model. The exploitation of local racism and the central role in the official campaign for ‘anti-immigration’ activists, such as Donald Finney of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, were bad enough. The official campaign did not seem to care that gutter language was used on the street and by Conservative canvassers (“the coloureds breed faster than the whites and we must put a stop to this”), and only belatedly dissociated themselves from outside fascist activists coming to help. The Guardian reported in October that “Tories disown anti-Negro posters. Conservative Party agents in Smethwick… have denied all knowledge”.
From all of this evidence, it would appear that the latterly infamous leaflet was a generic leaflet produced centrally by a far right party, probably the National Socialist Movement or the Union Movement, and distributed in several areas including Smethwick and Lambeth in support of right wing Tory candidates. It cannot legitimately be described as a ‘Tory leaflet’, and to do so is being careless with evidence and cheapening political and historical debate.
Although this particular leaflet is not a Conservative one, this does not mean that the Smethwick campaign was not deeply unsavoury, by contemporary standards as well as those of hindsight. The local Tories made no attempt to damp down popular racism, instead exploiting it and channelling it for political gain. A campaign that is attractive to BNP and National Socialist Movement activists has to stand condemned. The Conservative-controlled Smethwick borough council had some extreme policies, to the extent of trying to take over houses to stop them being let out to “immigrants”, and operating an official policy of housing segregation. Malcolm X came to Smethwick on a fact-finding mission shortly before his assassination in 1965.
What happened at Smethwick should not be used to condemn the Tories as a whole. Many in the Conservative Party nationally were uncomfortable about the Smethwick campaign; liberal Tories such as Edward Boyle and – ironically – Enoch Powell refused to speak in Smethwick. Nationally, Young Conservatives coming of age during the 1960s found much more to admire in Iain Macleod, who had spoken of his belief in racial equality and the “brotherhood of man” than in Griffiths or the post-1968 version of Enoch Powell. When the Conservatives won a landslide victory in the 1968 Lambeth council elections, there were 11 Powellites and 46 liberals (including John Major) in their group, and they were arguably more progressive on race issues than the previous Labour administration. Griffiths was an isolated figure as an MP, though not quite the ‘parliamentary leper’ sent to Coventry as Harold Wilson urged. He seemed to mellow somewhat in the company of fellow MPs. In the 1966 election, the Smethwick campaign was much less dominated by immigration, and the BNP expressed its displeasure by standing a candidate against him.
The Labour Party’s response, in Smethwick and nationally, to mid-1960s racism was not always resolute either. One Smethwick Labour councillor was in charge of a youth club that operated a “colour bar” where BNP members would meet, and black and Asian workers sometimes found the local trade unions hostile and unwelcoming despite the movement’s national-level ethos of equality. Labour in Birmingham avoided overtly racist housing policies, but tried to write the rules to exclude immigrants and ended up housing most black tenants in poorer quality housing based on “different standards of housekeeping”. In Southall, the Labour MP called for “a complete halt on immigration to Southall”. The defeated Labour MP for Smethwick, Patrick Gordon Walker, said ‘this is a British country, with British standards of behaviour. The British must come first”.
There was a particularly bitter flavour of overt racism in the West Midlands in the mid-1960s which has declined in the region since the 1970s, and the Smethwick campaign was more about this local peculiarity than the national political environment. The local Tories exploited the climate, while Labour sometimes bent to accommodate it. But a line was drawn in the 1966 election when Labour bounced back with a new candidate, Andrew Faulds, who was outspokenly liberal about race and immigration. Faulds comfortably regained the seat, the BNP polled a humiliating 1.5 per cent of the vote and, for a brief time after the 1966 election, the politics of immigration looked dead.
But the politics of race, and its concentration in the west Midlands, burst back into life in 1968 when Powell made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham and was sacked from Heath’s Shadow Cabinet as a result. Powellism contributed to a large Black Country swing to the Conservatives in 1970. It was this episode of racial demagoguery, more than Smethwick, that changed politics. By its ambiguity over Powell and Powellism, the Conservative Party prospered in 1970, but also mobilised ethnic minority voters for Labour, which cast a long shadow over the Tories’ relationship with minority communities that took over 30 years to clear. The Conservatives did have another story they could have told: Robert Carr’s principled acceptance of Britain’s obligation to Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972 contrasted with Jim Callaghan’s restrictions on Kenyan Asians in 1968. The 1972 Conservative conference specifically supported Carr on the matter, but he was marginalised after Margaret Thatcher became leader and his achievement was not celebrated.
Griffiths returned to parliament in 1979 as MP for Portsmouth North and represented the seat until electoral defeat in 1997. He had a lower profile in his second spell in the Commons, although he sometimes seemed a little preoccupied with immigration.
The 1961-66 period in Smethwick politics was a discreditable chapter, but it is hardly relevant to contemporary politics. Fifty years on, it is an unconvincing stick with which to assail the Tories: it would be a bit like saying in 1966 that people should not vote for Jo Grimond because of the racist overtones of the Liberals’ 1906 election campaign on Chinese labour.
Times and societies move on. The behaviour of the Conservative council and MP were deplorable, but were worse in degree rather than intent than things that the local Labour movement tolerated or supported. There is no way the Conservatives of today would allow a local campaign to degenerate in the way that the Tories of 1964 did in Smethwick. The party has more central control over local campaigns than it did, and while there is some loss of creativity and local initiative, it does usually maintain standards, although the 2016 London mayoral campaign raised more than a few eyebrows. But a party with 17 BME MPs, two of whom are Cabinet Ministers, obviously does not have trouble as an institution with the prospect of a neighbour of a different ethnicity. It’s time to bin the ‘neighbour’ leaflet for good.