Joshua McMullan is a historian, currently researching for a PhD at the University of Leicester. He is also a member of the Conservative Party.
Before I go any further, this is not ‘whataboutery’. The rise of antisemitism, and in particular antisemitism from the left, in the UK is a black mark against present-day British society. Decent people on all sides must unite to combat and drive out this most recent scourge and Labour must get to grips with this problem, adopting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and removing antisemites from positions of power. Since the charity Campaign Against Antisemitism came out to declare Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite, under that IHRA definition, he too must go.
However, doing this will be very difficult while the Conservative Party continues to be tainted by its poor history of race relations – particularly with Black and Asian communities. A lot of this goes way back to the time of Empire and imperialism of the 19th and early 20th century, and I do not want to get into that today – that requires a book, not a small article.
Instead, I want to start on February 3rd, 1960. Harold Macmillan had just given his most historically important speech, often referred to as the ‘Wind of Change’ speech in the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. The speech had several objectives, first to set out why the policy of decolonisation was taking place, using the famous line: “the wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact,” referring to the rise of black African nationalism. Of greater significance, Macmillan set out the belief that decolonisation was a necessity to prevent communism from becoming an attractive option to African liberation movements.
The final objective was to set out to the Apartheid government in South Africa and the white minority government in what was then Southern Rhodesia (later just Rhodesia, and now Zimbabwe) that the policy of suppressing the black majority population could not continue any longer.
Apartheid, a method of organising a society that went against meritocracy and everything the Thatcherite revolution stood for, has rightly been consigned to the dustbin of history along with Nazism. Although many in the Conservative Party at the time supported Macmillan’s policy there were also many who did not and were stuck in the time warp between Britain’s imperial past and post-war Britain.
We move forward to 1964. The General Election of that year saw the most racist campaign in the constituency of Smethwick, where Peter Griffiths refused to disown the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Four years later, Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which further stoked the flames of racial division and mistrust.
These are just two examples, but there was also opposition to decolonisation and black majority rule from the likes of Patrick Wall and Julian Amery, and support for Apartheid from the Conservative Monday Club, which later went on to call for the voluntary or ‘assisted’ repatriation of immigrants from the UK. The Conservative Party has done things to distance itself from this past, in particular the disassociation of the Conservative Monday Club from the Party in 2001, as well as more recently the Prime Minister’s 2018 Race Disparity Audit. Despite this progress, it still has failed to meet and deal with its past head-on.
History is always more nuanced and complicated than just stating that these people were racists, and that we should therefore refuse to consider where they were coming from. Arguably, we should think more about what these people represented and what we can learn from them to better understand the society we live in today. Crucially, these events help to explain why some have had issues believing the accusation of antisemitism in Labour when that Party’s history with non-white communities has been significantly better than our own. How can you trust accusations of racism when the Party they come from has failed to deal with its own past?
This is what I am suggesting. We need to begin a conversation with each other to understand what our past means to us, what it has meant for this country and all of its inhabitants. Ultimately the aim of that conversation would be to see what we can do to build up trust and change the hearts and minds of these communities.
The first thing we can do is to admit we have had an identity crisis since the end of empire, that we have not been able to comfortably find our place in the world and what it means to be British. After that, there are multiple options the Party can take: apologising for the Smethwick election campaign could be a good start, along with a host of other moments in our past where the Party has not acted to the standard that we rightly hold it to today.
As I said at the beginning, this article is not ‘whataboutery’. The fight against antisemitism must continue and we must hold all public figures to account no matter how influential they are. But if we really want to make our fight effective then we must begin to deal with our own past, acknowledge our own wrongs, learn from them and commit to building a more inclusive and socially coherent Britain where all are welcome to live and work in peace.