Inequality and Race

According to Seymour-Ure (in The Political Impact of Mass Media, 1974), the disturbances in Notting Hill in 1958 symbolised a turning point in British race relations.

Previously, immigration had been a relatively peripheral political issue; after 1958 it became one of the most important and the most sensitive.

In 1962, the Conservative Government passed the Commonwealth Immigration Act, introducing controls through a voucher system to limit the flow of West Indian and Indian sub-continent immigrants.

When the Labour Government came to power, instead of repealing the legislation, as they might have (cf. Race Relation Act, 1976 – Chapter 74) been expected to do (the Labour Party had opposed the introduction of the 1962 Act but the defeat of the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon-Walker at the 1964 General Election in the Midlands constituency of Smethwick, with a large percentage of “immigrants”, was a sign that Labour had to tread softly on this issue), they in fact tightened by the Act in 1965 by limiting the number of vouchers still further.

In the mid-1960s, a growing number of Kenyan Asians were settling in Britain. The Labour Government then passed the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, stopping “coloured” immigration, though with a voucher scheme for Kenyan Asians.

According to Dubourdieu (in Les Années Wilson 1964-1970, 1998), “the 1965 Race Relations Bill was intended to outlaw discrimination for reasons of ‘colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’ in ‘places of public resort’.

It did not stop it in the vital fields of employment or housing, or indeed in the commercial or personal services. It also intended to stop incitement to racial hatred”.

The 1965 Act outlawed the “colour bar” and set up a Race Relations Board as a (toothless) watch-dog, under Mark Bonham Carter. In the following years, the government consulted widely before introducing further legislation to try and reduce persistent discrimination and to extend the scope of the Act.

This culminated in the 1968 Race Relations Act which led to the end of overt racial discrimination in advertisements and business practices. The numerous exemptions in the Act nevertheless watered down its effect. A number of bodies were created, including the Community Relations Commission.

In April 1968, just before the Second Reading of the Bill, Enoch Powell, Shadow Minister and Conservative MP for Wolverhampton, a Midlands town with a large immigrant population, made an inflammatory speech, since referred to as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

Powell had stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1964, but after only polling 15 votes among Tory MP’s, he took an increasingly idiosyncratic line within his party.

In the latter part of 1967, he made a number of anti-immigration speeches including evoking the question of repatriation. The Birmingham speech of April 20th 1968 was perhaps the most infamous.

Despite the popular support Powell seemed to have among some sectors of the community at large, the Conservative Party leaders disowned themselves from such inflammatory language.

The 1968 Race Relations Bill was passed with a 104 majority. This piece of legislation was the 1976 Race Relations Act, also passed by a Labour Government.

In 1981, street violence in Britain’s inner-cities led to the setting-up of the Scarman Report. As well as looking into the street violence itself, the Report investigated questions concerning race relations in Britain…

Brixton riots: Monday April 13, 1981

On Friday afternoon, a police patrol in Brixton stopped to help a black youth who had been stabbed in the back.

The incident marked the beginning of a build-up of police strength and a confrontation began which erupted into violence on Saturday afternoon when a black youth was arrested outside a minicab office.

Police and firemen, called to deal with fires started by Molotov cocktails, came under barrages of missiles. Cars and buildings burned and shops were looted as the battle raged.

Lindsay Mackie and Mike Phillips trace the sequence of events which led to what a Methodist minister described as a “fireball of anger”.

The build-up of tension which exploded on Saturday evening in the heart of Brixton began on Friday afternoon, when a police car patrol spotted a young black wandering along Railton Road with a stab wound in his back.

The police officers approached the man, intending to take him to hospital. An ambulance was called and police were bandaging the youth in the car when a group of young blacks attacked it.

The ambulance arrived and the injured youth was taken to hospital. A second police car arrived as a crowd of black youths was building up. Bottles were thrown through the police vehicles’ windscreens.

This incident ended when police reinforcements arrived, but the build-up of police patrols in the area continued through the rest of the night and into Saturday.

One white woman who lives in Spenser Road said that when she returned home on Friday evening at 6pm, Dulwich Road, parallel to Railton Road, was “filled with police and sirens and vehicles. There were so many I thought they were on some sort of exercise”.

On Saturday, she said, “there were no signs of them keeping a low profile”. A similar description was given by Mrs May Dan, a black woman who lives in Railton Road : “At 9am on Saturday morning, I thought there must be some trouble today because the police were in twos all the way down Railton Road, Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane”.

Groups of young blacks gathered all afternoon and there were tense confrontations.

(Source : The Guardian, April 13,1981)

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