But not that tenuous! In 1964, the Tories fought one of the most odious elections in British political history. The seat of Smethwick was held by Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker – tipped to be foreign minister in a Harold Wilson Labour government. Local Tory councillor Peter Griffiths ran against him and the big issue of the campaign rapidly became immigration.
The Conservative Party has denied that it originated the slogan that appeared all over the constituency – ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. But after Griffiths achieved a shock victory, prime minister Harold Wilson was moved to demand that he be treated as a ‘parliamentary leper’.
So well reported was the racial poison spread around in the Smethwick election that Malcolm X paid the constituency a visit in 1965.
The 1960s was a decade of contrasts in Britain with a hip and swinging middle class in London liberating itself while outside the metropolitan elite, bigotry and narrow mindedness was still highly prevalent. Griffiths served two years before being thrown out in the snap election called by Wilson in 1966. And that might have been the end of him…but then along came the seismic shift to the right in 1979.
Up popped Griffiths in Portsmouth North where he road the coat tails of Maggie’s Tory whirlwind. It seemed he fitted into the new political order. And almost as if he was a barometer of British political fortunes, he remained in that seat until 1997 when he was felled by the swing to Tony Blair.