The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

Racism 1980s

The 1970s was a time when black and Asian Britons formed organisations of resistance to racism but at the same time, that racism grew and in the early 1980s was still way too prevalent.

Attacks and even murders of BAME Britons failed to lead to convictions and often the race element was brushed aside by the police or courts. The attitude of the media and politicians could be pretty toxic and the public discourse on racism was dire.

MPs, broadcasters, senior police and judges made comments on race in the 1970s and 1980s that would now be regarded as a resignation issue. Often under the guise of free speech or ‘telling it like it is’, racism was legitimised in the spoken and printed word.

Enoch Powell was a Conservative MP who in the 1960s made the notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Paraphrasing the Roman writer Virgil, he spoke in apocalyptic terms about the longer term impact of immigration. In effect, he was predicting civil war but in the most vague and suggestive terms.

Powell, to be blunt, was a stupid person’s idea of intelligent. He rose to his feet in the House of Commons effecting an Old Testament prophet demeanour and warned of dire times ahead unless black and Asian immigrants could be persuaded to leave the country. This kind of demagoguery led to his expulsion from the Conservative Party and he eventually sat as an Ulster Unionist MP.

Racism at 1970s and 1980s Westminster

But Powell wasn’t the only politician playing the race card. Winston Churchill’s grandson was a prominent MP in the 1970s – same name as his granddad but less illustrious career. In 1976, he made a very Powell-esque speech himself. He imagined his constituents not being able to recognise their own neighbourhoods anymore.

We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”

Churchill, incidentally, once described one of his constituents to the House of Commons as being “as black as your coat, Mister Deputy Speaker”.

1980s racism: black people characterised as being more criminal

Sir Kenneth Newman of the Metropolitan Police had some positives in his career such as backing the formation of Crimestoppers. But he also opined that Jamaicans were incapable of obeying the law: “It’s simply in their make up, they’re constitutionally disposed to be anti-authority”. 

Another commentator even said that mugging was a form of self-employment for “West Indians”.  Crime reporting in those days was often underpinned by the assumption that black people were more disposed to criminality.

Another knighted copper called Ken was Sir Kenneth Oxford running the force in Merseyside. BBC reporter Martin Young spent some time with the Liverpool police and wrote a report for The Listener magazine. Jaws dropped round Merseyside when he claimed there was a view that “half-castes in Liverpool today” were the “products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8 – the red light district”. Oxford bitterly denied that any senior police officer had said such a thing to the reporter – who in turn stood by his story.

“Alien cultures” – a 1980s racism trope

Right-wing ideologues often conflated the perceived threat posed by immigrants – from the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean mainly – with the permissive society unleashed by the 1960s. Alfred Sherman was a political guru to Margaret Thatcher and once declared that:

“…the imposition of mass immigration from backward alien cultures is just one symptom of this self-destructive urge reflected in the assault on patriotism, the family – both as a conjugal and economic unit – the Christian religion in public life and schools, traditional morality in matters of sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law – in short, all that is English and wholesome…”

How did black Britons view this kind of thing? In the late 70s and early 80s, change was slowly happening. A new generation born and bred in Britain wasn’t prepared to doff its cap to the former colonial master. And they wanted to succeed in British society.

However, there was still very widespread discrimination in employment and housing. I found a copy of a teen mag called Fab208 – mentioned elsewhere on this blog – where a black single mother was interviewed about what Christmas would be like for her. Mrs Jones, who lived in a dingy flat in Wapping with her kids replied:  “I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide.”

There was so little room in the flat that clothes were hung up outside to dry but were then stolen. The family never went on holidays. Her 14 year old daughter Sharon told Fab208:  “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”

Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family.  “I’m not a sponger.  I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.” 

Shame Enoch Powell never dropped by to hear her account of racism in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s.

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