Magazine article New African

'If You Want a Nigger for a Neighbour Vote Liberal or Labour': Smethwick 1964 Is the Nasty Smell in British Politics Which Everyone in the Country's Public Life Wishes Would Go Away

Magazine article New African

'If You Want a Nigger for a Neighbour Vote Liberal or Labour': Smethwick 1964 Is the Nasty Smell in British Politics Which Everyone in the Country's Public Life Wishes Would Go Away

Article excerpt

'If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Liberal or Labour': Smethwick 1964 is the nasty smell in British politics which everyone in the country's public life wishes would go away. New African's Clayton Goodwin tried to get some of Britain's star politicians of today to comment on the shocking "race problem" in Smethwick in 1964, but they all (bar one) "looked the other way". This is his report for Black History Month.

"If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour." It was the British general election of 1964. It was Smethwick in the West Midlands, England. It was 40 years ago. Yet the memory lingers sharply on. Today it is impossible to appreciate fully the shock of the election result in the Smethwick constituency fought in the shadow of that notorious slogan.

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The shock was not so much that racial issues played a prominent part in a general election for the first time--such feelings had bubbled under the surface for some years--but that the sentiment should be expressed so openly. British people preferred to believe that they were not "like that".

Race, nationalism, colonialism and the end of Empire were very much on the electoral agenda that year. The trickle of "coloured" Commonwealth immigration had turned full tide as many of the former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean were accorded political independence.

Furthermore, the home electorate was becoming increasingly aware, through the growing prevalence and popularity of television news, of current racial troubles from places as far apart as Little Rock, Arkansas in the US, and Sharpeville, South Africa.

Nevertheless race, though an important issue, was not then regarded as being a determining issue. The Labour Party, seen to be the more liberal of the two main parties, was favoured to end the 13 years of Conservative government. It had fallen to Patrick Gordon Walker--the party's speaker on foreign affairs and designated to be foreign minister in the then forthcoming Labour administration--to challenge the more outrageous contentions of his opponents on race and related matters. His parliamentary constituency was at Smethwick. Alarm bells should have started to ring: Smethwick had "previous"--as they say in traditional police stories. Sir Oswald Mosley, the most notorious (and able) of all British extreme rightwing politicians, had once been an MP there--admittedly, however, that had been before his conversion to fascism.

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All the same, against the unfavourable tide of current public opinion, the Conservatives had continued to win local council seats there on the strength of the disquiet of local residents over the influx of non-white immigrants working in this heavily industrialised area.

Ironically, the West Midlands around Smethwick is known as the "Black Country", because of the soil and air turned dark by the out-flowing smoke and pollution from factories.

Local councillor Peter Griffiths, a school-teacher by profession, was chosen to be the Conservative candidate a year before the general election was due. The campaign became increasingly ill-tempered. The Labour Party watered down the affirmation of former leader Hugh Gaitskell, who had died suddenly at the beginning of 1964, namely that: "The Labour Party is opposed to the restriction of immigration--every Commonwealth citizen has the right as a British subject to enter the country at will."

Patrick Gordon Walker may well have considered that he had done enough to pacify critics by declaring: "Labour favours continued control of immigration, stricter health checks and deportation of those convicted of criminal offences." If so, he was much mistaken.

The notorious notices, "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour" began to appear in endorsement of Griffiths' campaign, and their sentiments were never denied convincingly. …

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