Last night, Twitter in the UK was all over a Channel 4 documentary, “Britain’s Racist Election.” It tells the story of the election of racist Conservative politician Peter Griffiths (pictured above) to a seat in Smethwick in the West Midlands in the 1964 General Election. Watch the documentary here (it’ll hopefully be available on YouTube soon).
The story is remarkable (for a fuller write-up, check Stuart Jeffries’ piece for the Guardian from last year) and well worth repeating. For example, we find out that it was Cressida Dickens, the 9-year-old daughter of a Conservative Party strategist, who coined the infamous slogan: “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour.” She says the slogan occurred to her after chanting the rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n***** by the toe” in the school playground.
“If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” was daubed on walls across Smethwick during the 1964 campaign, and has become recognized as the nadir of British electoral history.
There is also archival footage of the inaugural meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, led by a 27 year old named George Newey.
We then see Malcolm X visiting Smethwick in 1965, after white residents attempted to institute segregation in the town. (After he returned to the US, he was murdered just nine days later.)
Obvious parallels are being drawn with the cynical mobilization of “fears over immigration” by all the major parties ahead of the upcoming general election in the UK in May. The film closes with soundbites from current prime minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, each bloviating over “immigration” in a way which has become terribly familiar — the very same euphemisms mark the speech of out-and-out racists from back in the 1960s — and which sadly looks certain to be a vote-winner for them at the polls this time.
The landscape has shifted in the past decade. In 2005, Conservative leader Michael Howard was panned when he was seen to be cynically demonizing asylum seekers and immigrants to increase his popularity. His key strategist on that failed campaign was the Australian Lynton Crosby. Now Crosby is back running the Conservative election campaign for 2015, and applying the same old playbook. This time it’s working, and all the major parties sound like Michael Howard did in 2005 when he was widely criticized for leading “the nasty party.” What was “nasty” in 2005 is the norm in 2015 — focus-group approved and rabbited relentlessly across all platforms.
One pitfall the film avoided was the centrist tendency to tie the history of racism in British politics to the fringe xenophobic party UKIP (previously the British National Party served this role). UKIP have attracted extraordinary amounts of media coverage in the past year or so, and are commonly framed as dangerous rivals to the Conservatives for right-wing votes. In fact, UKIP are a major asset to the Conservative Party, whose venal assault on the living conditions of ordinary people and the major institutions of Britain’s social fabric in the name of “austerity” gets a gloss of respectability by contrast with the overt bigotry of UKIP.
There is also a broader historical context which the film never quite investigates, but that the writer Musa Okwonga points to:
The framing of the UK #immigration debate is so often "they are coming here to take our resources". There's an Empire-sized irony in that.
— Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) March 5, 2015
The imperial history that continues to undergird British anxieties about non-white presence in the UK (the polite term used to be “multiculturalism” before that became a name for something which “failed” in the 90s) needs to be analyzed in terms of class. Then as now, ordinary people are being screwed by their government (“austerity”) and “immigration” is simply the most popular scapegoat.
W.E.B. Du Bois argued exactly 100 years ago that nascent welfare programs in the early 20th century effected an alliance between rich and poor at home that was only possible due to economic expansion overseas through imperial projects. The popular idea of “the undeserving poor” was mainly displaced to Africa and other parts of the British Empire, with exploitation reorganized along what Du Bois called “the color line.”
The Empire remains hugely popular among people of all classes in the UK, with romantic myths of “Britannia ruling the waves” closely guarded by the current government with the help of the likes of Niall Ferguson. But the Conservatives also know, deep down, that the Empire is over. The alliance Du Bois pointed to between different classes no longer seems necessary — there is no Empire left to exploit.
The idea of “Johnny Foreigner” using the National Health Service or a state school, without having paid for it, is so awful for many Brits that it makes more sense to scrap the whole thing. Any public institution guilty of such “waste” must be privatized because private enterprises are absolutely “efficient.”
The press is fixated, to an astounding degree, on “benefit scroungers,” but it is never enough to show white “indigenous” British benefit scroungers, however much that usefully plays on the demonization of the working class. What is needed are recognizably “other” scroungers. Thus infuriated, the great British public feel sure they are being horribly ripped off by the free healthcare, education and other public services they have relied on all their lives.
And so, in Britain in 2015, racism is being used to dismantle the consensus on the welfare state, and to undo the greatest achievement of British democracy.