The Illiberal Hour

Mark Bonham-Carter

  • Black and White Britain: The Third Survey by Colin Brown
    PSI/Heinemann, 331 pp, £22.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 435 83124 0

The publication of the third PSI Survey, Black and White Britain, if a political event. The first and second surveys were undertaken by PEP in 1966 and 1972, the third by PEP’s successor, the PSI, in 1982-83. Black and White Britain acknowledges that the UK is a multi-racial society and that this fact has brought with it considerable benefits and at the same time posed problems which call in question the civility of our society, our flexibility, and our ability to face and then tackle our own deficiencies. The last of those problems is to a great extent a measure of our self-confidence. The British or, as they used to be known, the English, who are in fact the group most closely concerned, were for many centuries without an inferiority complex. This ‘complacency’ carried with it a number of unattractive characteristics, but allowed a spirit of self-criticism that was healthy. Henry Adams reports in his autobiography that at a dinner at the American Embassy at which John Bright was the chief British guest, he thumped the table and announced: ‘the English are a nation of brutes and should be exterminated to the last man.’ This statement shocked Henry Adams, James Russell Lowell, the Minister, and the other Americans present. They felt it inappropriate that a leading English politician should condemn his countrymen in such forthright terms in front of foreigners – as they saw themselves. They were, of course, wrong. No more patriotic statement could have been made. Such was John Bright’s confidence in the British and the British political system that he felt free to discuss its deficiencies with anyone – and anyhow who cared about foreigners, least of all the Americans? It was that unthinking self-confidence which carried us through World War Two. Since 1945 it has largely disappeared. Our attitude to the people who have come here from out former colonies reflects this decline in self-confidence.

There is no evidence to support the popular belief that immigration from the Caribbean and subsequently from the Indian sub-continent took place in a fit of absence of mind. Its origins lay in the labour shortage of the Second World War, when West Indians were recruited to work in war industries and in the RAF. They were greeted with gratitude and looked after with some care by the Colonial Office. The splendid Learie Constantine was one of those appointed to help. At the other end of the spectrum Indian divisions fought in the Eighth Army and of course in the defence of India. They were colleagues, comrades, in the battle for our survival. When the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948 carrying some five hundred immigrants, its arrival was immediately brought to the attention of the Prime Minister, Mr Attlee. Its cargo consisted largely of West Indians who had served in the UK in the war and who, having returned to the Caribbean, found conditions there – high unemployment, a low standard of living – unacceptable. In the UK at that time – happy days – there may have been shortages of food and clothing, but there was also an acute shortage of labour. The so-called ‘flood of immigration’ started, first from the Caribbean and then, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, from the sub-continent of India. The numbers who came conformed closely with the employment situation in the UK. When unemployment increased, the numbers of immigrants dropped: when employment increased, so did the number of immigrants. When immigration laws were in prospect, a ‘flood’ of immigrants came in to anticipate the restrictions, and not only adult males but their dependants too. Thus those who had come with the intention of only staying temporarily now brought over their wives and their children, pulling down roots in this country. It is not implausible to argue that if the aim of successive immigration laws was to restrict the number of immigrants, their effect was to frustrate the purpose of the sponsors of those laws.

Immigration did not go unnoticed, or unworried about, but at the same time it was deliberately encouraged by government and by industry. The London Passenger Transport Board recruited Barbadians to drive our buses and to run the Underground system. It was Enoch Powell who was Minister for Health when doctors and nurses from the Commonwealth were being recruited to supply the services we required. The jobs were filled, more immigrants arrived and problems arose. The problems had two different causes, both vividly demonstrated in the present survey but difficult to distinguish – colour prejudice and cultural differences. As the problems emerged so came the protests from the politicians, often phrased in demagogic and racialist language and mostly, but by no means exclusively, from the right. There was the famous ‘riot’ in Notting Hill in 1958, which was dubiously typecast as a race riot. At the same time, there had been a long history of agitation, originating with the Nazi persecution of the Jews and associated with the name of Fenner Brockway, to introduce a law outlawing incitement to racial hatred.

From this situation there emerged the first Race Relations Act. I have always been doubtful about the utility of laws which expressly forbid such things as the incitement of racial hatred. Most of this kind of behaviour can be caught under the Public Order Act and by introducing a new law you run into the danger of appearing to provide special protection for a particular group, something which offers ammunition for the genuine racialist opposition. An analogous example of this error occurred when the Sikhs were exempted from wearing helmets on motor-bikes. The first Race Relations Act (1965) missed the main areas where discrimination actually bit. It made the incitement to racial hatred unlawful and at the same time it made it unlawful to discriminate against people in places of public resort on the grounds of their race, colour of national or ethnic origin. That meant discrimination in public houses, cinemas, eating-places etc. It was an important step in recognising that the British were not uniquely tolerant and that the Government had a responsibility to see that British citizens were treated equally. It also recognised that the law had some role to play in the development of social policy, a role more familiar in the US than the UK. But it neglected the areas where discrimination was most important – employment and housing.

Thus it was that when the Race Relations Board was appointed in 1966, its members insisted that in their first annual report which they had to submit to Parliament they might recommend changes in the legislation. This all took place in a political atmosphere very different from today, described by Nicholas Deakin in Colour and Citizenship as ‘the liberal hour’. The then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, accepted the demand made by the Board, but, very reasonably, requested evidence that discrimination on the grounds of race, colour or national or ethnic origin was prevalent in the areas of employment, housing or the provision of public services. Hence, in 1967, the first PEP Report, Racial Discrimination. This had a quite specific purpose: to discover whether discrimination in these areas was widely practised, and what its basis might be. It also had to work to a strict time-scale, governed by three factors. First, it was assumed that the Government would not wish to introduce legislation on race relations that was likely to be highly controversial in the run-up to a general election. 1968 was thought to be the latest date that it could be introduced. A further inquiry was set up, under Professor Harry Street, to examine race relations legislation in other countries and how relevant it was to our needs, but the relevance of the findings of the Street Committee and the nature of the first annual report of the Race Relations Board, depended on what the PEP Report discovered. The Board had to have the PEP document in their hands when they were deciding on the recommendations they were to propose. PEP had to undertake a survey of an area of British life of which we were all largely ignorant, under extreme pressure of time, and the report itself was bound to be subjected to the most rigorous examination and criticism.

The report revealed substantial discrimination against coloured immigrants in employment, in housing and in the provision of services. The differential treatment of coloured immigrants as against other minority groups also surveyed, such as Cypriots and Hungarians, left no doubt that discrimination was largely based on colour. A three-pronged approach was used to assess the nature and extent of discrimination in each of the fields studied. First, there were interviews with just under one thousand immigrants, the interviews being conducted by people of the same group. Indians were interviewed by Indians. Cypriots by Cypriots, and so on – using a questionnaire translated into the appropriate language. Secondly, interviews were conducted with people in a position to discriminate: national and local employers, national and local trade-union officials; estate agents, building societies and local authority officers; bank managers and insurance companies. Finally, there were situation tests to provide an independent check on the information provided by immigrants or those in a position to discriminate. By sheer good fortune the PEP Report was published when there was little other news. It received massive coverage and front-page treatment in all the major papers. The Times leader concluded there was a major case for extending legislation. The Sunday Times leader was headed ‘This is a Moral Issue.’ The impact of the report was such that the Board’s recommendation to extend the legislation to all those areas where discrimination had been found, was rapidly accepted by Roy Jenkins, although by the time the Bill was introduced in 1968, he had gone to the Exchequer and Mr Callaghan was at the Home Office.

It was always intended that the first PEP Report would be followed at intervals by surveys which would monitor the situation, assess the impact of the law and examine the condition of minority groups. Between 1974 and 1976 three further volumes emerged from PEP, all by David Smith, though one volume, The Extent of Racial Discrimination, was written in collaboration with Neil McIntosh. The first volume was published in June 1974, six years after the passage of the second Race Relations Act. It looked at racial disadvantage among minority groups – a more elusive matter than race discrimination. But that disadvantage existed no one would now deny. The kinds of disadvantage from which the minorities suffered were easily discovered: they tended to live in poor, cramped conditions in central urban areas that were decaying. They were more likely to be homeless than other groups. Even in 1974 they were far more likely to be unemployed, partly because their knowledge of the English language was poor. These kinds of disadvantage can be divided into two groups: first, those, including discrimination, directly associated with membership of a racial minority, or with recent arrival; secondly, those that are common to poor people generally, among whom members of racial minorities proved to be an unduly high proportion. It is not beyond the power of a government to pursue policies to assist newcomers to adapt to their new circumstances, beyond simply making racial discrimination unlawful, or to try to alter the circumstances of the poor. One idea that Racial Disadvantage in Employment launched was to measure regularly the degree to which the lives of minority groups were converging with those of the majority.

The second volume returned to the theme of the original PEP Report: what was the extent of discrimination in employment, housing and the provision of services? Once more PEP engaged in situation-testing, once more they had a white control group, on this occasion Greek rather than Hungarian. The findings were depressing. The general drift of the 1967 results had suggested that discrimination in employment was taking place on a massive scale. By 1973 it had diminished but still remained substantial, particularly for those applying for unskilled jobs. In housing, on the other hand, PEP found in 1973 a sharp decrease. The Act had been more effective in housing and, especially, in house purchase than in employment – a result which none of us would have foreseen.

The third survey, Block and White Britain by Colin Brown, was published recently, the bulk of the fieldwork having been done in 1981/82. The author sees his main task as providing a factual base for discussion and understanding, and he is concerned to explain the methods which he followed in composing his report. This is of course important, but much of it might have been consigned to appendices. Moreover, the mass of facts he has assembled are of different levels of importance. It is, for example, hardly surprising that an inadequate knowledge of the English language leads to problems in gaining employment. Nor that Asians with an inadequate knowledge of English are more likely to be found living in areas where there is a high density of Asians than in those areas with a larger white population, where job opportunities are better but where fluent English is essential.

It is a pity that in this survey there is no white control group. An examination of the Census shows that post-war Irish Immigrants moved into much the same inner-city areas as blacks. Though West Indian and Asian areas of settlement are generally separate, the Irish are to be found in both. Could they not have been used to help to discover how many of the disadvantages were simply due to colour? As Colin Brown acknowledges, the experience of Hindus, Sikhs, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and East African Asians differ widely. He frequently and usefully analyses the separate performances of each of these groups. I would suggest that in future all surveys should look at these groups separately. He has, more over, abandoned situation-testing, collecting his evidence from interviews. This has two unfortunate consequences. First, personal memories of a humiliating experience are notoriously inaccurate and inevitably subjective. Secondly, the present survey’s assessment of the extent of discrimination and the extent to which it has decreased is not comparable with the previous PEP Reports, both of which used situation tests. Finally, among those aged 16-24, 80 per cent of the West Indians and 15 per cent of the Asians were born in the UK. What is happening to them? A special survey would have been valuable.

In the two major areas the survey’s findings are far from encouraging. First, the changes in tenure patterns of whites, Asians and West Indians show few signs of converging. The large proportion of West Indians living as council tenants has grown, while the Asians are still largely owner-occupiers. The increase in the number of Asian council tenants is largely due to the Bangladeshis, which, in turn, is a consequence of the fact that in the areas where they are concentrated no other accommodation exists which would be within their means. There are signs of improvement. Household size has decreased among all groups in the last ten years, but least among Asians (from 5.2 to 4.8). Similarly, the number of households containing children has dropped from 76 per cent to 54 per cent among West Indians, and, among Asians, from 79 per cent to 74 per cent, which merely indicates that fertility among women is closely linked to residence in this country. Secondly, unemployment is twice as high among West Indians as among whites, even higher among young West Indians, and one and a half times as high among Asians, more than that for Pakistanis. There is indeed plenty of bad news. Black workers find themselves in jobs at a lower level than whites, though this does not apply to East African Asians. However, the gap between black and white workers has closed a little over the period 1974-1982, and the job levels of those under 25, many of whom will have been born in this country, are much closer to each other than they are for other age-groups.

Perhaps the most serious finding of Colin Brown’s study is that which relates to ‘racial attacks’. A Home Office Report published just before the PSI survey found that the rate of such victimisation was fifty times higher for Asians than for white people and for West Indians over 36 times higher. The frequency of these attacks and the concern which they generate in the ethnic-minority communities are, the report continued, a ‘matter of fact and not of opinion’. The PSI’s investigations suggest that the Home Office estimate was not exaggerated. These figures indicate the existence of an outrageous social problem, rarely mentioned in the rhetoric of the Law and Order brigade – one which has a serious effect on relations between the minorities and the police. The Home Office report states that black people have a lack of confidence in the capacity of the Police to protect them from offences of a racial character. The figures in the PSI report reveal a frightening lack of faith in the will of the Police to protect them. Forty-six per cent of West Indian men and 50 per cent of West Indian women state that it is ‘definitely not true’ that they can rely on the Police to protect them from racialist violence. Hence the row which followed the Deptford fire. The PSI report on The Police and People in London confirms these findings: ‘the proportion of young West Indian males who have come into conflict with the police is perhaps dangerously high, and the proportion of their contacts with the police that are negative is very high indeed (over 70 per cent, compared with 14 per cent for the general population).’ For years, those engaged in race relations have been suggesting to the Police, and above all to the Metropolitan Police, that their relations with the black minorities were not all that they might be. To these suggestions the response was uniformly defensive: the Police, like any group, would be likely to contain among its members a proportion who were racially prejudiced, but the Police, the answer continued, were a disciplined force and in the course of their duties their personal prejudices did not affect their conduct. The evidence of these independent reports cast doubt on the complacent response and the Police, who are trained to judge evidence, ought to examine their assumptions about themselves.

The black population of this country is like a barium meal in the body politic. They suffer special disadvantages but they also share many disadvantages with the underprivileged poor. You may be sure that what is happening to them is happening to millions of others who are not identifiable by their skin colour. The most important single factor slowing down convergence and keeping our racial minorities in a particularly disadvantaged position is the high level of unemployment from which we suffer. Not only does the Government regard this with apparent indifference: it is the main instrument it has employed to reduce inflation. If the Government regarded social cohesion, still more an integration of the minority population within the general population, as an important objective they might consider policies that would mitigate rather than compound the disadvantages which the minority population is suffering today. Local authorities have an important role in helping the disadvantaged: but the cuts in the rate support grant limit their capacity to do so. Most of the black population live within metropolitan council areas: these are to be abolished.

The strategy which lay behind the introduction of the Race Relations Act (1968) was abandoned almost from the word go, and it might well be concluded from the PEP/PSI reports that legislation in the area of race relations has been a failure. However, it was never supposed that legislation would ‘solve’ the problems of race relations. What was hoped was that by inscribing in a law the right of all British citizens to equal treatment, we would provide a basis for other policies at the disposal of governments. Having passed the law, the Government might have set an example in its own practice by conforming with the spirit of the Act. Having done so, it could have put pressure on the nationalised industries and the trade unions to follow its example. But having passed the Act, successive governments retained their obsession with immigration control, set no example and behaved as though passing a law were like passing an exam: they had ‘done’ race relations. What we hoped for was an exercise in leadership by example. What we have had is malign neglect.