Blog post

Thatcher: the PM who brought racism in from the cold

Daniel Trilling10 April 2013

In January 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the opposition, gave what became one of her most quoted television interviews. "People," she told ITV's World in Action, "are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture." Those words gave birth to a tenet of modern British politics: that Margaret Thatcher stole the far right's thunder by addressing the tricky subject of immigration. But is it true?

The background to her interview was public hostility to immigrants from Britain's former colonies. This wasn't exactly new: racism had shadowed the arrival of Commonwealth citizens from the 1940s onwards, peaking violently on occasions such as the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. But from the late 1960s, that racism had begun to find a growing political expression, in the form of the National Front.

Led by John Tyndall, an outright worshipper of Hitler who went on to found the modern British National Party, the NF was fascist at its core, but it also commanded the support of a section of disgruntled Tories and "empire loyalists" who could not reconcile themselves with Britain's post-war loss of power. During the 1970s the NF grew to include over 12,000 members, exploiting discontent at the arrival of Asians expelled from Uganda in 1972. As economic crisis began to break up the post-war compact between capital and labour, the NF also attracted a layer of working-class support, receiving an unprecedented share of the vote (though still no seats) in the Greater London Council elections of 1977.

Thatcher's 1978 intervention did not mark a change in policy – the Conservatives had taken a hard line on immigration since she became leader in 1975 – but it had an immediate short-term effect on public opinion. After her comments, a survey by National Opinion Polls recorded a dramatic surge in support for the Tories, who jumped to an 11-point lead over Labour, who they had previously been trailing by two points. A year later, the Tories won the general election, while the National Front, which had stood a record number of candidates, failed to win a single seat and collapsed amid bitter recriminations.

It's this sequence of events that people invoke when they say "Thatcher beat the NF". In fact, by 1978, the National Front had already peaked. As Stan Taylor argues in "The National Front in English Politics" (Macmillan, 1982), Tyndall's party had misinterpreted the results of the GLC elections in 1977, thinking its future lay in deprived working-class urban areas. As a result, it placed an increasing focus on street marches, which culminated in a humiliating defeat in Lewisham later that year, when its members were chased off the streets by thousands of opponents - an event that led to the founding of the Anti-Nazi League. With morale already flagging, it went into the 1979 election making a common error of fringe parties: over-stretching, getting its members' hopes up, which were then dashed when campaigning failed to translate into victories. (Nick Griffin's BNP did something similar in 2010.)


But Thatcher's "swamping" comments marked something far more significant: with them, she was reintroducing a racist discourse to mainstream politics that had been confined to the far-right fringe for a decade. Her promise to drastically restrict the numbers of Commonwealth immigrants entering Britain was no dispassionate economic calculation; rather, it was founded on the contention that "people" were threatened by the incursion of an unwanted – and, by the use of the perjorative "swamped", harmful – foreign culture.

This was the logic used by one of Thatcher's Tory colleagues, Enoch Powell, a decade earlier, when he made a series of speeches bemoaning the impact of non-white immigration. Powell, who had initially been an enthusiastic proponent of
Commonwealth immigration as a way of hanging on to Britain's fading
imperial role, had made an about-turn in the mid-1960s. His shift
mirrored a wider move from the rhetoric of racial superiority that had
justified the British Empire's subjugation of non-white peoples, to
one of cultural difference, and the fear that whites would soon become
a minority in their own land – where "the whip hand", as Powell put
it, would be held by the immigrant.

In 1968, when Powell made his speeches, he was condemned by the Tory leader Edward Heath and dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet. Recruits to the National Front soared. As one former NF official claimed to the journalist Paul Foot in 1969, "Before Powell spoke, we were getting only cranks and perverts. After his speeches we started to attract, in a secret sort of way, the rightwing members of Tory organisations."

Thatcher brought Powell's ideas back into the heart of Conservative politics, as part of a wider nationalist project that grasped the narrative of imperial decline – the "postcolonial melancholia" identified by Paul Gilroy – and turned it around, promising voters that she would make Britain "great" again.

Yet for all that, the rhetoric remained no less racist. In a less-often quoted part of her World in Action interview, you can see how the idea of British superiority is used to heighten the sense of threat:

"The British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in."

Culture and ethnicity were conflated with "nation"; the unspoken assumption about the fearful "people" Thatcher referred to was that they were white, while the "people of a different culture" were not. (Note how immigration from largely white former colonies – Australia, New Zealand, Canada – was never perceived as a problem.) As Alfred Sherman, one of Thatcher's closest advisors, wrote in the Telegraph that same year, "It is from a recognition of racial difference that a desire develops in most groups to be among their own kind; and this leads to distrust and hostility when newcomers come in."

With this in mind, it's little wonder that the newly-formed BNP, launched by Tyndall in 1982, struggled to find a foothold on the political ladder until well into the 1990s. But Thatcherite policies – the weakening of local government; the devastation visited on industrial Britain, the soaring inequality – laid fertile ground on which extremist politics eventually grew. Her government did little or nothing to improve race relations. The Tories' hard line on immigration policy extended even to refugees, giving rise to the modern stereotype of the "bogus asylum-seeker"; institutional racism within the police went unchallenged; and abroad, Thatcher's supported South Africa's Apartheid regime while condemning Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist". What improvements came were a result of the shifts in popular culture pushed by campaigns like Rock Against Racism at the end of the 1970s, and of pioneering administrations like Ken Livingstone's GLC – shut down by Thatcher and derided as "loony left" by the right-wing press, but whose principles on equality issues are now taken for granted.

Most enduringly, however, Thatcher bequeathed us the myth that when confronted with a surge in support for racist or xenophobic parties, all a mainstream politician needs to do is take to the airwaves and adopt some of their rhetoric. It's what David Blunkett did in 2002 with his claim that asylum seekers were "swamping" schools and doctors' surgeries in his constituency (Blunkett is adamant that he did not know the resonance of that particular word); it's what Margaret Hodge did when faced with a BNP surge in Barking in the mid-2000s (although she later realised her mistake); and its what the leaders of all three parties are doing now faced with a UKIP whose agenda is being enthusiastically boosted by media outlets. To varying degrees, Labour, Conservatives, and the Lib Dems all promise to further restrict the rights of migrants in order to allay public "fears". It doesn't work.

We need instead to recognise three separate but linked truths: what stops the far-right from being able to organise is a strong, grassroots anti-fascist movement; what will make Britain a safe and convivial for all is power to confront the systems that produce racism; and what will give us that power is a democratic overthrow of the zombie Thatcherism under which we still live. There is, one might say, no alternative.

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