wed 02/12/2020

Britain's Racist Election, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Britain's Racist Election, Channel 4

Britain's Racist Election, Channel 4

Recreation of cynically divisive campaign draws on nauseating archive footage

Peter Griffiths campaigning for the 1964 General Election

The story of the 1964 Smethwick election, with its unofficial Tory slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” is well known. The successful Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, subsequently became MP for Portsmouth North, 1979-97, where he advocated the similarly opportunistic but less controversial cause of the naval dockyards, and died in 2013.

The story of the 1964 Smethwick election, with its unofficial Tory slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” is well known. The successful Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, subsequently became MP for Portsmouth North, 1979-97, where he advocated the similarly opportunistic but less controversial cause of the naval dockyards, and died in 2013. What really shocked about this often eye-wateringly revealing documentary was the extensive footage of the caustic casual racism prevalent at the time.

The worst of this, perhaps, was the excerpt of one George Newey announcing the foundation of Birmingham’s first branch of the Ku Klux Klan, followed by a vicious tirade of racist abuse. The parallel between the Birmingham in Britain’s West Midlands and the city of the same name in Alabama is most commonly exploited for comic effect, yet for a brief period in the mid-1960s, the two Birminghams appeared to be leading parallel lives. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, which Martin Luther King believed to be America’s most racist city, became a crucible of the Civil Rights Movement after four girls were killed in a church bombing. Smethwick seemed destined to head the same way as violence and a council plan for small-scale residential apartheid brought the town unwanted international attention as a global hotspot for racial equality campaigners, drawing a visit from Malcolm X, only days before his own assassination.

As so often, the root cause was mundane, if important: a housing shortage, for which the large numbers of recent immigrants were an easy scapegoat. With Harold Wilson’s snap election of 1966, liberal campaigners were galvanised, and Labour’s Andrew Faulds defeated Griffiths comfortably. Rather than dwell on stale municipal disputes, the programme sensibly, and fascinatingly, focused on the disarmingly candid recollections of local residents. One whose contribution was unwittingly crucial was Cressida Dickens, the daughter of Peter Griffiths’ agent, who was nine in 1964. She recalled how she had recited the rhyme “Eeny meeny miny moe, catch a nigger by his toe…” at an early campaign meeting, which inspired their infamous slogan. Motoring journalists be warned: even the casual racism of a nursery rhyme can incite hatred.

Harold Wilson’s denunciation of Griffiths as a 'political leper' sounded refreshingly principled

This occurred with alarming rapidity in Smethwick, as the Conservative council proposed a nasty scheme to offer housing in a racially mixed road only to whites thereafter. When the Labour Government blocked the proposal, sporadic violence began to break out. Every stage of the dismal story was accompanied by clips of the most rancid racism from the local white population. Anyone who would really prefer 1960s Britain to today’s needs to set that footage on loop, and think hard. The programme ended with soundbites from Cameron, Miliband and Farage all talking about the immigration “problem”. They seemed to be discussing EU migration caps affecting East Europeans, but such a ready parallel was too glib to have much potency.

The programme’s message, rather than a neat, take-home homily about the 2015 election, was that racism is easily incited, but almost as easily quashed once a vigorous campaign for respect and equality is made. Harold Wilson’s denunciation of Griffiths as a “political leper” was motivated to some extent by irritation at the fact that the defeated Labour candidate, Patrick Gordon Walker, was due to become Foreign Secretary, but his ready denunciation of Griffiths’ cynical mobilisation of prejudice sounded refreshingly principled, compared with the mealy, focus-tested pronouncements of today’s politicians. More admirable than that, however, were the decades of brave work by campaigners like Avtar Singh Joul, a frequent contributor to the programme and formerly general secretary of the Indian Workers’ Organisation, who faced down physical threats early on to try to create in Smethwick the largely successful and hugely diverse culture it enjoys today.

Every stage of the dismal story was accompanied by clips of the most rancid racism

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