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Richard Ritchie: Historic parliamentary debates show there was no mandate for mass immigration

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Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs. This is an abridged version of a 16,000 word paper.

Historic parliamentary debates are an untapped source for understanding today’s political issues. An example is immigration.

The British Nationality Act 1948 defined citizenship in a way which made it impossible to differentiate between UK and Commonwealth citizens. Some objected. Lord Altrincham, a former member of Churchill’s wartime government, argued “we are trying to give a common citizenship to what is geographically, socially and politically a most heterogeneous community at many different stages of development.”

But the Labour Government’s policy was summed up by Sir Hartley Shawcross: “…I cannot, of course, bind future Parliaments…but here as the metropolitan centre of the Commonwealth and the historical Motherland I hope that we shall always accord to the citizens of other Commonwealth countries the full rights and privileges that we are prepared to extend to our own citizens”.

Did this mean unrestricted Commonwealth immigration into the UK? Technically yes, but according to Quintin Hogg on 27th February 1968: “Neither (Attlee) nor I had the smallest conception in 1948 of what we now call the immigration problem… we thought there would be free trade in citizens, that people would come and go and that there would not be much on an overall balance in one direction or the other.”

Immigration – the early debates, 1948-1961

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth, the Home Office Minister responsible for immigration policy between 1952-1955, once stated “the system of controlling immigration worked perfectly well until about 1953, when immigration from the Colonies and the new countries of the Commonwealth began.” Ronald Bell (Con, Beaconsfield) confirmed this:

“The campaign (to control immigration) has been going on for eight years, and I have a Ministerial Statement made as long ago as eight years ago (i.e. in 1953) that the Government were on the brink of introducing legislation.”

This campaign had been led by Sir Cyril Osborne (Con, Louth), a ‘hate-figure’ for many, who was often accused of “out and out racialism.” But thanks to him, immigration was debated at length for the first time on 17th February 1961.

Those who opposed his calls for tougher controls included, on the Tory side, Nigel Fisher, Iain Macleod’s biographer, who said “what I object to is that today we have been talking about restrictions when we have not tried integration.” He believed nothing should be allowed to negate “this open-door policy for Commonwealth citizens” which “is one of the few cohesive ties that still remain.”

Those more sympathetic to Osborne included Norman Pannell (Con, Liverpool Kirkdale) who argued “…many Commonwealth immigrants come from countries with backgrounds and codes of conduct which are totally different from those in this country”, and cited as examples such as illegitimacy, lower standards of civilisation, criminal behaviour (“coloured Commonwealth immigrants are responsible for practically the whole of the drug traffic in this country”) and risks to health such as leprosy.

The Commonwealth Immigration Bill 1961 – the debates

It was not until 31st October 1961 that the Government announced its intention to introduce legislation. The Labour Party was implacably opposed, with Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Opposition, warning “this will be regarded very largely throughout the world as the imposition of a colour bar over here.” Harold Macmillan replied that “there will not be anything like a total ban on immigration.”

When the Bill was published, this became clear. Iain Macleod had already said “I detest the necessity for it in this country.” In introducing the Bill, Rab Butler confirmed the Government’s reluctance:

“…only after long and anxious consideration and a considerable reluctance that the Government have decided to ask Parliament for power to control immigration from the Commonwealth…. a sizeable part of the entire population of the earth is at present legally entitled to come and stay in this already densely populated country…It is not proposed by the Bill to impose a total prohibition on further immigration. It is proposed simply to control the flow….”

All Commonwealth citizens were to be subject to immigration control unless they were “persons who in common parlance belong to the UK”. Wives and families of those admitted would be allowed to join them. Moreover, the Act was only intended to be temporary. Butler concluded: “The Government regret having to produce these proposals…a course which is as distasteful to them as it is to many of their critics.”

The Opposition opposed the measure root and branch. Patrick Gordon-Walker, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, conceded that MPs “who represent the affected areas – I am one of them – know that there is deep and genuine feeling on this matter … We have all been told by constituents ‘if you had to live in the conditions in which we live your mind might well be changed.”

But he argued the correct response was to spread industry more widely throughout the country, deal with the housing crisis and make “much greater efforts to disperse this (immigrant) population.”

Hugh Gaitskell chose to speak at the end of the debate:

“…these people have come here because they were wanted …the rate of immigrants into this country is closely related and … will always be closely related to the rate of economic absorption…It is, in my opinion, an utter and complete myth that there is the slightest danger or prospect of millions and millions of brown and black people coming to this country. Anyone who is trying to put that across is only trying to frighten people into believing that.”

The Committee stage of the Bill commenced on 5th December 1961. Not much of substance was changed, but interesting points were sometimes made. Robert Carr (Con, Mitcham), for example, stated that “I want to see a lot more immigration of all kinds” – an important remark from someone who would be Home Secretary in a government committed to “no further, large scale permanent immigration”.

Gordon-Walker again argued “there is absolutely no evidence that there will be an appalling in-flow of immigrants. This is a figment of the imagination” and Jennie Lee (Lab, Cannock), the widow of Nye Bevan, described the problem of migrant labour from the West Indies, Africa or Ireland as “trivial compared with the difficulties with which we had to contend in the past.” She added “When we speak about immigration today we do not speak about a fierce religious war. Religion hardly comes into the picture.”

A neglected issue was Britain’s entrance into the Common Market, save for a speech by Scottish Unionist Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr):

“If we enter the Common Market, this Bill will mean that our former enemies will be free to come here as they like and that neither our trade unions nor our Government can forbid them. Yet our friends who have fought with us and died with us and for us on many occasions will be excluded.”

The Government kept emphasising “this is not a Bill to stop all immigration” and Butler added that “we want them to come here.” In response to Labour pressure, Butler introduced into the Bill “a total guarantee of entry” for wives and children and also promised to view sympathetically “…the case of a woman who is living in permanent association with a man but is not legally married to him – a situation which I understand frequently obtains among West Indians”.

The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962 – its implementation: 1962-1968

The Act, which Labour was committed to repeal, had its first renewal debate on 27th November 1963, with the Labour Leader Harold Wilson specifying certain conditions under which it might consent to its temporary continuance and stating “we do not contest the need for immigration control into this country.” Labour’s approach was to do so voluntarily with the cooperation of the New Commonwealth.

But each year, concern over the effectiveness and adequacy of the Bill increased. Frank McLeavey (Lab, Bradford East) in defiance of his party, believed that the Act was necessary and said “with all sincerity…we can no longer apply the old policy of an open door to all who wish to come to this country.” William Rees-Davies (Con, The Isle of Thanet) went further:

“There is now only the seed – the very beginning – of a much bigger problem…In Brixton there is already an area where neither white police nor policemen want to go at night …There is a similar area in Paddington and Ladbroke Grove. There are similar parts of Birmingham and Liverpool…The real problem is that these people, whatever their race may be, form small communities and then become intensely unpopular with those who live around them and who do not understand them.”

By the time the Act again came up for renewal, Labour was in office and had to explain why this measure should continue in force under its watch. The new Labour Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, said on 17th November 1964 that while he hoped everyone continued to agree “that there would be no question of this country thinking it necessary to limit” the number of dependants, the Labour Party now believed “an effective control (of immigration) is indispensable.”

This did not please everyone. Jeremy Thorpe, a future leader of the Liberal Party, said “I still loathe this Act” and Michael Foot, a future Labour leader, described it as “a detestable thing which I should like to see removed altogether from the Statute Book.”

Tory thinking was also hardening. On 4th February 1965 Sir Alec Douglas-Home, now Leader of the Opposition, made a proposal “which might be worth considering, namely that the Home Secretary should assist the repatriation of people who wish to go back home, but cannot afford to do so.” Instead of dismissing this as racist, Sir Frank Soskice said “I will keep in mind the suggestion.”

On 9th March 1965, the new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made a further statement on immigration stating that “Since the Act is not working as was intended, a fresh examination of the whole problem of control is necessary.” A fortnight later, the Opposition selected immigration for debate, opened by the Shadow Home Secretary, Peter Thorneycroft.

When read today, it is surprising that his speech at the time was judged as moderate by Labour. For example, he expressed his dislike of the word integration because “I do not believe that many of these immigrant communities have the slightest intention of integrating with one another. I do not think that they really want to integrate with us.” He went further in arguing that there was “the problem of absorbing these new cultures within our existing community”, and “there ought to be a drastic reduction in the inflow of male immigrants.”

Roy Hattersley (Labour, Birmingham Sparkbrook) admitted that “in the light of time and with the advantages of hindsight, I suspect that we were wrong to oppose the (1962) Act.” But he also said, “I have no doubt that over the next year or two the actual number of immigrants coming into this country will decline.”

The Government issued on 2nd August 1965 a White Paper which said “new measures are necessary” to control immigration, and these included a reduction in the number of vouchers available, and tighter rules on the children allowed entry as dependants. Thorneycroft said in reply that it “goes a long way towards a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants” which the Conservatives had called for. Cyril Osborne asserted that the Government “have come to the point that I have been advocating” over the last twelve years.

This consensus did not last. Once the Act came up for its annual review on 23rd November 1965, Thorneycroft argued “The question now is not why we should keep them out but by what conceivable justification do we allow them in” and continued “The Act is beginning to break down.” But the Home Secretary’s response was to challenge Thorneycroft on the right of dependants to enter, taking place then at a rate of around 30,000 per annum:

“I ask him whether his party … would seek to …put up some barrier against wives who wish to join their husbands here and against children under 16 who wish to join their parents? If he says “No” — and I would greatly hope that that would be his answer because it would be very inhumane if he did not say “No” — then he and his party are committed to accepting… the fact that wives and children have a right under the terms of the 1962 Act to join their husbands and fathers in this country. Therefore, when the right hon. Gentleman says, “The Government’s policy does not go far enough” I ask him where we fall down over it and whether he accepts that what I have said is right. I hope that he will reply, ‘We accept that you are right’.”

This was the Opposition’s ‘achilles heel’, and it was during this debate that the speeches of Enoch Powell were first raised in Parliament. In noting that “the more the Government have moved towards accepting (the need for immigration control), the further the Opposition have retreated in the opposite direction,” Hattersley cited “the remarkable speech made by Powell in Birmingham on Sunday night.” As an example of how times have changed, it was also during this debate that Thorneycroft intervened “it is no more an insult to a man to say that he is coloured than to say he is a Jew or has got a red head.”

A year and a White Paper later, the annual debate on 8th November 1966 was significant because it included the first Parliamentary speech by Duncan Sandys on immigration, a former Secretary of State for the Commonwealth and at the time a possible contender for the Tory leadership. He argued “we are deliberately building up trouble for ourselves in the future”, and that we were creating “a nation within a nation.”

Soskice had now been replaced by Roy Jenkins, and in his first speech, he returned to the charge that the Conservatives “must face up to the fact that the only substantial impact which could be made (to reduce immigration) would be by going back on policies regarding dependants.” In respect of immigrants already here, Jenkins said: “In my view, integration is rather a loose word because I do not regard it …as meaning the loss by immigrants of their national characteristics and culture. I do not think we need, or want, in this country a sort of melting pot…”

East African Asians and The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968

By this time Quintin Hogg was the new Shadow Home Secretary. Although still at pains to maintain a consensus, not least because “I am certain that there would be considerable danger to public order, as well as to the decencies of public debate in public life, if we were to depart from that rule”, Hogg’s speech revealed the growing tensions within the Tories. Indeed, he admitted:

“…had we, in 1958 and onwards, been faced with an influx of Frenchmen, Germans or Italians on the scale of the influx with which we were faced from the Commonwealth, we would have acted more quickly and more drastically than we did. It was precisely because we did not wish to raise a racial issue that we wished, if anything, to err on the side of delay rather than to arouse antagonism in our Commonwealth partners.”

In referring to the situation in East Africa, Hogg estimated that in East Africa alone there were about 150,000 persons who were entitled to immigrate to Britain, and “quite obviously, like the customers of a bank, if they all entered and asked the bank for payment of their outstanding balances at the same time, they would cause a run on the bank.” This was the reality which gave rise to emergency legislation.

The Labour Government rushed through a new immigration bill in two days, principally to deal with the immigration crisis caused by the government in Kenya (27.2.68). Its provisions have always been a matter of controversy. Dingle Foot (Lab, Ipswich) rejected any idea of “a draftman’s error to be put right through subsequent legislation.” Powell, on the other hand, argued in 1971 that “It was never intended by the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 – and it was never at any time suggested that there was an intention – that citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, any more than other British subjects, should be exempt from control.”

Whatever the legalities, the new Home Secretary, James Callaghan said: “If, as I believe, it was the objective of the 1962 Act to control everyone except those who ‘in common parlance belong to the UK’, it was not achieved.” Callaghan conceded, “to impose control on holders of United Kingdom passports, even though they have not had a direct connection with this country, is no light matter.”

Although divided, the Conservative Party accepted the necessity of the legislation, but senior Conservatives were amongst the 62 who voted against, including Iain Macleod and Michael Heseltine.

The last of the renewal debates under a Labour Government took place on 11th November 1969, which was the occasion chosen by Enoch Powell to make his first Parliamentary speech on immigration. Unlike some of his supporters, he did not assume any difference in the birth rate between the immigrant and indigenous population. But simply by an analysis of the births taking place in London and other areas, he identified “a continuing, sustained and rapid increase in the proportion of births which are Commonwealth immigrant” and concluded that to an extent “the composition of the future population is already determined.”

During his speech, there were cries of “So what?” Callaghan intervened to say that for him the term ‘immigrant’ meant “one who comes to this country”. But Powell argued he was “using exactly the Government’s definition. I am using the term ‘coloured’ or ‘Commonwealth immigrants’ in exactly the meaning in which it was attached to the estimate of numbers in 1967 and 1969” and which included the children of parents who came to this country.

On the policy implications, Powell agreed that this was a situation which could not be altered simply by restricting further immigration, or terminating the right of dependants to enter. But this only confirmed for Powell the justification for his party’s repatriation policy, as the sole means of averting what was otherwise inevitable in terms of the population. And why should it be averted? This was when Powell answered the “So, what?” question:

“I have to tell the House that in my opinion, for which I take responsibility, such a prospect is fraught with the gravest danger of internecine violence. [HON. MEMBERS: “Oh.”] it is a prospect which, if we can avoid it, we should prevent from being realised even at this stage.”

Hogg proposed an alternative:

“…we have got to persuade our own children and the children of immigrant origin to owe loyalty and allegiance to a country which has played no small part in the history of the world…if we can persuade people to be British in culture and in their relationship to one another, we shall have succeeded. Unless we succeed in that, we must fail, and (Powell’s) worst predictions may prove to be true. But I am on the side of those who are going to try.”

Norman St John-Stevas summarised the theological divide between these two stalwart Anglicans: “(Powell) takes an Augustinian view of the complete corruption of human nature and (Hogg) takes a Thomist view, that human nature is flawed by original sin but is not totally corrupted by it.”

The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1971

The Conservative Government elected in June 1970 was pledged to allow “no further large scale permanent immigration” and to give “assistance to Commonwealth immigrants who wish to return to their countries of origin”. A new Immigration Bill, which had its Second Reading on 8th March 1971, was its attempt to honour this commitment, even though Commonwealth citizens already in the UK “free of conditions” were still to be allowed to to be joined by their dependants, and Maudling stated “I do not believe in large-scale repatriation.”

Callaghan opposed the Bill, especially in equating Commonwealth with alien immigration. He also regretted that the Bill failed to address the issue from the perspective of citizenship. In this, he was in unlikely agreement with Powell who spoke immediately after Callaghan and called it “a mistake” that this “is a Bill about immigration and not about citizenship.” Although Powell disagreed that continuing net immigration of some 40,000 a year was a mere ‘detail’, “it is not, as everyone knows, the heart of the problem either now or in the future.” That could only be addressed by repatriation provisions of the Bill which, if administered fully, offered “a seed and germ of hope for the future.”

Jenkins summed up for the Opposition, describing the Bill as both unnecessary and irrelevant:

“This Bill does not restrict numbers at all, but by means of the so-called patrial Clause—a particularly nasty word to describe a pretty nasty concept—it greatly extends the number in theory by at least 20 million who have a right to come and settle here, but it does so on a highly discriminatory basis.”

This was the last attempt to reform immigration control in the sense it was understood in the 1960s. Although hardly referred to in the debate, within two years Great Britain would be part of the European Economic Community, which changed everything.

Conclusion

No attempt has been made to cast judgment on the opinions of past Parliamentarians – merely to record what they said. But these do encourage certain conclusions. The first is that there was never a democratic mandate for “large scale, permanent immigration” because it did not come about knowingly or deliberately. The second is the general lack of enthusiasm for restricting immigration, and the marked reluctance of the Conservative Government to act.

This lack of enthusiasm meant that when the Conservative Government in 1961 introduced immigration controls, it did so apologetically and without any intention other than of controlling immigration for a temporary period. The Labour Party was pledged to its repeal until 1964, when immigration became an “an election issue”, the greatest evidence being Patrick Gordon Walker’s defeat at Smethwick.

Finally, the nearest that the country came to an electoral choice between the parties was when the Conservatives, in both 1966 and 1970, promised not only to control immigration more drastically, but to facilitate a reduction through voluntary repatriation.

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