‘May we bring harmony’? Thatcher’s legacy on ‘race’

‘May we bring harmony’? Thatcher’s legacy on ‘race’


Written by: Jenny Bourne

Cameron’s nativist policies begin with Thatcher.

Thatcher’s attitude to foreigners can be summed up in two phrases: ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’ (January 1978) and the war cry ‘Sink the Belgrano’ (May 1983) over the Malvinas.  She was, without doubt, a xenophobe, an unapologetic imperialist with a natural penchant towards the far Right. She hosted and defended the former Chilean dictator Pinochet in London, supported the apartheid regime for many years (till uneconomic) and denounced as terrorist Mandela and the ANC.

But her legacy has to be judged beyond her personal traits. She presided in the ‘80s and ‘90s over two key processes – both of which have profound ramifications for ‘race’ today. Her governments facilitated the final balkanisation of Black politics into ethnicism, and under her aegis we witnessed the rise of a strident New Right ideology with a supply chain running from the dreaming spires, via parliament and think tanks, to the tabloids. Ethnicism or culturalism have no doubt contributed to the separatism now bemoaned by so many politicians and the denunciation of multiculturalism by David Cameron. While New Right ideas (against anti-racism and cultural relativism, for empire and patriotism), once drifting in the political shallows of the Monday Club and Peterhouse College fellows, are now become the common sense.

There is no doubt that Thatcher, on taking power, was to the Right in her party on race matters, an instinctive imperialist not averse to playing the numbers game. Witness her 1978 TV interview on immigration : ‘If we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture. 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.’ She had indeed taken on the clothes of the far-right  National Front and given a fillip to racial violence which  was, in the 1970s, along with racist policing, the principal problem of the inner-city.

Riots and the rise of ethnicity

But it was the riots from April to July of 1981, which burned in twenty-six cities, which caused her to change tack. Her monetarist policies had blighted the futures of working-class youth and they were ripe for rebellion. They and the declining areas they came from had to be kept in check. Lord Heseltine was allowed a regeneration budget for Liverpool, one of the most affected cities.[1] But for the rest of the country, an ethnic policy of appeasement, following on Lord Scarman’s findings of ‘disadvantage’ would be implemented.[2] Thatcher’s government wanted the communities to police their own. The Urban Programme, which had hitherto had a small budget, was suddenly increased to £270m and 200 new ‘ethnic projects’ were approved in 1982/3. The monies from this programme, with a small contribution locally, were disbursed by local authorities to local projects meeting local needs. And those needs were being ethnically defined.

While Labour (even Ken Livingstone), Liberal and Tory politicians all seemed content with this result, it was left to organisations like the Institute of Race Relations, and especially A. Sivanandan, to point out the political damage being wrought.[3] For instead of actually addressing racial injustice, the programme redefined the problem as one of cultural disadvantage and went on to reinforce cultural differences without making any changes to a discriminatory system. (Though the riots in the northern towns of 2001 and bombings in 7/7 2005 brought politicians to question the wisdom of ethnic policies and opt instead for ‘cohesion’ strategies, they were never, any more than under Thatcher, to address the structural racism, around jobs, housing, schooling, policing, immigration, criminal justice, which lay behind much of the disaffection.)

Embedding of the New Right

The second legacy comes from the new form of racism which arose under Thatcher cultivated by politicians, academics, journalists who, as a group, became known as the New Right.[4] Not based, as the fascist extremists were, on biological difference and arguing fundamentally about numbers of immigrants, it was based on cultural difference and the need to defend our way of life (which effectively also  meant not interfering in racism’s free rein). Thatcher’s natural Edwardian views about British moral superiority might never have got such a political purchase had it not been for two things: that the advisers closest to her such as Alfred Sherman and Keith Joseph[5] were deeply influenced by free marketeer Milton Friedman and by free-from-all-state shackles F. A. Hayek, and that after some forty years of struggle against injustice and discrimination, black people, particularly those born here, were not prepared to accept second-class status. Thatcher and her coterie seemed quite aghast that the ‘uppity’ Blacks were openly fighting for their rights. And it was the collision over the legitimacy of cultural pluralism and the need for anti-racism that was to mark battle after battle with local authorities, over equality policies, multiracial education, including the curriculum and the teaching of history, during the 1980s.

The critiques from within the New Right spanned a number of concerns about anti-racism: that it was indoctrination, denied individuality and freedom, insisted on equality of outcome and therefore was a precursor to social engineering, was policing thought, was denigrating a noble British history. For in fact, they argued, racism was being massively overplayed as an issue affecting people’s lives by leftwing agitators. Multiculturalism and multicultural education were threats because they implied that all cultures were equally valid, valuable and moral, which they were not. We were at risk of diluting national, Christian values.

Anti-racism and cultural pluralism were the scourge of the New Right: be it the changing of street names to honour new heroes or the anti-racist year 1984/5 pronounced by the Greater London Council. And very often completely untrue stories, for example, about not being able to ask for ‘black coffee’, sing ‘Baa Baa Black sheep’ or the removal of Tufty the squirrel from a Lambeth road safety campaign, made for their exciting copy. And then there were the attacks on the Swann Report on multiracial education and the Institute of Race Relations, for producing anti-racist booklets for young people. Ray Honeyford, a Bradford head teacher, forced to take early retirement after making certain pejorative observations in the Times Educational Supplement and Salisbury Review about ethnic minorities, became a cause celebre as a race martyr and then a columnist in his own right.[6]

A few opinion-formers could not have changed the discourse so decisively, save that they had at their command the Daily Mail, the Sun, The Times, Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.[7]Academics turned columnists, proprietors turned polemicists, politicians turned leader-writers, a whole host of New Rightists (many members of the Salisbury Group which grew out of Peterhouse College and later were to produce the Salisbury Review) managed to find a place time after time to denounce the anti-racist Left.  Academics like Roger Scruton, Caroline Cox, Anthony Flew and John Vincent always seemed to have an in on this subject. But then so too did Ronald Butt, Paul Johnson, Peregrine Worsthorne, Alfred Sherman, Andrew Alexander, T E Utley, Roy Kerridge,  Honor Tracy and so many more. The media, the many think tanks on the Right such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Social Affairs Unit, the Hillgate Group, working closely with politicians very close to Thatcher managed to have an inordinate impact.

It is almost a quarter of a century since Thatcher was forced from office and yet the ideological mark left by the New Right  is profound (in part because its influence was never challenged by the Major or Labour governments). The New Right managed to change the role of the press in forming opinion on race matters and hence terms of debate forever. It took anti-racism, a struggle for justice, and established it as a form of tyranny – to be denounced as ‘political correctness’. It reclaimed patriotism and reread the history of slavery and empire as an attempt to impose collective guilt. It denounced cultural pluralists for putting national values at risk. It recast black protestors as the cause of ‘racial mischief’ and the real bigots. And in a last gasp, over the Macpherson report, it attempted to redefine racism as needing intent so as to prove it could only be attributed to individuals not institutions.

Thatcher’s New Right established  what is today a commonsense nativism – which has stripped the political culture of group rights, internationalism, and history. It paved the way for Cameron’s landmark ‘multiculturalism has failed’ speech of 2011 and  Michael Gove’s whitening of the history curriculum, and the much more general acceptance of views, ranging from those of Andrew Green and Christopher Caldwell to David Goodhart, that the nation is under threat from cultural pluralism ie immigrants and we need a more assertive integration policy ie assimilation.

References: [1] Documents released under the thirty-year rule reveal that members of the cabinet actually opposed any such regeneration and wanted places like Liverpool left to rot. It was agreed that only Liverpool could have a regeneration task force and only for one year and that the amount of money involved be kept secret. [2] Lord Scarman was asked to investigate the causes of the disturbances in Brixton in 1981 and ‘found’ a distrust of the police and a racial disadvantage, in part caused by problems within the West Indian family. [3] ‘The ensuing scramble for government favours and government grants (channelled through local authorities) on the basis of specific ethnic needs and problems served on the one hand to deepen ethnic differences and foster ethnic rivalry and on the other, to widen the definition of ethnicity to include a variety of national and religious groups – Chinese, Cypriots, Greeks, Turks, Irish, Italians, Jews, Moslems, Sikhs – till the term became meaningless (except as a means of getting funds).’ A. Sivanandan in ‘RAT and the degradation of black struggle’, Race & Class, Spring 1985. [4] There were a number of different strains within the New Right -  ranging from libertarian beliefs in a laissez-faire economy and individual freedoms to the social authoritarian emphasis on maintaining order and a strong state. To learn more see New Right, New Racism by Paul Gordon and Francesca Klug, Searchlight, 1984 and The ideology of the New Right (ed) Ruth Levitas, Polity Press, 1986. [5] In 1974, with these two, Thatcher co-founded the rightwing Centre for Policy Studies. [6] A book setting out the New Right’s line on multiracial education and racism was published. Anti-racism an assault on education and value, edited by Frank Palmer, the Sherwood Press 1986.  See also Paul Gordon, ‘The New Right, race and education’, Race & Class, Winter 1988 for the debates in the New Right and its ultimate influence on Tory policy. [7] For an analysis on how this worked, see Nancy Murray ‘The press and ideology in Thatcher’s Britain’, Race & Class, Winter 1986.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

3 thoughts on “‘May we bring harmony’? Thatcher’s legacy on ‘race’

  1. Refreshing political analysis. The new Right also commandeered the concept of social justice – Ian Duncan Smith founded the Centre of Social Justice in 2004. You will not see them even uttering a single phrase related to racial injustice. Today it is chaired by David Blunkett demonstrating the politics of New Labour and their convergence with the new Right. Michael Gove was involved in the founding of Policy Exchange. These initiatives left the trade unions and left wing organisations far behind.

  2. This week’s newsletter is powerful. Jenny’s piece needs wider circulation. It nails what happened on Thatcher’s watch and contexts current trends. There’s a solid sense of history. The download on racial violence shows where the current trends are heading. Together, they underline the possibility that ‘austerity’ amplifies the expression of the racism that kills, as it becomes ever more acceptable to fear and resist ‘swamping’.

  3. Incisive piece. About Blunkett: I didn’t know he chaired the CSJ but it doesn’t surprise me. Around 2006 he talked about how GP surgeries in Sheffield (and in impoverished areas like Burngreave in his constituency) were being “swamped” by asylum seekers. He used the word on purpose.
    The day after Thatcher’s death he was on the front page of the Sheffield Star saying that “we” would not forgive Thatcher for attacks on steel, mining etc. Nothing about racism. I see him as part of a transmission belt for neo-liberal racism into working class constituencies. As Griffin said of Blunkett around 2006: “He’s the best recruiting sergeant the BNP have”.

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