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Last Updated: Friday, 1 October, 2004, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Sunday Supplement - Walden Reminisces

This is a transcript of a programme broadcast on Radio 4 on 3 October 2004. It must not be reproduced without permission

Part One - The 1960s

I'm always being told how much better politics was conducted when I was in my heyday. Only the other week I read an article that said my generation was "part of a golden age, a lost era when politics really mattered." Well it's a shame to spoil any illusion that gives people comfort, but accuracy compels me to say that I don't remember this golden age. As a Labour candidate in West Birmingham I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1964, and it wasn't a dull election either. In my constituency there was a red raw issue - that of immigration. But what there wasn't was any feeling of a golden age, in which enlightened statesmen addressed a thoughtful electorate which carefully weighed their logical arguments.

I can't say that my own efforts did much to improve public understanding. I suffered from the not uncommon failing of politicians, that having made up my mind I refused to take any notice of evidence that contradicted me. In the 1950's and early 60's large numbers of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean came to the West-Midlands to take jobs in industry. There was anxiety among the local population at an influx on this scale for which nothing had prepared them. In confronting this problem my failing was liberal intolerance. I believed in racial equality and was upset by colour prejudice and so my sympathies were with the immigrants. They were hard-working and rather bewildered by the hostility they encountered. My sympathies weren't misplaced, but they were too narrow.

Immigration is a dramatic issue that arouses passions and for that reason is never calmly assessed. I'm not sure that it's any better understood now than it was then. My mistake was not realising that everybody involved deserved sympathy. It was only when an elderly man wept as he told me that all his neighbours had left and he was lonely and afraid that I felt ashamed.

Like many politicians forty years ago I was disorientated by the fact that in some constituencies immigration was hardly an issue but in others it was the only issue. For immigration to be a concern was one thing; for it to be the principal political issue in some constituencies was against all the rules. In Britain the National Health Service is always the main issue. Throughout my adult lifetime Britons, whatever their age or sex, have been telling opinion pollsters how important they think the National Health Service is and how worried they are about it - everything in Britain takes second place to the National Health Service. But not in Birmingham and the 'Black Country' in 1964.

Circumstances forced me into the wise decision of shutting up and letting voters do the talking, and so I learnt a number of lessons. I learnt the extent to which the Industrial Revolution still shaped the mentality of city dwellers forty years ago. The British Industrial Revolution had started first so some might assume that by the 1960's its rewards would be widely spread. In fact, those who worked in factories had little permanent security. What the Industrial Revolution had done was to give them not money, but a set of values passed on from generation to generation. They prized community, they placed great weight on their relationship with neighbours and they were deeply socially conservative. Disruption of the time-honoured pattern of their existence struck at something fundamental. These were the barriers immigrants had to surmount and it wasn't going to be easy, because I learnt something else.

I learnt how industrial workers, at that time, saw their relationship to authority. One evening I said to a group in the backroom of a pub "Now come on, be straight with me, you think the Tory Government and the Labour Council are against you and want to stop you doing things don't you?"

After some general muttering one of them said "Look you don't understand. Nobody ever says they're against us. Whenever I've seen any of the big people they've always been polite. But nobody in authority ever really listens to us. They hear us out, but they don't listen. Take it from me, they aren't going to do anything we suggest." There was a universal growl of approval. I struggled to reassure them but in time came to admit to myself that they were right. Nobody ever did listen to them. Occasionally they were appeased, but their wishes were always suspect. They were the other England.

It's part of the golden age myth that people had more serious interests forty years ago and were better informed about public affairs. I don't think they were you know. I'll tell you what was true - that most people were less cynical than they are today. They had more to worry about and couldn't take the world for granted. They didn't trust politicians, but they hadn't reached that level of contentment that renders people largely indifferent to what politicians say and do. Certainly the arguments about immigration were impassioned and conducted for the most part in language which today would be regarded as shocking, if not illegal.

I'd like to give you a nice tidy account of which side won, but that wasn't clear to me at the time and I've never been able to work it out since. I gained a seat by a very narrow margin, but in the next constituency a long-established colleague with a good majority lost his seat. The impact of the immigration issue varied form constituency to constituency, sometimes from street to street.

When the new parliament met, the first in which I'd ever sat, much of the talk was about this West Midlands fight on immigration. Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, condemned some of the tactics used. A number of prestigious groups questioned some of us and I began to feel rather like a survivor from the Battle of Verdun. Thinking long-term, those Members of Parliament directly in touch with the problem were very apprehensive. But nothing happened. No party wanted to invite the charge of racism. In the 1966 general election hardly anybody in my constituency raised the subject.

It was obvious that what anti-immigration sentiment needed in order to come to the boil was a charismatic leader. None appeared for some years and I began to think that the critical moment had passed. But in 1968 the Labour Government introduced a Race Relations Bill, which provoked Enoch Powell into speaking in Birmingham on 20th April. He declared that Britain was heaping up its own funeral pyre and added "Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'" The Conservative leader, Ted Heath, instantly branded Powell's speech as "racialist in tone" and sacked him from the Shadow Cabinet. But just in case anybody was foolish enough to think Powell had no following, five thousand dockers went on strike marching in his support chanting "Knock! Knock! We want Enoch!"

Powell became quite a hero of the masses and laid bare what some of us had always known, that anti-immigration beliefs cut across party lines. My own relationship with Enoch Powell wasn't at all what might have been expected. On the issues we were fiercely opposed and couldn't discuss immigration for five minutes without disagreeing. But unlike many people, including leading Tories, I never regarded Powell as a racist. To me it was obvious that he was a nationalist - for instance he was strongly opposed to Britain joining the common Market - and immigration affronted his rather dated view of British society.

Until Powell became one of the best known celebrities in the country I hadn't realised how strongly the tide was running against nationalism among the well-educated. I didn't agree with Powell's views, but there was nothing strange about them. In Victorian and Edwardian times most of his peers would have enthusiastically shared his opinions. I think the two world wars with their appalling loss of life had largely destroyed the appeal of nationalism to the top end of society. The appeal remained in the most socially conservative working classes.

We debated against each other a number of times, particularly on radio. He'd a keen sense of humour and profound classical knowledge. When not arguing about immigration, I bombarded him with questions on ancient history. In the course of our discussion of Sparta, Athens and the Persian Wars, I let slip the fact that I was a great admirer of Socrates (as described by Plato). Powell used this against me. I should explain that he had a horror of being branded an extremist. I think he saw himself as a Victorian patriot, as mainstream as they come. Extremism, with its hint of freakishness, he denied vehemently. So the next time we were on a radio programme Powell jokingly accused me of being a known devotee of Socrates and therefore, as he put it, "an immoderate visionary," whereas, he said, he was a follower of Aristotle and so a moderate. After a programme I asked Powell if all the listeners necessarily understood these references to Greek philosophy and politics. "Oh never mind that" said Powell, "it's hard to depict a man who talks about Aristotle as a mere demagogue." From which you will gather that Powell was as shrewd as he was charismatic.

I don't know why some political subjects are commonly supposed to be breeding grounds for extremism while others are never mentioned in this connection. Have you ever heard anybody described as a welfare benefit extremist, no matter how outlandish their views? Powell bitterly resented his nationalism being branded as extremist, all the more so because it was often the leadership of his own party that was levelling the charge.

But once race comes into question, reason and logic take a back seat. I think Powell simply didn't give enough attention to the emotions he unchained on both sides of the argument. In modern politics racial issues play much the same role that religious wars played in the past. Everybody is full of passionate intensity and very little reasoned discussion goes on. Immigration is not a subject likely to produce friendly disagreement, let alone consensus.

Quarrels about immigration can embitter relationships. At this time the Tory Chief Whip was Willie Whitelaw, a man famous for his discretion. His comments were so oblique that it was impossible to be sure what he meant. So I was surprised to be taken aside by Whitelaw who spoke about Powell in the bluntest terms. Normally Whitelaw would have said nothing confidential to someone who wasn't a member of his flock. "We had a Shadow Cabinet meeting" said Willie "and Enoch Powell never said a word, not a single word about immigration. He never gave the slightest hint that he was going to make that vile speech. And what is that dear boy? I'll tell you. It's treachery, sheer treachery."

I was taken aback by this revelation, which was plainly meant to be helpful. I never used it, thinking that taking the word of one Tory against another Tory about a meeting at which I wasn't present was unwise. In fact it didn't take me long to decide to say nothing to anybody. But in case you get the idea that my standards of rectitude must have been unusually high, I have to admit that I was very aware of the advantages of having a pipeline to the Tory leadership on an issue as explosive as immigration. And so it proved. Ted Heath and the Conservative Party he led don't get much praise these days. But on immigration the Tory leadership of the 1960's was extremely scrupulous. They weren't lacking for advice to exploit the issue, but they never stooped to conquer. As it happened, against all predictions, the Tories won the general election of 1970. They won with clean hands. To quote the poet Andrew Marvell they "nothing common did or mean / upon that memorable scene."

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