Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History
[This article first appeared as ‘How to talk about immigration, by the 1960s politician who made it his life’s work’, Conversation, 18 November 2014]
As the Rochester and Strood by-election approaches, raising the chances of another UKIP politician entering parliament, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has warned against getting caught in an “arms race of rhetoric” about immigration. On the other hand though, Cooper has attacked liberals who don’t want to talk about immigration at all.
This recent escalation in the rhetoric on immigration is best understood not simply on its own terms but when put into a proper historical perspective. Ever since the 1960s, talk of immigration in Britain has played into negative politics – a politics of what is opposed and what we are against. The latest example of this tendency is that of the defence minister Michael Fallon, when he suggested that British towns were being “swamped” by migrants from Eastern Europe.
Whenever the debate about immigration intensifies the media invariably recalls the inflammatory speeches of Enoch Powell. We might however be much better off re-reading some of the speeches made by a lesser known politician of the 1960s. Maurice Foley isn’t a household name like Powell but he made talking about immigration the centre of his career.
After World War II, as the number of people arriving from Britain’s nearly and newly independent colonies rose, many politicians reached for metaphors of extreme weather, disease and warfare when talking about immigration. Immigrants were linked in the public imagination to things that were the cause of anxiety and alarm.
Fallon’s remarks were reminiscent of the infamous Rivers of Blood speech made by Powell, in Birmingham in April 1968. In this widely publicised and highly controversial attack, Powell aimed to cast doubt over the capacity of immigrants to integrate into British society and thereby to reinforce calls for immigration controls. And indeed, legislation restricting further immigration was passed in 1968 and 1971.
Even at the time his words were shocking. He was dismissed from his position as shadow defence secretary, though opinion polls suggested substantial public sympathy for his views.
Powell’s speech is often quoted whenever the subject of immigration becomes sensitive. But Labour backbencher Foley is actually the more interesting and important figure in the immigration debate of the 1960s. Modern politicians could learn a lot from him.
Against the Tide
Foley was a young man marked out for great things. He was a rapidly rising and very talented MP in Harold Wilson’s government of 1964-70. Raised in an Irish working-class family, Foley was charming, quick-witted and courageous. He had impeccable trade union credentials and was strongly pro-European. He vocally opposed South African apartheid and later became an expert on African affairs.
From 1965-67 Foley was given the tricky post of under-secretary at the Home Office with “special responsibility for immigrants”. The post killed his political career. Before it did so, however, Foley spent two years travelling up and down the country talking to people about immigration.
What he said in his speeches is should be salutary for modern-day organisations, like Migration Watch, or for that matter anyone inclined to dismiss people who are in favour of immigration for simply being in denial of its more negative effects.
Foley knew there were limits to his influence in his ministerial brief. Any attempt to improve welfare provisions for immigrants would have provoked an electoral backlash, even though better housing provision was sorely needed. This young minister realised that the battle to be waged came down to rhetoric as much as policy. He declared immigration to be “one of the great questions of the age in which we live” and set about opening Britain’s eyes to the fact that it was already a multi-racial society.
Even for the era, Foley’s language was hard-hitting. He spoke of thousands of Commonwealth immigrants “herded together in ghettos”, “ignored and abandoned” in many parts of the country, not integrated into and “barely tolerated” by the rest of society. He warned of the growth of extremism.
He was among the first politicians to point out that the National Health Service would collapse without immigrants. Above all, he pleaded for a climate of common humanity based on the recognition that immigrants, while needing to accept that “there were certain ways of doing things” in Britain, should not be asked to abandon their own traditions and culture.
And whatever politicians at Westminster did or said, for Foley it was at the local level, among those who lived day-to-day with the social tensions surrounding immigration, that mutual tolerance and understanding had to be built.
Today’s politicians might look at Foley and conclude that entering the immigration debate – even with good intentions – can obliterate your political prospects. Or, more optimistically, they might see in his story a way out of their current rhetorical impasse.
Foley understood that voters were starting to doubt the liberal assumption that the longer immigrants stayed, the more likely they would be to integrate. Instead, the idea of a “threshold of safety” was beginning to take hold. Let a certain number of immigrants in and they could be absorbed by society but any more and social breakdown would likely ensue.
This idea has framed political debate about immigration ever since. Regardless of whether a “threshold of safety” does or does not exist, the very idea has tended to straitjacket all talk of immigration. Foley was staking out the ground for immigration to be discussed more broadly than a game of mere numbers.
He recognised that words matter and he chose his words very carefully when debating immigration. He saw that immigrants were invariably talked about as people who are different. In the 1960s they were commonly referred to as “strangers”. The cumulative effect of such language was to make it increasingly difficult for the host society to believe that immigrants could integrate.
He was also acutely aware of how immigrants from the so-called “new” Commonwealth – mainly the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies – were repeatedly referred to as a problem. That could be in terms of the demands they made on social welfare or the competition for jobs. It’s a theme that is regularly revisited in 2014, only now in reference to Eastern European immigrants. As Foley appreciated, language like this has the potential to consign immigrants to the role of second-class citizens and pave the way toward a more segregated society.
Foley never attained high office, though he did become a very respected backbencher, particularly for his views on African affairs. His great insight, however, was to take the debate about immigration out of Westminster and into the country and to those areas most affected by it. His aim was to bring to the surface of public life the underlying attitudes and assumptions about immigration that shaped and constrained public policy.
Having laid bare such attitudes and assumptions, Foley then sought to shift people’s thinking about how British society was changing as a result of immigration and what those changes ultimately implied.
Today we argue endlessly around the margins of precisely how many people can be absorbed into the UK and how long immigrants should have to live in the UK before they are entitled to benefits. What we don’t do is probe the premises upon which answers to those questions rest. If, as seems likely, we are set to talk more and more about immigration in the run up to next year’s election, we’re going to need a modern-day Maurice Foley.