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“IF you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
That was the horrific obscene message pasted up all over the streets of Smethwick in October 1964.
It won Tory Peter Griffiths the seat, defeating a huge Labour majority.
Griffiths stood behind the racist message. “I would not condemn any man who said that,” he told the media during his campaign. “I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling.”
Nationally in the election, Labour took power in Westminster for the first time in 13 years with a swing from the Tories of 3.5 per cent. But in Smethwick, shadow home secretary Patrick Gordon Walker lost on a 7.2 per cent swing to the Tories.
As the defeated Walker left Smethwick town hall after the count gloating Tories catcalled after him: “Where are your niggers now, Walker?” and “Take your niggers away!”
This racist campaign shocked right-thinking Britons. New Labour prime minister Harold Wilson called on then Tory leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home to disown Griffiths. He called the racist Smethwick MP his “parliamentary leper.”
Twenty-five Tories walked out of the chamber in protest and proposed a motion deploring Wilson’s insulting language. Labour members proposed a motion criticising the prime minister for insulting lepers.
Griffiths didn’t last long. He lost his seat in 1966 and wrote a book called A Question of Colour? In it he argued that “apartheid, if it could be separated from racialism, could well be an alternative to integration.”
Black Country-born comedian Lenny Henry chose to make fun of the deeply ingrained racism of some Midlands people. When the National Front wanted to give black people £1,000 to go home, Henry said: “Fine, that would more than cover my bus fare back to Dudley.”
Smethwick was originally a Staffordshire country town but with the coming of the industrial revolution it grew and grew, eventually meeting the borders of Birmingham. Today it is part of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough.
In the 18th century the Birmingham Canal Navigations were built through Smethwick, carrying coal and goods between the nearby Black Country and Birmingham. The canals brought industry, wealth and work to the town.
Matthew Boulton and James Watt opened their Soho Foundry in the north of Smethwick.
Soon Smethwick was alive with dirty but profitable manufacturing industries.
The town built railway carriages and wagons; made screws and other fastenings at Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN); built giant mill steam engines at Tangye’s works.
They made everything from steel pen nibs and bicycle saddles to London’s famous Crystal Palace.
With industry came the arts. The Ruskin Pottery Studio, named in honour of the artist and socialist John Ruskin, was in the town, and many English churches have fine stained-glass windows made in Smethwick.
After the second world war, Smethwick attracted a large number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest group being Sikhs from the Punjab in India.
Race riots hit the town in 1962 and, like many other British cities, the problems actually caused by factory closures and a growing waiting list for council housing were often blamed on immigrants.
In 1961 the Sikh community converted the Congregational Church on the High Street in Smethwick to what is now the largest Gurdwara in Europe.
In 1968 Enoch Powell, the Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West, made his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech to the general meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham, just down the road from Smethwick.
The speech violently attacked Commonwealth immigration and anti-discrimination legislation.
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Powell’s racist rant caused a political storm, making him one of the most talked-about politicians in the country. It lost Powell his place in the shadow cabinet but undoubtedly contributed to the Conservatives’ surprise victory in the 1970 general election.
Fifty years on, what are the lessons we can learn from what happened in Smethwick in 1964?
Nigel Farage, for all his denials, is putting forward exactly the same political message that immigrants are taking jobs and housing from native-born Britons.
Sadly David Cameron and his backwoodsmen — and women too — are riffling through the political playing cards looking for the race card that has served them so well in the past.
Nick Clegg and his shrinking band and even Ed Miliband, whose dad certainly taught him better, are making suspicious noises too.
Make no mistake about it. Farage and his right-wing obsessives will make sure racism plays a major part in next year’s general election.
It up to those of us who despise these evil ideas to make sure it doesn’t play the decisive role it did in Smethwick half a century ago.
Peter Frost blogs at www.frostysramblings.wordpress.com
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