An eclipse of policy spheres: revisiting race relations and integration in Britain’s ‘liberal hour’

Britain’s Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968 are widely recognised as major triumphs within the period known as the ‘liberal hour’.[1] The heroic role of the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, the collective efforts of ‘race activists’ in advancing the second round of legislation, and the inspiration of the North American example have all made for enthralling storytelling both then and now.[2] Looking back dispassionately, the significance of the ‘liberal hour’ goes way beyond the legislation it produced: it set in motion new ways of thinking about race and British society and is central to understanding migrant integration policy in the U.K today. But with integration-focused hindsight, it seems to me that we shouldn’t conflate these two policy spheres – race relations and migrant integration – especially at their outset. In the 1960s the emerging race relations policy sphere actually dominated and limited a complex yet promising integration discourse in British policymaking – with long term consequences.

The first Race Relations Act ─ passed in May 1965 – focused on expressive racism and access racism in public places (e.g. hotels and pubs) and established a Race Relations Board (RRB) to set up conciliation committees to deal with complaints or, should that fail, refer them to civil courts.[3] Although a victory for the new Labour government ─ which had promised to legislate on race should it win government ─ and a milestone in legislative terms, it was seen by the new Race Relations Board, race activists and, critically, by Jenkins the new Home Secretary, as deplorably inadequate.[4] However, between 1965 and 1967 there was no evidence that would suggest any new or tightened legislation: the Labour party had already fulfilled its promise to legislate, polls showed that a majority – albeit a thin one ─ of the public did not wish to see legislation extend to housing and employment, Parliament was unenthusiastic, and crucially ─ the ministers of housing and employment were sceptical or downright opposed.[5] This did not, however, daunt those who supported further legislation: the RRB, the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI), campaigning organisations (such as CARD), ethnic minority activists and policy experts ralled together for another campaign.

From early 1966 Jenkins and  the ‘race activists’ embarked on what Erik Bleich identifies as a three-pronged strategy to bring race relations legislation back onto the political agenda. The first prong involved convincing as wide an audience as possible that race relations legislation was necessary. They did this by warning the public that racial tension would be sure to bring about social disorder. Legislation was necessary – went this line of argument – to avoid social unrest brought about by discriminatory practices. In this formulation, race issues in the U.S were frequently drawn upon as a frame of reference ─ the lesson being that Britain best learn from America’s mistakes, or bear the consequences of public disorder.[6] A related strategy involved an effort to prove that racial discrimination was a major problem in British society, and was indeed, pervasive – this was primarily achieved through well publicised research. The third strategy was specifically related to the means by which to solve the ‘problem’: the campaigners highlighted both the value of the current legislation and its weakness, and pointed to the efficacy of strengthened legislation as a solution to ‘race issues’, (somewhat ironically) pointing to U.S civil rights legislation by way of example.[7] With strong allies in government, close links with the press and a membership spread across government institutions, universities and non-government organisations, the campaign was well-positioned for success, and culminated in the 1968 Race Relations Act. While the Act is highly significant in itself, the development, diffusion and political success of a race relations policy sphere was enormously influential – especially in its knowledge producing role.

The push for race relations legislation involved its protagonists in ‘meaning construction’ similar to social movement scholars David Snow and Robert Benford’s ‘collective action framing’.[8] A collective action frame sees its leaders (Snow and Benford call them ‘movement entrepreneurs’): ‘inscribing grievance in frames that identify an injustice, attribute the responsibility for it, and propose solutions to it’. Adapting Goffman’s concept of ‘framing’, Snow and Benford argue that social movements must develop an ‘injustice frame’ in order to be successful. An ‘injustice frame’ both identifies the existing form of suffering and proposes the ‘remedy by which this suffering stands morally condemned’.[9] Race relations legislation campaigners used North America as a ready-made injustice frame, interpreting race issues in Britain as corresponding to the United States.[10] As the Race Relations Board explained in what would become a familiar warning: ‘Nor should we neglect the experience of others, and in particular the U.S.A., which indicates quite clearly that, where colour is an element , race relations if left to themselves to deteriorate, that inertia and inaction in this field solve no problems and merely create greater problems in the future.’[11] The effectiveness of this framing process in gaining support for race relations legislation is impressive and well documented, but how did this interact with an emerging and highly complex discourse on integrating migrants into British society?

For Bleich, who explores the legislation campaign in detail and whose focus is race policies, the race relations policy sphere complemented the policy spheres of immigration and integration. Bleich concludes that by 1968: ‘British race policies were no longer simply dictated by concerns about immigration and integration …race relations had emerged as a policy sphere in its own right’.[12] When looking out from the perspective of the integration-focused politicians, activists and community workers, however, race relations seems to have eclipsed rather than complemented the integration policy sphere. This corresponds with James Hampshire’s observation that: ‘The race relations paradigm was in its early years at least, Britain’s version of an immigrant integration policy.’[13] This is not to diminish the significance of the race relations paradigm. Rather, it suggest that the efforts of integration supporters (both within and outside of government) to develop a complex understanding of the challenges of diversity brought about by immigration were nudged into the background as the attraction of the race relations campaign proved irresistable. How could they know that the race relations paradigm, with its relatively narrow vision and concentration on a specific solution, would skim over more complex issues and ‘wider questions about the nature and shape of a multi-racial society’?[4]

Take the integration-focused, government appointed National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI) for example: their commissioned books, conferences and training courses comprise a significant research output ─ especially considering the Committee’s short life. Looking at these publications and records now, one can see how broadly the group interpreted integration issues. The NCCI set up advisory panels on specific subjects, drawing in leading experts on ‘advisory panels’ including: housing, education, health, employment and children’s problems, later they were joined by a legal and welfare panel and a public relations and information panel  − there was also talk of setting up a multi-faith panel and one dealing specifically with the Committee’s relationships with migrant communities.

The NCCI also made efforts to make its research available to the public and especially through its network of Voluntary Liason Committees (VLCs). This included commissioning films, seminars and producing pamphlets. The range of pamphlets published by the NCCI −all written by experts or professionals from relevant fields − indicates the breadth of their understanding of integration issues: The Health and Welfare of the Immigrant Child, The Psychology of Racial Prejudice, Survey of Four Local London Newspapers (monitoring reporting of ethnic minorities in the press), Research and the Teaching of Immigrant Children, The Indian Family in Britain, The Pakistani Family in Britain, The Housing of Commonwealth Immigrants, Public Health Aspects of Immigration, The Education of West Indian Children and Young Englanders  (a pamphlet on the challenges faced by migrant children in multicultural classroom by Stuart Hall). In these publications, and in the issues and concerns discussed in meetings of the NCCI and its panels between 1964 and 1966 the emphasis is – broadly speaking – on two aspects of migrant integration i) cultural difference between immigrant and hosts – and indeed between immigrants groups themselves (e.g. in the above pamphlets Pakistani, Indian and West Indian groups are carefully distinguished in all aspects of family life) and ii) social deprivation as an explanation for racial tensions. The latter  aspect is well-illustrated in a letter from the Secretary, Nadine Peppard, to the Chair in December 1965, commenting on so-called racial tension in the U.S Peppard argued that: ‘the social explosion is literally a social one and not a racial one and indicates the need to prevent any one group from declining into second class citizenship through no fault of their own.’[15]

According to Heineman’s 1972 study of CARD, between 1965 and 1968 ‘the gap between objective research and policy-orientated research began to widen’.[16] Referring to the campaign for race relations legislation he argues that ‘The information that was sought by the growing body of race professionals was to substantiate an opinion or policy already entered into rather than to open up an enquiry objectively’.[17] This too could be said of the later work of the NCCI: they collaborated or co-sponsored the two major research reports on the extent of racial discrimination in the U.K (the ‘PEP Report’) and the review of anti-discrimination known as the Street Report – taking their focus away from their previous research activities and pouring their energies into the campaign for race relations legislation described above. This significant change in research output reflects an ideational shift in integration discourse: the complex and fragile integration policy frame – one that emphasised cultural differences, social complexity and inequalities – was eclipsed by the policy-driven race relations frame. For U.K. integration policy, this eclipse would cast a very long shadow indeed.


[1] Ben-Tovim, Gideon and John Gabriel (1982) ‘The Politics of Race in Britain, 1962-79: a review of the major trends and recent debates’, pp. 144-171 in C. Husbands (ed.)“Race” in Britain: Continuity and Change, London: Hutchinson, p. 38.

[2] See Bleich, Erik (2003) Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policy Making Since the 1960s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Banton, M. (1985) Promoting Racial Harmony, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;  Deakin, Nicholas (1970) Colour, Citizenship and British Society: An Abridged and Updated Version of the Famous Report, London: Panther Books; and Ben-Tovim and John Gabriel,for example.

[3] Bleich, Race Politics in Britain and France, p. 59.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid. p. 68

[6] Bleich, Race Politics in Britain and France, pp. 70-80.

[7] ibid.

[8] Snow, David, and Robert D. Benford (1992) ‘Master Frames and Cycles of Protest’, in Aldon Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller (eds) Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, New Haven: Yale University Press

[9] ibid.

[10] Bleich, Race Politics in Britain and France, p. 73.

[11] Race Relations Board (1967) Report of the Race Relations Board for 1966-67, London: HMSO, p. 21.

[12] Bleich, Race Politics in Britain and France, pp. 84-85.

[13] Hampshire, James (2009) ‘Race’, pp. 629-645 in Matthew Flinders, Andrew Gamble, Colin Hay, and Michael Kenny (eds) The Oxford Handbook of British Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 634.

[14] See for example Banton and Ben-Tovim and Gabriel, for a contemporary perspective see Deakin.

[15] TNA HO231/23 NCCI: Correspondence with Chairman, Letter from Nadine Peppard to the Chair, undated December 1965.

[16] Henineman, Benjamin W, Jr. (1972) The Politics of the Powerless: A Study of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, p. 13.

[17] ibid.

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