THE BLOG

What is Thatcher's Legacy to Black and Ethnic Minority People in the UK?

12/04/2013 11:27 BST | Updated 11/06/2013 10:12 BST

In the 1970s, Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) people were treated as aliens in a UK that claimed to be tolerant to immigrants and racism was overt, and largely socially acceptable. Enoch Powell's overseas recruitment policy was to bring English speaking immigrants from the Commonwealth and Pakistan, to re-build the infrastructure of post war Britain, and to staff the developing National Health Service, and welfare services. The crippling recession of the 1980s, and high unemployment, soon brought simmering resentment of white working class, poor British people who felt BAME people were taking their jobs, housing, and public services. Soon, African and Caribbean families found themselves the victims of brutal attacks at the hands of members of flourishing of political organisations, such as the National Front, formed specifically to end and reverse black immigration to the UK. The police, rampant in their use of the hated SUS law, made the situation worse.

Thatcher's stance in 1978 was to condone, and empathise with public fears around black immigration, warning that people would feel 'swamped', the British character would be lost, and that the white British public would be hostile to those coming in from the Commonwealth and Pakistan. In her interview for Granada TV, 1978, she said:

"But there was a committee which looked at it and said that 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 and, you know, 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"

Following this speech, her popularity soared, she was elected as Prime Minister the following year, and two years later, Britain's inner cities were burning. Her hardline stance on race and immigration was reflected in her contemplation of arming the police to quell rioters.

It was during her period in office that BAME people will be acutely aware of the consequences of politicians stoking up racial hatred, through use of coercive policing (and the hated Special Patrol Group will never be forgotten). She continued to maintain a position that was openly ambivalent about black immigration. Her private papers show, retrospectively, how strong her objection to BAME immigration, while feeling that white immigration would not be a problem. She wanted to prevent any Asian immigrants being given access to council housing, ahead of white people, particularly when faced with the prospect of having to house an expected influx of white Rhodesians, following the establishment of majority rule in Zimbabwe.

So, along with the trade unions, poor white working class people, mining and industrial communities in the north of England, do not forget the terrible legacy of xenophobia Thatcher bequeathed today's society and her political successors. Cameron certainly has not failed to learn her lessons.