How the British Far Right Went Mainstream

National Front march in 1970s Yorkshire, UK. Conservative Party politicians have been borrowing ideas about immigration from the far right for decades (Wikimedia Commons)

Few individuals have engaged so enthusiastically in the practice of politics-as-theater as recently resigned UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage. In his campaign for Brexit, Farage masterminded a circus of tactics. Twice he advertised his positions on large vehicles that served as a backdrop for photo opportunities. The “Vote Leave” campaign bus proclaimed “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” (the figure has been disputed, and Farage retracted the promise shortly after the result). And in June Farage was photographed pointing to a truck with a massive UKIP billboard depicting a stream of tattered and hopeless refugees, emblazoned with the slogan “Breaking Point.” The implication was clear: an apparent horde of “others” was headed for the border, and only Farage could protect the vulnerable British public. Conservative MP and fellow Leave campaigner Boris Johnson stood in front of the NHS bus, but denied any association with the “Breaking Point” poster. But the two adverts suggested that a plan for investment in social welfare appealed, at least in part, to the same demographic that responded to UKIP’s fear-mongering about immigration.

These two ideas—that times are hard, money not enough; and that leaving the EU and limiting immigration to the UK is a solution to these grievances—played a central role in the debates surrounding the Brexit referendum, both during the campaign and in its aftermath. The xenophobic tone of much of the “Leave” campaign attracted ire, and since the referendum there has been an upswing in xenophobic and racist attacks. While there is an increasing consensus that this development is among the worst consequences of both the campaign and its result, part of the reaction to these events is an underlying assumption that extreme intolerance of immigrants is a new trend. In fact, the referendum campaign was a rehearsal of long-standing political trends, and in particular a flirtation between the Conservative Party and members of the far right that began decades ago.

In the 1960s and 1970s popular concern about immigration had nothing to do with Europe. Instead of Polish workers and refugees, right-wing politicians and activists pointed to Commonwealth immigration; specifically, immigrants from the so-called New Commonwealth, those countries outside the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (South Africa was also occasionally included in this group). An unofficial historical policy of open borders was legally entrenched in 1948, when the British Nationality Act entitled anyone born in the countries that would later become the Commonwealth to settle and work in the United Kingdom. In the context of growing postwar affluence, many relocated from the Caribbean and South Asia to take up employment and offer greater opportunities to their families. As early as 1955, however, rumblings of opposition to the open-door policy manifested in the first effort to restrict non-white Commonwealth immigration, led by Conservative MP Cyril Osborne. The first successful piece of legislation to control New Commonwealth immigration was implemented in 1962 under Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

A period of increasingly restrictive legislation was introduced in concert with a growing popular political campaign supporting restrictions. Indeed, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are not the first Conservatives to fall into bed with the far right. Organizations like the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, the Yorkshire Campaign to Stop Immigration, and even the National Front included members who also served as Conservative councillors in the 1960s and 1970s. Standing Conservative MPs were feted by these organizations: the notorious Enoch Powell, whose incendiary 1968 speech on immigration got him sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath (in part for its references to immigrants as “wide-grinning piccaninnies” and claims that increased immigration would force deserving Britons out of their own homes), was hailed as a hero by the far right. Smethwick MP Peter Griffiths, whose 1964 campaign for parliament was distinguished by its use of the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” was closely associated with the Birmingham Immigration Control Association. The Conservative Party leadership condemned Powell and Griffiths for their rhetorical fireworks, but after 1962 worked tirelessly to implement restrictions on immigration. Indeed, having fired Powell, Edward Heath was responsible for the 1971 Immigration Act, which effectively slammed the door shut on primary migration (men seeking work and settlement, as opposed to their dependents) from the New Commonwealth.

At the base of this policy-making trajectory, which specifically targeted immigrants from the New Commonwealth from 1962 until the introduction of new citizenship legislation under the 1981 British Nationality Act, was an assumption shared by both Conservatives and members of the far right: immigration was expensive, a burden on the welfare state, damaging to the British national character, and generally undesirable. The Conservatives may have condemned the more explicit language used by far-right parties, but in no respect did they disagree that immigration was a malevolent force that had unwittingly been unleashed upon their nation. Unlike the Labour and Liberal parties, the Conservatives did not make substantive moves to disprove (and indeed, they often encouraged) rumors that pressures on housing stocks, a shortage of hospital beds, and oversubscribed primary schools were caused by immigrants and immigrants alone.

Support for these ideas and the campaigns that emerged from them came partly from the working class, but also from the lower middle class: individuals who felt they had been led to expect one thing from their leaders—a certain way of life in an era of postwar affluence—and instead had been presented with a betrayal of the social contract. In the aftermath of the Second World War, many Britons interpreted their wartime sacrifices as the cost of membership in the British nation, and in particular the price paid for access to the resources of the new welfare state. Concerns about the capacity of the state to actually fund and provide those services remained a theme through the second half of the twentieth century. Members of the middle class often led these campaigns, in part because they had more time, resources, and power. Mistrust of experts was widespread: Michael Gove has not innovated on that score. Endless debates unfolded about the magic number of immigrants that could be supported by the British economy without causing the wholesale collapse of welfare services, and without destroying the social fabric. Enoch Powell emerged as a leader in this debate, engaging in long exchanges with the employees of the Central Statistical Office and other state organs about the ways in which immigration-related data was compiled and interpreted. The numbers forwarded by both the right and the far right dropped ever lower.

The assumption that immigration was linked to social and economic grievances, and that containing it would resolve those grievances, was articulated most stridently by the far right, but the Conservatives did not disown it, and indeed it underpinned the vast majority of the party’s policy-making on immigration from the 1950s through the Thatcher era. In a present-day parallel, David Cameron may not have endorsed the view that leaving the EU would help stem the flow of immigration, but he did promise to reduce net immigration numbers to tens of thousands a year—a number not achieved at any point since record-keeping began in the postwar period. Under Cameron’s leadership, Home Secretary Theresa May introduced ever-more restrictive immigration policies designed to prevent the arrival of individuals who earned less than a middle-class salary, and to deport those who had lived in the country for more than five years if they failed to reach that fiscal target. Cameron’s referendum campaign promise that he could deal with immigration in the context of the EU was in no way a rejection of the assumption that immigration lay at the root of Britain’s problems, only an assertion that he would find another way of slamming the door shut.

The Conservative view on immigration remained unchanged for virtually the whole of the postwar period. Throughout these decades the Conservatives have also held fast to a particular vision of the immigrant. While the Conservatives made moves in the late 1970s to expand their voter base into non-white communities, they did so by appealing to immigrants and their children who had decisively assimilated into British society and culture. The famed 1983 campaign poster depicting a black man wearing a suit accompanied by the slogan “Labour Says He’s Black. Tories Say He’s British” exemplifies their attitude towards race through the close of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In the view of the Conservative Party, immigrants are desirable so long as they are virtually indistinguishable from Conservative supporters. Most essentially, they are desirable so long as they do not question the fundamental values that underpin Conservative policies.

While the demographics of immigration have changed, the exclusive nature of Conservative thinking about immigrants has not. Immigrants are now less likely to be men and women of color, but rather EU migrants from Eastern Europe. The intolerance they face, then, is less likely to be overt racism than xenophobia. The language that is used to express this intolerance, however, is often the same, and is most crucially used to designate “in” groups that are deserving of membership in the British community, and “out” groups that are not. In keeping with twentieth-century trends that view the ideal immigrant as the ideal Conservative, in the twenty-first century the party has adopted policies that privilege wealthy migrants over minimum wage earners. The ideal immigrant in Conservative minds is a highly educated individual who works in the City, spends heavily in the capital, and then transfers abroad, having spent their required five years for promotion in the London headquarters. Anyone who does not meet this description is an “undesirable” immigrant: teachers, nurses, laborers, hospital orderlies, cleaners, and service employees. It’s a set of selection criteria that fits into the Conservatives’ vision for the kind of country the UK should be; it may be a different, less overtly xenophobic metric of exclusion than that advocated for by UKIP, but it is exclusion nonetheless. At no point, then, did the Remain Conservatives (particularly Cameron and Theresa May) have the moral high ground over Farage and his supporters. On the issue of immigration control, the distinction between Remain Conservatives and Leave far rightists was not “whether” but “how.”

While the Liberal Party remained firmly opposed to immigration controls throughout the twentieth century, the Labour Party was increasingly divided on this question through the second half of the century. Members of the party leadership often advocated for open borders, while the membership tended to advocate for restrictions, particularly to industrial areas where skilled manufacturing jobs were increasingly scarce. After 1965 Labour consistently supported immigration controls, forming a consensus with the Conservatives. However, prior to the 1980s the Conservatives were also in consensus with Labour on a number of other issues, namely full employment and comprehensive funding for the welfare state. While the Labour Party continued to support some degree of immigration controls, the Conservatives scaled back their support for the welfare state. Labour accepted control of immigration as part of the price of a fully funded welfare state. The chief difference between Labour and the Conservatives by the time Thatcher came to power was the extent to which they supported the more dramatic rhetoric of the far right, and endorsed more explicit expressions of xenophobia or racism; and the extent to which they continued to view the welfare state as a worthwhile investment. In more recent years, Ed Miliband strongly supported immigration controls. Current leader Jeremy Corbyn marked a change in leadership by advocating for open borders. In the wake of the referendum he has stated that the party’s new approach would be to target additional government funding to areas of high immigration.

The Conservatives are now strongly divided, victims of their own design. They created the conditions that persuaded more than half the voting public that something (perhaps anything) had to change, and they now struggle to figure out what, exactly, that change is meant to look like. However, Labour too is falling victim to an atmosphere of crisis. Widespread cynicism about the men and women of Westminster is certainly no new phenomenon, but during the course of the referendum it became clear that such cynicism now operated in a context in which voters appeared to be presented with a shockingly narrow range of choice. Either they could stick with the status quo, with the Remain campaign struggling to explain how exactly staying in the EU would resolve their grievances, or leave entirely, with Leave promising that ending membership would be the silver bullet solution to all the country’s problems.

Members of the left who have been attempting to combat anti-immigration sentiment emphasize that criticisms of immigration are not legitimate, since such criticisms are premised upon racism and a misunderstanding of the effect immigration has upon the British economy and society. If the left wants to win this argument, however, they must contend with the success anti-immigrationists have experienced in linking their illegitimate complaints about immigration to legitimate complaints about welfare services and state spending. By accepting the far-right connection between immigration and social and economic grievance, the Conservatives have already made that link seem reasonable and politically acceptable. To date Labour has effectively done the same thing: they have developed a wholly negative line that rejects xenophobia and racism, but which does not effectively counter the right’s claim that immigrants are to blame for social and economic grievances, and the continued support for immigration controls within certain wings of the party feeds into this perception.

A strategy to address this needs to be two-pronged: a vehement denial of the assumption that immigration is indeed the cause of those grievances, along with a comprehensive strategy to address the ongoing existence of racism in the UK; but also a very strong positive campaign about the underlying causes of those grievances, i.e. systematic underfunding by successive governments over a period of several decades, and a thorough platform to address them. Such a platform might include something like John McDonnell’s anti-austerity economic program, or some alternative set of policies, but it must in any case be both thorough and decisive. If the left does not develop such a positive program, one that genuinely addresses the social and economic issues that have so poisonously been connected with immigration, they will continue to enable the far right to claim that politicians don’t care about “ordinary” people. This is a feat that has not yet been accomplished by the Labour Party in the postwar period: the historical model against immigration control is, in fact, the Liberal Party, which throughout the second half of the twentieth century served as the only party to adhere consistently to a principled immigration policy of open borders, and to resist any attempts to draw a rhetorical connection between immigration and socioeconomic grievance. Whether the chiefly rhetorical tactics adopted by the Liberals during their period in third-party exile can be adapted to opposition or government status is a real issue. Furthermore, the mid-century social contract was based on cross-class solidarity; the left must find a way to rewrite that social contract to include racial and ethnic solidarity as well.

This is a political space that the left can, and ought, to seize back from the far right. The far right has laid rhetorical claim to social democratic policies and has collapsed thinking about those policies with the exclusionary mindset that underpins xenophobic immigration policies. The left’s job is to unpick this connection. If one of the primary concerns of those who voted Leave is the collapse of the social contract, then the strongest move by the left would be a comprehensive plan to rebuild it.


Nicole Longpré is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria, Canada. She received her PhD in history from Columbia University in 2016; her doctoral dissertation is entitled “Anti-Immigrationism and Conservatism in Britain, 1955-1981.”

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