Labour History Review

Racism and the working class: strikes in support of Enoch Powell in 1968

Labour History Review (2001), 66, (1), 79–100.


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The Times, 22 April 1968 Google Scholar

S. Heffer, Like the Roman. The Life of Enoch Powell, London, 1998, p. 444 and ff.; R Foot, The Rise of Enoch Powell. An Examination of Enoch Powell's Attitude to Immigration and Race, Harmondsworth, 1969, pp. 108-12 Like the Roman. The Life of Enoch Powell 444 Google Scholar

P. Fryer, Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain, London, 1984, p. 384; A. Sivanandan, ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain’, Race and Class, XXIII, 2/3, 1981/82, pp. 51-2. David Wilson's account in Dockers, 1972, p. 54, is brief and concerned only to argue that the demonstration by some dockers illustrates the closed nature of their mentalities. Jim Phillips also makes on a passing reference to the events in his ‘Decasualisation and Disruption: Industrial Relations in the Docks, 1945-1979’, in C. Wrigley (ed.), A History of British Industrial Relations: Industrial Relations in a Declining Economy, Cheltenham, 1996, p. 180. The reference is to F. Lindop, ‘Unofficial Militancy in the Royal Group of Docks 1945-1967’, Oral History, 11, 2, 1983, pp. 21-33 Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain 384 Google Scholar

K. Lunn, ‘Trade Unions, Race and Immigration, 1945-79’, in A. Campbell, N. Fishman and J. McIlroy (eds), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol. 2: the High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Aldershot, 1999, pp. 70-92 British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol. 2: the High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 70 92 Google Scholar

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Foot, The Rise of Enoch Powell, pp. 108-112. The Kenyan government carried through a policy of ‘Kenyanisation’ after independence in 1962, making it increasingly difficult for Asian residents to continue to work in commercial, governmental and skilled employment. Most of the Asians were descendants of Indian workers taken to East Africa by the British government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of them had opted for British citizenship when Kenya was granted independence, and they had begun to exercise their option to move to Britain in increasing numbers in the second half of 1967 Google Scholar

C. Holmes, A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities in Britain, London, 1984, pp. 55-6; Fryer, Staying Power, pp. 372-6; P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, Harmondsworth, 1965, pp. 124 and ff A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities in Britain 55 6 Google Scholar

J. Solomos, Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain, London, 1989, pp. 51-2: R. Moore and T. Wallace, Slamming the Door, London, 1975, pp. 1-3 Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain 51 2 Google Scholar

Solomos, Race and Racism, pp. 52-5; Moore and Wallace, Slamming the Door, p. 3; Holmes, A Tolerant Country?, p. 56 Google Scholar

Robert Moore rather sharply sums up this approach in the phrase: ‘A colour bar is good for race relations’ (Moore and Wallace, Slamming the Door, p. 3) Google Scholar

M. Duffield, ‘Rationalisation and the Politics of Segregation. Indian Workers in Britain's Foundry Industry 1945-62’, Immigrants and Minorities, 2, 1985, pp. 142-72; A. Sivanandan, ‘From resistance to rebellion’, pp. 121-44 passim; C. Davison and P. Finch, What Happened at Woolf's. The Story of the Southall Strike, London, n.d. [c.1966] ‘Rationalisation and the Politics of Segregation. Indian Workers in Britain's Foundry Industry 1945-62’ Immigrants and Minorities 2 142 72 Google Scholar

S. Patterson, Immigration and Race Relations in Britain 1960-67, London, 1969, p. 173; Duffield, ‘Rationalisation’, pp. 160-3 Immigration and Race Relations in Britain 1960-67 173 Google Scholar

Solomos, Race and Racism, p. 4. Under the new law, any citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, who was a holder of a passport issued by the British government, was subject to immigration controls unless he or she, or at least one grandparent, was born, adopted, naturalised or registered as a citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies in the UK. The government was still hiding the racist character of its controls behind formal legal language, but the meaning was absolutely clear. Only a handful of MPs opposed the legislation (A. Phizacklea and R. Miles, Labour and Racism, London, 1980, p. 176) Google Scholar

Solomos, Race and Racism, pp. 56-7 Google Scholar

The Opposition submitted a ‘reasoned amendment’ to the Race Relations Bill (Heffer, Enoch Powell, p. 446). One of the leading liberal Tory MPs, Humphrey Berkeley, resigned from the Party on April 18 in opposition to the leadership's stance (The Times, 19 April 1968). Berkeley pressed the Cabinet to prosecute Powell after the speech, as did several Labour MPs and numerous immigrant, trade union and Labour groups. Correspondence between legal officers, the Prime Minister's office and the Home Office shows that the government was very anxious to avoid any provocation of ‘public opinion’ on the matter (Public Record Office (PRO) PREM 13/2315) Google Scholar

Heffer, Enoch Powell, pp. 446-50 Google Scholar

Newspaper reports of public opinion surveys indicate that this was the issue most focused upon. Analysis of Powell's own postbag (some 100,000 letters in the week following the Walsall speech) showed that ‘liberty’ was second only to fears for British culture in the reasons given by correspondents for their support of Powell (D Spearman, ‘Enoch Powell's Postbag’, New Society, 9 May 1968). My thanks to Andy Wilson for drawing my attention to this reference Google Scholar

On the day after Powell's speech, a meeting of 700 members of a Wolverhampton working men's club voted unanimously (according to its chairman) to continue its ten-year old ban on black people joining the club, or entering it as guests or as entertainers (The Times, 22 April 1968). But New Society, 2 May 1968, reported an opinion survey taken after Powell's speech which indicates a more or less even split of opinion for and against the Race Relations Act, although that did represent a shift from earlier surveys which showed clear majorities in favour of legislation against discrimination Google Scholar

This conclusion is based on a survey of The Times and a selection of the provincial press: Birmingham Post, Nottingham Evening Post, Leicester Mercury, Bristol Evening Post, Yorkshire Post, Northern Echo, Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Post, Sheffield Telegraph, Glasgow Herald, Western Daily Press Google Scholar

Birmingham Post, 23 April 1968 Google Scholar

The Times, 26 April 1968 Google Scholar

The Times and Birmingham Post, 23 April 1968, reported the example of the Eaton, Yale and Towne factory, involving more than 500 workers. There are other reports indicating a similar response by union officials. It is not always clear from reports whether a factory gate meeting involved a token stoppage Google Scholar

The Times, 24 April 1968; Department of Employment Gazette, June 1968. Under the terms of the National Dock Labour Scheme (1946) only dockworkers who were registered with the National Dock Labour Board were permitted to do dockwork in ports which were registered under the Act (M. Jackson, Industrial Relations on the Docks, Farnborough, 1975, p. 36) Google Scholar

The Times, 25 April 1968 Google Scholar

The Times, 26, 27 April 1968 Google Scholar

The Times, 27 April 1968 Google Scholar

Specifically political strikes were not entirely unknown in the period: in May 1962, there was a short stoppage in support of the nurses' pay claim in the Royal group of Docks. Dash points out that the Tory Minister of Health was Enoch Powell. A one-hour stoppage was agreed at a mass meeting and took place: ‘the press took very little notice of this action. What a contrast to the hullabaloo they set up years later when a small minority of dockworkers walked out in a blaze of publicity for Enoch Powell's racist policies’ (J Dash, Good Morning Brothers, London, 1970, pp. 113-14) Google Scholar

Clegg and other writers point out that the pattern of causes varied between industries, but that disputes specifically about money issues rarely accounted for more than 50 per cent of the overall total. The remainder were related to the ‘effort bargain’ - the pace of work, the use of new techniques and technology, to the working of the negotiating process, management ‘prerogatives and the rights of shop stewards (H. Clegg, The System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain, Oxford, 1972, pp. 319-28; R. Hyman, Strikes, London, 1989, pp. 120-2, 156-7) The System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain 319 28 Google Scholar

D. Lyddon, ‘The Car Industry’, in Wrigley (ed.), Industrial Relations, pp. 189, 194-5, 202 Google Scholar

M. Moran, The Politics of Industrial Relations, London, 1977; A Troup, ‘The Mobilisation of and the Response to Political Protest Strikes 1969-75’, PhD, CNAA, 1985 The Politics of Industrial Relations Google Scholar

The Times, 23 April 1968 and ff Google Scholar

The Times, 25 April 1968 Google Scholar

Phizacklea and Miles, Labour and Racism, 1980, p. 174 Google Scholar

The Times, 27 April 1968 Google Scholar

New Society, 2 May 1968 Google Scholar

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A working committee of Members of Parliament and university economists, Beyond the Freeze. A socialist policy for economic growth, London, 1966 Google Scholar

Department of Employment Gazette, April 1968 Google Scholar

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The Devlin Scheme provided for the decasualisation of dock labour and was implemented in two stages, from 1967 and 1970 (Wilson, Dockers, chapters 9, 11 and 12; Jackson, Industrial Relations, chapter 4). Dockers' wages rose considerably faster than the average for manual wages and very much faster than the rate of inflation (Wilson, Dockers, p. 297). There is an interesting article in Black Dwarf a month after the strikes (22 May 1968) by Hilary Rose and Chris Downes which is based in part on interviews with some dockers in Wapping. The authors conclude that the strikes were at root about the defence of a traditional working-class community. My thanks to Andy Wilson for this reference Google Scholar

Wilson, Dockers, p. 189; interviews with Colin Ross, Michael Fenn, Vic Turner and several others (MRC MSS/371/QD7/Docks/1 & 2) Google Scholar

Wilson, Dockers, pp. 53-4; J. Goldthorpe and D. Lockwood, ‘Affluence and the British Class Structure’, Sociological Review, 11, 1963, pp. 133-63 Google Scholar

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T. Kushner, ‘Jew and Non-Jew in the East End of London: Towards and Anthropology of "Everyday" Relations’, in G. Alderman and C. Holmes (eds), Outsiders and Outcasts. Essays in Honour of William J. Fishman, London, 1993, pp. 43-5 Outsiders and Outcasts. Essays in Honour of William J. Fishman 43 5 Google Scholar

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D. Frost, ‘Racism, Work and Unemployment: West African Seamen in Liverpool 1880s-1960s’, in D. Frost (ed.), Ethnic Labour and British Imperial Trade. A History of Ethnic Seafarers in the UK, London, 1995, pp. 22-34 Ethnic Labour and British Imperial Trade. A History of Ethnic Seafarers in the UK 22 34 Google Scholar

P. Turnbull, C. Woolfson and J. Kelly, with B. Duffy and B. Smith, Dock Strike: Conflict and Restructuring in Britain's Ports, Aldershot, 1993, pp. 21-2 and Jackson, Industrial Relations, p. 131 give strike statistics for the ports and other major industries. Typically most of these strikes were unofficial. On unionism in the ports in the post-war decades, see Phillips, ‘Decasualisation and Disruption’, pp. 165-85 Dock Strike: Conflict and Restructuring in Britain's Ports 21 2 Google Scholar

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P. Turnbull, J. Morris and D. Sapsford, ‘Persistent Militants and Quiescent Comrades: Intra-industry Strike Activity on the Docks, 1947-89’, Sociological Review, 44, 4, 1996, pp. 692-727 ‘Persistent Militants and Quiescent Comrades: Intra-industry Strike Activity on the Docks, 1947-89’ Sociological Review 44 692 727 Google Scholar

Duffield, ‘Rationalisation, pp. 165-8; Patterson, Immigration and Race Relations, p. 163 Google Scholar

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The numbers of black workers increased dramatically in many Midlands car factories in the early 1970s, but cases of organised discrimination against black workers were still being reported to the Commission for Racial Equality in the late seventies and early eighties. The Industrial Relations Legal Information Bulletin (IRLIB) 196, November 1981, records a case arising from the refusal by fitters in the Machine Tool shop at BL Castle Bromwich (led by two AUEW stewards) to accept the employment of a Caribbean fitter who held a union card. Similar discrimination existed in some other BL plants and at Massey Ferguson (IRLIB 225, January 1983). My thanks to Dave Lyddon at the Centre for Industrial Relations, Keele University, for these references Google Scholar

The Times, 24 April 1968 Google Scholar

I have relied on accounts of the demonstration in the press (The Times, Morning Star, 27 April 1968) and on the accounts of interviewees Google Scholar

The Times, 27 April 1968 Google Scholar

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The Times, 25 April 1968. Frank Cousins, General Secretary of the TGWU (to which most dockers belonged), ‘reminded the General Council that before the war it was the dockers who demonstrated against the Blackshirts’ Google Scholar

R. Miles and A. Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-73, Bristol, 1977, pp. 17-20 The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-73 17 20 Google Scholar

Patterson, Immigration and Race Relations and Duffield, ‘Rationalisation’ deal with these issues at some length Google Scholar

Miles and Phizacklea, The TUC, p. 25 Google Scholar

Notes of a meeting held at the Home Office on 19 June 1967 (PRO/LAB 43/468). The quotation is from the contribution of George Lowthian of the Building Workers Union. See also Report of the 100th Trades Union Congress, 1968, pp. 298-9 Google Scholar

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Brian Nicholson, a leading member of the No. 1 Docks group committee (and a future president of the TGWU) wrote a letter to the press which was printed in The Times and the Morning Star on the Saturday following the strikes (27 April 1968). Nicholson stated the Union's strong opposition to racism, but accepted the need for immigration controls Google Scholar

The Finance and General Purposes Committee of the TGWU endorsed the General Secretary's action in issuing a public statement condemning Powell (2 May 1968). But there was no discussion of the issue at the General Executive Council later in the month (27-29 May) (MRC.126/T&G/1/1/50); nor in the Union newspaper, the TGWU Record. There is no reference to the issue in the minutes of the NASD Executive, or the committees of the dockers' and stevedores sections (MRC: NMLH/SD/08/01/007) Google Scholar

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Interview with Harry Brown. Both resolutions were circulated to lay officers and stewards. But there was a partial strike in Tooley Street on Thursday 25 April. At the TGWU regional committee on May 1, a resolution in similar terms to Nicholson's letter to the press was passed (TGWU region number 1 committee, minutes 1 May 1968; Morning Star, 2 May 1968) Google Scholar

Security Service report 24 April 1968 (PRO/PREM 13/3215); The Times, 24 April 1968 Google Scholar

For the continuity rule, see Wilson, Dockers, p. 189. The strike leaders attracted a similar level of vituperative comment from the press and government (and additionally their own union leaders) as the seamen's strike leaders in 1966 Google Scholar

For a recent discussion, see J. McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Polities’, in Campbell et al. (eds), British Trade Unions, Vol. 2, pp. 216-58 Google Scholar

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The Times, 26 April 1968. The best known CP member in the Royal docks, Jack Dash, was (as stated in note 24) on sick leave during the week of strikes, and hence unable to speak outside his own place of work. Whether his presence would have made a decisive difference is impossible to answer: certainly no one else in the committee had his populist flair Google Scholar

Interview with Colin Ross. The Times, 26 April 1968, reported Harry Pennington, the main speaker at the meeting, as saying, ‘Bring your wives and friends. This isn't a dock issue. We want to stop all immigration, whether they be coloured or from the Commonwealth.’ Google Scholar

The liaison committee had flourished episodically in the two decades before decasualisation of dockwork in 1967, when the unions and the employers had refused to accept the need for shop stewards. There were similar committees in other major ports. The committee survived in the Royal docks until the autumn of 1968, because union officers and lay committees refused to allow communists to stand for election under the TGWU rule banning them from holding union office. The rule was abolished at the rules revision conference in July 1968 (G. Goodman, The Awkward Warrior. Frank Cousins: His Life and Times, Nottingham, 1984, pp. 561-65; F. Lindop, ‘The Dockers and the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, Part 1: Shop Stewards and Containerisation’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 5, 1998, p. 38, n5) Google Scholar

Wilson, Dockers, p. 54, quotes from the leaflet: ‘We must keep our eye on the ball. The Tory attempt to lay a false trail should deceive nobody - least of all dockers who have suffered so much at the hands of these scoundrels’. The leaflet was produced with the assistance of the CP full-time worker who had responsibility for party work in the London docks (interviews with Michael Fenn, Eddie Prevost). At Tilbury, where there was not a strike, some supporters of the International Students/Socialist Workers Party (two dockers and a few students) gave out a leaflet which broadly followed the argument of the Liaison Committee's leaflet in attacking Powell and Government policies, but also argued that immigration controls were racist and diversionary (interviews with Bob Light, Frank Shilling) Google Scholar

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Interview with Freddie Rolfe. The reference to ‘Black Friday’ relates to the day (15 April 1921) when the two transport union partners in the Triple Alliance (the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers Federation) failed to support the Mineworkers Federation, whose members were facing a wage cut and the loss of national bargaining (H. Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism, Harmondsworth, 1987, pp. 154-5). On the unofficial continuity strike in autumn 1967, see Wilson, Dockers, p. 189 Google Scholar

The Times, 25 April 1968 Google Scholar

The Times, 30 April 1968 Google Scholar

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Author details

Lindop, Fred