“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” So said a slogan used by the Conservative party candidate Peter Griffiths 50 years ago.
And it worked, too. In the 1964 general election, there was a three per cent swing to Labour. In Smethwick in the West Midlands – the seat which Griffiths contested – there was a seven per cent swing recorded in favour of the Conservatives.
Such an appeal to racism could only have worked if the electorate had racist tendencies. At the time, Smethwick had the highest concentration of recent immigrants of any county borough in England. Most people did not like it. As Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the 1960s White Heat notes, in Smethwick “Most pubs excluded black drinkers from their lounge bars, and some barbers even refused to cut their hair.”
Britain has come a long way since. But there are concerns that economic uncertainty is leading to a hardening of racial attitudes.
That was the backdrop for this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey. It found a small upturn in self-reported racial prejudice, from 26 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent in 2013. The results were published a week after Ukip’s victory in the European elections; predictably, the two were linked together as evidence of a rise in British racism.
It is not a narrative that stands up to scrutiny: 38 per cent of respondents to the BSA Survey in 2011 reported to feeling racial prejudice so the figure in both the last two years has shown a significant drop. An analysis of attitudes to racial intermarriage by Rob Ford, published this week, also reveals a far more positive picture. While almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. Opposition to marriage between white people and Muslims has fallen from 66 per cent to 28 per cent among the different age groups.
It suggests a country that has become far less racist. And it is a trend that demographics may be accelerating. Only 25 per cent of those born after 1980 admit to harbouring racial prejudice, a lower percentage than all older generations.
Racial prejudice is particularly rare among the better educated. Just 19 per cent of graduates admitted to racial prejudice, compared with 38 per cent of those without qualifications; one legacy of the fabled target of sending 50 per cent of school leavers to university is to make racism less pronounced – or, at the very least, less acceptable. Unsurprisingly, graduates are also significantly more likely to hold favourable attitudes to immigration than everyone else.
None of this is to deny that fundamental racial inequalities remain in Britain today. Ethnic minorities make up 12.9 per cent of the UK population but just 4.2 per cent of MPs. In 2010, ethnic minorities were three times less likely to vote than white Britons. But even in these areas, progress is being made: groups like Operation Black Vote and TickIT are working to increase voter registration. There have never been more ethnic minority MPs.
At a time when America’s racial problems are flaring up once more, Britain’s progress, though not complete, should be a cause for celebration. After all, 2014 saw the BNP lose their representation in the European Parliament.