It is a coincidence that as a member of the House of Lords my title carries the word “Windrush” – it refers to a village, river and valley in the Cotswolds, not to the ship whose cargo began the era of immigration to the UK. But I like the coincidence, because the Empire Windrush is synonymous with the opening up of Britain.
The arrival of the Windrush started a process that would change the UK forever. The proportion of the UK population that isn’t white, just 0.2 per cent in 1951, had reached 13 per cent by the last census in 2011; from one in 500, to more than one in eight. In the seven decades since 492 Jamaicans and Trinidadians disembarked from the Windrush, the UK has become ever more diverse – our society, economy, culture and outlook broadened and enriched, our country changed for the better by immigration.
For much of this period, though, the Conservative Party has struggled to come to terms with the growing diversity of Britain and has even, at times, been overtly hostile towards it. The Conservative Party, extraordinarily, opposed the 1965 Race Relations Act — the first attempt to give legal protection against racial discrimination. Every subsequent UK law advancing equality of ethnic minorities has been introduced by a Labour government, while the Conservative Party’s consistent priority, by contrast, has been the tightening of immigration law.
Overt racism was tolerated for decades within the Tory ranks. The party’s formal link with the Monday Club, which advocated repatriation, was not severed until 2001. The divisive rhetoric of Powell and Tebbit, among others, casts a long shadow. The signals that the Conservatives transmitted to ethnic minorities were in what the party didn’t say as well as what it did. A party that claims to believe fundamentally in aspiration should, for example, have been much more outspoken than the Conservatives have ever been about workplace discrimination against ethnic minorities; few Tories expressed moral outrage about apartheid in South Africa or anger at the clear evidence of racist practices within the Metropolitan police.
It was a core tenet of the modernisation movement within the Conservative Party that parties aspiring to govern must not only look like the country they want to lead but must also conspicuously respect and value all of its diversity. Some significant strides in that direction were made under David Cameron’s leadership, but since the Brexit referendum the Conservative Party has too often looked and sounded like an English Nationalist movement.
In 2017, for the second election running, the Tories lost ground among non-white voters while increasing its support in the country as a whole. Not being white remains, shamefully, one of the strongest demographic predictors of not voting Conservative – in a country where the proportion of the electorate that is not white is set to keep increasing. Thirteen per cent of the total population is non-white, but among children under five that proportion is closer to 30 per cent. The whiteness of the Tory Party’s appeal means that it struggles to win in constituencies where the BAME population is 30 per cent or higher: it currently holds just one such seat. Before 1987 there were no constituencies with more than 30 per cent BAME population. By the next general election, it is projected that there will be more than 120 such seats. Unless something changes, before long there just won’t be enough white voters in the electorate for the Conservative Party to be able to win.
It is striking that people who were alive when the Windrush docked, or who lived through the first phase in the UK’s transition from a white country to a diverse one, predominantly now think that immigration has changed Britain for the worse and that multiculturalism has weakened us. But it is surely more significant that the generations who have only ever know a country that is ethnically diverse and multicultural feel, by bigger margins, that immigration has been – and remains – a good thing; that diversity has strengthened us and that increasing diversity will strengthen us more.
If they are in tune with their generation and their country, the next generations of Conservative politicians will share these views about Britain today – and the Tories will be able authentically to compete to be the voice for all of Britain’s people, whatever their colour or ethnicity. If they don’t, they cannot be saved.
This article is an extract from Many rivers crossed: Britain’s attitudes to race and integration 50 years since ‘Rivers of blood’, published by British Future