‘Rather swamped’: Thatcher, moral panics and racist rhetoric

There has been shock at the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, using the word ‘invasion’ in a parliamentary speech to describe the arrival of those seeking asylum in Britain. However, this kind of rhetoric has a much longer history, with politicians since the 1890s using the term ‘invasion’ and similar phrases. The following post is about one of these phrases, the metaphor of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, and its infamous use by Margaret Thatcher in 1978. It is from something that I am currently working on, so any thoughts are appreciated.

In January 1978, Margaret Thatcher, as Opposition leader, was interviewed by Granada TV’s World in Action about immigration and the Conservatives’ election policy surrounding it. Asked about the Tory plan to drastically cut immigration if elected, Thatcher justified possible new restrictions by saying:

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.

So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers.[1]

In the same interview, Thatcher claimed that the Conservatives were not ‘afraid to tackle something which people were worried about’, adding, ‘We are not in politics to ignore peoples’ worries: we are in politics to deal with them.’[2] For Thatcher, people were becoming ‘frightened’ about immigration at ‘[t]he moment the minority threatens to become a big one’ and suggested that this fear was a reason that people were supporting the far right National Front, which had become a particular threat in Britain during the 1970s.[3]  Thatcher asserted that people did not necessarily agree with the National Front, ‘but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems’.[4] One of the objectives of Thatcher in this period was to acknowledge those who might vote for the National Front and persuade them to vote for her – this interview seemed to do just this and set out the Tory position on immigration and ‘race relations’ for the first years of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.

The reporting in the press reinforced the idea that Thatcher was going to make immigration a major election issue. The Guardian headline stated, ‘TORIES NOW BENT ON RACE BATTLE’, while The Times said, ‘Mrs Thatcher’s promise of a “clear end” to immigration has unleashed a political storm that ensures that the issue will be at the centre of the general election campaign.’[5] Sections of the press, primarily on the right, welcomed Thatcher’s remarks and her public discussion of immigration. An editorial in The Times declared that it was ‘neither racialist nor unreasonable for Mrs Thatcher to emphasize the importance for good race relations of imposing strict control over immigration.’[6] The Daily Mail pronounced on its front page that ‘Margaret Thatcher is right to speak out on the question of race and immigration’ and used her interview to launch a ‘great debate’ in the newspaper over the following days about the issue.[7]

As Nam-Kook Kim notes, some politicians (such as Liberal leader David Steel, Labour’s Denis Healey and former Tory Prime Minister, Ted Heath) criticised Thatcher for comments and exploitation of people’s concerns about immigration.[8] However the primary criticism that Thatcher faced from Labour and the press was that she did not elaborate how she would do this without breaking a previous pledge not to prevent dependents from joining family members in the UK. Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan questioned Thatcher in the House of Commons:

As I see it, they [the Conservatives] have two choices. They can send back people who have been living here for years—those 16,000 who were given citizenship—or they can go back on their clear pledges to wives and children, elderly relatives and United Kingdom passport holders. Which is it to be?[9]

Anthony Bevins, writing for the Daily Mail as their political correspondent, asserted that the ‘big question being asked at Westminster was: Is Mrs Thatcher merely vote-catching or does she have a definite programme?’[10] Lauren Pikó points out that amongst those who criticised Thatcher’s interview, ‘there was little criticism of its underlying principle that Britain’s finite containment of an absolute, singular identity risked being lost and subsumed by immigration.’[11] Even Callaghan declared in Parliament, ‘I have never wavered in my view on the significance and importance of limiting immigration in order that we should have good race relations.’[12]

The bipartisan consensus between the Conservatives and Labour was that ‘good race relations’ required strict control on immigration. This consensus had existed since the 1960s when the Conservatives introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962 and it was strengthened in 1968 by Labour. This put limits on the number of work vouchers offered to migrants from the Commonwealth, who had previously been, more or less, free to enter, work and reside in Britain without restrictions. In 1971, the Conservatives introduced the Immigration Act 1971, which collapsed all migrants into two categories – patrial (those with an ancestral link to Britain) and non-patrial (those who did not) – and made work vouchers increasingly difficulty to obtain, with the only exception being migrants from within the European Economic Community. Labour gained office in 1974 but maintained the 1971 Act (which they had disputed while in Opposition). With the 1971 Act greatly reducing the number of migrants entering on work vouchers, the concern for both parties was that dependents, especially from South Asia, were coming in large numbers to join their families that already migrated. Labour attempted to minimise the number of children, spouses, elderly parents and fiancés/fiancées arriving in the country, but did so while trying to look ‘fair’.[13] Thatcher’s Conservatives sought to exploit this by promoting a more explicit anti-immigration line – although much of the groundwork for this had been done by Enoch Powell, the Monday Club and the National Front over the previous decade.

According to the Institute of Race Relations’ Jenny Bourne, Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech had ‘institutionalised the whole numbers game’ surrounding immigration, meaning ‘how many were coming now, how many would come, how many would breed, how many would they breed and how many would have been bred by the year 2000.’[14] By the late 1970s, this ‘numbers game’ had become a Malthusian moral panic about how many migrants Britain could supposedly absorb – spatially, economically and culturally – against the backdrop of a lingering economic crisis. For example, in their ‘great debate’ about immigration following Thatcher’s appearance on World in Action, the Daily Mail published the claim that ‘“one in five” babies in Britain are coloured’, although the small print and subsequent stories poured scorn on the headline figure.[15]

This moral panic, largely generated originally by the far right, but reinforced by mainstream politicians and sections of the press, led to increasing demands throughout the 1970s that something be done about immigration. The Conservative Party’s 1979 election manifesto thus promised ‘firm immigration control for the future’, including ‘a limit entry of parents, grandparents and children over 18 to a small number of urgent compassionate cases’, ‘end[ing] the concession introduced by the Labour government in 1974 to husbands and male fiancés’, ‘a Register of those Commonwealth wives and children entitled to entry for settlement under the 1971 Immigration Act’ and ‘a quota system, covering everyone outside the European Community, to control all entry for settlement’.[16] Once elected, this manifesto promise paved the way for the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1981, which severely curtailed who was deemed a British citizen.

[1] Transcript of interview with Margaret Thatcher for World in Action, 27 January, 1978, https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103485 (accessed 2 January, 2022).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Guardian, 1 February, 1978, p. 1; The Times, 1 February, 1978, p. 1.

[6] The Times, 1 February, 1978, p. 15.

[7] Daily Mail, 31 January, 1978, p. 1.

[8] Nam-Kook Kim, ‘Revisiting New Right Citizenship Discourse in. Thatcher’s Britain’, Ethnicities, 10/2 (2010) p. 218.

[9] House of Commons, Hansard, 31 January, 1978, col. 242.

[10] Daily Mail, 1 February, 1978, p. 1.

[11] Lauren PIkó, ‘“We’re Full”: Capacity, Finitude, and British Landscapes, 1945-1979’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 64/3 (2018) pp. 460-461.

[12] House of Commons, Hansard, 31 January, 1978, col. 241.

[13] Evan Smith & Marinella Marmo, ‘The Myth of Sovereignty: British Immigration Control in Policy and Practice in the Nineteen-Seventies’, Historical Research, 87/236 (2014) pp. 344-369.

[14] Jenny Bourne, ‘UK: The Powell Effect’, Race & Class, 39/4 (1998) p. 59.

[15] Daily Mail, 1 February, 1978, p. 2; Daily Mail, 4 February, 1978, p. 2.

[16] Conservative Party, 1979 Election Manifesto,

http://www.conservativemanifesto.com/1979/1979-conservative-manifesto.shtml (accessed 5 January, 2022).


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