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The Passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, a Case-Study of Backbench Power

James McKay
p. 89-108

Résumé

This article considers the concepts of corridors of power and the locus of power, within the specific context of the backbench committee structures of the House of Commons. Taking as its case study the passage of what became the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the article considers the level of influence that should be attributed to these committees, and whether or not they should be considered as significant fora of power and influence. The committees in question are those backbench structures within the parliamentary Conservative party, principally the 1922 Committee, and the subject committees that shadow the work of government departments. While this article argues that it is indeed the case that these committees should be considered significant fora of power and influence, it proposes the notion of ‘influential impotence’ to describe the exercise of this power : while the committees are well suited to the expression of influence in general form, they often fail to translate this into power over specific policy proposals, and thus fail to realise their full potential.

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Notes de l’auteur

Abbreviations Used in Footnotes: CAB: Cabinet Minutes and Memoranda, Commons Debates : Official Report Fifth Series : Parliamentary Debates : Commons ; CPA : Conservative Party Archive ; DO : Commonwealth Relations Office Papers ; EDM : Early Day Motion ; PREM : Prime Ministers’ Papers.

Texte intégral

Introduction

1 The language of British politics is rich with references to power being exercised away from the public gaze. May I have a word in your ear ? Off the record, of course. Perhaps in this smoke-filled room ? Or maybe down here, in the corridors of power ? And nowhere is there greater scope for discretion, than within the labyrinthine Palace of Westminster, natural habitat of the lesser-spotted men in grey suits. But if this shadow-world is widely recognised, it is also, perhaps, misunderstood. Power wielded behind the scenes can be influential, certainly, yet it can also be surprisingly impotent. Indeed, this chapter proposes the term influential impotence, as a way of conceptualising this dynamic. This chapter will seek to explain this phenomenon, using the case-study of immigration reform.

  • 1  There is disagreement over how significant this change was. For Hansen, prior to the 1962 Act ‘Bri (...)
  • 2  Macmillan Mss : Macmillan’s diary 30 Nov 1961, Mss Macmillan dep d 44. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
  • 3  In essence, the 1962 Act introduced a voucher system, dividing potential immigrants into three cat (...)

2 In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act ended the automatic right of people of the British Commonwealth and Colonies to settle in the United Kingdom.1 When the measures were announced, they were met with a wave of anger that seemed, for a time, like it might sweep them away. Discontent gnawed away at the Government’s own supporters, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in one of his darker moments, feared that the Government itself might fall.2 But the storm passed. Five months later the measures that reached the statute book were not fundamentally dissimilar to those that had been originally announced.3 How is it to be explained, then, that the spectacular hostility had turned out to be so ineffectual ? The answer lies in looking behind the public process, and away from the public arenas of politics. This chapter will argue that the passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill in the House of Commons gives an insight into the nature of discreet, private backbench power during the post war decades, as exercised along the corridors of power, before the media focus on presidential prime-ministerialism undermined the prestige and relevance of that institution. Specifically, it illuminates the phenomenon of ‘influential impotence’, the condition whereby backbench opinion must be respected, but is rarely able to assert itself fully due to almost inevitable internal contradictions.

  • 4  See R.T. McKenzie, British Political Parties (London, 1955).
  • 5  See, for example, J. Ramsden, The Winds of Change : Macmillan to Heath 1957-1975 : A History of th (...)

3 Political historians have long recognised the dispersal of power. The McKenzie analysis, which emphasised the freedom of action enjoyed by political leaders (that is to say, the individuals holding the office of leader, rather than a loose collection of senior party figures) and thus reflected and endorsed a view of history as the sum of the actions of (in reality, rarely) great men, has been rightly usurped.4 (The irony here, of course, it that this process of usurpation has taken place while presidential prime-ministerialism, the sidelining of Parliament and a media focus on personalities over process have all arguably made the McKenzie thesis increasingly appropriate.) In place of McKenzie came historians such as John Ramsden, reminding researchers that political decision-making took place within the parameters and prejudices of wider, broader political structures and contexts ; some public, and some less so.5 The pyramid of power, when viewed from the ground, exalted those at the pinnacle. Viewed from the air, however, it looked instead like a series of concentric arenas. Political leadership was still paramount, but it could now be appreciated as leadership by consent rather than declamation from on high ; the consent of the collective party leadership, of Members of Parliament, of the party membership and ultimately, of course, of the electorate are all required. The roots of power are nurtured in all of these places, and must be pursued there by historians, in order for power to be fully understood. In terms of the Parliamentary arena, the central concern of this article, the principal fora of backbench power are the party committees– behind the scenes and away from the public gaze, with their proceedings not recorded in Hansard.

4However, analysis of the records of backbench meetings surrounding the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, of the Home Affairs, the Commonwealth Affairs, and the 1922 committees of the parliamentary Conservative party, also suggests a structural problem backbenchers need to confront, that of influential impotence. In the case of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, the rebels had a cause, but what they lacked was a consensus. As will be seen, the passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill is an excellent example of influential impotence, both in the leadership being forced to take backbench opinion into account, and in the failure of backbench opinion to generate sufficient consensus to force the issue. This chapter will consider the opinion streams within the Parliamentary Conservative party, and argue two things : (1) behind the scenes structures, such as the Committee system, are hugely significant in the exercise of backbench power, but (2) they do not come without drawbacks, and there are tensions between the public and the private sides of politics.

  • 6  P. Norton ‘The Parliamentary Party and Party Committees’ in A. Seldon and S. Ball (eds.) Conservat (...)
  • 7  P. Goodhart with U. Branston The 1922 : The Story of the Conservative Backbenchers’ Parliamentary (...)
  • 8  J. Barnes ‘Ideology and Factions’ in A. Seldon and S. Ball (eds.) Conservative Century (Oxford, 19 (...)
  • 9  S. Brooke, ‘The Conservative Party, Immigration and National Identity, 1948-1968’, in M. Francis a (...)

5During the 1960s, as Philip Norton has noted, the Parliamentary Conservative party was in the midst of what might be called its strong period, reaping the benefits of ‘the development and growth of an organised parliamentary party’ since 1923, in particular the development of the (private) party committee structure, and not yet experiencing the ‘pressure’ of the 1980s and beyond. This ‘strengthened the position of Conservative MPs in relation to policy-making, to the House of Commons, and to the extra-parliamentary party…’6 With reference to immigration legislation, this relative strength coincided with two factors. Specifically, immigration was a key debate of these years, although not yet the incendiary one Enoch Powell was to make it later in the decade.7 More generally, this is the pivotal period of Britain’s international decline, from disaster at Suez to withdrawal from East of Suez, and immigration policy in the 1960s is thus part of a much larger story of the painful abandonment of an imperial, global role ; what John Barnes has called the ‘final traumas’ of Empire.8 Immigration policy, and particularly the 1962 Act, marked and symbolised this change, the ‘unbridgeable dichotomy’ that had emerged between the defence of Empire and the defence of Nation, and the final opting for the latter over the former.9

  • 10  Immigration from the Commonwealth, Cmmd. 2739 (August 1965).
  • 11  A 1961 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit found that ‘of all post-war permanent immigrati (...)

6 When the decision came to restrict immigration, the crucial factor involved was the rise in immigrant figures in 1960 and 1961. During the late 1950s, the net-intake immigration figures, which peaked at 46,850 in 1956 and then fell for three consecutive years, were low enough that restrictionist voices failed to win the argument. Dramatic rises in 1960 and 1961 then had a rapid effect on the balance of argument and by the autumn of 1961 the Government was ready to legislate to restrict entry. From just over 20,000 in 1959, the figures approached 60,000 in 1960s, and 140,000 in 1961.10 In this sense, 1960 marked the real end of the open door, although it survived in until the summer of 1962. However, even though this was a debate ruled by numbers, it should not be taken to be a neutral one in racial terms. The numbers that swung the argument were of Commonwealth and Colonial immigrants, who were overwhelmingly Black or Asian. No statistics were kept by the Government on the levels of Irish immigration, which appears to have matched total Commonwealth immigration in the post-war period.11

  • 12  J. Ramsden, The Making of Conservative Party Policy : The Conservative Research Department since 1 (...)
  • 13  W.F. Deedes, Dear Bill : WF Deedes Reports (Basingstoke, 1997), pp219 & 224.
  • 14  Interestingly, both restrictionist Labour, and anti-restrictionist Conservative MPs used this argu (...)

7 John Ramsden has noted how the Conservatives dodged immigration in their 1955 and 1959 General election manifestos, and throughout the 1950s complacently failed to engage with this increasingly important issue.12 The chairman of the Home Office Affairs committee at the time felt the same, later writing that ‘until 1962 Ministers dealt with the problem defensively. They hoped it would go away. There was no looking ahead, no constructive policy.’ This was ultimately ‘a failure of statecraft.’13 But if the Government did wait for the figures to force them to change their mind, what changed the figures ? The extraordinary leap of immigrants numbers in 1960 was, some argued, a beat-the-ban reaction.14 Potential immigrants, so the argument runs, felt that the Government was planning to restrict entry, and therefore began to come in increasing numbers before this occurred. This made it more likely that the Government would legislate, and therefore numbers increased still further. In other words, the rise in numbers was caused by restrictionist attitudes, and immigration restriction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This argument is a persuasive one, but it is important that one bears in mind that the jump in immigration figures occurred while the Government was still publicly, and privately, committed to the open door. The signals that triggered the rush were not coming from the Home Office, but from the (public) backbenches of Westminster. The long campaigning of a hard core of restrictionist Conservatives therefore created the jump in numbers, which so influenced the Government while strengthening the restrictionist case in Parliament. If one wants to understand the more fundamental causes of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, one must examine the shifting opinion of the House of Commons.

Backbench Influence and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act

8 In the early 1960s, Parliamentary opinions on immigration were in flux, in some ways but not others delineated on party lines. Informal groups of MPs sought to influence opinion. Some campaigned for the restriction of immigration, others pressed for legislation to outlaw racial discrimination and facilitate integration, while others still encouraged the Government to maintain the open door, fearful that this commitment might be abandoned. Instead of fundamentally opposed party machines, three key streams of opinion existed.

  • 15  For examples, see Commons Debates : vol. 594, Col. 195-204, 29 Oct 1958 ; vol. 624, Col. 37, 24 Ma (...)
  • 16 Commons Debates : vol. 645, Col. 1319-27, 1 Aug 1961.
  • 17  In December 1960 and January 1961 Gurden ‘organised a series of meetings of backbench MPs to discu (...)
  • 18  For example, see P.B. Rich, ‘Conservative Ideology and Race in Modern British Politics’ in Z. Layt (...)

9 Probably the smallest of the three streams was extreme restrictionistism, whose followers conducted an emotive campaign against immigrants. The group grew following the 1959 general election, but extreme restrictionism was always a minority creed within Parliament, and was restricted to the Conservative party. Its two most high-profile proponents were Norman Pannell and Cyril Osborne, the MPs for Liverpool, Kirkdale and Louth respectively. Month after month, from the mid-1950s onwards, these two men would attempt to bring the immigration issue to the attention of Parliament and the nation through the use of parliamentary questions. They would regularly, publicly, ask the Home Secretary for the latest immigration figures, trying to show that a ‘flood’ from abroad endangered Britain. In addition to simple figures, the two men would characterise immigrants as criminal, idle drains on society, who brought disease and discontent in their wake. Pannell tried to highlight the costs to the taxpayer of black and Asian children in care, whilst Osborne attempted to link immigration with rising levels of leprosy.15 In August 1961, for example, Osborne cited the conversion of a Smethwick church into a Sikh temple as evidence of the danger of Britain ceasing to be a Christian country in the face of Indian and Pakistani immigration, while Pannell drew on gonorrhoea infection figures to persuade members of the need to control UK borders.16 The 1959 election returned a clutch of restrictionist MPs from the Birmingham area, and in the following years the Selly Oak MP, Harold Gurden, joined Pannell and Osborne in trying to alert their colleagues to the dangers they foresaw. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the extreme restrictionists were small in number, failing to convert many MPs to their views. Even Gurden did not tend to indulge in rhetoric as inflammatory as that used by Osborne and Pannell, despite the fact that he was actively campaigning for a change in the law.17 Nevertheless, given the publicity gained by Enoch Powell later in the decade, particularly in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, some writers have sought to portray such extremist views as representative of a Conservative ideology on racial issues.18 This was never the case. Prejudice certainly existed within the Conservative party, as of course it did in the Labour party, but to see Pannell, for example, as ‘representative’, is to miss the shades of view that existed at the time.

10The extreme restrictionism of Pannell and Osborne was bitterly opposed by MPs dedicated to opposing prejudice and promoting integration. This view could largely be found in the Labour party, with the pre-eminent example being Andrew Fenner Brockway, who repeatedly attempted to introduce anti-discrimination legislation during this period. Although mainly a Labour phenomenon, sympathisers with this approach certainly existed within the Tory party, with the MPs Nigel Fisher and Christopher Chataway being examples.

  • 19  Conservative Party Archive (hereafter CPA) : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 6 Dec 1954, CR (...)
  • 20  R. Lamb, The Failure of the Eden Government (London, 1987), pp18-9.
  • 21  CPA : Commonwealth Affairs committee minutes, 17 July 1958, CCO 507/1/1.

11Finally, there existed a third stream, moderate restrictionism, which shared some of the fears of the extreme restrictionists without indulging in their intolerant rhetoric. This stream grew throughout the period from the late 1950s, until it came to dominate opinion within the Conservative party, as well as having a significant representation within the Opposition. The emergence of these moderate restrictionists was crucial. An environment was thus created that enabled and encouraged the Government to introduce controls. It is possible to trace this change by looking behind the public arenas, at the minutes of the (private) Conservative parliamentary subject committees, which shadow the remits of government departments. The Home Affairs committee discussed immigration as early as 1954, when it was decided that Sir Guy Lloyd’s concerns about the number of Jamaican immigrants did not warrant any action at that time.19 In 1955, Cyril Osborne attempted to limit immigration with a Ten Minute Rule Bill, but opposition from the party committee helped to ensure the measure got no government support.20 The issue was again raised in 1958, this time at the Commonwealth Affairs committee. At this meeting there was a clear spread of opinions. Norman Pannell, backed by Sir Archer Baldwin, argued for reciprocal legislation with the Commonwealth, which had seen other member states take unilateral steps to restrict immigration. In support of this, he gave figures for immoral earning convictions in London. Opposed to Pannell was Nigel Fisher, who chaired the West Indies sub-committee of the Commonwealth Affairs Committee and was the loudest anti-restrictionist voice amongst backbench Tory MPs. Fisher argued that anything based on a colour bar was unacceptable, and ‘was entirely opposed to the introduction of major legislation on a controversial subject during the last Session of Parliament.’ However, between these two positions, there was support for administrative measures, such as preventing the abuse of the National Assistance scheme, and for limited measures such as giving the Home Secretary deportation powers. One MP also raised an issue that was to become key to the restrictionist measures which were finally announced three years later, by expressing concerns over immigration from Ireland.21 Therefore, it can be seen that amongst the Conservatives in Parliament, there was a significant representation of a moderate restrictionist position, even when immigrant numbers were falling in the late 1950s.

12By 1961, with incoming numbers rising sharply, the spread of opinions just indicated seems to have given way to a dominant restrictionist mood. 100 members came to the Home Office Affairs committee to hear Home Secretary Rab Butler talk about immigration in February 1961, with the minutes recording that :

  • 22  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 2 Feb 1961, CRD 2/44/1.

A number of members were strongly of the opinion that we should think very carefully before embarking upon legislation, on the grounds that to do so would be regarded as discrimination on the grounds of colour. There was, however, a strong body of opinion within the Committee to the effect that legislation would be the only effective means of dealing with this matter…22

  • 23  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 6 July 1961, CRD 2/44/1.

13By July this had hardened, as Butler discovered when he addressed a joint meeting of the Home Office Affairs and Commonwealth Affairs committees. The minutes record that ‘Mr Norman Pannell, Mr John Hall and the majority of members considered that action to control immigration should be taken urgently.’ Immigrants should be ‘easily assimilated’ (presumably a coded reference to white and/or Christian), and ‘some members were doubtful whether control arrangements based on labour would be effective in conditions of full employment’. In other words, if there are job vacancies, how are the immigrants going to be stopped ? Concerns were also growing over Irish immigration. Although members such as Nigel Fisher and Christopher Chataway continued to fly the anti-restriction flag, it must have been clear that the battle was slipping away from them.23

  • 24  Spencer, British Immigration,p101.
  • 25 Notices of Motions : Immigration EDMs, February, May & June 1958. House of Lords Record Office, Lon (...)

14 It can therefore be seen that, by 1961, the mood within the parliamentary Conservative party was in favour of a change in the law. This is not, however, the same as saying the Osborne and Pannell had managed to win the party around. In the late 1950s, interest in immigration was ‘sporadic … rather than incremental’, as can be seen by considering the increase in concern in April and May 1958, following a rise in the number of Indian and Pakistani entrants.24 Labour MP Henry Hynd’s EDM of February 1958, calling for a reconsideration of the open door policy, gained only six signatures, including his own. Another Labour MP, Hector Hughes, tabled a motion in June 1958 that drew attention to the employment problems caused by immigration within the Commonwealth, and called for a consideration of basing immigration laws on the principle of reciprocity. No MPs at all supported this motion. However, in April 1958, coinciding with the rise in Indian and Pakistani entrants, Norman Pannell’s EDM complained of impoverished immigrants who ‘immediately sought national assistance’, and urged reciprocity and deportation powers. This got the support of 32 MPs.25 Given this demonstration that concern over immigration was closely linked to fears over the numbers of immigrants arriving, it is not tenable to suggest that Osborne and Pannell gradually proselytised within Tory ranks, resulting in a majority in favour of change by 1961. It is far more likely that the moderate restrictionist majority that emerged in the early 1960s was linked to the concurrent rise in immigrant numbers. It may of course be the case that the rise in numbers was in part caused by the restrictionist cries of Osborne and Pannell, which in turn informed the opinions of their colleagues. This is not, however, the same thing as successful extremist proselytising, for to call this situation a triumph for the extremists would be to suggest that they deliberately tried to increase the numbers of Commonwealth immigrants in an attempt to change the mind of the Conservative party. Given the racist views of the extremists, such an argument is ridiculous.

  • 26  The Republic already had a peculiar place in British immigration law. The 1948 British Nationality (...)
  • 27  CPA : Home Office Affairs and Commonwealth Affairs committee minutes, 6 July 1961, CRD 2/44/1.
  • 28  For an account of the diplomatic exchanges between London and Dublin over the issue, see Commonwea (...)

15 The key problem the Government faced over the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, which it introduced in the Autumn of 1961, was the position of immigrants from the Republic of Ireland.26 These problems were made worse, however, by the Government’s own ambiguity surrounding the matter. In July 1961, when Butler addressed the Conservative Commonwealth and Home Affairs committees, he made clear that there would be ‘difficulties in connection with Eire, for it would not be possible to impose [Second World War] controls between Eire and Ulster.’27 As he felt that the border could not be closed, and he did not want to incur the wrath of the Northern Irish by making them carry passports to travel to the rest of the United Kingdom, Butler therefore intended not to apply immigration restrictions to the Irish at all. This would, however, create a loophole whereby Commonwealth citizens wishing to settle in Britain could enter via the Republic of Ireland, and thus evade controls. The solution that the Home Secretary came up with was to encourage the Republic to introduce their own controls, mirroring those set out in the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill. The Irish would be included in the Government’s Bill, but crucially the powers to restrict them would not be used, provided that Ireland closed its doors to the Commonwealth as well. Thus Butler adopted a carrot and stick approach to Ireland, allowing free entry to continue if the Irish helped Britain with its immigration laws. This approach in itself set up a difficulty, however. For the Irish to co-operate, they would want assurances that controls would not be applied to their citizens. On the other hand, the British Government wanted an assurance that the Irish would legislate, in order to convince its own supporters to back the Irish exclusion. The resulting obfuscation from the British Government was near farcical, and almost put a stop to the legislation altogether.28

  • 29  Commons Debates : vol. 648, Col. 42-4, 31 Oct 1961.
  • 30  The Times, 11 Nov 1961.
  • 31  The Times, 12 Nov 1961.

16On 6 October Butler took his proposals over Commonwealth immigrants to the Cabinet, demonstrating the tensions between public and private politics. In a memorandum, he argued that ‘control of entry from Ireland is not in fact practicable.’ He went on to argue that there was ‘no alternative but to be frank about [the exemption] if the Irish question is raised, taking our stand upon the same considerations which led us in the context of nationality to treat Irish citizens as if they were British subjects – a useful precedent in the present connection.’ Unfortunately for the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister was not terribly frank when he came to be questioned on the matter. On the day the Bill was announced in the Queen’s speech, Macmillan declared in the House, ‘it applies to the Irish, certainly.’29 Macmillan was of course technically accurate, as the Bill did apply to the Irish in theory. He neglected to mention that it would not do so in practice. The next day the Government announced that the control would ‘apply equally to all parts of the Commonwealth and to the Irish republic’, and on the basis of that assurance The Times decided that although the measure would damage the Commonwealth it could not be said to be racially discriminatory.30 However, this turned out to be far from the final word on the matter, but rather just another of a series of contradictory signals. The following day, after the Bill’s first reading, The Times reported that the position of the Irish now presented ‘special problems which are yet to be solved’, but that discussions with Ireland were taking place and Butler would make a final announcement at the second reading.31

  • 32  Cabinet Minutes and Memoranda (hereafter CAB) : Cabinet conclusions, 9 Nov 1961, CAB 128/35 : CC ( (...)
  • 33  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 14 Nov 1961, CRD 2/44/2.
  • 34  The Times, 15 Nov 1961.
  • 35 Commons Debates : Butler’s speech vol. 649, Col. 687-705 ; Hare’s speech vol. 649, Col. 803-12, 16 (...)

17The Cabinet discussed the matter again on 9 November, when Butler conceded that the exclusion of the Irish would reinforce accusations of a colour bar. Nevertheless, he maintained that neither closing the border nor controlling traffic between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was a desirable course.32 Butler took this message with him to the Home Affairs committee on 14 November, when he told the assembled MPs that most immigrants from Ireland were ‘seasonal workers and not really immigrants in the true sense of the term.’ He emphasised the ‘practical difficulties’ in controlling this flow, but this did not stop ‘many members’ raising the point in discussion.33 However, it seems that Butler, like the Prime Minister before him, failed to make himself clear. According to a newspaper report, MPs came away feeling that some kind of control would still be applied, involving labour vouchers and the British west coast ports.34 It therefore must have come as a surprise to them when Butler announced at the opening of the Bill’s second reading debate two days later, that controls would not be applied to the Republic. If the situation was confusing when Butler sat down after talking at quarter to five that afternoon, it was to get even more so when John Hare, the Minister of Labour, stood up to close the second reading debate at half past nine that evening. Hare sent out a different signal again, now saying that the Government would examine ways to include the Irish in the measures.35

  • 36  Macmillan Mss : Knox Cunningham minute to the Prime Minister, 17 Nov 1961, Macmillan Mss dep c 354 (...)

18The difference between Hare’s and Butler’s stances is a demonstration of the influence backbench members can have on a Government, for it seems to have been a direct result of a 1922 committee meeting, which took place between the two speeches. In other words, private, behind the scenes politics was reasserting itself. 110 members attended to listen to Iain Macleod defend both the Bill and the intention that it would not apply to the Irish. In the discussion that followed, speaker after speaker agreed that the Bill itself was necessary but condemned the Irish exemption. The Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Samuel Knox-Cunningham, reported to Macmillan that ‘very strong views were expressed, unfavourable to the Government intention to exempt the Southern Irish … These came from all quarters in the Committee and were generally applauded.’ Macleod argued that ‘the problem of the Irish had been seen from the beginning, and the solution at the moment seemed to be the least inconsistent.’ He rejected the feasibility of closing the border between the north and the south, but many members were instead in favour of a system similar to the Northern Ireland Safeguarding of Employment Act, which controlled immigration by restricting job opportunities for people from the Republic. When Macleod doubted that such a method could be adopted in the rest of the UK, cries of ‘why not ?’ were hurled back at him. By the time he left, Macleod was in no doubt that the 1922 wanted the Irish to be covered by controls, even if it was a case of making the best of a flawed system.36

  • 37  Prime Ministers Papers (hereafter PREM) : Undated note from Macleod to Macmillan, PREM 11/3238. Na (...)

19The Government carried the Second Reading with a majority of eighty four, but Macleod felt that this could have been halved had the change of intention not been announced. He reported to the Prime Minster that the measures were ‘still in great danger … unless we can show that every possible action has been taken to try and find some way of getting around this problem.’ He emphasised that it did not matter if the system found was not perfect, only that it was not ‘too silly to put forward.’37 The Government had no choice but to engage with the critics in its own camp, or risk losing the measures altogether.

Backbench Impotence and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act

20However, the task facing the Government was not as daunting as it might have first seemed. Although it was undeniably true that they faced heavy criticism over their Irish measures, the critics were not capable of forming a coherent group. Although MPs do not always make their line of reasoning clear – and the brevity of recorded minutes often strips down speeches to vague assertions –it is possible to discern different streams of opinion. The protest had two streams, coming either from a pro-Commonwealth, or anti-Irish stance. These streams of opinion had opposing views on the desirability of immigration into the United Kingdom, and therefore were incapable of making common cause. These streams of opinion also contained contradictions within themselves, making a coherent position yet harder to maintain.

  • 38  See, for example, Barbara Brookes 1958 report on immigration. CPA : ‘West Indian, Asian & Southern (...)
  • 39  Macmillan Mss : Knox Cunningham minute to the Prime Minister, 14 Nov 1961, Macmillan Mss dep c 354
  • 40  Ibid, 23 Nov 1961.
  • 41  Ibid, 14 Nov 1961.
  • 42  Ibid, 4 Dec 1961.

21Anti-Irish sentiment was certainly present within the Conservative party, and exemplifies the nuances that are able to exist behind the scenes. In its crudest form, it viewed the Republic as being populated by leftist anti-monarchists, whose presence on the British electoral roll could only be damaging to the Conservative cause.38 At the Home Affairs committee meeting of 14 November, Kenneth Pickthorn ‘pointed out that there is scarcely a safe Labour seat today which had not had an influx of Irish immigrants many years ago.’39 Critics of Irish immigration were often not this specific however, and sometimes simply focussed on the high numbers coming in. For example, at the 1922 committee meeting that took place during the Second Reading debate, it was ‘stressed that we must try and find a solution to the Irish problem. In Birmingham there were 40,000 coloured and 80,000 Irish.’40 Interestingly, of those within the party that held the hardest restrictionist beliefs, opinion was divided over what should be done. Osborne, at the 14 November meeting, is recorded as being in favour of a system along the lines of the Northern Ireland Safeguarding of Employment Act, so the Irish could be ‘kept out.’41 Norman Pannell, however, perceived a danger that arguments over the white Irish might derail the legislative action to keep out Blacks and Asians that he and Osborne had long sought. On 4 December, he ‘said that the Irish were not the real problem and begged members not to lose sight of the main issue.’42

  • 43  Ibid, 1 Dec 1961.
  • 44  Ibid, 4 Dec 1961.

22Peter Walker put the general pro-Commonwealth case to the Commonwealth Secretary on 30 November, when he asked ‘whether the non-inclusion of the Irish in the Immigration Bill had not made it fundamentally impossible for this [Commonwealth] Committee to support it.’43 This argument sees the exclusion of the Irish, who left the Commonwealth in the 1940s, as a snub to the countries that remained. It is a rather problematic position to unpick. On the one hand, it could be used for expressing offence on behalf of the Commonwealth as a whole, as a multi-racial organisation. Alternatively, it could be an expression of loyalty solely to the ‘Old Dominions’ of Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, which some argued more attention ought to be paid to because of ‘blood ties’. The arguments of members such as Nigel Fisher are easier to classify, as they argue that the exclusion of the Irish was a snub based on colour, as the Irish were white whilst the vast majority of Commonwealth immigration was not. As Fisher put it at a specially convened meeting on 4 December to try and resolve the Irish issue, ‘if we exclude the Irish, it is a straight colour ban. I cannot support it.’44

  • 45 Commons Debates : vol. 654, Col. 1204-5.
  • 46 Commons Debates : vol. 643, Col. 1242-3, 4 July 1961.

23Interestingly, the two streams of opinion do not appear to have been completely mutually exclusive. During the third reading of the Bill, the Conservative MP for Reigate, Sir John Vaughan Morgan, argued that the Government should be looking after the West Indies, not ‘Irish Republicans.’45 Nevertheless, it seems fair to say on a general level that the contradictions within and between these groups made it impossible for them to combine coherently. Coming up now against the limits of behind-the-scenes politics, the restrictionists were generally against any immigration, but valued the ‘prize’ of restricting black and Asian inflow at the cost of a continuing Irish stream. Part of the pro-Commonwealth lobby felt a snub to the Old Dominions that Republicans were being given preferential treatment, but they too were unsure of the levels of non-white immigration and the problems of integration and race relations. Those with an anti-Irish bias may not have been keen to press this publicly, given the large Irish presence in the electorate, whilst those who felt that the situation amounted to a colour bar did not have the party as a whole on their side. The Conservatives had already decided that non-white immigration had to be controlled at the very least, and would therefore not be open to the proposition that the legislation was operating on colour lines. They knew that it would, as that had been the unspoken aim all along. This had been recognised by Butler when he made his ‘gaffe’ that June, saying that legislation would not be based on colour prejudice alone.46 All that united these disparate groups was an anger felt towards the Irish exclusion, but this was not anger that was capable of being effectively channelled.

  • 47  DO : ‘Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, Consultation with the Irish Republic’, DO 175/65.
  • 48  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 14 Nov 1961, CRD 2/44/2. This analysis is rather iron (...)
  • 49 Commons Debates : vol. 649, Col. 717, 16 Nov 1961.

24Faced with such a divided opposition, Butler’s instinct appears to have been to carry on with the Irish exclusion as he announced, making no concessions. The Home Secretary, had no intention of conceding anything of value to the restrictionist lobby. He wanted the co-operation of the Republic in operating parallel controls, and his conviction that the Irish border could not be successfully closed meant that this co-operation was vital to the success of his plans. The Irish Taoiseach had already made a public statement after Hare’s concessions at the end of the Second Reading debate, warning that any restriction of migration between the two countries would be, in his opinion, ‘a retrograde step.’47 More than this, however, Butler did not want to restrict the Irish. He reasoned that they were seasonal rather than permanent migrants, who tended to work in the building trade.48 He must also have calculated that the restrictionists were hardly likely to kill off a Bill they had wanted for years, simply because they did not like one part of it. In terms of voting, the restrictionists had nowhere else to go. As Osborne noted during the debate on the second reading, he was supporting the Bill even though he felt that it was insufficient, for he was ‘grateful for small mercies.’49

  • 50  CAB : GEN.765/2nd meeting, CAB 130/180.
  • 51  Macmillan Mss : diary entry, 30 Nov 1961, Macmillan Mss dep d 44.

25With this in mind, Butler developed a system of merely monitoring immigration, alongside making the Act liable to annual renewal. Only if this scheme failed to get the support of Conservative MPs (a private meeting had been arranged for 4 December), would more restrictive measures be resorted to.50 This was a wonderful concession from the Government’s point of view, for in reality it was not a concession at all. In changing to annual renewal and the gathering of statistics, the pro-Commonwealth group could feel that the Government had taken their position seriously, and thus drop their opposition to the Bill. In fact, the Government had not really accepted their position as valid. At the price of collecting some statistics, what they had managed to do was defer a decision on the Irish for another day, thus removing it from the controversy of the Bill itself. Once the Bill was in place on the statute book the debate would be a very different one, and the Government could be confident that the Bill would now passed, as the majority of the party was behind restriction anyway. All the Government had to do was sell this deal to the parliamentary party, and the threat to the measures would disappear. The Prime Minister, however, still feared trouble. He confided to his diary that the compromise solution was ‘pretty thin’, and pondered on how ironic it would be if Irish issues brought down another British government.51 The solution was indeed a thin one, but would the pro-Commonwealth lobby care ?

  • 52  Macmillan Mss : Knox Cunningham minute to the Prime Minister, 4 Dec 1961, Macmillan Mss dep c 354.
  • 53 Commons Debates : vol. 651, Col. 233-408, 12 Dec 1961.
  • 54  P. Norton, Dissension in the House of Commons : Intra Party Dissent in the House of Commons Divisi (...)

26In the event they seemed not to, and the 4 December meeting was highly successful for the Government. Nearly 200 MPs turned up to hear Butler explain the problems surrounding the inclusion of the Irish. Offering monitoring combined with annual renewal, he ‘ended with an appeal that the Party should rally to get the Bill through.’ There were still critical voices about the Irish position, notably Nigel Fisher, Robert Carr and Robin Turton, but the meeting ended by giving Butler ‘very considerable applause’ when he appealed at the end for loyalty and support. Knox-Cunningham, in his report on the meeting for the Prime Minister, decided that ‘the detailed explanation had borne fruit … I felt that the majority at the meeting will give their support.’52 When put to the test a few days later, this assessment proved to be correct. On 12 December, the clause of the Bill which formally included the Irish came up in the committee stages, and Labour MP Donald Chapman moved what he called a ‘probing amendment’ to try and discover Government attitudes on the matter. He cited figures from the Overseas Migration Board which estimated that 70,000 of the 170,000 gross annual immigration into the UK was from Ireland, and thus the Irish exclusion made a mockery of Government arguments that the measure was a non-discriminatory attempt to deal with immigration numbers. In the face of this provocation, Conservative critics spoke out against the exclusion, with the familiar voices of Nigel Fisher and Robert Carr being joined by Humphrey Atkins, Peter Tapsell and Christopher Chataway. However Bill Deedes, chair of the Conservative’s Home Office Affairs committee, reflected the more mainstream view of the party. He argued it was difficult to assess how discriminatory the measures would be, as the Government had not yet said how many Commonwealth immigrants it was planning to let in.53The Government faced protest when it curtailed the debate, and thirteen of its supporters, including Berkeley and Chataway, voted against the closure.54 This cross voting was, however, the end of the protests on the Irish issue. The Government had faced a huge revolt, partly through its own evasiveness, but had managed to win the day with hardly any concessions at all.

27 The passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act therefore demonstrates a key problem of backbench power, the phenomenon of influential impotence. Immigration represented a key issue for the Conservative party during the 1960s, a period when the Parliamentary committee system gave backbench members a path to significant prestige and influence. Nevertheless, while this influence could be expressed in general form, it failed to translate into the specifics. Backbench influence was an important part of the reason for the Government legislating on immigration control, as this was a large enough umbrella under which to gather a consensus. Distress at the detail of the Bill however, as shown through the examination of the Irish exemption, was unable to make its influence felt, because the subject matter involved was too precise, too partial to generate consensus. Backbenchers wielded an imprecise form of power, in the face of which a determined government could often win the day.

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Bibliographie

Barnes, J. ‘Ideology and Factions’ in A. Seldon and S. Ball (eds.) Conservative Century (Oxford, 1994).

Brooke, S. ‘The Conservative Party, Immigration and National Identity, 1948-1968’, in Francis M. and Zweiniger-Bargielowska I. (eds.), The Conservatives and British Society 1880-1990 (Cardiff, 1996).

Dean, D.W. ‘Conservative Governments and the Restriction of Immigration in the 1950s : The Problems of Constraint’, Historical Journal, 35 (1992), pp171-194.

Deedes, W.F. Dear Bill : WF Deedes Reports (Basingstoke, 1997).

Goodhart, P. with U. Branston The 1922 : The Story of the Conservative Backbenchers’ Parliamentary Committee (Basingstoke, 1973).

Hansen, R. Citizenship and Immigration in Post-war Britain : The Institutional Origins of a Multicultural Nation (Oxford, 2000).

Immigration from the Commonwealth, Cmmd. 2739 (August 1965).

Lamb, R. The Failure of the Eden Government (London, 1987).

Layton-Henry, Z. ‘Immigration’ in Z. Layton-Henry (ed.), Conservative Party Politics (Basingstoke, 1980).

McKenzie, R.T. British Political Parties (London, 1955).

Norton, P. ‘The Parliamentary Party and Party Committees’ in A. Seldon and S. Ball (eds.) Conservative Century (Oxford, 1994).

Norton, P. Dissension in the House of Commons : Intra Party Dissent in the House of Commons Division Lobbies, 1945-1974 (Basingstoke, 1975).

Ramsden, J. The Making of Conservative Party Policy : The Conservative Research Department since 1929 (London, 1980).

Ramsden, J. The Winds of Change : Macmillan to Heath 1957-1975 : A History of the Conservative Party (London, 1996).

Rich, P.B. ‘Conservative Ideology and Race in Modern British Politics’ in Z. Layton-Henry & P.B. Rich (eds.), Race, Government and Politics in Britain (Basingstoke, 1986).

Spencer, I.R.G. British Immigration Policy since 1939 : The Making of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1997), Chapter 4.

Welsh, D. ‘The Principle of the Thing : The Conservative Government and the Control of Commonwealth Immigration, 1957-59’, Contemporary British History, 12 (1998), pp51-79.

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Notes

1  There is disagreement over how significant this change was. For Hansen, prior to the 1962 Act ‘Britain’s doors were … entirely open to some 800 million British subjects.’ R. Hansen, Citizenship and Immigration in Post-war Britain : The Institutional Origins of a Multicultural Nation (Oxford, 2000), p97. More persuasively, Spencer argues that Black and Asian immigration was strictly controlled by administrative means in the 1950s, and when these ceased to be effective legislation was turned to. See I.R.G. Spencer, British Immigration Policy since 1939 : The Making of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1997), Chapter 4.

2  Macmillan Mss : Macmillan’s diary 30 Nov 1961, Mss Macmillan dep d 44. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

3  In essence, the 1962 Act introduced a voucher system, dividing potential immigrants into three categories. Category ‘A’ was for those who had an offer of a job, while ‘B’ was for those who held skills needed in the British workforce. Both of these categories needed to apply for a Ministry of Labour voucher to settle in the UK, but there was no limit on the number of vouchers that could be issued. The restriction came with category ‘C’, for unskilled workers with no immediate job to come to. These vouchers would be issued on a first-come, first served basis at levels set and reviewed by the Government, according to the needs of, and conditions in, Britain at the time.

4  See R.T. McKenzie, British Political Parties (London, 1955).

5  See, for example, J. Ramsden, The Winds of Change : Macmillan to Heath 1957-1975 : A History of the Conservative Party (London, 1996).

6  P. Norton ‘The Parliamentary Party and Party Committees’ in A. Seldon and S. Ball (eds.) Conservative Century (Oxford, 1994) p97.

7  P. Goodhart with U. Branston The 1922 : The Story of the Conservative Backbenchers’ Parliamentary Committee (Basingstoke, 1973) p179.

8  J. Barnes ‘Ideology and Factions’ in A. Seldon and S. Ball (eds.) Conservative Century (Oxford, 1994) p341.

9  S. Brooke, ‘The Conservative Party, Immigration and National Identity, 1948-1968’, in M. Francis and I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska (eds.), The Conservatives and British Society 1880-1990 (Cardiff, 1996), p150. Up until this point, the considerations in favour of maintaining the open door policy, within and without of the Conservative party, proved decisive. See D.W. Dean, ‘Conservative Governments and the Restriction of Immigration in the 1950s : The Problems of Constraint’, Historical Journal, 35 (1992), pp171-194 ; also, D. Welsh, ‘The Principle of the Thing : The Conservative Government and the Control of Commonwealth Immigration, 1957-59’, Contemporary British History, 12 (1998), pp51-79.

10  Immigration from the Commonwealth, Cmmd. 2739 (August 1965).

11  A 1961 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit found that ‘of all post-war permanent immigration into Britain by non-aliens, Irish citizens accounted for a full half.’ The Times, 9 Nov 1961.

12  J. Ramsden, The Making of Conservative Party Policy : The Conservative Research Department since 1929 (London, 1980), pp177-8 & 204 ; Ramsden, Winds of Change, pp41-44.

13  W.F. Deedes, Dear Bill : WF Deedes Reports (Basingstoke, 1997), pp219 & 224.

14  Interestingly, both restrictionist Labour, and anti-restrictionist Conservative MPs used this argument during 1961. For example, see Official Report Fifth Series : Parliamentary Debates : Commons (hereafter Commons Debates) : vol. 639, Col. 231, 25 April 1961 & vol. 645, Col. 1327-9, 1 Aug 1961. Spencer has recently endorsed the argument in British Immigration,pp 130-2.

15  For examples, see Commons Debates : vol. 594, Col. 195-204, 29 Oct 1958 ; vol. 624, Col. 37, 24 May 1960.

16 Commons Debates : vol. 645, Col. 1319-27, 1 Aug 1961.

17  In December 1960 and January 1961 Gurden ‘organised a series of meetings of backbench MPs to discuss control and lobby the Home Secretary.’ Z. Layton-Henry, ‘Immigration’ in Z. Layton-Henry (ed.), Conservative Party Politics (Basingstoke, 1980), p55.

18  For example, see P.B. Rich, ‘Conservative Ideology and Race in Modern British Politics’ in Z. Layton-Henry & P.B. Rich (eds.), Race, Government and Politics in Britain (Basingstoke, 1986).

19  Conservative Party Archive (hereafter CPA) : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 6 Dec 1954, CRD 2/44/1. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

20  R. Lamb, The Failure of the Eden Government (London, 1987), pp18-9.

21  CPA : Commonwealth Affairs committee minutes, 17 July 1958, CCO 507/1/1.

22  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 2 Feb 1961, CRD 2/44/1.

23  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 6 July 1961, CRD 2/44/1.

24  Spencer, British Immigration,p101.

25 Notices of Motions : Immigration EDMs, February, May & June 1958. House of Lords Record Office, London.

26  The Republic already had a peculiar place in British immigration law. The 1948 British Nationality Act had given its citizens all the rights of British subjects, yet the Republic had not been a member of the Commonwealth since 1949.

27  CPA : Home Office Affairs and Commonwealth Affairs committee minutes, 6 July 1961, CRD 2/44/1.

28  For an account of the diplomatic exchanges between London and Dublin over the issue, see Commonwealth Relations Office papers (hereafter DO) : ‘Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, Consultation with the Irish Republic’, DO 175/65. National Archives, London.

29  Commons Debates : vol. 648, Col. 42-4, 31 Oct 1961.

30  The Times, 11 Nov 1961.

31  The Times, 12 Nov 1961.

32  Cabinet Minutes and Memoranda (hereafter CAB) : Cabinet conclusions, 9 Nov 1961, CAB 128/35 : CC (61) 61. National Archives, London.

33  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 14 Nov 1961, CRD 2/44/2.

34  The Times, 15 Nov 1961.

35 Commons Debates : Butler’s speech vol. 649, Col. 687-705 ; Hare’s speech vol. 649, Col. 803-12, 16 Nov 1961.

36  Macmillan Mss : Knox Cunningham minute to the Prime Minister, 17 Nov 1961, Macmillan Mss dep c 354. Knox-Cunningham’s reports are the most detailed and informative records of the party meetings they cover, although another full account of this meeting can be found in Butler Mss : RAB H/96. Trinity College, Cambridge. The official minutes of the 1922 committee are not nearly so revealing. CPA : 1922CMMTEE.

37  Prime Ministers Papers (hereafter PREM) : Undated note from Macleod to Macmillan, PREM 11/3238. National Archives, London.

38  See, for example, Barbara Brookes 1958 report on immigration. CPA : ‘West Indian, Asian & Southern-Irish Immigrants’, 7 June 1957, CCO 4/7/166.

39  Macmillan Mss : Knox Cunningham minute to the Prime Minister, 14 Nov 1961, Macmillan Mss dep c 354.

40  Ibid, 23 Nov 1961.

41  Ibid, 14 Nov 1961.

42  Ibid, 4 Dec 1961.

43  Ibid, 1 Dec 1961.

44  Ibid, 4 Dec 1961.

45 Commons Debates : vol. 654, Col. 1204-5.

46 Commons Debates : vol. 643, Col. 1242-3, 4 July 1961.

47  DO : ‘Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, Consultation with the Irish Republic’, DO 175/65.

48  CPA : Home Office Affairs committee minutes, 14 Nov 1961, CRD 2/44/2. This analysis is rather ironic, as Spencer argues that one of the effects of the 1962 Act was to change the nature of Black and Asian immigration from temporary migration into permanent settlement. Spencer British Immigration Policy pp132-3.

49 Commons Debates : vol. 649, Col. 717, 16 Nov 1961.

50  CAB : GEN.765/2nd meeting, CAB 130/180.

51  Macmillan Mss : diary entry, 30 Nov 1961, Macmillan Mss dep d 44.

52  Macmillan Mss : Knox Cunningham minute to the Prime Minister, 4 Dec 1961, Macmillan Mss dep c 354.

53 Commons Debates : vol. 651, Col. 233-408, 12 Dec 1961.

54  P. Norton, Dissension in the House of Commons : Intra Party Dissent in the House of Commons Division Lobbies, 1945-1974 (Basingstoke, 1975), p193.

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James McKay, « The Passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, a Case-Study of Backbench Power », Observatoire de la société britannique, 6 | 2008, 89-108.

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James McKay, « The Passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, a Case-Study of Backbench Power », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 6 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 18 août 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/433 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.433

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James McKay

Research fellow à l'Université de Birmingham

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