1Perceptions of John Major’s handling of migratory and ‘multicultural’ affairs are often influenced by two assumptions.
2The first assumption is that the Major years were a comparatively uneventful period as regards the ‘race issue’, not least owing to the absence of significant inner city riots, such as those that occurred under Margaret Thatcher (e.g. Saint Paul’s, 1980; Brixton and Toxteth, 1981; Tottenham, 1985) and Tony Blair (e.g. Bradford & Oldham, 2001; Lozells, 2005).
3The second one is that the post-1990 Conservative governments, like those headed by Margaret Thatcher, had an assimilationist stance and were hostile to the ‘multicultural society’. The increasingly strict immigration controls introduced by the Conservatives, including under the successive Major governments, are frequently used to illustrate that view.
4In order to discuss and possibly, challenge these assumptions, this paper will first take stock of the actual policies and measures put in place under John Major towards immigration and diversity management, before assessing the impact of the various challenges and obstacles that John Major was confronted with, both within the ethnic minorities and his own political camp.
- 1 Ed Vaizey, “On race we constantly get our hands scalded”, The Guardian, 28 March 2001.
- 2 John Solomos, Race and Racism in Britain, 2nd edition, London, Macmillan, 1993.
5 Conservative MP Ed Vaizey once summarised the Conservative’s traditional attitude to immigration and ‘race’ as follows: “We are drawn to the race issue like a child is drawn to the fire and we constantly get our hands scalded”1. Though fairly accurate overall, that remark does no justice to John Major’s genuine efforts to acknowledge Britain’s cultural and ethnic diversity, promote equal opportunities as well as a less exclusive form of Britishness. Looking at the 1990-1997 period, one cannot but notice that that period saw no departure from the ‘dual interventionist strategy’2 (i.e. a combination of immigration controls and anti-discriminatory measures), at the core of British immigration and diversity management policies since the mid-1960s.
- 3 Didier Lassalle, Les minorités ethniques en Grande-Bretagne : Aspects démographiques et sociologiq (...)
- 4 Ibid.
6As regards immigration controls, the fact that there was an obvious sense of continuity with the Thatcher era should not be used to dismiss John Major’s policies as right-wing, as Labour governments since the 1960s have consistently introduced immigration restrictions. The Major governments especially targeted what Tories perceived as the hitherto over-generous political asylum legislation. Indeed, it cannot be denied that there was a skyrocketing increase in the numbers of asylum applicants, from an average of 4,000 a year in the 1985-88 period to 48,800 in 1991 alone.3 The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act was therefore passed in 1993. However, loopholes in the legislation led to a renewed increase in applications (39,000 in 1996), thus convincing the government to pass a more coercive piece of legislation, the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, which came into effect on January 1st 1997. The other aim of the Act was to tackle illegal immigration, the other priority of the government. Thus, between June 1994 & June 1996, 19,500 illegal immigrants were identified, 6,300 of whom were repatriated.4
7As regards anti-discriminatory measures, the Race Relations legislation framed by the various Wilson governments (notably the 1976 Race Relations Act and its main provision, the Commission for Racial Equality) was kept intact.
8Not only was the existing framework upheld, but it was expanded along what be described as ‘multiculturalist’ lines.
- 5 The 1991 census was partly inspired by the 1990 US census, which featured four ethno-racial catego (...)
9The 1991 census was the first one to feature a question on ethnicity, although the decision to add that question originated in the 1980s. The eight ethno-racial categories were “Black”, “Black-Caribbean”, “Black-African”, “Black-Other”, “Indian”, “Pakistani”, “Bangladeshi” and “Chinese”. The people who didn’t fit in those categories were allowed to combine several of them.5
- 6 John Carvel, “Call to Reform Race Law”, The Guardian, 13 June 1991.
10Beyond the symbolic value of those new categories, which testified to some degree of public recognition of racial and cultural differences and indeed a new element, namely, hybridity, the ethnicity question was seen as necessary by a variety of social actors in order to assess the real extent of diversity, segregation and inequalities. The logic behind the ethnicity question therefore paved the way for the extension and generalisation of ethnic monitoring, seen by some as a prerequisite in order to devise more efficient equal opportunity strategies. In 1991, the CRE asked for a reform of the 1976 Race Relations Act, in order to generalise ethnic monitoring and make it a legal obligation for employers.6
- 7 Bernie Grant,The Guardian, 10 December 1990, “John Major cannot rid his party of racism by wishing (...)
11 Unsurprisingly, at a time when Labour was creating ‘Black sections’ in order to spur ethnic minority political participation and representation, some left-wing figures within Labour ranks, such as Bernie Grant, one of the four Black section MPs, insisted on the need to take stock of the specific challenges affecting members of the ethnic minorities and address them, notably through positive discrimination measures: “Action must be taken with John Major much to the fore, to deal with individual acts of racism […] If he fails to move along this path, it is hard to see the classless meritocracy that he talks about ever being realised.”7
12More surprising perhaps was the pressure exerted by public-sector agencies to generalise and extend ethnic monitoring. Local Authorities pioneered in the field of ethnic monitoring, as Section 71 of the 1976 Race Relations Act required them “to make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that their various functions are carried out with due regard to the need a) to eliminate unlawful discrimination b) to promote equality of opportunity, and good relations, between persons of different racial groups”8
- 9 John Carvel, “NHS anti-racism policies ‘failing’”, The Guardian, 13 June 1991.
13In June 1991, a report by the King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London, a health service research organisation, made a strong case to expand and systematise recourse to ethnic monitoring within the NHS. Indeed, monitoring of NHS equal opportunity policies between 1986 and 1990 by the Fund had revealed their failure to deliver adequate services targeted at ethnic minority and other disadvantaged groups.9
14Likewise, in April 1996, the Home Office made it compulsory for all police forces to monitor the ethnic origin of suspects and offenders, arguing that for many years the criminal justice system had been alleged to discriminate against ethnic minorities and that black people were supposedly disproportionately involved in crime. Those assumptions were compounded by the figures produced by pilot ethnic monitoring surveys introduced in prisons under Mrs Thatcher. Section 95 of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act was put forward by those favourable to the extension of ethnic monitoring to the police. That section makes it a requirement for the Home Secretary to publish ‘information’ to assist those responsible for the criminal justice system to avoid discrimination.10
15Besides, on many occasions during his seven years in office, John Major recognised Britain’s multicultural dimension and the positive contribution of immigrant communities.
16After leaving N° 10, he implicitly admitted that his meritocratic ‘classless society’ speech targeted racial as well as class barriers: "When I talked of a classless society I wanted to say that the people who pushed wheelbarrows when I mixed cement for a living were human beings worthy of respect. Class distinction is to me exactly the same as racial discrimination".11
- 12 Alan Travis, ‘Major raises horror spectre’ The Guardian, 31 March 1992.
- 13 The Political Quarterly, January-March 1993, “Ethnic Minority Candidates in general elections”, p. (...)
17 John Major’s good will and personal efforts to create both a country “at ease with itself” and a more inclusive Conservative Party shouldn’t be denied. In December 1990, just a few days after Major’s arrival at N° 10, black candidate John Taylor was adopted as Conservative candidate for Cheltenham. Although that previously safe seat fell to the Liberal-Democrats in 1992, John Major got personally involved in the campaign, making a personal appearance on his upturned soapbox in the run up to the election.12 Overall in 1992, although no black or Asian Conservative MP was elected, John Major’s party adopted eight ethnic-minority candidates (four of whom in Birmingham and Bradford alone, including a Muslim in Bradford North), that is, almost as many as Labour’s nine non-white candidates and more than the Liberal-Democrats’ six candidates.13
- 14 Charles Leadbeater, “The Tory Years. And so we say farewell”, The Observer, 4 May 1997.
18The comparative calm of the Major years on the race relations front was acknowledged straight after John Major’s 1997 defeat by Charles Leadbeater, then an advisor to Tony Blair: “Britain is more open to immigration and ideas from abroad than many EU states; its relative racial calm is envied in France”.14 Although that quotation reflects a widely shared belief, it would be simplistic to assume that ‘race relations’ were smooth in the 1990-1997 period or that John Major’s immigration and diversity management policies were only opposed by Labour. In fact, Major was confronted with two main difficulties: the opposition he encountered within his own political camp on the one hand, and the radicalisation of the Muslim community one the other hand.
- 15 The Independent, 14 December 1990
- 16 The Political Quarterly, “Ethnic Minority Candidates in general elections”, January-March 1993, p. (...)
- 17 “Cheltenham Tory rebels challenge black candidate”, The Guardian, 23 December 1990
- 18 The Journal [Newcastle] 23 August 1991, quoted in The Political Quarterly, “Ethnic Minority Candid (...)
- 19 “Racism charge clouds result”, The Guardian, 9 November 1991.
19Two weeks after John Major’s arrival at N°10, a poll showed that 39% of Conservative supporters were racially prejudiced, as against 29% of Labour supporters.15That poll unsurprisingly revealed that immigration and ‘race’ remained hot political issues and potential election losers, twenty-five years after the inception of the Race Relations legislation. It gives a rough idea of the difficulties posed to John Major’s race relations strategy. On countless occasions, John Major’s efforts to diversify his party were often opposed by the Tory grassroots. Here are a few examples. In December 1990, the Cheltenham Conservative Association tried to deselect John Taylor, who had just been adopted16. The Conservative leadership supported him, but a member of the local Conservative association, Bill Galbraith, expressed on national television his dissatisfaction over the adoption of a ‘bloody nigger’17. Galbraith was subsequently expelled from the local Conservative Association, as well as from two local pubs. John Taylor’s failure to win that previously safe seat in 1992, has often been attributed to the alleged racial prejudice of the local Tory electorate and to the ambivalence, to say the least; of the local Conservative association. Likewise the Wallsend Conservatives adopted Hugh Neil, a black candidate in November 1990, but unexpectedly replaced him in August 1991, Neil suggesting having been treated in a manner ‘incompatible with normal decency’.18 Likewise, hostility to a non-white Labour candidate was felt when Labour candidate Ashok Kumar won marginal Langbaurgh seat at a by-election held in November 1991, despite the very small-sized BME population in the constituency. Labour accused the local Conservative Party of playing the race card, by unnecessarily emphasising Dr Kumar’s race, using his photograph, referring to his place of birth (ie. Hardwar, India) and frequently his name in their own literature. Labour veteran Roy Hattersley called the Langbaurgh campaign on race :“the dirtiest campaign I have known since the Tories did very similar things in Smethwick, 27 years ago”19.
20Tory mavericks were also instrumental in blurring John Major’s efforts to promote a more inclusive Conservative Party. A striking example came in 1993, following a speech by Winston Churchill, the grandson of Britain’s eponymous wartime leader, in which he paid a tribute to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and insisted that Muslims would outnumber Christians in a matter of few decades.20 John Major immediately reacted to the speech, by half-jokingly saying that fifty years hence spinsters would still cycle to communion on Sunday morning, to which Churchill replied, “More likely the muezzin will be calling Allah's faithful to the High Main Street Mosque”21. Churchill’s response was obviously criticised, although it is to be noted that in 1994, Tariq Modood, one of Britain’s leading Muslim academics expressed a surprisingly similar view in an article published in the Political Quarterly:
- 22 Tariq Modood, “Establishment, Multiculturalism and Citizenship”, The Political Quarterly, January- (...)
“In any case levels of membership are likely to be higher amongst Jews, Sikhs & Hindus and considerably higher amongst Muslims [than among Christians …] So not only is the population faiths of these religions larger than active members of the Church of England but if present trends in demography and membership continue, Islam will take over the Church of England within two or three decades.”22
- 23 “Major denies Tory Racism”, The Guardian, 22 April 1997.
21Later, during the 1997 general election campaign, an embarrassed John Major had to deny the penchant of his party for racist declarations, following a series of racial blunders stemming from the Tory backbench.23
22The attitude of the Tory backbench and grassroots therefore seriously undermined Major’s earnest attempt to change his party’s image. The particularly tense national and international contexts and the way they impacted on large sections of the ethnic minorities also proved a hindrance to his efforts to broaden the Conservatives’ traditional appeal.
- 24 Anthony Mc Roy, From Rushdie to 7/7 : The Radicalisation of Islam in Britain, London, the Social A (...)
23It is argued that Britain’s Muslim community radicalised because it was hit by several crises at once. The Rushdie affair saw British Muslims accused of possessing values hostile to Britain’s cultural norms. During the Gulf War, they were accused of being disloyal to Britain, while the Bosnian crisis led to concern among many British Muslims that they could be the next targets of European Islamophobia.24
- 25 Mc Roy, p.2
- 26 “Rushdie broke Islamic Pact”, The Guardian, 17 December 1991.
24Although the Rushdie Affair began in 1988 with the publication of the Satanic Verses and reached its climax after Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in February 1989, its residual impact could still be felt throughout the Major era. The Thatcher government’s refusal to ban The Satanic Verses had antagonised the Muslim Community25, the vast majority of whom then accepted Khomeini’s fatwa. In December 1991, Rushdie’s suggestion that there should be a paperback version of the Satanic Verses twisted the knife in the wound26 and created a stir among vast swathes of Britain’s Muslim community. In any case, the Rushdie affair served as a catalyst for the mobilisation and organisation of Britain’s predominantly Asian Muslims, who had been described as a model or indeed, invisible minority, notably owing to their absence from the riots of the 1980s, the chief actors of which had been Afro-Caribbeans.
- 27 Peter Murtagh, “Rushdie in hiding after Ayatollah's death threat”, The Guardian, Saturday February (...)
25Right from the outset, that mobilisation occurred along fairly radical lines, as shown in the way Iqbal Sacranie - a well-known Muslim leader and a co-founder of the Muslim Council of Britain, which he later headed between 2002 and 2006 - reacted to the issuing of the fatwa targeting Rushdie: "Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him. His mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness to Almighty Allah."27
- 28 Mc Roy, p. 173
- 29 Mc Roy, p. 170.
26Hundreds of Muslim organisations were founded throughout the country in the wake of the publication of the Satanic Verses, among which UKACIA (UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, formed at the end of 1988 to coordinate protests against Rushdie). On 30 April 1994, in Birmingham, UKACIA-affiliated organisations decided to create a National Interim Committee on Muslim Unity (NICMU) so as to provide the adequate and efficient representation which British Muslims had lacked during their unsuccessful campaign to have Rushdie’s book banned. In May 1996, NICMU delegates decided to create the Muslim Council of Britain, Britain’s leading Muslim umbrella organisation. Whereas the emergence of that representative body was the outcome of a 7-year-long community mobilisation, the involvement of John Major’s government was minimalist. In 1994, Michael Howard, the then Home secretary, merely encouraged UKACIA to create a representative council that the Government would support and recognise28). The laissez-faire attitude of the British government came in sharp contrast with the French government’s dirigiste attitude during the setting up of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, a representative body comparable to the Muslim Council of Britain. When the Muslim representative body was officially launched in 1997, it issued a document entitled Seeking the Common Good, in which the insecurity of British Mulsims was obvious and the reference to the Rushdie affair, explicit: « Increasingly, coordination and unity is now seen as a question of the very survival of our community. […] events like the publication of grossly abusive and sacrilegious material have shown the need and the value of greater coordination in the Muslim community.» 29
27Rushdie aside, that sense of insecurity had no doubt been aggravated by the Gulf War & ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
28In January 1991, after the launch of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Muslims, the vast majority of whom did not originate from Arab countries, expressed their disarray and, sometimes, resentment throughout the country in the name of the ummah, ie. the community of the believers.
- 30 Martin Wainwright, “Muslim leaders condemn allies”, The Guardian, 21 January 1991.
29Pir Maroof, the leader of a Sunni mosque in Bradford thus told the Guardian: “[…] any gains which the allies think they have made, will be lost in a much greater destruction. That is the destruction of trust between Muslims and the West in our lifetime”. New community organisations appeared, notably a national body, the “Supreme Council of the British Muslim Conference”, which condemned the action against Iraq as ‘anti-Muslim’ and called for the overthrow of Islamic governments in the coalition against Saddam Hussein.30
30Western governments with sizable Muslim populations therefore found themselves in a double bind, and John Major’s Government was no exception. The fact that the British government sent troops in Iraq was contrasted with its refusal to intervene in Bosnia, whose Muslim population was the target of ethnic cleansing. Anthony Mc Roy suggests that in Northern cities like Oldham or Bradford, where inter-ethnic riots broke out years later in 2001, police reports noted that “Muslim youth attacks on non-Muslims became a problem around 1992-1996, i.e. around the time of the Gulf and Bosnian crises. Similarly the attacks on churches in Bradford go back to about the same time.” Conversely, although such incidents were comparatively marginal, Muslims and mosques were targeted, in the North and elsewhere. Therefore, despite the absence of large scale inter-ethnic confrontations, race relations were not so quiet, which proved a real challenge to John Major.
31Two conclusions may be drawn from this brief survey of John Major’s handling of migratory and multicultural affairs.
32On the one hand, no matter how vocal the Tory right may have been in criticising ‘multicultural Britain’: multiculturalism was upheld and indeed extended under John Major. Ironically multiculturalism has been far more questioned in the past eleven years than it was under the eighteen years of Conservative rule.
33However John Major’s moderation doesn’t mean that he always was exemplary. His government was responsible for the coining of the notorious ‘bogus asylum seekers’ phrase, which the tabloid press was only too happy to pick up. Furthermore the stubbornness and indeed refusal of his government to identify the concept of ‘institutional racism’ after Stephen Lawrence’s murder impacted negatively on the Conservative Party’s image in the run up to the 1997 general election. However, after the 1997 defeat, Tories under the leadership of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard probably conveyed a less inclusive image of their party and it took David Cameron’s efforts to restore some degree of ethnic minority appeal.
- 31 John Major, “42-day detention: the threat to our liberty”, The Times, June 6, 2008
34On the other hand, the Major years were in no way a calm period on the immigration and race relations front. Actually, with the hindsight, many of today’s problems and challenges seem to have originated in the 1990-1997 period. Issues that have been central since 9/11 and 7/7, i.e. the radicalisation of Islam and the rising tensions between the various communities that make up the population of inner cities and other deprived areas emerged during the Major era, notably during the Rushdie Affair and the Gulf and Bosnian crises. In 2001, the Bradford riots were a decisive element in the British government’s decision to put ‘community cohesion’ on top of the political agenda. Immigration and above all diversity management used to be a clear-cut ideological cleavage between the Conservatives and Labour, which is much less obvious today, with Labour introducing an identity card (which it opposed so much under John Major that the plan to introduce it was given up in 1992) or trying to bring the detention period for terrorism suspects to 42 days, which many Conservatives, including Sir John himself, have vehemently opposed 31.