Swamping and the Migration Debate: The Sound of Silence?

Front Cover of Spearhead 129; July 1979

In January 2020, there was a flash of social media outrage around a piece on immigration and its impact by the BBC News. Though there were general concerns about the red colouring used on the map to show immigration numbers in different parts of the UK due to it potentially presenting a sense of threat or warning, the main point of complaint was related to an inset opinion by the BBC’s Home Affairs Editor, Mark Easton, which was deleted from the piece in a revision two days later. In it, Easton referred to the 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech by Enoch Powell and claimed that, since then, debate on migration had been silenced through accusations of “playing the race card”.

For many, Easton’s commentary ignored an often very problematic public debate around immigration that had occurred precisely following Enoch Powell’s speech. There are certainly those who were happy to wear the accusation of racialist as a badge of pride, those on the extreme right, and who also claimed that this issue was not being addressed seriously or honestly by the mainstream political parties. There are many examples that show the deep conversations that Easton’s statement erased from history which help examine how the radical right interacted with mainstream utterances on immigration during the three decades that Easton claimed contained no debate. This post in particular will examine the reaction of Spearhead, a leading magazine of the National Front, to perhaps one of the most totemic speeches on race in the post-Powell period: Thatcher’s comments on ‘Swamping’. First given in 1978 to a Scottish TV interview, this speech would be repeated in the 1979 election. Swamping itself was a term Spearhead and the National Front had been using to describe cultural and demographic change resulting from migration since at least 1970.

In her interview, Thatcher expressed understanding and even sympathy with those who felt their culture was being swamped by the waves of immigration. This brought on a strong reaction, and National Front publication Spearhead informed its readers of the reaction in Parliament that demanded she withdraw these remarks that were seen as beyond the pale of acceptable commentary – that, as Easton suggests, migration was not a subject appropriate for political discourse in this way. Of course, two things must be kept in mind. The first is that for Spearhead this fed into a long term narrative in which they asserted that any mention of race or migration by the mainstream will be clamped down upon to suppress discussion of this issue, contrasted against Spearhead’s ‘authentic’ or ‘true voice’ of public concerns. The second, which threatened the ability of Spearhead to maintain that narrative, is that in 1978 Thatcher was leader of the Conservative Party, one of the two main political parties of the United Kingdom. She did mention race and migration, and not only remained a leading figure in British politics but repeated the comments in 1979 and became Prime Minister.

Despite having claimed that Thatcher’s talk around migration was a ‘cynical electioneering gimic [sic]’ (Spearhead no. 115, Mar 1978, p. 2), Spearhead still argued that – following Thatcher’s success at the 1978 local elections – it proved the popularity of National Front policies, only in this case stolen by another party. Once Thatcher’s promises on migration (impossible – Spearhead argued – for her to keep with her party even if she wanted to) fell to the wayside, the National Front would be turned to as the only remaining ‘sensible’ party on migration. Spearhead pointed to Powell as proof of Thatcher’s inability to deliver on her rhetoric around race – Powell, an authentic Conservative voice on race even if not radical enough for Spearhead, had condemned Thatcher’s work as deception (Spearhead no. 115, Mar 1978, p. 8). Just a month before, in February 1978, Spearhead had covered the Federation of Conservative Students coming out against racialism alongside left wing and Jewish organisations. To Spearhead, it was no longer that people were not talking about race and migration, but instead they were highlighting how across the Conservative party it was being spoken about in such varied ways that they had no cohesive policy, no matter what Thatcher said.

This discussion by Thatcher on migration and race, and her repeating of the swamping rhetoric during the 1979 election is even credited by Spearhead in giving her victory. ‘Mrs. Thatcher’s oft-quoted remark about the British being “swamped” by the end of the century most likely earned her party at least a million votes’ proclaimed Spearhead (no. 128, May/Jun 1979, p. 3). No longer then was their argument that Thatcher and the mainstream were not discussing migration and race: ‘The question is, however: just what are the Tories going to do to prevent the swamping?’ (Spearhead, no. 128, May/Jun 1979, p. 3). This shift became more permanent in the months following the election, as turmoil gripped the National Front as its Chairman, John Tyndall, tried to demand absolute control ultimately resulting in his resignation. It became now focused not on how the mainstream no longer spoke about migration, but instead how this was a stealing of their rhetoric for deceptive purposes. As Tyndall broke away from the National Front in November of 1979, he sought to portray members opposed to him as somehow tied up to this conspiracy – content with the rhetoric that Thatcher offered on immigration, rather than true change.

In power, Thatcher took many actions that Spearhead saw as proof that her talk about migration was disingenuous – portraying her as ‘genuflecting to the shrill demands of African nabobs’ (Spearhead, no. 131, Sep 1979, p. 2) at Commonwealth conferences, and condemned her for accepting the Vietnamese Boat People who were ‘dope peddlers, vice operators, black marketeers, bar owners and other corrupt “businessmen”’ (Spearhead, no. 129, Jul 1979, p. 2). In seeking small and gradual change to British migration policies, Spearhead believed Thatcher had ‘succumb[ed] totally to the Western sickness’ (Spearhead, no. 130, Aug 1979, p. 2) and that the only salvation would be found in the radical revolution offered by Spearhead. Again, no longer a question of race and migration not being spoken of, but a refusal to engage now in radical and revolutionary action – such as mass deportation and forced repatriation – showed that Thatcher was not serious when she spoke of it.

As this brief examination has shown with just one incident, debates around migration and race continued after Enoch Powell published “Rivers of Blood”, a fact which contradicts the three decades of ‘silence’ referred to by Mark Easton in January 2020. The response of Spearhead and the National Front also shows how compromise through mainstreaming of their concerns did not result in acquiescence, but instead shifted to more extreme demands from the radical right – though Spearhead did argue it also brought electoral benefits for Thatcher. Journalists and others who want to engage on this issue should approach with caution this complex and multifaceted political and social space that historians are themselves only just beginning to come to grips with. The simplest answer to Easton is perhaps given by the BBC editors in their note on the revised version of the article on January 22nd: ‘this topic, encompassing half a century of immigration policy, was too broad to cover in a brief text box’.

Mr Daniel Jones is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of History, University of Northampton. See his profile here.

© Daniel Jones. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).