As Britain’s place in the world and its relations with its neighbours are in question after the EU referendum, I publish this extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Although it was largely written in 2014, I leave readers to decide whether there are any parallels to be drawn.]
Michael Ramsey was certain that the obligations of the UK to its former subject peoples had not ended with their independence. This legacy of affinities, familial ties, obligation and guilt touched daily life in Britain directly in the form of immigration from the Commonwealth. That immigration began, symbolically at least, with the arrival of the SS Windrush at Tilbury in 1948, but the temperature of debate about its effects and its limits reached a new height in Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The Sixties saw two related series of legislation, one of which dismayed liberal opinion, and a second that pleased it. Beginning with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, Parliament limited for the first time the total number of immigrants to Britain, and subsequently introduced what amounted to a racial qualification for that entry. In parallel, mounting tension in local areas, from west London to the west Midlands, prompted legislation to protect the immigrant population from discrimination once they had reached and settled in the UK.
In the midst of this, Prime Minister Wilson asked Ramsey to chair the new National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, set up by the government to monitor the situation of immigrants in the UK. It was highly politicised work, which saw police protection officers shadowing Ramsey in 1968 after threats were made to his life, and National Front hecklers at a public meeting. The NCCI was for some an unwarranted interference in the rights of Englishmen to discriminate against the outsider as they pleased; while for others including Ramsey it was not half as powerful as it needed to be.
Ramsey spoke out frequently on immigration and community relations, from the beginning of his time at Canterbury until the end. Two principles guided his speaking. As with Rhodesia, Britain had obligations to the peoples of the Commonwealth: promises it had made about the British citizenship they could expect to enjoy. Ramsey had been in India as news of the 1962 Bill had spread, and it had ‘been a great shock and in future years, very likely, history will note it as one of the shocks in the story of our country and Commonwealth.’ Ramsey spoke of ‘this lamentable Bill, this Bill introduced with repugnance, this Bill which is indeed deplorable’: strong words in the context of his dealings with the House of Lords.
The nation also had obligations to those who needed to flee their own country. March 1968 saw the rapid introduction of legislation to restrict the flow of Kenyans of Asian extraction, many of whom had retained British passports, who had been forced out of Kenya by the government of Jomo Kenyatta. Ramsey stayed up late into the night to speak and vote against the Kenyan Asians Bill. The Act left Kenyan Asians with a paper citizenship, without substance when it really mattered, and thus ‘virtually involves this country in breaking its word.’ The nation had during its colonial history ‘by its total action, involved itself in a certain obligation, and … this Bill abrogates that obligation.’
Enoch Powell made what was an almost certainly conscious reference to Ramsey in what has become known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech of 1968. Powell attacked ‘Archbishops who live in palaces, faring delicately, with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads’: they had the matter ‘exactly and diametrically wrong.’ Even if Powell thought restricting the flow of migrants was a humane policy, in the best interests of the immigrant himself, Ramsey was sure it failed on pragmatic grounds. To pull up the drawbridge and to leave a rump of isolated people who felt unwelcome was to create a ‘dangerous ghetto situation’. There was already real tension in local communities, and discrimination in housing, employment and other matters, both overt and covert. Ramsey knew that the new Community Relations Commission, set up in 1968, needed more staff and more money than the NCCI had had, and that the Race Relations Board needed more teeth in enforcement of the law.
There was a second and stronger ground on which to resist the direction of Powell’s thinking, and work towards better relations between communities. There was a small but durable strand of thought amongst some Christians that connected national identity with racial purity, however defined. Ramsey would have none of this; the questions turned on ‘basic Christian beliefs in the equality of man’. Although it did not contain a racial qualification, Ramsey knew that the 1962 Bill would nonetheless be viewed that way: ‘The news, put very crudely, has travelled about in the form, “Great Britain will admit Irish people without restriction but will restrict immigrants from the West Indies.” The Kenyan Asians Bill contained what had become known as the ‘grandfather clause’, which although technically about geography, was for Ramsey bound to act as a racial distinction, such as white Kenyans would by and large not be restricted but Kenyan Asians would. The clause ‘virtually distinguishes United Kingdom citizens on the score of race’.
Despite the threats made on his own life, Ramsey was still able to take a characteristically long view in the House of Lords: ‘Centuries hence our successors may be astonished at this phase in human history, that there was so much trouble and discussion about the colour of human skin.’ Ramsey was not naïve about the part which questions of race played. As well as the ‘frank colour prejudice which certainly exists’, trouble arose ‘when colour becomes a symbol for things more complex than itself. That, I believe, is part of our contemporary tragedy in this country.’ But there was work to be done, and delicate balances to be struck between competing interests.
There was a further aspect to race relations at home, which Ramsey as traveller and confidant of Anglicans worldwide, saw more clearly than politicians in the UK. There was a worldwide crisis in race relations; it hung in the balance ‘whether in the world as a whole there is to be racial conflict or racial harmony.’ Not least in the Commonwealth, and in southern Africa, populations of different origins thrown together by force of colonial circumstance were faced with the task of working out new ways of living. The Race Relations Bill, through ‘the help which this Bill gives to the building up of good community relations in this country will be a contribution which our country can make to racial harmony in the world at large.’ Ramsey had not lost faith in the role that the British could play on a world stage.