The 1969 demonstration against Apartheid and the Springboks' tour outside Victoria Park gates. (Coventry Evening Standard)
The beginnings of Anti-Racism in Leicester
The Inter-Racial Solidarity Campaign was founded in Leicester as a direct response to the growth of overtly racist groups. Up until 1969, the University Ant-Racialist Committee had campaigned against the existence of colour bars in Leicester and later the Leicester Campaign for Racial Equality had lobbied to get the toothless 1965 Race Relations Act strengthened.
During 1968, the policy of Africanisation pushed many Asians out of Kenya. The response of the Labour Government was to introduced its notorious 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act. It was passed in a record seven days and prohibited British passport-holding Asians from coming to the Britain. They were to be excluded on the grounds that they did not have a father or grandfather born in the UK.
As a sop, the government passed the 1968 Race Relations Act extending the scope of the 1965 Act by making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins and created the Community Relations Commission (CRC) to promote ‘harmonious community relations.’
The second reading 1968 Race Relations Bill on 23 April, occasioned Enoch Powell to make his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he cited a constituent who worried that ‘the black man’ would now ‘have the whip hand over the white man’. It was in this climate that the Anti-Immigration Society (AIMS) was set up in Leicester. Members of AIMS were later to establish the Leicester branch of the National Front in March 1969
In May 1969, Leicester's first anti-apartheid march and rally took place during the visit of the South African trade mission to the City which was led by South African ambassador to Leicester on 15th May 1969. (The mission visited 18 major cities in the UK.) Campaigners picketed the Grand Hotel where the mission was staying and a 500 strong march progressed from Spinney Hill Park down into town. According to the Leicester Mercury, when they arrived at the Grand Hotel they were met by about 40 National Front counter-demonstrators lining the pavement who were "jeering and booing and at times being obscene and offensive." The National Front group was led by Martin Webster, one of the Front's national leaders.
After half an hour, the anti apartheid demonstrators went to St James Church where a meeting was held. However, the police had to be called to eject members of the National front who attempted to disrupt the meeting.
The formation of Inter-Racial Solidarity
With the formation of a National Front branch in Leicester, the need to have a local organisation to fight against the growing threat of racial intolerance became clear both to the local Indian Workers' Association and Leicester Communist Party.
The key figures in the formation of IRSC were Mohinder Farma of the Indian Workers' Association and Maggie Gracie (formerly Nandy) . Others involved included Harry Foreman and Ray Sutton. They envisaged IRSC as a broadly based, militant body which would combat the emergence of racialism in Leicester.
40 organisations were contacted and 20 or so sent representatives to the first meeting and the Inter-Racial Solidarity Campaign was formed in Leicester in 1969. Although they agreed the most obvious and urgent task was for the committee to oppose racism, they also believed it was important to combat the conditions, like poor housing, which gave rise to racism.
In September 1969, IRSC organised a demonstration to protest at the visit of Enoch Powell to the De Monfort Hall at the invitation of the Harborough Conservatives. Several thousand leaflets were printed and distributed outside the hall, and some 300 people paraded with placards. The demonstration was given very little space in the Mercury.
In Novmebr 1969, an anti-apartheid demonstration against the South African Springboks' tour was organised by students groups, in conjunction with the Inter-Racial Solidarity Committee. All local police leave was cancelled and police squads from nine other forces were called in to help and about 1,000 police took part in the operation to ensure that the Springboks' game with the Midland Counties East went ahead.
The protest began three hours before the kick-off with a mass rally in Victoria Park, then 2,000 anti-apartheid demonstrators, flanked by scores of police officers, marched through Leicester to the rugby ground.
The aim was to get inside the ground and there was a clash with the police when marchers surged through the first of two police cordons. Flags were torn from the grasp of students and ripped by the police. However the ground was easy to defend and only a few people were able to get in. Nevertheless, there were interruptions to the match at varying times as about a dozen demonstrators were able to run on to the pitch. There was also a brief sit-down on the 10 yard line.
1970 General Election
Although the British Union of Fascists had selected a parliamentary candidate in the 1930s for Leicester, before 1970 the extreme had not stood in any election. However in the 1970 general election, there was a racist candidate in all four Leicester constituencies. In consequence, Inter-Racial Solidarity leaflets to be given out during the election. Leaflet campaigns like this were to become the staple activity of I.R.S.C. at every election during the 1970s.
The racist parties polled 4,680 votes between them; the Anti Immigration Society candidate in Leicester North East had the best result with 1,616 votes (5.25%). The the two National Front candidates and that of the National Democratic Party received between 2.3 - 2.69% of the vote.
The Ugandan refugees
1972 is something of a low point in Leicester's history. The imminent arrival of arrival of refugees expelled from Uganda allowed the Leicester Mercury to create a climate of panic. At that time, the Mercury had a circulation of 169,000 six days a week and its coverage influenced the broadcast media, particularly ATV. In its monopolistic position, Mercury was able to frame the debate about immigration and its editor, John Fortune, bore a responsibility for fostering subsequent racist attitudes in the City.
The Leicester Mercury had a far greater focus on race and colour and in the reporting of crimes and court cases, "West Indian," "Asian" and "Immigrant" were frequently used to describe offenders. No such descriptions were used for white criminals. In 1972, the Mercury presented the Ugandan Asians as ‘coloured immigrants’, as opposed to the Manchester Evening News, which described them as refugees. On 24th February the Leicester Mercury ran the headline 'Asians heading for Leicester.'
From the beginning of the year the Leicester Mercury constantly speculated about possible numbers coming and the impact that this would have on Leicester. In April students at the University led a campaign against the racist coverage of the Mercury including a protest march to the Mercury office itself.
In May 1972, the NF contested their first local elections. Their 6 candidates polled an average of 8.2% of the votes cast. In June 1972, the National Front held its first march in Leicester. It was hardly a mass turnout with only 130 people and that included coach parties from elsewhere in the Midlands. The march assembled at the Merry Monarch pub and proceeded down Hinckley & Narborough Road to King Richard III school where a public meeting was held with “selective admission.” According to the Leicester Mercury, an opposing rally consisting of Young Communists, International Socialists, The Royal British Legion, Leicester Conservative Party and a few "coloured immigrants" was held. They followed peacefully behind the marchers, but they were not allowed into the meeting. John Tyndall addressed the meeting which called for an end to coloured immigration.
During August and september 1972, the Mercury suggested that 10-15,000 refugees were heading for Leicester. Words such as ‘invasion, flood and influx’ on pages of Mercury created a sense of panic amongst the public. On August 16th the Mercury ran the headline "Asians offered 2,000 Homes in Leicester." This led to a spate of hostile letters to the paper and Bob Trewick, the Labour 'chairman' of the Council's Housing Committee quickly bowed to the pressure. (see above). About 6,000 of the 30,000 Ugandan Asians who came to the UK settled in Leicester.
Leicester City Council
The City Council's reaction to the arrival of refuges left a stain of the City Council character which lasted for several years. On 31st August 1972, the City Council passed a motion which stated that: “The Housing, social service, Health and Education services of the City are already stretched to capacity.” The resolution went on to offer emergency measures to shelter the refugees as a temporary measure (with Govt financial help), but asked that efforts be made to persuade the refugees to “look elsewhere for permanent settlement.” The well known Nazi Colin Jordan was in the gallery and scattered leaflets into the Council Chamber.
It was said that the Labour and Conservative groups on the City Council stood white shoulder to white shoulder in their hope of retaining their share of white working class loyalty and votes. There was a revolt against this descent into xenophobia by nine Labour councillors led by Cllr Rev Alan Billings, whose dissent saved the Labour Party from complete ignominy.
It was well known that Leicester would be a popular destination for those travelling to Britain as refugees and Leicester County Council responded to these concerns by placing an advertisement in a Ugandan newspaper, The Ugandan Argus, warning Asians not to settle in Leicester. But the advert did not stop Ugandan Asians from travelling to Leicester; in fact, it simply advertised to them that thise was a city in England with a large Asian population.
During this time racist graffiti started to appear on the walls around the city. Insisting that no-one else was speaking up for the white working-class, the NF joined with the Enoch Powell Support Group and others to organize another march on 9th September 1972 . It was claimed that 600 people were on the march through the city. In the face of the mounting hysteria, IRSC tried to redress the balance with a demonstration in opposition to the toxic atmosphere that what was been generated.
On October 21st 1972, 5,000 people marched through Leicester in opposition racism in Leicester. The march drew on contingents from many other towns, but there was no official Labour presence. Many came from outside Leicester to protest and there were contingents from IWA, Leicester & Manchester Trades Council, the Black People's Freedom Party, IS and CP as well as Street Theatre Company. A rally was held at the University. Whilst some marchers chanted "Blame the Tories not the blacks," they were ghosted by a couple of NF supporters who shouted "Blame the Blacks not the Tories."
Despite its generous estimate of numbers on the march, the Mercury relegated its coverage of the march to a short piece on an inside page. On the front page it ran a story about a white licensee being evicted from his off licence in Spinney Hill by Everards brewery to make way for a "coloured" tenant. This was a great piece of propaganda for the NF who said they would make a complaint to the Race Relations Board. Everards was also the brewery responsible for the Admiral Nelson pub where there had been a colour bar up to 1964.
1973 local elections
Before the 1973 council elections, IRSC leaflet ran a leaflet campaign, but it was hard to compete with the racist outpourings that were published on the Mercury's letters page. Thirty one letters supporting the NF were also published. One local resident wrote: ‘my son and I have supported the Conservative party in all previous elections but shall now vote for the NF’, going on to say: ‘nor are we Nazis, but ordinary intelligent people.’
The NF’s 1973 election leaflet drew on local anxieties about race, claiming that there had been 266 new cases of TB in Leicester. It also advocated ethnic cleansing by the compulsory repatriation of "coloured immigrants" and their British born children.
The NF stood 26 candidates in 10 out of the 16 wards in the City, but in two wards they faced competition from the rival Enoch Powell support group. The NF significantly improved its share of the vote and in two wards they beat the Tories into second place gaining 27.1% of the vote in Latimer ward. In only one wards did they take less than 10% of the vote and if you include the Enoch Powell Support Group, then in 10 wards, the racists took just over 20% of the vote. On average the NF received 646 votes per candidate (399 in 1972). This compares with the West Bromwich by-election where the National Front took 16% of the vote. Although Leicester was now the NF’s fastest growing
area, this support was not carried forward into the general elections of 1974 where the best NF result was 7.5% of votes cast in Leicester East.
43 year old Krishnalal Shah became Leicester’s first Asian councillor. He was a Kenyan Asian who had first come to prominence in working for the reception of the Ugandan Asian refugees. He was also a member of the Community relations Council. He was a shopkeeper and owner of Shah’s Emporium. At the election count a member of the National Front poured a cup of tea over him and the Leicester Mercury ran the page one headline: ‘Leicester Gets First Immigrant Cllr.’
© Ned Newitt