Today's blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
This winter marks the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act being passed. It was a statute that promoted equal opportunities for all. The Home Secretary, James Callaghan and activists such as Dr David Pitt were rightly praised for their endeavours and have been much chronicled in our social history. But one person who was perhaps more influential to this cause has been somewhat forgotten over time, that man is Fenners Brockway, who is possibly the greatest political campaigner you have never heard of.
A Born Radical
Archibald Fenner Brockway (1888-1988) was a child of the Empire, born in Calcutta to Christian missionary parents. While they travelled the South Asian continent spreading the gospel, Brockway spent his formative years at a school for the Sons of Missionaries in Blackheath, where he found a dual-love for racing pigeons and socialism. On leaving education he become a journalist then soon after joined the Independent Labour Party. By the outbreak of the First World War he was editing party publication Labour Leader. Influenced by pacifists like Bertrand Russell he used his editorial position to promote the No-Conscription Fellowship. His prominent role in the NCF led to a two-year imprisonment which included an eight-month period in solitary confinement. He left prison physically weaken but his sense of conscience was no less diminished, the future was bright for the still young Fenners.
Here to Reform
A career as an MP beckoned and he stood against Winston Churchill in a Westminster by-election in the 1920s. Both men lost, but when elected to Parliament for East Leyton in 1929, Churchill wrote to Brockway stating,’ I hate your politics, but you deserve to be here’. It was a short-lived tenure, but the inter-war years saw an internationalist agenda begin to define his politics as he became chairman of the British Centre for Colonial Freedom. Their call for decolonisation saw him become a trusted ally to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi. In the 1950 General Election he won the seat for Eton and Slough replacing the playwright Benn Levy. This constituency simmered with resentment towards its expanding Commonwealth immigrant communities. Unlike many of his contemporaries who chose to ignore these social tensions, Brockway took it upon himself to support those experiencing prejudice. In June 1956 he said in Parliament, ‘There must be recognition that all persons are born equal in rights and dignity, whatever their race, colour or religion, that is the fundamental condition of social justice, liberty and peace.’ For nine long years his efforts to establish race discrimination legislation was met with a mixture of apathy and aggression. Even an attempting kidnapping could not keep him quiet but eventually momentum grew and in 1965 Harold Wilson’s government passed the Race Relations Act. As fate would have it, Brockway was no longer a member of Parliament, so for future agitating he would have to use the rarefied arena of the Upper Chamber, as a new Lord was in town.
Peerless till the End
Fenners lost his Parliamentary seat in the previous year’s election, a narrow defeat that many attributed to his stance on racial issues. After accepting a life peerage, he immediately spoke of his dissatisfaction of this new legislation as it only outlawed discrimination in public places, with the critical areas of housing and employment excluded. This half-measure had to be rectified and in typical relentless fashion he introduced four Private Member Bills on the subject-matter. It had the desired effect as Home Secretary, James Callaghan brought forward a new Race Relations Bill in the spring of 1968 to the much-publicised ire of Enoch Powell. Under an all-encompassing auspice of equal opportunities for all its tenets for equality were welcomed by Brockway. To his fellow peers he stressed the need for more education so, ‘races can live together, with a new ethic that all of us. whatever our colour, whatever our race, belong to the one human family’. Despite his advancing years there was still no stopping this octogenarian who now considered himself more humanist than politician. He was soon getting himself involved in the highly-contentious issue of civil rights in Northern Ireland where he forged an unlikely friendship with the actress Vanessa Redgrave. In one of his final Westminster speeches, he lambasted the forthcoming South African elections urging Margaret Thatcher to make a statement to clarify British opposition to the apartheid regime. He passed away just shy of becoming a centurion, most certainly one of the last of a dying breed, the idealist’s idealist.