Runnymede: 50 Years of Race Relations Act


Introduction: Can Commemorations Guide Us Towards the Future for Race Equality

Historical milestones make us reflect on who we are - or perhaps rather, how we were. This volume focuses on the 50th anniversary of the first Race Relations Act in Britain, and how this connects to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Its guiding question: how should we best realize equal rights for Black and minority ethnic people in the 21st century, reflecting both on the origin of those rights in Magna Carta, and their first articulation in the 1965 Race Relations Act?

We ask this question because commemorative anniversaries are typically celebrated to guide us towards lessons for the present, especially when more recent legislation or events better capture our current national values and identity. This year Britain reflected on various anniversaries - 600 years since Agincourt, 200 since Waterloo and 70 since the end of World War II. Those dates are not only emblematic national events, but are also tied to international battles, identifying as much with what we are against as what we are for.

The grandest commemoration of 2015 was the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which is the keystone in the narrative arc of history that identifies British (or English) identity with individual liberty and the rule of law, in contrast to despotic monarchical rule. According to recent governments (and affirmed by private, public and voluntary organizations), equality and respect for diversity should now be added to the foundational values defining what Britain is ‘for’ in the 21st century. What, then, can we learn about Britain’s previous attempts to make these values a reality for disadvantaged groups, especially Black and minority ethnic people, and particularly the 1965 Race Relations Act?

The chapters in this volume reproduce a conference Runnymede held on 29 July asking this very question. The structure of that day suggested three themes connecting Magna Carta and the Race Relations Act, namely (i.) the importance of principles and legislation, but (ii.) the need for policy to implement those principles, and finally (iii.) the role of pressure from below, or democratic demands in achieving equal rights in Britain.

Sir Rabinder Singh’s first chapter reproduces his keynote speech and provides an excellent insight into the legal history of the Race Relations Act, and its putative connection to Magna Carta. Just as valuable as his legal insight is the High Court judge’s incisive discussion of the social context of the Race Relations Act - and indeed of racial inequalities today. As he points out, a major aim of the Race Relations Act was as much attitudinal as it was about legal protection and redress. The government was sending a signal to the wider population that racial discrimination was wrong, and it expected both institutions and individuals to address it.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman provides more detailed background to the 1965 Act, its content and consequences. As someone actively involved with the development and implementation of the act, his chapter would be insightful on historical grounds alone. But Bindman goes further, reflecting on the consequences of the act, its relative weakness and also the continued evidence of racial inequality cited by Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year. His conclusion is hard to resist: if we are to see an effective remedy to the racial inequalities that persist despite the passage of various acts since 1965, we will need much greater application and enforcement of those measures. We will need to actually hold both individuals and government to account.

Emerging out of these two pieces by eminent legal minds is a clear recognition of the importance of the law, but also its limits. We return to this important theme below, but two more historic pieces suggest another theme: that the dominant British historical narrative is in need of serious revision.

As various contributors note – especially Rabinder Singh and Will Pettigrew – the dominant narrative of English or British history that starts with the Magna Carta as the foundation of steady progress towards liberty and democracy was an invention of Sir Edward Coke’s in the seventeenth century. This became the dominant Whig interpretation of history (incorporating the 1688-89 ‘Glorious Revolution’ as analogous to the baronial claims against King John at Runnymede) by the eighteenth century.

Although this volume does not look back to the thirteenth century, two contributions address an older history of equal rights in Britain and how these relate to Magna Carta. While commending Runnymede’s reclamation of the Magna Carta from nativist English interpretations and universalizing the extension of to Magna Carta. While commending Runnymede’s reclamation of the Magna Carta from nativist English interpretations and universalizing the extension of rights to all, Will Pettigrew argues this is ‘bad history’. The Magna Carta was in fact used to deny the universality of human rights - indeed it was invoked by those arguing for Britain to extend the African slave trade with the founding of the Royal African Company in 1672. This was just two decades before the Glorious Revolution’s apparent endorsement of the fundamental value of liberty. As Pettigrew shows, the Magna Carta was invoked to defend ‘free’ slave traders. In the Nightingale v. Bridges case, Sir Bartholomew Shower referenced the Magna Carta tradition to explain how the English law freed men to be able to trade in slaves. “English Common Law,” Shower contended, “distinguishes between bondmen, whose estates are at their lord’s will and pleasure, and freemen, whose property none can invade, charge, or take away, but by their own consent.”

Pettigrew’s chapter is a salutary reminder of the deep roots of racial inequality in British history – but not only that of slavery and Empire. Our forebears saw the enslavement of Africans as an appropriate expression of the rights of free Englishmen, a claim argued to have democratic support. As Omar Khan notes in his contribution, Enoch Powell and other critics updated this argument for the 20th century when they objected to the 1968 Act on the grounds that it infringed on ancient English liberties sealed at Runnymede. In other words, arguments invoking the Magna Carta from the 1680s to the 1960s provide a moral defence of racial discrimination, implying that rights are not ‘human’ after all, but only for white English people (or just property-owning white English men).

In a contribution that highlights the ethnically diverse leadership of the Chartists, Malcolm Chase indicates how this 19th century social movement sought to further democratize Britain. In a fascinating overview that recognizes the failure of the Chartist’s demands, Chase offers us a tantalizing glimpse into the forgotten ethnic minority and female leaders of this relatively inclusive democratic movement.

In his conclusion, Chase explicitly links his argument to the need for civil society organizations or ‘pressure from below’ to inform British democracy. This message is further sharpened in a third thematic challenge: legal and anti-racist activists, including of course Black people, were at the forefront of pressure on the government to do something to respond to the daily racism affecting Black and minority ethnic people in housing, employment and access to public services.

This argument is further addressed in chapters by Gus John and Jenny Bourne, who identifies the contribution of activists such as Frances Ezzreco, Claudia Jones and Vishnu Sharma to the wider background that made the 1965 and later Race Relations Acts possible. They make a wider point: without a wider social movement it is hard to understand what progress we have seen on racial equality, and harder still to see it improved upon in future.

John’s piece reminds us of the Pan African Congresses of 1900 and 1945 that predate the social activism leading to the 1965 Act. Here again we can contrast the long-standing contribution of Black and minority ethnic people to Britain’s history, and the failure of our history books to relate that history. John reminds us that while BME people have never acquiesced to their marginalization, policymakers and decision-makers have yet to respond to the ethnic penalties that persist in Britain today. Bourne’s critical assessment of the 1965 Act and the train of legislation and policy it engendered reaches a similar conclusion: the 1965 Act’s relative failure actually to realize equal rights for BME people has been sadly replicated over the intervening five decades.

Omar Khan’s piece was an introduction to the Runnymede conference and provides a bridge to the fourth and final theme in the volume: that in addition to legislation and democratic pressure, we need political leadership and effective policy to achieve racial equality in 21st century Britain.

In his chapter, Callton Young provides a personal and insightful account of the challenge of advancing race equality through public policy. Appointed to lead on the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, he found colleagues questioned his credentials on policy matters, despite his adept handling of such a critical bill. Worryingly, he relates how this relative success was quickly eroded, with a lack of commitment to and understanding of race equality across government. Fifteen years on from the Race Relations (Amendment) Act and 50 years on from the 1965 legislation, the senior civil service has remarkably few Black and minority ethnic members. Young appears pessimistic that this will change without stronger political leadership, effective monitoring and enforcement (including of the public sector equality duty) and greater democratic pressure.

Anthony Lester, the architect of the more robust 1976 Race Relations Act, might respond that his legislation gave the newly-established Commission for Racial Equality powers to scrutinize and sanction organizations that fell foul of the Act. But as Lester and Bindman agree, these measures have rarely been implemented effectively. Bourne suggests in her piece that only under the leadership of Herman Ouseley was the CRE willing to take on formal investigations without fear, fund public awareness campaigns or to challenge public bodies and employers. After attending the conference, Heidi Mirza wrote a typically critical and cogent chapter on the inequalities that Black and minority ethnic women experience. As she notes, neither research, policy or activism have responded to the experiences and needs of BME women. Mirza’s chapter combines theoretical reimagining and practical recommendations. First, we must enhance our analysis of inequality to explicitly include BME women in such areas of democratic representation and pay and conditions at work. Second we should adopt a more holistic understanding of identity to respond better to issues including domestic violence and sexual exploitation. And third, we must improve women’s access to justice, dignity and fair treatment, to ensure our seemingly progressive legislation actually responds to the disadvantages Black and minority ethnic women continue to face.

In bringing together this volume, we aim to improve our historic understanding of the 1965 Race Relations Act and of Magna Carta, but also learn lessons for making further progress in the present and future. The dominant British historical narrative typically ignores the existence of racial inequality or recognizes it only as a minor tributary. It certainly does not reflect on the uses and abuses of ‘English liberties’. This is indeed bad history. And it is compounded by the absence of the contributions of people of colour to British history since Roman times – and not only after the totemic arrival of Windrush in 1948.

But despite all its inadequacies, we should acknowledge the significance of the 1965 Act. It was the first time the British state explicitly recognized its obligations to non-white people, and legal and anti-racist activists were crucial in making this happen. The 1965 Act is also seen as the first step in a process that has led to some attitudinal improvements, by sending the signal that racial discrimination was wrong (a signal, however, not approved by the Opposition of the day).

Finally, we must revisit the perennial question of how we make our lofty values and legal principles a reality for everyone. We are in danger of learning the wrong lessons and of history repeating itself; of loud proclamations about the values we hold dear, without doing much to make those values a reality for Black and minority ethnic people. Readers of this volume will learn much about how Britain navigated these questions in the past, of the varied contributions of many heroes (and some villains), and will come to their own conclusions about the way to achieve race equality in the 21st century.

Omar Khan