How far have we come? Lessons from the 1965 Race Relations Act

by Omar Khan

Published: 08 Dec 2015

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Race Relations Act in Britain. The Runnymede Trust has held a major conference and today publishes a collection of articles examining how far we have come since the 1965 Race Relations Act on this anniversary to mark this somewhat undernoted anniversary. 
What more should we know about the 1965 Race Relations Act, and what are its lessons for today? In addition to better understanding our own recent history, we should reflect on why positive changes have since occurred for many ethnic minorities in Britain, but also why we haven’t yet realised the promise of race equality for all. 
In 1965 Britain,  ethnic minorities were subject to overt and cruel racism, typically captured in the ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ signs erected by white British landlords. But what we note less is that ethnic minorities had no legal protection or recourse from discriminatory treatment; being refused service in pubs or places of public resort (as the 1965 Act puts it) were all legal until the 1965, while being denied a jobs, access to services, and housing were still legal until the 1968 and 1976 Acts.
Furthermore, critics of the 1965 and then 1968 Act (extending legal protection to housing, and during the second reading of which Enoch Powell delivered his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech) positively defended the rights of white English people to engage in such discrimination – such was the price of liberty.
In rejecting this argument that ancient English liberties included the freedom to racially discriminate, the Wilson government (spurred on by Roy Jenkins) achieved two things. First, the British government officially recognised the existence of racial discrimination against ethnic minority people, and the need for a democratic government to protect all of its citizens from invidious discrimination. In other words, it showed itself to be responsive to the minimal expectations and concerns of ethnic minority people. 
If one achievement of the 1965 Act was to express Government’s understanding of the experiences of Britain’s ethnic minorities, another was to signal to the white population that racial discrimination was clearly wrong and would not be tolerated. The 1965 Act could then be viewed as the first in a series of steps that might explain the lesser discriminatory behaviour among younger generations found in the British Social Attitudes Survey.
It may seem peculiar to focus on the attitudinal aspects of major legislation, but this is because it’s hard to be particularly celebratory about the actual content of the 1965 or indeed its consequences. The Act didn’t extent protection to housing, goods and services, or employment, necessitating further revisions in 1968 and 1976, a much more robust Act that introduced the idea of indirect discrimination and is a clearer progenitor for today’s equality legislation.
Two final lessons from the 1965 Act are: first, that change doesn’t happen only because legislators or government show leadership, not least given the 1965 Act and all other Race Relations Acts were explicitly and publicly linked by the Cabinet with more restrictionist Immigration Bills. Black leaders in Britain including Learie Constantine, Claudia Jones and Paul Stephenson had all challenged discriminatory behaviour and demanded a change in the law, and their legacy deserves far greater celebration in our schools, by our politicians and in public debate and memory.
Second and lastly, while it is indeed important to articulate our fundamental social principles and values, and to give these content in legislation, the law by itself (especially a weak piece of legislation such as the 1965 Act) cannot make equal rights a reality. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recently published Is Britain Fairer? is one of a number of documents outlining continued ethnic inequalities in 21st century Britain, despite undoubted progress since 1965. To ensure such inequalities do not persist in 2065, we need to follow our forebears who didn’t rest on their laurels following the 1965 Act but instead sought to improve legislation, implement effective policy, and finally support greater social and democratic pressure to make equal rights a reality for ethnic minority people in Britain.