In the 1960s before any equality and race relations legislation existed, it was quite usual for racism to be seen as acceptable and Black people in general were treated as second class citizens and in many cases expected to be treated so. After the early racial equality legislation in the 1960s, the most notable contribution on the question of race was Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. This made non-white immigration a toxic political topic in the UK. In addition, the growth of the National Front continued to foment anti-black sentiment as the movement grew.
By the time of the 1970s, casual racism was still extremely common in society, even though discrimination legislation was in place. There were no Black or Ethnic Minority voices in Parliament and the National Front (NF) was very much on the march. The NF did as much as possible to recruit and associate itself with football supporters and was involved with some of the hooliganism and the abuse of Black footballers from the terraces.
By the 1980s, Black players were a more frequent feature in English football and were being regularly selected for the England national team. With the help of the police, the football clubs cracked down on hooliganism and the amount of abuse received by Black players reduced, although it remained significant for the rest of the decade.
Similarly, overt racism towards Black people appeared to be on the decline as was the National Front, the influence of which was being replaced by the formation of the British National Party (BNP) in 1982. In 1987, the first cohort of Black and Ethnic Minority MPs were elected to Parliament and the future appeared bright for the UK to become a more harmonious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society.
The 1990s still saw abuse directed at Black footballers and the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign launched by the Professional Footballers Association began to take effect. Continued marches from the BNP took place, but they still seemed to be on the fringe of British politics and were countered by an equally vociferous anti-Nazi movement, both of which were divorced and marginalised from mainstream British politics.
In effect, the racism that was being preached was having less of an impact and influence, because the British public had moved on from out-of-date attitudes in a more enlightened world that was moving towards the new millennium. However, this decade saw the formation of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, elected to the European Parliament in 1999, which would initiate a debate on immigration that would continue for the following two decades.
In the late 2000s anti-Europeanism in the UK began to rise. The premise being that by leaving the European Union, the immigration “problem” could be solved, because free movement of people could be stopped. The 2016 referendum on continued membership of the European Union was fiercely contested with the focus not just on white immigration from mainland Europe, but immigration per se as the debates became more wide-ranging and vociferous.
These debates legitimised offensive language that was previously taboo, resulting in an open xenophobic and racist discourse that this country had never previously seen, particularly on social media and in society at large. This type of language, although it has waned to some degree since the 2016 referendum, has nevertheless remained and poisons our social and political discourse to this day.
It remains to be seen whether the current decade will see a society riddled with division and conflict brought on by prejudice and misunderstanding; or whether the government will take action to tackle racism and legislate against social media platforms to ensure that hatred does not become more widespread, so that more people don’t lose their lives to the hatred that is being perpetuated.