On 27 February 1968, a debate began in Parliament that was to change Britain before the week was out.

Home Secretary James Callaghan opened the debate on the Second Reading of the new Commonwealth Immigrants Bill saying,

“We are about to discuss one of the greatest issues of our time, an issue which can tear us apart or unite us. ”

Sir Dingle Foot, MP for Ipswich:

“The conclusion which I draw is that in this year of all years, in Human Rights Year, we are not expanding human rights, but taking them away. We are taking away rights which were assured to the people concerned, and upon which they have always relied… My right hon. Friend said that this was not racialist legislation. It may not be racialist in intention, but it will certainly be racialist in effect.”

Drawing parallels with the Bible, he continued:

“One of the phrases which has been used to describe the recent inflow to this country from Kenya is the word ‘exodus ‘.

It seems to me to be a rather unhappy word to use in this context. Because your Lordships may remember that the first great exodus in history took place in reliance on a covenant.

The present exodus is taking place, not in reliance on a covenant, but because the coventantees anticipated, and rightly so, that the covenant would be broken.

It is a good thing that the children of Israel did not have to rely upon a covenant from the British Government, or they would not have got far beyond the Red Sea.”

Duncan Sandys, supporting the Bill:

“The continuing influx of immigrants in recent years has created considerable tension, and as the numbers go up the tension increases. Faced with this situation, it is our clear duty in the interests of all, and not least in the interests of the immigrants themselves, to prevent the growth of an unmanageable problem.”

Charles Pannell (Labour MP for Leeds West):

“I suggest that this country cannot take upon itself the whole legacy of the Empire….May I ask in all humility of all those who will vote against the Bill how much entertaining of coloured people they have done in their homes.”

Roland Moyle (Labour MP for Lewisham North):

“When one can travel from Mombassa to London as quickly as one can from London to Edinburgh if one chooses the right form of transport, it is living in cloud-cuckoo-land to think that people in this country can carry on living in complete isolation from the other races of the world. ”

Peter Mahon (Labour MP for Preston South):

“This small island once prided itself on being the home of the free. Are we now supposed to be proud of a Britain which scrambles into this sort of legislation in the second month of a year dedicated around the globe to the recognition of human rights?

After this the Britain of high principle and of international decency and decorum is solemnly deceased. The whole world has learned that we have virtually closed our door to the black man.

28 February 1968

Lord Willis, opposing the Bill, quoting from Shakespeare’s Richard II:

“This land of such dear souls,

this dear, dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out…

Like to a tenement or pelting farm:

England bound in with the triumphant sea,

…is now bound in with shame,

With inky bolts and rotten parchment bonds:

That England, that was won’t to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

Lord Brockway, also opposing the Bill:

“Seven years ago there were 64,000 white people in Kenya; now the number is less than 46,000. Nearly 20,000 have left. Almost all of them have come here, but there has been no agitation to keep them out on the ground of population, or on the ground that we could not absorb immigrants.

In effect, as Dr. Ruth Glass has said in The Times this week, “if you are white your British passport is valid; if you are brown, it is not.”

Lord Milverton:

“We cannot, I submit, be so indifferent to the social happiness of our own country as to sit idly by while an indigestible number of people of alien birth descend upon it and exercise as an immovable right apparently, in the view of some people, the technically legal right to cause this explosive confusion in our country.”

Lord Wedgewood:

“In view of the fact that [the noble Lord] says these people are of alien birth, would he consider my children born in Kenya are also of alien birth?”

Lord Milverton:

“I should not, because I would carry the ancestry a little further back.”

Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury:

“Someone objected to me that, for instance, the Duke of Edinburgh would not have a dog’s chance of becoming a belonger and jumping the queue because he has not the right sort of grandfather. Well… it just shows what nonsense the whole thing is; and what pernicious nonsense. We have heard in this debate… that to keep our word would damage race relations in this country. May I suggest that it is the Government’s duty to set a good example in race relations, if they wish ordinary citizens to practise it. Their example has been deplorable.”

Lord McLeavy:

“The Government have recognised this fact and have wisely taken it into account. The crowding of immigrants into houses and the constant danger to public health, and the filling of our hospitals, particularly the maternity wards, to the exclusion of our own people are building up a feeling of anger. ”

Lord Gifford:

“Would [the noble Lord] not agree that those of our people in the maternity wards might not get any treatment at all were it not for the immigrant nurses in those wards?”

Lord McLeavy:

“My Lords, I should be the last person in the world to criticise the tremendous public service which coloured nurses and others are rendering in our hospitals throughout the country, but I am trying to make a point…. that there is a limit to the number of people we can reasonably absorb in this country.”

Lord Wedgewood:

“…If the British nation at the end of the Imperial story cannot afford refuge and comfort to those comparatively few dispossessed by events quite outside their control, and which arise out of Britain’s withdrawal of power, then history will not deal kindly with this country, and we shall deserve far less than I believe we should receive for our past contributions to the welfare and safety of mankind.”

29 February 1968

The sitting went on all night in the House of Lords and at 8.51 a.m. the Lord Chancellor announced that the Bill had passed.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley pronounced:

“The British Government have produced a Bill which is racialist. They have broken their word clearly given. This is a disastrous day for Britain. This may be a unique day for your Lordships’ house. We have ruined our relationship with the Commonwealth, with the United Nations and with the Human Rights Movement. We are disgraced.”

Aftermath: June 1968

The International Commission of Jurists in their bulletin for June 1968 said:

“Citizens are, for the first time in the history of the United Kingdom, deprived of their right, to enter their country…The 350,000 who have no other citizenship now find themselves with no country in which they have a right to live.

[The Act] creates a new category of second-class citizens, who are by law kept out of the country to which they belong by virtue of their citizenship. The fact that these citizens are non-white inevitably gives the legislation a racial character.”