Today’s Times carries an obituary of Peter Griffiths, who died on November 20th, aged 85. I was astonished to learn that this vile creature lived until so recently, and though he lost his Smethwick seat in 1966, returned as an MP (for Portsmouth North) from 1979 until 1997. Presumably, he remained a Tory to the end. I reproduce the obituary for the benefit, in particular, of readers unfamiliar with the 1964 Smethwick election and the events that followed:
Above: Peter Griffiths at the time of the Smethwick election
In a parliamentary row that galvanised Westminster in in the opening days of the return of Labour to office in 1964 after 13 years in opposition, the newly elected Conservative MP for Smethwick, Peter Griffiths was branded a “parliamentary leper” by the incoming Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. It happened in an astonishing series of exchanges that prefigured the violent language of the race debate conducted by Enoch Powell later in the decade.
Wilson was furious that his intended Foreign Secretary, the scholarly and liberal-minded Patrick Gordon Walker, had been defeated in his Smethwick constituency after a campaign in which Griffiths had shrewdly exploited local tensions over immigration and the housing shortage in the West Midlands.
Griffiths always denied ever using the electioneering slogan “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, Vote Labour”. It was pointed out that he had done nothing to repudiate, much less ban, placards carried by his supporters bearing the offensive electioneering slogan.
In Parliament, in some of the most extraordinary scenes ever witnessed during a Queen’s Speech debate, the Prime Minister upbraided the leader of the Opposition, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, for refusing to disown Griffiths. Castigating the new MP for having run an “utterly squalid” campaign, Wilson told the House: “If Sir Alec does not take what I am sure is the right course, Smethwick Conservatives will have the satisfaction of having sent a member who, until another election returns him to oblivion, will serve his time as a parliamentary leper.”
There was uproar. The Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, was urged by the opposition benches to make the Prime Minister retract his remarks. Hylton-Foster declined to do so, although admitting that he deplored Wilson’s comments. Uproar continued for ten minutes and a score of Tory MPs had walked out of the chamber before order was restored.
In the event, Wilson was prescient. At the general election in 1966 Griffiths lost his Smethwick seat to the actor and Labour candidate Andrew Faulds. He did not return to Parliament until 1979, at Portsmouth North. He was never to be such a conspicuous figure in Parliament again.
Griffiths did not count himself among far Right Tories. Yet he supported Smethwick council, of which he had been a member since 1955, when it tried to buy up a row of houses to let exclusively to white families. The purchase was blocked by the Labour Housing Minister Richard Crossman.
After his defeat at Smethwick in 1966, Griffiths returned to teaching. He had been head-master of a primary school, Hall Green Road, West Bromwich, at the time of the election. In 1967 he became a lecturer in economics at Portsmouth College of Technology where he spent the next dozen years. In the meantime he had published A Question of Colour? (1966) in which he claimed “no colour prejudice”. The book blamed the spread of disease on immigrants and praised South Africa as a “model of democracy”.
Griffiths unsuccessfully contested Portsmouth North in the February 1974 election which returned a minority Labour administration to office.
In the general election of 1979 which propelled the Tories back to power under Margaret Thatcher, Griffiths captured the seat with a large majority. For the next 18 years he was an assiduous backbencher, making his opposition clear to his constituents and the government on such issues as defence cuts as they might affect Portsmouth Dockyard. In the general election of 1997 which brought Labour to power under Tony Blair he lost his seat.