The brilliant Matthew Parris writes in his Times column today about Margaret Thatcher using the word ‘swamped’ in relation to immigration in 1978.
We had been averaging 500-700 letters a week when, discussing immigration in a TV interview, Mrs Thatcher used the word “swamped”. In the following week she received about 5,000 letters, almost all in support, almost all reacting to that interview.
I had to read them. We were swamped indeed: swamped by racist bilge. It’s the things people confide in you when they think you’re one of them that can be so revealing.
But there is another part of this story that Matthew leaves out.
On election night in 1979 various experts were lined up to discuss what was expected to be a National Front breakthrough. They had fielded 303 candidates, up from 90 at the previous election: all lost their deposits and the NF collected a derisory 0.6 per cent of the vote.
The experts sat dumbfounded as the results came in. She killed the National Front that night, as voters who were concerned about immigration believed they had, in her, someone who understood them. I suspect that a good many of the letters Matthew had to open were from working-class voters delighted that someone in Westminster seemed to recognise their concerns about the speed and implications of demographic change.
Using words like ‘swamped’ may lead to a telling off from newspaper columnists, and it does sound vulgar to those who (like me) support immigration and love Britain’s tolerance and diversity. Matthew suggests that even Thatcher regretted this turn of phrase. But she spoke, then, to many others who are concerned about immigration – and a proper democratic leader will hear their concerns.
In other words, Maggie’s plain-speaking crushed the National Front. Something that I’m sure that Matthew Parris will be grateful to her for.