What Theresa May could learn from Ted Heath about how to respond to a humanitarian crisis

The so-called Calais jungle, now home to thousands of displaced Syrians. Chris Radburn / PA Wire/Press Association Images

In the first seven months of 2016 more than 3,000 people died seeking asylum in Europe and refugees are still seeking sanctuary from war-torn countries such as Libya, Syria and Iraq.

As far as the UK’s response to this crisis goes the prime minister, Theresa May, asserted in her recent speech to the UN that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. The idea that they might travel across Europe to countries further away – including the UK – would, she said: “only benefit criminal gangs and expose refugees to grave danger”.

This is a clear point of difference with the stance taken by her predecessor David Cameron who, in September 2015, announced that the UK would take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the space of five years. This is a pledge that May has yet to reconfirm. And, judging by her UN speech, that prospect seems unlikely.

Many in the community – among them religious leaders, charities and the Labour party – said Cameron’s proposal didn’t go far enough, while by contrast, some of his own backbenchers and sections of the mainstream media argued that he was going too far. Compared to the precedent set by Edward Heath in 1972-3 when faced by a humanitarian crisis in Uganda, however, May and Cameron’s policy is relatively modest.

Idi Amin and Ugandan Asians

In August 1972 Idi Amin, the president of Uganda, declared that Ugandan citizens of Asian origin would have to leave the country within 90 days. The Ugandan Asian community in the country was unpopular, due to its economic success.

Former Ugandan president Idi Amin. PA / PA Archive/Press Association Images

At a conference of Asian leaders in December 1971, Amin presented a list of Asian business “malpractices”, a term that had no basis in fact. Amin defended his expulsion with the argument that “Asians came to Uganda to build the railway. The railway is finished. They must leave now”.

In London, the Conservative government tried and failed to persuade Amin to change course. Heath decided to act and – after several other countries agreed to accept some of the refugees (Canada became home to 6,000, while 4,500 went to India and 2,500 to Kenya) – Britain agreed to take some 25,000. The creation of the Ugandan Resettlement Board to coordinate the work of local authorities and extra funding for local authorities was promised. Labour MPs supported the government, arguing that – while it should not underestimate the pressure on services that taking in up to 25,000 Ugandans could cause – “the country was honour-bound, and should not evade its obligations”.

Not everyone was happy with the situation. The right-wing Conservative Monday Club, held a “Halt Immigration Now” meeting at Central Hall in Westminster. They called for an all immigration to be immediately stopped, the repeal of the Race Relations Act and the commencement of a repatriation scheme. There were accusations that some British towns and cities had already reached “saturation point”. The arrival of the Ugandan Asians led to an increase in activity of groups such as the British Campaign against Immigration, which held marches in cities such as Bradford and Leicester.

The first of 25,000 Ugandan Asians arrive after their expulsion from the country. PA / PA Archive/Press Association Images

What is most notable is the language of Heath’s supporters in his party. David Knox, the MP for Leek, told the House of Commons in December 1973 that it “was a clear-cut matter – on moral grounds” – adding further that: “It is all very well for some people to talk about aliens moving into our society; it would have been alien to British humanitarian traditions not to admit these people.”

Knox argued that the government was stepping up to the plate and taking leadership over the issue, opposing those who “lead public opinion in a way not in our finest tradition”. Cecil Parkinson, then MP for Enfield West, added that the government’s actions were “right and absolutely necessary. If it had not been done it would have had the most diabolical consequences both for the people concerned and for the overseas reputation of our country”.

Generations rehoused

By the start of December 1973, 25,500 refugees had arrived in Britain, and the resettlement board had opened 16 centres to process everyone and distribute them across the country. Labour MPs, including Arthur Lewis complained bitterly about the added strain on services such as housing and education in deprived urban areas. The £1m per month allocated by the government did not include the need for extra infrastructure funding. Nevertheless, junior home office minister David Lane said the government was determined for refugees to be settled with “a prospect of a good new life, of making their own way and contributing to the community”.

By 1976, the majority of families had settled and found work. Today, Santander chair Baroness Vadera, journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and international development secretary Priti Patel are just some who belong to Ugandan Asian families.

Cameron’s initial policy regarding the Syrian migrants was attempting to “show the world that this is a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need”. The intake is, however, modest given the scale of the problem. What the actions of the Heath government demonstrate is that there is precedent within Conservative Party tradition for accepting refugees with haste when the situation demands it.

Heath – like May now – had many on his party’s right expressing serious concern over immigration and was also facing extra-parliamentary pressure. The difference was that the Heath government acted decisively when the problem arose. It did not prevaricate and delay in taking immediate action. In so doing, Heath avoided the potential for a humanitarian disaster. May’s speech to the UN, however, does not suggest a change in policy is imminent.