In his article ‘Institutional Continuity and Change’, Erik Bleich uses a model of institutional continuity and change to explain the introduction of ‘race-conscious measures’ in the Race Relations Act of 1976. The model distinguishes between ‘informal institutions’, such as norms and embedded ideas, and ‘formal institutions’, such as laws and written rules. The main premise of the model is that if continuity exists within informal institutions, then it can influence change in formal institutions, if lesson-drawing from external sources becomes an informal institution itself.
According to Bleich lesson-drawing from America soon became an ingrained process of anti-discriminatory policy-making. The Atlantic policy-making influence began in earnest in the mid-1950s, when the Labour party founded a policy sub-committee to deal with complaints over the issue of racism. Labour’s committee corresponded with American organisations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) to gather information about how to cope with racism. Yet, prior to the first Race Relations Bill (1964), lesson-drawing from America had not been institutionalised far enough to have an impact.
Amidst the debate concerning the Race Relations Bill (1964), Jeffrey Jowell visited America to investigate how race relations institutions worked on the other side of the Atlantic. Here Jowell learnt that administrative conciliation backed by the civil law – rather than criminal sanctions – was the optimal institutional structure for coping with problems of discrimination. He brought this debate back to Britain, and a consensus between dissident Labour MPs and members of the Opposition formed and echoed Jowell’s argument that administrative conciliation was a better institutional mechanism for dealing with discrimination. Despite having contrasting reasons for supporting this notion, both sides of the consensus used North America as their evidence. With their slim parliamentary majority, Harold Wilson’s government were forced to concede and redraft the Bill.
When it became evident that the 1965 act was not extensive enough, the issue of racism re-emerged as an issue on the domestic agenda. When extending the 1965 law to the more comprehensive 1968 Act, the Race Relations Board (RRB) turned to America for guidance. In its report it argued that ‘our own experience of legislation against discrimination is supplemented by what we have learned of such legislation in the US and Canada. There, despite initial doubts, the law is now regarded as essential to the success of other government policies and is a powerful stimulus to voluntary action’ (Race Relations Board, 1967, 21). Following on from this, the RRB warned that if Britain failed to curtail discrimination it was likely to face the same problems America had; deeply engrained animosity and riots. The anti-racism institutions were expanded via the 1968 Act to grant protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and in provision of a wider range of goods and services. Bleich argues that as formal institutions were expanded in the 1968 Act, so too was the influence of lesson-drawing from North America.
By the late 1960s North America was emerging as an exemplary model for the racial problems Britain was facing. As well as the RRB, in 1967 the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI) organised a British-American conference on employment discrimination, and the Chairman of the RRB visited America to gain a first hand understanding of America’s approach to race relations. All these developments were covered in the British media, which gave increasingly more coverage to U.S. civil rights laws. Thus, by the end of the 1960s, Britain had a strong set of formal and informal anti-racism institutions. Its formal institutions were embodied by the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts, and the norm of turning to America for guidance on how to act on domestic race relations had become a firmly embedded informal institution.
Until the early 1970s, British policy makers had upheld the notion that public policy in a multiracial society such as Britain should be ‘colour-blind’. They were intended to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins. A similar stance existed in America, but this began to change in the late 1960s when colour-blind policies were replaced with affirmative action policies.
Britain did not catch up until a new Labour Government was able to implement the updated 1976 Race Relations Act. In 1975, whilst the terms of the law were being debated, members of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration went to America to gather information on the organisation of the race relations administration. A year prior to this, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins had visited the U.S. and met with American experts who recommended the potential usefulness of race-conscious policies. The 1976 Act included race-conscious provisions, such as permissions for employers and others to engage in positive action and restrictions on indirect discrimination. The Act also encouraged ethnic monitoring.
Though Britain didn’t copy all aspects of American anti-racism institutions, the American precedent undoubtedly had an immense effect upon the law and race relations as we understand them today. Bleich’s model, though perhaps slightly too scientific for a historian, certainly helps to clarify the introduction of race conscious measures to the Race Relations Act of 1976, though the usefulness of this model needs to be tested against another scenario.