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Conservatives are rightly known for taking the difficult decisions to secure our country’s economic and social future. However, the other side of the Conservative coin is sometimes overlooked: the many times over the centuries when Conservatives in Government have used hard-won economic and social security as a base to provide real help to those in need.

A new series of posts on this blog will be looking at moments when the empowering, giving side of Conservatism has made a real difference. The light and liberal aspect of the Conservative tradition is all too often cast into shadow– it’s time it was uncovered.

With immigration still dominating the headlines 1972 seems a good place to start; Britain unsure of its new global role, Enoch Powell on the prowl and a contentious refugee crisis confronting a Conservative Government…

On 4 August 1972, Idi Amin, then the leader of the newly independent Uganda, announced he had a dream. Not one of equality and harmony, but one where God told him to expel from his nation all those of Indian birth or descent. As befitted a befuddled and baleful dictator, he followed through. Over 60,000 Ugandan Asians had three months to pack up their belongings and find new homes.

The response of much of the global community was an elaboration of the usual theme: no room at the inn. India, the family home of most of the 60,000 said an outright ‘no’, as did other nations, including Australia and Japan.

Prominent voices urged the UK to do the same. Whilst Ugandan Asians had been given British passports when Uganda became independent, a loophole was available in the form of a law passed by Wilson’s Labour Government in 1968. This stipulated that only passport holders with at least one UK-born grandparent were allowed to settle in the UK.

It was expected that the Conservative Government, headed by Ted Heath, would make full use of this legal cover to disavow responsibility for the Ugandan refugees.

Heath thought differently. As a British officer in Germany in 1945 he had seen the misery of refuges first hand; as Prime Minister three decades later he felt that the British Government had a duty of care towards vulnerable passport holders facing similar horrors. Furthermore, Heath felt Britain was now in a position to absorb the influx. Following his Chancellor Anthony Barber’s landmark March budget, the economy was growing with an increasing need for the entrepreneurial skills found amongst the Ugandan refugees, many of whom were shopkeepers and small business owners. Following Heath’s robust rejection of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, racial tensions in Britain were dying down. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee that summer had seen diverse communities come together in celebration, forging closer links and a greater sense of shared national identity.

His decision made, Heath informed the country that welcoming Ugandan refugees:

‘’Is our duty. There can be no equivocation. These are British subjects with British passports. They are being expelled from their country which in many cases is the land of their birth. They are entitled to come here and they will be welcome here.’’

Predictably, Enoch Powell, shortly to leave the Conservative Party forever, tried to mount an internal party revolt against Heath’s decision. He got short shrift. The Young Conservatives and the Federation of Conservative Students led the charge against Powell, passing a motion decisively endorsing Heath’s decision.  Powell subsided into grumbling from the backbenches.

In all 28,000 Ugandan Asians came to Britain where they were supported by the UK Government to start again. Canada and South Africa followed Britain’s example in accepting refugees and a major humanitarian crisis was averted.

Forty two years on, it is clear that Heath made the right decision. 28,000 people were saved from statelessness and were enabled to build new lives in Britain. Far from the refugees proving to be an economic drag and a catalyst for social tensions, the Ugandan Asian community has immeasurably enriched the UK. Economically, as Ugandan Asians and their descendants have formed part of the remarkable success story that has seen Britons with South Asian roots, 2.5% of the population, account for 10% of our national output. The societal impact has also been considerable, with people from Ugandan Asian backgrounds playing a prominent role in national life, including Conservative politicians Lord Popat, Lord Sheikh and Shailesh Vara MP.

What can we learn from 1972? That a Conservative leader can bank the benefits of economic and social progress to welcome immigrants in need to the UK, to the benefit of all. Four decades on, with portraits of Ted Heath still proudly hanging in the living rooms of Ugandan Asian families, it’s a lesson worth recalling.

Matt Browne is Communications Officer at Bright Blue