Fifty years ago, Enoch Powell’s blistering speech about race in Britain ignited a touch paper that fanned the flames around the immigration policies of successive governments. Powell claimed that Britain was building its own funeral pyre, with “homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition” and minorities demanding special treatment.
Powell was no fringe politician. At the time of the speech, he had challenged for leadership of the Conservative Party and had served as a Minister for Housing. A Cambridge scholar, known for his intellect and for his military service in World War 2, he wanted to serve as Viceroy for India and was a staunch imperialist. His eloquent anti-immigrant nationalism is echoed in the words of populist far-right candidates across Europe today.
Powell’s infamous speech came just after Martin Luther King’s assassination, as race tensions boiled over in the USA, and just as Britain debated the Race Relations Act 1968, which sought to end discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or national origins. He was convinced this would lead the country to racial violence where (he claimed a constituent had told him) “the black man has the whip hand”.
The speech got Powell fired from high-level politics, with several senior members of the Conservative Party threatening to quit if he stayed on. But the echo of his words has been felt ever since, as immigration continues to be high up the media agenda and national debate, and apprehension grows around multiculturalism and integration, as covered by our new YouGov poll.
Wolverhampton, where Powell was an MP for a quarter of a century, was named the fifth worst city in the world by the Lonely Planet guide in 2009 and Queen Victoria is said to have closed her carriage curtains when travelling through the region – one of the most industrialised areas of Britain during the 19th century – as she was so offended by the sight of the landscape.
“Unemployment levels have been high, especially since the recession and the closure of a lot of heavy industry and the Black Country dialect can be a source of mockery. People have had to fight harder to get to where they are and as a result have thrived and become brilliant role models for the children,” says Lisa Harrison, a local artist and community organiser. “When you live in Wolverhampton, you’re aware of Powell in a way you perhaps might not be if you lived elsewhere – it keeps coming into one’s consciousness.”
Wolverhampton today has a population of 250,000 and is known for its high number of black and minority ethnic communities. Schools have had to adapt and adjust to differences.
The West Park Primary School became the first school of sanctuary in Wolverhampton, as part of a movement to build a culture of welcome and hospitality within the community, especially for refugees and asylum seekers. The school has also created a parent ambassador scheme to help arriving families settle.
Harrison has been working with West Park Primary School for over 10 years. The school has had to battle a specific aspect of Powell’s legacy: journalists from around the world descended upon the school after Powell’s reference to a constituent’s claim that his child was the only white pupil in her class at a school in Wolverhampton.
Last year, Harrison began a history project, ‘West Park Welcomes the World’, based on post-World War 2 history with a focus on Enoch Powell. Through it she invited school alumni who were students when Powell gave his speech, as well as academics and other leaders in the community.
Both students and parents got involved in creating a play that focused on the nature of community, and how resilient it has had to become after the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Harrison says the impact of the project on the children is incredible.
“The children are really finding their voice and now understand the significance of their school’s story. They feel responsible as citizens to demonstrate to the rest of the world that yes diverse communities can live harmoniously with each other – that there are no divisions between children who speak different languages and come from different places,” she says. “They’ll now say things like Enoch Powell was wrong.”
The project has had a ripple effect in the community and the play is being performed again this month during a conference reflecting Powell’s legacy. Incidentally, the play will be performed at the Heritage Centre, which used to be the Conservative club Powell frequented.
When HOPE not hate held a forum on immigration in Wolverhampton, participants felt attitudes differed significantly across generations when it came to diversity.
One person said it was “an age thing” and that “you would find a higher percentage of older people are more racist and against migration than you would younger people – and that’s because of schools”. They added: “Like in primary school there was only one Indian girl in my class, now, well when I was in high school there were twenty, thirty – it’s more equal, and now it’s getting better.”
Another participant said: “I think if you scratch the surface in some areas here, you will find racism, definitely. On the whole most people get on, but if you go to certain areas, and scratch the surface it will be there.”
Dr Shirin Hirsch, who is conducting a major research project at the University of Wolverhampton into the impact of Powell’s speech on local community relations, told the Voice Online:
“Powell’s speech is remembered by a whole range of different voices, but particularly for Black and Asian immigrant communities who had been targeted in the speech, the impact was felt strongly. We are interested in remembering the ignored, local stories within Wolverhampton and discussing new forms of racism but also anti-racist politics which intensified following the speech.”
Since Powell’s speech, some of yesteryears language is no longer acceptable, particularly the sort of commonly-used racial epithets.
However, this has morphed more broadly into fears about Muslims, for example, and doom-and-gloom worries about the supposed failure of multiculturalism in Britain. A YouGov poll of 5,200 people commissioned by HOPE not hate, found that 43% predicted relationships between different UK communities will deteriorate over the next few years compared to 14% who feel things will improve.
Yet when questioned about their own circumstances and their immediate community (rather than distant areas), people were far less pessimistic.
Pakistan-born journalist Sarfraz Manzoor says that his father would use Powell’s reputation to warn him against integrating too much with British people. “Powell’s name was regularly cited whenever my father wanted to remind me how easily Britain could turn against us.”
Whether it is former prime minister Gordon Brown speaking about ‘British jobs for British workers’, the former head of UKIP Nigel Farage blaming multiculturalism for the London terror attacks, Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer writing that the Paris attacks had proven Powell right, or the Archbishop of Canterbury claiming incompatibility between Islamic rules and British laws, Powell’s ideas are now part of the general political debate. The words that shocked British politicians in 1968 are now commonplace as Powell’s beliefs have become more mainstream and have some laud him as a ‘visionary’.
Harrison however believes that in Wolverhampton, Powell pushed the community to become more resilient and build stronger links between each other. She says schools could have a major role in developing an integrated society if it remains “outwards-looking” as they have “much to contribute” to the community.