Over recent weeks there has been a great deal of reporting on the speech that Enoch Powell made 30 years ago - on April 20 1968 – the so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech.
Such historical reflection serves two purposes: to look back at the historical record and context and secondly, it can be an interesting opportunity to look at what has changed (or not as the case may be) since the speech was made.
It is sometimes said that the reason why Powell’s speech, and his subsequent dismissal from the Conservative Party’s Shadow cabinet, was (and still is) part of some sort of grand conspiracy to silence a profound thinker who wanted and “open and honest debate” about immigration into the UK. We sometimes hear such sentiments today as well – implying that for over 30 years the mainstream political parties and the “establishment” have engaged in a conspiracy of silence to deny the British peoples a say on immigration. The truth then, as now, is that there has been no conspiracy, and immigration (as now) is right at the top of issues that are debated. However, what is often ignored is that immigration issues are rarely debated coolly and calmly; the facts nearly always get bypassed in favour of raw emotion, and the complexities are nearly always denied. Coming to terms with Britain’s history of mass immigration over the centuries, and also the mass migrations from Britain to the rest of the world, is something that we have not been very good at.
But it wasn’t Powell’s references to immigration per ce that caused the furore and his dismissal, it was his blatant lying, his hypocrisy and his out and out racism.
Let’s take his hypocrisy first. As a Minister in several post-war Conservative governments (Housing 1955, Treasury 1958, and Health 1960), he over-saw the first series of post-war migrations from the Caribbean and India that played such an important role in shoring up the newly created NHS and many post war industries and services (such a London Transport). Throughout this period he went along with policies that brought so many needed people into the country.
Next his lying. During his “Rivers of Blood” speech, Powell referred to a letter he had received from an elderly war widow in his constituency (why are such letters always from elderly people?). Quoting from the “letter”, Powell states that this elderly person was living alone in a street full of non-whites in fear of her life. The telephone is her lifeline … she is becoming afraid to go out… windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes to the shops she is followed by children, charming wide-eyed piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. ‘Racialist’ they chant…”.
Similar letters or sentiments to this have been quoted throughout the past 30 year, by both the National Front and more recently the BNP. As with Powell’s so-called “letter”, there is no evidence and, despite constant requests to release the letter, Powell never did so.
Such is the making of racist myths that they become almost part of the fabric of our society, yet so difficult to challenge or dispute. “Of course it’s true I heard someone say it in the pub, everyone knows about it!” When challenged to produce evidence of such treatment, none is ever presented. Indeed, following the passing of numerous laws against discrimination and harassment if such treatment was being received by someone in such a situation, all agencies (including anti-racist organisations) would want to know and would want to deal with it!
So much for lies!
But the lies (as illustrated above) go hand in hand with racism. When anti-racists (and I have been one for most of my life!) present evidence of gross human rights abuses, harassment and discrimination against Black and Asian people (or other minorities), we hear a familiar refrain: they complain too much; they should integrate more; they should speak in English; they bring it on themselves. And the insults to the anti-racists are equally vitriolic: we are do-gooders; we create racism; we stir up hostility. Over and over again, the existence of racism and inequality (whatever the clear evidence may be) is denied, or the direct experiences of the victims of racism is challenged or belittled.
Powell’s comments about “piccaninnies” was deliberately racist. Once you talk about people in these terms you de-base their humanity. Powell knew exactly what he was doing in quoting the so-called “letter”, and what the images he was creating would do. He was making a direct appeal to the most racist people within British society and he was putting out a “call to arms”. Bill Morris, who went on to become the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, was working in Birmingham at the time. He said later: “The effect of his speech was like an earthquake. It left a lot of black people traumatised… we faced more hostility and abuse”.
Unfortunately, thirty years on – we are still living with Powell’s legacy of racism. The objects of abuse may have shifted slightly to more recently arrived migrants from the EU or those claiming asylum. But racism - then and now directed against Black and Asian people (particularly now, since 9/11, against Muslims) - continues and is often similar in tone and intent – to turn "White/British” people against a new perceived enemy. The lies that are told remain pretty similar and (unfortunately) many peoples’ capacity to believe them also remains today, as it did then. Some things are hard to change!
But over the past 30 years Britain (and indeed the world) has changed beyond Powell’s wildest imaginations. The movement of peoples across the globe, the movements in (and out!) of Britain are unprecedented. However, our capacity today to face these challenges together remains. Powell’s prediction of a society tearing itself apart has not been realised. Britain is now clearly and unambiguously a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-faith society (as it always has been). Yes, living in such a society has its ups and downs and challenges, but the benefits are also tremendous.
Back in 1968 I was 15 years old and living in Leicester. Fortunately my working-class father, who lived in East Africa for a short time after the war, knew about Indian, African and Chinese food (not many Brits at that time had this experience - we all do now!); he had met people from around the world of all colours and nationalities both during and after the war. He brought me up with a gut instinct for recognising injustice and for treating people fairly and equally. He was a trade unionist, who knew who was really screwing working people (and it wasn't the recent immigrants!). He was not taken in by Powell and his ilk. The National Front in Leicester tried to capitalise on Powell’s speech, but with little success.
A couple of years later, in 1970, the first Asian candidate was elected to Leicester City Council and I was there to witness it! He was spat on and abused by NF thugs present at the election count – but he was a first of many and I knew, at that time, that Britain had changed - and changed permanently. Racism would have no place and, whilst its dying embers may sometimes glow more brightly for a time, I know the fire is going out. British society is what it is, and is increasingly comfortable with its diversity – despite all the problems that we all face.
The nightmare that Powell envisaged has not materialised and it never will!