It was 40 years ago today that Enoch Powell made his foul, racist and deliberately provocative speech here in my home town of Birmingham. A classicist as well as a senior Tory politician, he refered to Virgil: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”
That was the quote that gave the speech its popular title of “Rivers of Blood”: but the really poisonous stuff was his claim that a constituent had told him, “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”, and the story (almost certainly made up) of a widowed pensioner, the only white person left on her street, being persecuted by West Indian neighbours and afraid to venture out: “Windows are broken. She finds excretea pushed through her letterbox. When she goes out, she is followed by children, charming wide-eyed piccaninnies.”
His solution was an end to all immigration and for the “voluntary” repatriation of those immigrants already here: there could be no question, in this context, that when Powell talked of “immigration” he meant non-white immigration. “We must be mad, literally mad,” he proclaimed, “as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
Powell had made a similar speech two months earlier in nearby Walsall, but it hadn’t hit the headlines. This time, he sent out advance copies to the press, and spiced things up with the stories about excrement through letter boxes and the black man gaining the “whip hand”. For sure, this highly educated classicist knew exactly what he was doing and what the likely effect would be. His immediate intention was to make it impossible for the Labour govenment to procede with plans to extend the provisions of the Race Relations Act to cover employment, housing and services; his longer term plan was almost certainly to undermine Tory leader Edward Heath and put himself into poll position to become the next Tory leader. He failed in both ambitions (though Heath’s successor Thatcher made little secret of her admiration for Powell and his views on race and immigration). To achieve these ends Powell was willing to poison race relations in Britain and put the physical safety of all black and ethnic minority people at serious risk. Oh yes, he knew what he was doing. And the thugs of the National Front were only to happy to use his speech as justification for physical assaults.
But the “rivers of blood” and the racial conflagration predicted by Powell, never happened. Racial attacks, certainly. But not the riots and the social collapse he and his supporters predicted. Some commentators have tried to make out that the inner-city riots of 1981 vindicated Powell’s predictions, but anyone who witnessed them will confirm that they were not, primarily, race riots. And in any case, they soon blew over.
The truth is that although racism still abounds in the UK, the “rivers of blood” never flowed and the irrational anachronism that is racism, is very, very slowly declining. That’s not an excuse for complacency and -certainly – there are worrying signs that both New Labour and the Tories will play the immigration card as and when it suits them (Brown”s disgraceful cry of “British jobs for British workers”, for instance). And whilst it’s no longer considered acceptable for any mainstream politician to disparage non-white British citizens, migrant workers and asylum seekers are very much fair game. But Darcus Howe, writing in the present New Statesman is probably right when he notes that “any member of Parliament who speaks in Powellite language would find him or herself charged with incitement to commit terrorism.”
NB: Much of the above piece was lifted from an excellent article by Sarfraz Manzoor that appeared in The Observer of 24.02.08