What positives, if any, came from Enoch Powell’s notorious Rivers of Blood speech? Would people support his views today?
These were some of the questions asked at a debate marking the 50th anniversary of Powell’s speech, made at a meeting of the Conservative Association in Birmingham.
It almost passes belief that at this moment 20 or 30 additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week – and that means 15 or 20 additional families a decade or two hence. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.
– Enoch Powell, 1968
The panellists at Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech – 50 Years On were:
- Nigel Hastilow: columnist for the Express & Star and former Conservative PPC
- Paul Uppal: prominent Sikh businessman and former MP for Wolverhampton South West
- Milkinder Jaspal: Labour councillor for Heath Town and former Mayor of Wolverhampton
- Nicholas Jones: journalist and commentator, whose father Clem Jones was editor of the Express & Star at the time.
The obvious parallels between Powell, with his love of spin and media mastery, and contemporary political figures and preoccupations dominated the debate from the outset.
Can the panellists name one positive thing that came from the Rivers of Blood speech?
Paul Uppal: ‘It put the focus on race relations in the UK. Powell was conscious of the fear that a fissure through British society would occur. Actually, we find now that families do live side by side, but when he made that speech he made it deliberately.
‘But in putting the focus on race relations, he actually brought people together, and what he prophesized didn’t come to pass.’
Nigel Hastilow disagreed: ‘I don’t see anything very positive coming from the speech. No politician of any party was prepared to address the issue of immigration afterwards, because it would be conflated with racism, and I know that to my cost. It has been off the agenda ever since.’
Milkinder Jaspal said: ‘For me, the positive change was social cohesion. It was argued that there would be riots – he made the community at the time very fearful.
‘He gave the working class a reason for their fears, but the result has been social cohesion right across the UK.
‘But… I came here in 1965 aged five, and my kids were born in the UK and have lost the link with the Punjab. We still have land there but what will we do with it? The kids aren’t interested. My cousin says ‘What if the right wing take over? We need a base…’
Nicholas Jones said: ‘The speech was positive for journalism. As journalists at the time, we were gratuitously and needlessly identifying people as black, stigmatising them.
‘We began to learn, after the Powell speech. My father retired early because of it, but wrote a book on racial equality. At the BBC, I have undertaken work to ensure fair and balanced reporting.
‘My parents knew the Powells well, but the Rivers of Blood speech broke the friendship. On the Thursday before the speech, Powell said to my father ‘You know what happens to a rocket? It goes up in the air, but this time the stars will stay in the air.
‘If Powell and my father were alive today and saw what Donald Trump had achieved with modern media, they would be aghast.’
An opinion poll suggests 74% of people supported Powell. How many would support him today?
Nicholas Jones argued 30 to 40% of people would support Powell today, in light of the Brexit vote.
But an important distinction was made by Milkinder Jaspal, who said: ‘The speech was about race. The word immigration can be entangled with race, but they are two separate words.
‘It’s become so sensitive that if you talk about it within the Conservative Party, you can be perceived as racist.’
‘Because they are!’ someone shouted from the floor, prompting the chair to call the room to order.
Paul Uppal said: ‘The speech was a product of its time. Immigration is an issue that was raised when I was out campaigning as an MP, but it was very rarely actually about immigration.
‘It was more about isolation, loneliness, a sense of community, or nostalgia for a bygone age. Not just immigration, which to me is a lazy term.
‘Tomorrow, there will be Sikh weddings in Wolverhampton. There will be songs in Punjabi, songs in English, songs in Punjabi and English. All these arguments about race will dissipate.
‘Culture is not a fixed thing. It is always changing. British culture is not stuck in the 1960s… we are talking about a modern Britain for the 21st century.’
Nigel Hastilow said: ‘A lot of the speech is racist and unacceptable today. This is not a racist country. You’d maybe get 5% support now. But if you asked about immigration, you’d get a higher percentage, because it is a different issue.’
Should there be a blue plaque in Wolverhampton commemorating Enoch Powell as a significant person?
Nigel Hastilow: ‘Yes, because people of significance in history should be remembered.’
Paul Uppal: ‘No, because there’s a notoriety, and as a country we’ve moved on.’
Mikinder Jaspal: ‘No, because with that speech he destroyed his reputation and his credibility.’
Nicholas Jones: ‘A bit of me thinks it would be wonderful to have a statue or a plaque, even just to say ‘He was wrong,’ but of course it would be impossible. He put Wolverhampton on the map. It was a moment in politics.’
Along with Tony Benn, Enoch Powell was the leader of the No Campaign of the 1970s. Has he won from beyond the grave?
Nicholas Jones: ‘The debate was framed in terms of how Enoch Powell was resonating with the public. Theresa May is struggling today with the question of numbers – with regards to immigration – and so yes, we have to accept that the way Powell framed the argument lives on.’
Milkinder Jaspal observed: ‘I was knocking on doors during the more recent referendum and Sikhs and people of Caribbean descent wanted out of Europe. But immigration and race have different meanings. It’s challenging and interesting…’
Paul Uppal said: ‘When the British people wake up to what they have done, they may think differently, so yes, Enoch Powell was right.’
Nigel Hastilow added: ‘Immigration was said to be one of the main reasons why people voted for Brexit, and if it was, they are going to be very disappointed. From the EU point of view, restoring sovereignty is good reason to leave – it’s a very important thing, but it isn’t the same thing as tackling immigration.’
Powell said uncontrolled immigration would change society dramatically. Was he right?
Nigel Hastilow, challenged over an assertion that the population had grown by 4.5 million ‘more than was necessary’, due to immigration, said: ‘The country has changed a lot in 50 years – the population has grown by 11 million.
‘The population of Wolverhampton is 250,000 and half of that growth is through immigration. A lot of growth would have happened anyway, but the population has risen.
‘If there are problems with our hospitals -‘
‘Our hospitals are staffed by immigrants!’ came a shout from the floor.
‘our hospitals, schools, trains…’ Hastilow continued, ‘our infrastructure hasn’t expanded as fast.’
The chair pointed out that public service funding was a wider issue.
Paul Uppal: ‘The consensus is to move to controlled immigration. 100 years ago we had a mistrust of foreigners and yet today’s generation will marry someone from across the world, interact online. It’s a totally different world with a totally different perspective.
‘Has the UK changed? It was going to change anyway.’
Nicholas Jones added: ‘I live in London. Schools have a greater ethnic mix there than most and are very high achieving. I give out awards to students of Wolverhampton University, and see how from across the West Midlands people mix together and prove how wrong Powell was. This is a tolerant country.’
Wolverhampton is a successful multiracial city. Can we put to bed the fallacy that Enoch Powell was right?
Nicholas Jones: ‘It is passing. The future generations will see the turmoil of the 60s and see that Powell was wrong.’
Milkinder Jaspal added: ‘There are more important issues of poverty and social exclusion. These are the issues we need to talk about. Powell was Powell. Whatever he said hasn’t come true.’
Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech – 50 Years On took place at the University of Wolverhampton on 27 January 2018 at Wolverhampton Literature Festival.
For more contributions from the floor, see the Express & Star live report of the debate.
By Louise Palfreyman