Wolverhampton, 1968

The process I saw evolving in the Wolverhampton South West constituency of Enoch Powell in 1968 wasn’t the burgeoning of racist violence that he alluded to in his infamous Rivers of Blood speech, which he delivered that April 20th — fifty years ago. It was more the birth of homogeneity.

As a student I worked every Saturday on a poultry stall in Wolverhampton market, where Asian men requested their chickens “skinned and chopped,” more convenient for making curry. Local housewives who were next in line soon caught on, and those buying chicken for stewed dishes ordered their birds prepared the same way. I and my fellow, predominately white, students began to frequent a local Caribbean nightclub. It wasn’t long before the town’s music shops were stocking records by Jamaican bands to satisfy our demand for the reggae we’d been introduced to at the club. Enoch Powell was either ignorant of, or — more likely — purposely ignored, the willingness of the British native-born population to embrace attributes of different cultures landing in their midst.

As Robert Winder describes in his should-be-required-reading, ‘Bloody Immigrants, the story of immigration to Britain,’ by 1066 the majority of Britons were mongrels with some combination of Saxon, Roman, Jute, Mediterranean, and Scandinavian blood. Over the following decades, until the 1950s, Britain received frequent and varied arrivals from outside its shores. Norman conquerors, Walloon sailmakers, Huguenot weavers, Jewish deportees, African slave/servants, Irish labourers, European war refugees — all eventually absorbed. Admittedly, some were initially resented and reviled by segments of the ‘native’ population, but, once it became obvious they wanted nothing more than a peaceful and safe life for their families, they were accepted as useful members of British society, which profited by the addition of the labour and skills the newcomers supplied. And many aspects of their individual cultures — food, some words, arts, traditions — became part of British life, to the point were they were seen by subsequent generations, including Enoch Powell’s, as peculiarly British.

Powell was a remarkably well-educated and brilliant scholar. He couldn’t have been unaware of the waves of immigration throughout history. He must have known about the constant absorption of newcomers into British society. Also, he was disingenuous when he said in the Rivers of Blood speech that the rate of immigration in 1968 had “no parallel in a thousand years of English history.” Even Migration Watch UK, labelled by some as a Right Wing Pressure Group, describe immigration in comparison to native born population up until the 1990s as fairly consistent and, in their opinion, “sustainable and beneficial.” One can only conclude that he objected so vehemently to the latest wave of immigration because it consisted of people of colour.

Powell betrayed a glimmer of misguided understanding when he said, “Now, at all times, where there are marked physical differences, especially of colour, integration is difficult though, over a period, not impossible.” But he went on to negate this morsel of empathy when he condemned the Sikh community for their “campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain.” From his time in India, Powell most certainly knew that the tenets of the Sikh religion were identical to Christianity when they talked about “leading a life of righteousness, and to make every deed and action true and honourable.” Hardly inappropriate to Britain. Perhaps he was alluding to the wearing of turbans by uniformed employees, a controversial issue at the time. But it wasn’t long before this was accepted as a harmless practice, at which nobody now raises an eyebrow.

Powell also ‘fear mongered’ in the Rivers of Blood speech by dramatically exaggerating in people’s consciousness numbers of immigrants by alluding to quantities of “immigrant descendants,” by which, of course, he meant the children of people of colour. He didn’t take into account that it can take just one generation for immigrants, regardless of colour, to become as British as other native-born citizens. As witness, the two most recent MPs for Powell’s Wolverhampton constituency, both first-generation Britons. Paul Uppal is the child of Sikh immigrants and Eleanor Smith’s parents are African Caribbean.

If there were any “rivers foaming with much blood” in Britain in relation to Powell’s speech, they were as a direct result of his words, and not of the immigration he described. Statistics for racial hate crimes have only begun to be officially recorded in the last couple of decades, but, judging from anecdotes and media reports, they increased noticeably immediately following Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. The following day, Wade Crooks, a man who Powell employed to clean the windows of his constituency office, was hosting a christening party for his grandson. Fourteen white youths appeared and asked Wade why he didn’t go back to his own country. When he didn’t reply one of them slashed his face.

Is it any wonder that during the Brexit debate, similar rhetoric by Nigel Farage and other Powell-worshipping politicians, who espouse his delusion of Britons’ inability to adapt to newcomers, resulted in an unprecedented spike in racially aggravated offences. See https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/652136/hate-crime-1617-hosb1717.pdf   However, the figures also show that six months later the incidence of racial hate crimes fell back to previous levels.

The apparent inability — or unwillingness — of some politicians to learn from history is astounding. Fortunately for the rest of us, who form history as much or more than anyone else, we have an innate ability to adapt and reinvent ourselves, regardless of government.


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