Enoch Powell and the River of Blood: A Memoir of 1968
In February 1968 the MP for Wolverhampton South West, and shadow defence secretary Enoch Powell gave a speech in Birmingham that has become notorious in British political history. So notorious that the proposed broadcasting of this speech by the BBC 50 years later has caused considerable controversy – not controversy as great perhaps as the original speech, as I will explain, but nonetheless a political storm.
At that time I was living in Wolverhampton, and attending Wolverhampton Grammar School. My father was General Secretary of the local YMCA, and a well-known figure in youth and community work and community relations. He was once offered the position of first Community Relations Officer in the UK. He turned it down as he thought the first CRO should not be a white British man. The position was I think given to Harvey de Pass, a West Indian who became something of a legendary figure in this field. We lived in a flat on the upper floor of the YMCA building in the city centre. It was not a salubrious area. It was seamy, down at heel, crime-ridden, and fraught with social problems and racial strife. It was a very mixed community of working class white British, Italians, Irish, Poles, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese and others. If the UK had problems with multi-culturalism, as it was just then beginning to be called, they were probably more in evidence in the centre of Wolverhampton than almost anywhere else in the UK. As a result of Windrush migration and other migration from Commonwealth countries, the UK had seen a large growth in such arrivals during the 1950s and 1960s.
The mixed nature of this community was augmented by the many students and others that put up in the YMCA hostel. They came from a very large number of countries. I was as a young teenager often spellbound by their stories of their own countries – Indian railways, Iraqi food, West Indian cricket, the Turkish air force, and so on. My father, like many others working in this community, tried his best to create good community relations. The Sikhs lacked a place to worship, so he allowed them to use the YMCA sports hall on Sunday mornings. They looked up to him and asked him to arbitrate when they had internal strife. On the same premises several of us participated in an evening programme teaching English to young migrants mainly from India and Pakistan. When they left we had to watch out for gangs of skinheads who might taunt them or even provoke violence. One evening, a young female Labour political aspirant visited the lessons. This young woman behaved in a rather queenly fashion, and later became a well-known Labour minister and member of the House of Lords. She adverted on television to ‘what we in Wolverhampton are doing’ for migrants, giving our teaching programme as an example. She had spent all of half an hour in the building. The ‘we’ did not include her. The programme was started by my father and others, not the Labour Party. This was a lesson for me in realising that in politics the moral high ground can be shifting territory!
Powell’s speech was like a lighted squib thrown into a pile of dry wood. It threatened to reduce Wolverhampton to something like the social landscape of an American inner city area. The speech, opposing the Race Relations Bill then before Parliament, raised the spectre of the country being taken over by Commonwealth immigrants as numbers increased beyond 10% of the population. The speech argued that it was the white British who were being discriminated against and that the rule of law meant that social relations between citizens could not be regulated. Powell believed the UK faced a social crisis which nobody was addressing. He finished his speech with a famous passage where, using the words of the Roman poet Virgil, he seemed “to see the River Tiber foaming with blood”. Hence the title the speech has been given. Powell had been a classics professor previously, and was undoubtedly a highly intelligent man, if, in my view, somewhat psychotic and malignantly driven. In view of the BBC’s decision, I revisited the speech the other day for the first time in 50 years. It is easily available on YouTube.
For many people this speech had undone the good work they had been doing for some years. There is evidence that the majority of people in the UK thought that Powell spoke for them. He was very widely respected. Powell was immediately sacked from the shadow cabinet by the Tory Party leader Edward Heath. However, he was not, as some people think, expelled from the party, and remained a Tory MP until 1974. Nonetheless, political analysts attribute both the Tory election win of 1970 and the Labour election win of 1974 to Powell. In the first instance voters regarded him as protecting their rights against migrants. The Tories benefitted from his standing. In the second case, however, Powell turned on his party for surrendering the sovereignty of Parliament to the European Community, asking voters to vote Labour as they were more anti-European than the Tories at that time. His career took a strange turn when he left his Wolverhampton seat to become the unionist MP for Antrim in Northern Ireland.
For very many of my generation Powell embodied everything that we disliked about British society. He represented narrow racism and right-wing views we abhorred, on almost everything. He was known as an exceptionally hard-nosed minister for health in the early 1960s, who had had no sympathy for nurses’ pay claims. At university as students we demonstrated against Powell specifically as a symbol of the Britain that we rejected.
In the aftermath of the speech my father went to see Powell in his constituency office. He explained to him that racial tensions in the city were high and violence could explode at any time. He pleaded with Powell to issue a statement to the effect that his speech was intended to imply hatred towards migrants, but was directed to a policy issue. I will not forget what my father said on his return from that meeting. “He looked at me with those steely blue eyes, and just said, ‘Mr Harding, I am a politician. Good day.’” Some years later a Sunday newspaper tracked my father down shopping with my mother in Glasgow to interview him for an article on the subject of the speech and its context.
I have often puzzled over this extraordinary statement by Powell. To understand it, we need to recognise that with Powell there was none of the politician’s usual eyewash: he could have been accommodating in some manner, for example, explaining that he did not intend to inflame violence, only to warn against its possible causes. He was, in a strange sense, a man of principle. His principles were terrible, but his career shows that he stuck rigidly to them irrespective of their political fallout or even his own career. I only met him once, when he visited the school to give a talk. He was an erudite, forbidding figure, like a particularly intelligent but unpleasantly disciplinarian military officer, with a superior attitude towards lesser mortals. He began by saying that people were always convinced they knew what he was going to say, and, afterwards, that he had said it. This was true. He was fawned over by middle-class ladies in hats with flowers on them, but he was not in a sense mainstream Tory. He was, for example, opposed to nuclear weapons. He treated us to a complex economic discourse designed to show that socialism was uneconomic and taxes could easily be reduced. We listened sullenly, hardly following the speech, except for a few well-dressed boys from rich families who seemed rather delighted. Incidentally, we were also treated later to a talk by the chair of the local communist party, whom I found equally unconvincing.
I do not read Powell’s reply to my father as saying that he would exploit political opportunity if he wanted to. That does not ring true. I think he meant that he genuinely disliked immigrants (in his speech he excepted from his opprobrium only NHS doctors and students of the kind I encountered in the hostel). He poured scorn on communities who would not accept the same standards in employment as native British workers (he meant the Sikhs asking to be able to keep their turbans), and no doubt considered that he represented those who agreed with his racist views rather than lefties or social workers like my father. Powell’s views on social provision were such that he would have willingly cut all their jobs in public services. But I think Powell was not dishonest. I believe he genuinely held his views to be correct, and indeed prophetic, callous and wrong as they were. He believed he was responding to a real crisis.
The school itself was the focus of attention when the local evening paper editorialised that the school was racist, having only white boys in a very mixed population. The headmaster, ER Taylor, was enraged by this the next morning in assembly. He asked ‘Cocoa’ Wilson, our cricket first XI’s fast bowler and a West Indian lad, to stand up. “There”, he said triumphantly, “is the living proof that we are not a racist school”. Wilson was one black boy out of 600. I recall thinking, “Headmaster, you have no idea what racism is. I felt he was living in a different world altogether. Later on there was also a Sikh boy. Ratio 1:300.
There was much experience in the city to lead me to believe that racism was prevalent everywhere and was actually acceptable in most quarters, even if not at official levels. Powell had tapped into the prejudice that characterised British society at that time. He undoubtedly thought he should be Prime Minister, but fortunately he was pushed further and further away from that possibility following the speech. Edward Heath did at least have courage to sack Powell immediately, and distance his party from Powell’s views.
Listening again to that speech which caused me revulsion in 1968 I have two reactions. One is that its argument seems in retrospect laughable. In terms of rhetoric it was strong on terrifying images, but, for a logician like Powell, very weak on facts. The picture he painted of white urban residents in social retreat, faeces being pushed through their letter boxes, bore little proportion to the reality of immigrant experiences. My other reaction was that in 50 years we have actually come a long way. There was fierce discussion at that time about solutions: should immigrants be encouraged to ‘integrate’ or retain their own cultures? Nowadays for the most part we see that there is no necessary distinction here. You can be British and retain to a large extent a West Indian or Pakistani culture. This is not to say we have no problems. We have large problems of alienated people, but not I think, generally, whole alienated communities as such. And despite acts of terrorism inspired from outside the UK, we are nowhere near direct confrontation between communities as Powell tried to make us fear would happen.
In my opinion the BBC should rebroadcast the speech and there should be debate about it. This would be healthy. Yes, in the world of Brexit, we have people who probably share Powell’s attitudes towards foreigners. But let us not push everything under the carpet as though we are not mature citizens who can discuss these issues in the light of facts and changes in society. I think the youngest generation especially will benefit from listening to the programme. The broadcast would not constitute illegal hate speech, as some maintain. This is a misconception. The programme will not celebrate the speech but use its 50th anniversary to highlight the issues surrounding it. The same applies in my view to the proposal to place a plaque of the wall of the house where Powell lived. This does not mean we approve of Powell. It means rather that he is part of the history of both our country and the city of Wolverhampton. Marking the past is controversial worldwide. The past is of course another country. It is never a past we are completely proud of, but we should not for that reason forget it.