By Vivek Lehal
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In the Shadow of Enoch Powell

This article is over 5 years, 4 months old
Issue 444

Enoch Powell made his notorious Rivers of Blood speech in the Midland Hotel in Birmingham on 20 April, 1968. At the time he was the Conservative MP for the constituency of Wolverhampton South West. In her book In the Shadow of Enoch Powell Shirin Hirsch examines the impact of Powell’s speech in the Wolverhampton of 1968 and analyses its significance 50 years later. Hirsch draws on archival material as well as her own contemporary interviews.

Hirsch locates Powell’s speech in postcolonial Britain. She demonstrates Powell’s shift from the paternalistic racism of empire — Powell had harboured ambitions to be Viceroy of India — to a more strident anti-immigrant racism. She argues that Powell’s speech seeks to invoke an image of a quintessentially English (white) city being overwhelmed by foreign (black) immigrants in a calculated effort to further his own political ambition. An earlier speech in Walsall had failed to gain the national attention that Powell was seeking.

The most powerful sections of Hirsch’s book are the voices of Wolverhampton residents around the time of Powell’s speech, especially, but not only, those who opposed Powell and in particular those of Caribbean or Asian descent. The chapter on resistance details inspiring struggles among both private and public sector workers and those defending multicultural education.

Hirsch’s book is not merely a historical exercise. She argues that Powell’s speech informs political discourse on the subject of race and immigration to this day. She references the many obituaries that sought to rehabilitate Powell as, in the words of Tony Blair, “one of the greatest figures of 20th century British politics”. She cites Trevor Phillips (former head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights) making a speech in the Midland Hotel 40 years on from Powell calling for a reopening of the “immigration debate”. She reminds us of Russell Brand’s description of Nigel Farage as “a pound shop Powell”.

Eleanor Smith, the current MP for Wolverhampton South West and the first MP elected in the West Midlands from an African Caribbean background, has stated that her election “could close the chapter of Powell and the Rivers of Blood speech for good”. Hirsch, however, by placing Powell’s speech in the context of the dramatic events of 1968 and the ending of the post-war boom demonstrates that it remains both a touchstone for the far right and a rallying point for anti-racists.

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