“Was Enoch Powell right?” ... “Should Wolverhampton have a blue plaque for Enoch?” ... just two of the questions that provoked intense debate when the city’s evening newspaper, the Express and Star, brought together a panel to discuss Powell’s “Rivers of Blood Speech – 50 years on.”
The audience at Wolverhampton Literary Festival voted four to one against a blue plaque and gave short shrift to UKIP’s West Midlands MEP, Bill Etheridge, when he claimed that “immigrants were coming to Britain to get benefits not jobs”.
As one of the two journalists on the panel, my pitch was that Powell was certainly right in identifying the potency of exploiting fears over immigration – perhaps the most potent political weapon of the post-war years.
Powell had timed the speech and framed its content to maximum impact having become an accomplished exponent of media manipulation and the exploitation of immigration for political advantage – techniques that were refashioned by the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and most recently by the US President Donald Trump.
Powell created a cloak of respectability around the “numbers game” that allowed others to use arguments over the numbers arriving in the UK, and the dangers of uncontrolled immigration, in ways that exploited racial tension.
When asked to identify positive outcomes from the furore over the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, I said there was no doubt that the upsurge in racial tension triggered by Powell did force journalists to rethink how they wrote and spoke about race and immigration.
Looking back, I accept that when working as a local newspaper journalist in the 1960s, we did needlessly refer to people’s colour and race in quite gratuitous ways.
Often without thinking, we identified, stereotyped and even perhaps stigmatised black and Asian people in our reports. Journalists did begin to think about this extremely seriously.
My father, who was the editor of the Express and Star in the 1960s, and who had previously given Powell advice on how to maximise publicity for his speeches, went on to assist the Guild of Editors, and later the Commission for Racial Equality, in preparing guidance for journalists on race reporting.
When I joined Radio Leicester in 1972 – at the height of the arrival of Asians expelled from Uganda – the BBC was doing all it could to strengthen guidelines for broadcast journalists, requiring greater care and sensitivity.
Together with the three other panellists – Nigel Hastilow, Express and Star columnist; Milkinder Jaspal, Wolverhampton councillor and former mayor; and Paul Uppal, former Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, under the chairmanship of Keith Harrison, editor of the Express and Star – we all gave our estimates if there was an opinion poll held today on support for Powell’s views.
In 1968, a survey showed support for Powell stood at 74 per cent. I said the closest illustration was the 2016 European Referendum and the 52 per cent vote for leave – a narrow majority that had been driven upwards by fears over immigration.
Another poll would show contrasting levels of support: In London, I thought the proportion would be perhaps 20 to 30 per cent at most, but in parts of the West Midlands, Yorkshire and north east England, that had not shared in the economic expansion of the south east, the proportion backing Powell could easily hit 40 to 50 per cent.
The fears stoked by UKIP in the referendum campaign were a legacy of Powell’s speech and immigration had been identified by Prime Minister Theresa May as one of the key issues to be addressed in Brexit negotiations.
When it came to the idea of installing a blue plaque to commemorate Powell, my suggestion was that given time there might well be a place where the former MP should be commemorated in Wolverhampton, not least because it would be an opportunity to remind people that Powell was wrong and not right, and that the West Midlands had proved that people of different races and colour could live peacefully together.
I was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wolverhampton – I donate an annual media prize – and I consider the university’s graduation ceremonies at the Grand Theatre are a testament to that harmony. They provide a vivid illustration of the way young people from across the West Midlands, drawn from all the many communities, live, study and work together.