Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Few political speeches can even aspire to be tomorrow’s fish and chip paper anymore, now that the online news cycle is measured in hours, sometimes minutes, rather than days. Yet Enoch Powell was not even a Government minister, but Shadow Defence Secretary, when he made the famous speech in Birmingham that came to define his own political reputation and to reverberate down the decades.
Even half a century on, Twitter has been aflame with an argument about whether Radio 4 should have broadcast the speech on Saturday – when perhaps the 50th anniversary of ‘Rivers of Blood’ should serve as a moment to assess the state of the nation on race and integration today, as British Future has been doing in its new report, Many rivers crossed, based on conversations across the West Midlands and polling across the UK.
The deep passions sparked in favour and against Powell have dimmed considerably. He is now half-remembered and half-forgotten. Most people aged over 45 can identify the politician associated with ‘Rivers of Blood’ – but most people under 45 have never heard of it, as new Survation polling ahead of the anniversary reveals. There is a remarkably wide gender gap, with women (32 per cent) being only half as likely as men (65 per cent) to identify the phrase with Powell. The generation gap is starkest of all among ethnic minorities. Nine out of ten black and Asian respondents aged over 65 know that it was Powell who predicted ‘Rivers of Blood’, but only one in ten ethnic minority voters under 24 can put a name to that phrase.
The growing generational divide in the politics of identity, immigration and Brexit have been much discussed since the EU referendum. Yet we found an interesting twist in this story of generational change when asking people about what has changed on race.
It was older citizens in the West Midlands who had much the strongest sense of change for the better on race, despite being more sceptical about the scale and pace of migration today. It was something that participants felt sure they had seen for themselves. The over-65s are a more socially conservative section of today’s electorate, yet they contrasted their own views and experiences with those that they recalled their parents holding: “I was told not to play with the monkeys,” said one woman. They felt that they had successfully adjusted to change over the years and spoke with pride about their children and grandchildren’s confidence in seeing ethnic diversity in their classrooms as an everyday norm.
Whether in Wolverhampton or Dudley, older participants made a clear distinction, shared across the referendum divide, that it was one thing to have critical views of immigration, and quite another to take it out on people because of the colour of their skin or where they are from.
Yet 18-24 year olds in Wolverhampton had much less sense of significant progress. They had strong views against racism, and had grown up together in mixed classrooms, but worried that terrorism, extremism and political divisions were creating more social tensions. They had seen TV news clips of the stark racism faced by black footballers like Cyrille Regis, but the idea that things might have been even worse before they were born did not seem very relevant if they or their friends faced prejudice today. Both white and ethnic minority participants expected more to be done to stamp racism out.
Those fierce, polarised arguments that Powell sparked about racism are an important part of our social history. It is often suggested that “Rivers of Blood” scared mainstream politicians away from immigration entirely. That misremembers how Powell did influence immigration policy – successive governments passing immigration acts to restrict future Commonwealth inflows in 1968, 1971 and 1981. Powell took his revenge on Ted Heath for sacking him by voting Labour to get a referendum on Europe, and swinging the October 1974 election for Harold Wilson, but losing the public argument over Europe in his own generation, before the British public changed their mind in different circumstances some four decades later.
His focus on mass repatriation was rejected, beyond the National Front and its successors, along with his opposition to outlawing racial discrimination. But the argument that really got crowded out was that of integration – which Powell saw as so unlikely as to be near impossible.
He spoke with ferocious urgency in 1968 because he argued that it would be too late to heed his warnings within a decade or two, when there would be too many British-born children of Commonwealth migrants to send everybody back. “Enoch was right,” by the time I first heard it in the 1980s, had become a bitter lament for those who knew full well that they wouldn’t be sending British-born people like me ‘back’ anywhere.
If Powell was undoubtedly too pessimistic about Britain, avoiding his apocalyptic fears of inter-ethnic civil war sets the bar much too low. It’s striking, across this half-century, from Scarman after Brixton to MacPherson after Stephen Lawrence, how sporadically governments have engaged with race and integration, after a riot or a tragic murder, before taking their eye off the ball again. Perhaps now, between the Integration Strategy and the Race Audit, there is finally a chance for a sustained approach to integration and fairness for all. The question is no longer ‘Was Enoch right?’ but ‘Where do we want to go together?’