50 years on from the Rivers of Blood speech, its ideas are government policy, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
The timing is remarkable. In the week of the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, the government admits it wrongly deported an unknown number of people from the so-called “Windrush generation”.
It was this group – British subjects, predominantly from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, invited to help rebuild the “mother country” after the Second World War, and their British-born children – that so unsettled Powell.
He was a proud believer in Empire as long it was “out there”, not when its citizens sought a share of the rights preached to them. The fact that Commonwealth leaders arrive in London for a summit this week underlines the grim irony. The crossover isn’t a coincidence, though; it’s a demonstration of Powell’s ultimate triumph.
The furore over the way the BBC chose to mark the anniversary, with a special reading of the speech on Radio 4 by Scottish actor and Powell apologist Ian McDiarmid, exposed how insidious Powell’s rhetoric has been.
Most know little about the speech beyond its name, as shown by TV debates and radio phone-ins asking whether Powell’s ideas were racist.
Those who do know are rightly appalled by Powell’s words of comfort for people who refused to rent rooms to immigrants, or said they wanted to emigrate because “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.
To Powell, settlement by people of other races and cultures was a threat. That is racism. Read as a response to the American civil rights movement – it was delivered two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr – the bigotry of Rivers of Blood speech becomes even more sinister.
READ MORE: Who are the Windrush generation?
At least the examination of Powell’s words has revealed the intellectual bankruptcy of a supposed classical scholar. Immigration did not cause the Thames to foam with much blood. As it always does, inequality and injustice bred tension, and in a few instances, sparked violence. But any cursory examination of history confirms migration as a factor in, and a precursor to, the creation of great societies.
What this week shows, however, is that despite their hollowness, stripped of the worst rhetoric, Powell’s ideas have become the substance of the immigration debate, finding their latest expression in the vote to leave the EU. Even at its peak, net migration added half a per cent to the UK population every year. This figure was presented as grotesque and unsustainable. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the idea that immigrants put a strain on public services can’t now be shaken from public debate. Only last week, a UK minister singled out immigration as a leading cause of pressure on house prices. Dominic Raab defended his stance even after the research behind it was shown to be flimsy and outdated. Reasonable commentators quote research suggesting immigration drives down wages for the lowest paid, without acknowledging that the lowest paid are often themselves recent immigrants, and that social status has more to do with the prevalence of immigrants in certain jobs than pay. Fifty years on, Powell’s ambition to drive down net migration is government policy. Under Theresa May, the Home Office began making the UK a “hostile environment” to discourage illegal immigration, ordering the NHS, employers and landlords to demand proof of immigration status. Yet it is one of the UK’s best and longest-settled populations that is suffering the consequences. This isn’t just about history. Over the next three years, three million EU nationals in the UK will have to go through a process that is, in principle, the same as the one resulting in wrongful detentions and deportations. The timescales are much shorter, but EU nationals will be asked to prove they have lived in the UK continuously for at least five years.
Like the Windrush generation, the vast majority came to this country with a passport and their rights. Cases have already emerged of EU nationals living in the UK for years being unable to conclusively prove their eligibility to stay. Most worryingly of all, their futures depend on the Home Office – the department responsible for the “hostile environment” policy, which has failed the Windrush deportees.
Even as his words are discredited, it’s worth asking whether Enoch Powell’s ideas have ever had so much power.