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Right or wrong, the legacy of Enoch Powell's speech lives on

Wolverhampton | News | Published:

'The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils'. There is little anyone could find wrong with that line.

Enoch Powell

It is a reminder to those elected by the people that they are there to make things better and to use their authority and skills to serve their country.

But what if we were to tell you that the quote is actually the opening line of the infamous Rivers of Blood speech made by Enoch Powell?

The former Conservative MP for Wolverhampton had a Parliamentary career spanning 37 years. But his legacy will forever be associated with a speech on mass immigration made one Saturday afternoon in 1968.

This week, the Express & Star is going to examine immigration and look at the predictions and claims made by Mr Powell all those years ago to see how they relate to today.

Recently sections of the speech were read out on Sky News to the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, to trap him into saying how he agreed with some of what Mr Powell had to say.

And Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, faced calls to quit after effectively comparing his Tory coalition colleagues to Mr Powell over their stance on immigration.

Mr Powell's legacy has, quite literally, become a case of black and white. Those who claim that anything he had to say was right sometimes find themselves cast out as racists. Some might well be. But not all.

Those who ignore all he was trying to say are also ignoring growing concern over mass immigration in the 21st century.

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Recently border controls in Britain for Romanian and Bulgarian migrants have been relaxed in line with their right to travel anywhere across the European Union for work.

Prime Minister David Cameron is now trying to renegotiate Britain's place in Europe and further restrict access to benefits for migrants.

A three-month ban on EU migrants claiming UK out-of-work benefits came into force earlier this month.

In his speech, Mr Powell warned of a an inflow of 'dependants' and said it was like watching a nation 'busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre'.

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The speech prompted huge protests with some people even waving banners saying 'disembowel Powell' or portraying him as a Nazi.

People who were close to Enoch Powell stress that he was absolutely not a racist.

His critics point to passages in the speech that were undoubtedly hugely controversial.

He said that one of his constituents, a 'decent, ordinary fellow Englishman' had complained that the country would 'not be worth living in', because the time was coming when ' the black man will have the whip hand over the white man'.

He prophesied that would happen within 15 to 20 years of the speech in 1968.

And yet one only has to look at the sea of white faces among chief executives or MPs to see that, at the very least on that point, Enoch Powell was wrong.

Angry protesters take to the streets with placards in opposition to Powell's words during the late 1960s

He said that people in Wolverhampton were becoming strangers in their own country, that their wives could not get hospital beds in which to have their babies or that children would not get school places. He warned of race wars, leading to the most famous passage of the speech: "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'."

It did not happen. And there is much debate over whether he was saying riots would happen, or simply fearing that they could.

At the time of the speech, in April 1968, he was the shadow secretary of state for defence under the then Tory opposition leader Edward Heath.

He was certainly well qualified for that front bench position having served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the Intelligence Corps.

He had been angry at the appeasement of Nazi Germany by the Government of Neville Chamberlain and, shortly before the outbreak of war, purchased himself a Russian dictionary, believing that the country ruled by Stalin would be crucial to Britain's victory.

During his military service he was posted to India, where he is said to have deeply wanted to become the viceroy – the then ruling British government's chief official.

He learned Urdu but was against the idea of the country governing itself, noting that each of the various political parties were dominated by one particular minority group – Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and so on.

He brought this thinking with him back to England in 1946 when he advised the Conservative party against immigration from India, believing it would in some way undermine the people already living here.

Mr Powell became further convinced of his views when in 1947, under Labour leader Clement Attlee, the government pressed ahead with Indian independence.

Violence ensued and Mr Powell began receiving confidential reports including from a former Indian civil servant he knew, Frank Bayne, about the bloodshed.

In a report from Lahore in 1947, Brayne wrote: 'Quem deus vult perdere prius dementat'.

Powell translated it in his notorious speech 21 years later: "Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad."

The fallout from the speech saw Mr Powell sacked by Edward Heath and eventually ousted by the Tories from his seat in Wolverhampton. He ended up representing the Ulster Unionists in South Down, Northern Ireland.

Those who seek to rehabilitate Mr Powell's reputation point out that in 1959 he condemned the Conservative government cover-up of the Hola Camp massacre, in which Britain killed 11 Mau Mau rebels.

He had nothing but contempt for parliamentary colleagues who called the Mau Mau 'sub-human'.

Denis Healey, who would go on to be Labour's Chancellor, called it 'the greatest parliamentary speech I ever heard', with 'all the moral passion and rhetorical force of Demosthenes'.

Even those who would oppose Mr Powell, such as former Labour leader Michael Foot, use this speech to claim that he was no racist. There was also little to suggest he harboured such views prior to the famous speech.

In 1960, as minister of health, he had presided over the recruitment of West Indian nurses.

Something changed his mind.

In his speech he referred to a woman he knew who 'worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age'.

"Then the immigrants moved in," Mr Powell said. "With growing fear, she saw one house after another taken over. "She is becoming afraid to go out, windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes out to the shops she is followed by children, charming wide-grinning picaninnies."

He never named the woman. Journalists from the Express & Star and Fleet Street tried to find her, to no avail. Then six years ago, after her death, the woman was revealed to be a Druscilla 'Trudy' Cotterill, at the time a 60-year-old childless war widow who was deeply troubled and frightened at the changes that she saw around her.

She lived in Brighton Place, not far from Mr Powell's Merridale Road constituency home.

In 1950 every property had been occupied by British-born families. By 1967 Mrs Cotterill was the only English person left, flanked by Asians and West Indians.

At the time of the speech, Mr Powell had been accused of making up her account and by keeping her identity a secret he was forced to drop a libel action against the Sunday Times.

Whatever his motivations or views, the Rivers of Blood speech was an enormous boulder dropped in a lake and its ripples have been felt for 46 years.

And Mr Powell knew that it was going to be a big deal. Prior to the speech he had been friends with the then editor of the Express & Star, Clem Jones.

He had asked for advice on how to get the best possibly publicity for his speeches and had chosen a Saturday afternoon, knowing that it would make the evening broadcast bulletins, the Sunday national newspapers and, if it was significant enough, the Monday papers as well.

He said to Clem Jones: "Look, Clem, I'm not telling you what is in the speech. But you know how a rocket goes up into the air, explodes into lots of stars, and then falls down to the ground.

Well, this speech is going to go up like a rocket, and when it gets to the top, the stars are going to stay up."

Today, the things he feared would happen – the riots, immigrants having the 'whip hand' – have not come to pass.

On that, at the very least, we can be certain that Enoch Powell was wrong.

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