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Enoch Powell 50 years later: We've moved on from Rivers of Blood

By Pete Madeley | Wolverhampton | Politics | Published:

"He created huge divisions, but to use his analogy, the River Tiber is not 'foaming with much blood'."

Enoch Powell delivered his divisive Rivers of Blood speech 50 years ago

The words of Wolverhampton councillor Sandra Samuels as she reflects on 50 years since Enoch Powell made his divisive Rivers of Blood speech.

Councillor Samuels, a cabinet member who represents Ettingshall, said that time had proved Mr Powell wrong, although she warned that divisions still exist today in British society.

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Six years ago she was one of the directors of the Cultural Resource Centre who bought the Whitmore Reans club in Clifford Street where Mr Powell used to be a member.

"I think it was really poignant that this building where Powell would frequent is now a Heritage Centre that has become a hub for the Afro-Caribbean community in Wolverhampton," said Mrs Samuels, a retired senior theatre sister who was awarded an OBE in 2016 for services to local government.

"In many ways we have moved on. What he predicted has never happened, but that is not to say that divisions do not exist.

Councillor Sandra Samuels (in blue) at the opening of the Heritage Centre in Wolverhampton

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"They do, as we have seen with the Brexit vote and the fact that hate crime is on the rise. The treatment of Afro-Caribbean people in the Windrush scandal has been disgraceful.

"It is questionable how much we have really moved on. There is still work to do."

Mr Powell was the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West from 1950-1974.

Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith

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The seat has since been held by Sikh politician Paul Uppal and its incumbent is Labour's Eleanor Smith, the West Midlands' first black MP.

She said of Mr Powell: “He sought to divide the city and the country, and divide working people. I remember being called names, and these things remain in your head.

“But almost 50 years on, the people of Wolverhampton voted for me, a black woman, to represent them – and that speaks volumes. Powell would be turning in his grave. It’s poetic justice.”

Emma Reynolds, the Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East, said: "Enoch Powell attempted to sow divisions with his speech and Wolverhampton has proved him wrong.

Emma Reynolds - Wolverhampton has proved Powell wrong

"We live in a diverse society where people respect others of different colours, different ethnicities and different religions. That is a great testament to the people of this city.

"I am very proud of the fact that in Eleanor Smith, Wolverhampton now has the West Midlands' first black MP in Powell's old seat. I think that speaks volumes in terms of how we have moved on."

Wolverhampton-born author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera recently revisited Mr Powell's speech for his BBC Radio 4 programme The Turban Bus Dispute.

He said: "Both the Sikh and Caribbean communities that came to Wolverhampton have done really well.

"I would say they have integrated. Look at Wolverhampton Wanderers with Danny Batth, who is of mixed English and Sikh Punjabi descent. I couldn't speak English on my first day of school and I ended up going to Cambridge to do English.

"I work for The Times, having worked at the Express & Star as well. Tessa Sanderson [who emigrated to Wolverhampton from Jamaica as a child] won a gold medal at the Olympics. You can go on and on.

"Not only have we integrated but the communities have thrived."

Sathnam Sanghera – Communities have integrated

He added: "There are still issues about the new generation of immigrants, but I think our story shows that over time, they will integrate too."

Councillor Milkinder Jaspal, who represents East Park on Wolverhampton, was a child growing up in Whitmore Reans at the time that Mr Powell made his speech.

He said: "In some respects we have made great strides since his speech, but there is still a lot of work to do.

"Immigration is still an issue that is high in people's thoughts, as we saw in the EU referendum. It has not yet been put to bed.

"For that to happen I think there needs to be a sensible, nationwide discussion.

Councillor Milkinder Jaspal says there is still work to do

"When you take Powell's words, it is evident that he has been proved wrong. Immigrants have come to this area and contributed to it, as well as making a success of themselves.

"The speech made Powell's name, but in my opinion no one really cares about him these days, particularly younger people, who either don't know who he is or consider him an irrelevance.

"He is from another generation and will be forgotten in years to come."

Protestors backing Powell take to the streets in April 1968

Councillor Wendy Thompson, the Conservative opposition leader on Wolverhampton council, says she met Mr Powell once when he was 'door knocking' as her constituency MP.

She said: "He was predominantly known for the speech, which I look at now as being a lifetime ago. The language he used was very inappropriate and there were divisions.

"Fast forward to today and we live in a city of more than 50 different nationalities where people work incredibly well together. We have moved on as a city and a society.

"When I speak to residents they care about their bins being emptied and council tax rises. They are euphoric about Wolves going up. Powell's speech does not really register."

Ian Austin has organised an anti-racism rally

Dudley North MP Ian Austin hosted an anti-racism rally last night at the Birmingham hotel where Mr Powell made his speech.

He said: "Powell's terrible predictions have never come true.

"Instead, the West Midlands has communities in which people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures work and live together harmoniously.

"What matters is not where you or your parents were born, the colour of your skin, but the contribution you make, the way you behave and your belief in the British values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance.

"That is what make you British not, as Powell believed, your race and the colour of your skin."

Rivers of Blood was by no means Mr Powell's only controversial speech. He had caused controversy weeks earlier by referring to a city school that he said had only one white pupil.

A photograph of two boys, one white and one black, was carried in many newspapers at the time, but the story was not true.

Mike Edwards, now 59, is the white boy in the picture, sitting alongside his friend Ray Comrie.

Speaking at a 'Class of 68' reunion event last year, he told the E&S: "Seeing ourselves on the news, I started to ask questions. Reading the 'Go Home' slogans and other comments painted on walls in the area reinforced why the media came to our school.

"Amongst my family, the joke was 'Michael's the only white kid at West Park'. We all knew it was a lie. Even the photographer had written on the back of the photos that they disproved what Powell was saying.

"Up to that point we were just kids at school. After Powell's Rivers of Blood speech and his comments about the school everything changed."

Bill Etheridge has echoed Powell's speech in a speech of his own

UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge, who echoed Mr Powell’s words in his own controversial speech in November 2015, said that although ‘the language’ the MP used was ‘racist’, the speech was still relevant.

“It attempted to tackle uncontrolled immigration, which is still relevant today as we saw in the campaign for Brexit,” he said.

Wolverhampton South East MP Pat McFadden said Mr Powell’s speech was ‘both divisive in its content and wrong in its predictions’.

“In the fifty years since that speech was given Wolverhampton has successfully become a multi faith and multi ethnic city,” he added.

“That success is down to many people over the years who have worked very hard to bring people together and to show that whatever our backgrounds we have more in common than anything which sets us apart.”

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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