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Enoch Powell: Did Wolverhampton MP's Rivers of Blood speech create an anti-immigration feeling?

Wolverhampton | In-depth | Published:

Enoch Powell began his 'Rivers of Blood' speech by quoting a "quite ordinary" working man from Wolverhampton.

In a conversation with Powell "a week or two" earlier, the unnamed worker predicted that in the UK "the black man will have the whip hand over the white man" within 20 years.

To support his anti-immigration message, Powell stated this view was widespread.

"What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking," said Powell.

Enoch Powell's Rivers Of Blood Speech in 1080p

The idea that in his speech Powell was reflecting the prevailing mood among Wulfrunians is one that is often accepted.

And it is supported by examples of protestors who marched through the city's streets in support of the Wolverhampton South West MP after he was sacked from the shadow cabinet the following day.

Rarely, however, is the public's reaction to such landmark events as uniform as initially suggested.

The mixed response to the speech is being explored by historian Shirin Hirsch in her new book on Powell, due for release next year.

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And it also challenges whether Powell really was echoing anti-immigrant feeling in Wolverhampton, or whether he helped create it.

In his speech Powell claimed native Brits had "found themselves made strangers in their own country" and had come to resent immigrants.

In researching her book, Dr Hirsch, research fellow at the University of Wolverhampton, has found while the 1950s did see examples of division, there was also cases of unity.

Dr Shirin Hirsch, research fellow at the University of Wolverhampton.

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"In the 1950s there are lots of examples of everyday interactions, and positive media stories of inter-racial marriages and support” she said.

"Racism certainly existed, for example with many ‘colour bars’ in Wolverhampton which blocked black immigrants entering certain pubs, but I don't think it is taken up by politicians as a national issue in the way it later becomes. There are existing tensions but Powell’s speech creates a political language to direct people’s anxieties towards black immigrants, at a time when the post war consensus is breaking down. Powell wasn’t simply reflecting a ‘natural’ division, he was also creating a new reality.”

Dr Hirsch has also found that immigrants were beginning to organise. Powell delivered his Rivers of Blood speech in April 1968 at a time when Sikh bus drivers in Wolverhampton were battling for the right to wear turbans on duty.

The dispute is referred to by Powell, who said: "The Sikh communities' campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain is much to be regretted."

Again Dr Hirsch has found evidence to suggest Powell may have distorted the public's mood on this issue.

"The campaign was finally successful after two years after a mass protest and even a threat of suicide," she explained.

"The Trade Union had actually refused to represent the Sikh workers and the leadership were against the workers having the right to wear the turban.

"But at one stage they decided to have a ballot of members. In all 600 Wolverhampton bus workers voted and actually a majority of workers supported the campaign.

"That is a very clear anti-racist position within the workplace taken but Wolverhampton's Transport Committee ignored that vote, and so the dispute went on for another year.

"It is quite a positive story that most workers said they had the right to wear a turban. It shows that within the workplace the divisions between people were less rigid and immigration is not the politicised issue it later becomes’.

After the speech there are many examples of workers protesting in support of Powell.

Two days after the Express & Star reported on the walkout of 50 steel erectors employed at Rugeley B power station, along with a thousand men from Norton Villiers, the Wolverhampton engine manufacturer, who finished work early in a gesture of support.

And it was reported 1,000 of the 1,200 employees at Joseph Sankey works in Bilston signed a petition backing the former Health Secretary.

Protesters backing Enoch Powell's right to voice his concerns over mass immigration take to the streets in April 1968. They are pictured walking down Dudley Road, Wolverhampton, after leaving St Peter's Gardens, bound for Dudley.

Others, however, were angered by Powell's remarks. Students from the Wulfrun College of Further Education, for example, led a demonstration seven days after the speech.

And at Goodyear, one of the city's largest employers, there was no response either way.

Dr Hirsch considers it to have been more of a "mixed response" than has been portrayed since.

"People writing in to the Express & Star express overwhelming support for him," she said. "But you have to remember Wolverhampton has three MPs and the other two Labour MPs take a very vocal internationalist position rejecting Powell’s speech. And they continue to get support."

From the mid 1970s onwards, following a rise in trade union struggle, Dr Hirsch considers there to have been a clear shift in opinion against Powell as part of a mass anti-racist movement.

And today, in some circles, his name alone has become so divisive it can barely be mentioned without sparking hysteria.

Dr Hirsch's book not only considers contemporaneous reaction to the speech but also revisits 'the shadow of Powell' with immigration still high on the political agenda nearly 50 years on.

You can visit manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526127396/ to pre-order the book.

Dr Hirsch is also seeking people willing to share their memories of Powell, race and resistance in Wolverhampton. Email shirin.hirsch@wlv.ac.uk to contact her.

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