Ian Austin: There is nothing to celebrate in Powell's shameful words

After booking out a conference room at the same hotel as Enoch Powell chose for his infamous Rivers of Blood speech, Dudley North MP Ian Austin explains why he is holding a rally to mark the speech's 50th anniversary.

Ian Austin says Powell's speech was 'shameful'
Ian Austin says Powell's speech was 'shameful'

Fifty years ago this April, Enoch Powell got to his feet in what is now Birmingham’s Burlington Hotel to make what became known as the 'Rivers of Blood' speech.

It’s no use saying he should be commemorated because of his war record or academic achievements.

He is remembered above all for that shameful speech that caused great division, presented a terrible image of the Black Country and even resulted in people being attacked.

There is nothing to celebrate or commemorate about any of that.

Ian Austin

That’s why I’ve booked the biggest room in the very same hotel for Thursday April 19 – and I hope hundreds of people will come to celebrate how Britain has got better over the last fifty years.

Powell’s defenders say he was simply voicing concerns about immigration, but it’s just not true.

No one would have objected if he’d said immigration can put pressure on schools, housing or hospitals.

There’s nothing racist about that. I’ve organised lots of meetings to listen to people in Dudley on the issue.

But what Powell did was very different.

Divided

He divided communities based on the colour of people’s skin, he wanted immigrants to leave the country and called black children 'wide-eyed piccaninnies'.

He predicted race wars and blood on the streets: "Wars, terrible wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood."

Instead of trying people together, he said 'a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman' had told him that 'in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man'.

And instead of working to solve their concerns, he complained that his constituents were strangers in their own country, their wives could not get hospital beds to give birth in and their children school places.

He claimed he'd had a letter from someone saying an elderly lady had become her street's only white resident, was being harassed by black neighbours, her windows broken and 'excreta pushed through her letterbox'.

He'd never even spoken to her. He made his speech without even checking she existed at all.

The great Clem Jones, then the editor of the Express & Star, and a man of huge integrity, searched all records and sent journalists out to establish the truth, but no one could find her or any evidence to support Powell's divisive speech.

Former E&S editor Clem Jones sought the truth over Powell's speech

Whatever Powell claimed later, he knew in advance exactly what impact his speech would have.

It was a cynical attempt to whip up the worst prejudices. He told Jones he would be making a speech which would 'go up like a rocket'.

It had a terrible impact on the streets of the Black Country.

Ten days after the speech, The Times reported that a black family’s christening party in Wolverhampton had been attacked by a gang of racist thugs chanting 'Powell' and 'Why don't you go back to your own country'.

The baby’s grandfather was slashed in the face with a knife. He’d been in Britain 13 years, and said: "Nothing like this has happened before. I am shattered”.

Progress

So instead of commemorating Powell with a blue plaque, let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made over the last half a century.

His 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 in Birmingham or the Black Country 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.

People from all over the world have made a huge contribution to community life, to our NHS and other public services and, by setting up businesses and creating jobs, our economy too.

Whether it’s cheering on players from around the world at our football clubs, tucking into food from around the world, listening to different music or just learning about new people, other places and different cultures, our diversity has strengthened our country and enriched our communities.

I’m inviting speakers from across the country and people from around the region to join me as we celebrate all the ways Britain has got better over the last 50 years and finally turn the page on Powell’s shameful speech in the very place he gave it.

Come and join us.

Visit www.ianaustin.co.uk/rally_against_racism for details of the rally.

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