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16 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

The British public proved Enoch Powell wrong – but that is a low bar to jump

I grew up confident enough to joke at Enoch Powell. But the next generation expects more. 

By Sunder Katwala

It seems curious now to think that Enoch Powell’s most fervent wish boiled down to the idea that I should never have been born. It would be hard not to take that speech at least a little personally.

Powell’s Birmingham warning of “Rivers of Blood’, given 50 years ago this month, clearly didn’t quite have the impact in India that he would have liked. For just a fortnight later on the Whitsun bank holiday my Dad, having trained as a doctor in India, got on a plane to Heathrow and soon landed a job with the NHS.

My grandfather, also named Sunder, was to come to England with his own repatriation offer – like Enoch, he wanted his son to return to India – but it was too late. In a Surrey hospital, my dad had met my mum, a nurse from County Cork in Ireland, and so chose to settle and make his life here.

So I was born, British, in a Doncaster hospital on a bright April day in 1974. An everyday story of family celebration, familiar in NHS wards up and down the country. But not for Enoch. I was just one more stick on the funeral pyre, a matter of national suicide for his very idea of Britain.

His 1968 speech could not see in the British-born children of migrants any positive potential for the solution of integration but only a deep, ultimately irreconcilable tragedy.

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Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.”

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This was surely the biggest thing of all that Enoch got wrong. He was much too pessimistic about Britain. He showed remarkably little confidence in the attraction that British culture and identity might have for those who sought to contribute to the next chapter of its long history.

Powell argued with fierce urgency in 1968 that, within 15 years, when half of the Commonwealth-descended population would be British-born, it would be far too late. On this, at least, Enoch was right. My birth that morning – along with another million moments like it, and the contact they would create in the classrooms of Britain a few years later – were a foundational reason why he was losing his biggest argument irrevocably.

Even 50 years on, speak to the first generation of Asian and West Indian Commonwealth migrants about Enoch and you will understand the visceral sense of fear sparked by that speech – particularly once it had been translated into the street argot of “send them back” by those much less inclined to make their points in classical Latin. Twenty years later, it never felt like that to me. We all laughed at Lenny Henry saying “Enoch Powell wants to give us £1,000 to return home. But it’s only 50p on the bus to Dudley.” It is not a fearful joke. Indeed, I never knew a better encapsulation of the birthright confidence of the first British-born generation. We had an equal claim and stake in this country too: there was nowhere to “send us back” to.

I would have first encountered “Enoch” as a slogan: “Enoch was right.” The shift to the past tense mattered. It had become a bitter lament for those who knew full well that their moment had long passed. Jim Callaghan, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher did what they could to curb Commonwealth inflow with new laws in 1968, 1971 and 1981 but the fantasy of mass repatriation was left to extreme fringe parties. The question changed, curiously, from who could stay to which side you cheered for at cricket. Powell died in 1998, but like the National Front graffiti under countless railway bridges, Enoch had been fading into history for quite some time.

Half a century on, Powell’s apocalyptic fears were not realised. We have avoided violent civil strife, but that is a very low bar to jump. Ahead of the Powell anniversary this month, British Future publishes a new report It finds that attitudes have moved on considerably since 1968 but that still have a long way to go – and there can be no cause for complacency about what we now need to do, together.

Enoch was wrong, on identity and integration, to think that black and Asian people could never feel fully British, nor be accepted as such. The passengers on the Windrush, a third of whom were returning RAF servicemen, had a strong sense of their connection to Britain. It took another generation or two to secure that acceptance. But Britain today is more anxious and fragmented than any of us would like. Powell was wrong to argue that integration was impossible but it won’t happen of its own accord – and over those decades we have seen little sustained action.

Enoch was wrong, on immigration, to think that the answer to years of post-war migration was to try and make it all go away again. But what always resonated most widely in what he said was the idea that governments had not secured the consent of the British public for the scale of immigration, nor their confidence in how to manage it. Brexit will probably end free movement but it will not end immigration to Britain – so there is a clear need to rebuild public confidence and consent for the immigration that we want and need today.

Enoch was wrong, on discrimination, to think that banning people being refused a job or a house because of the colour of their skin would offend the British sense of fair play. There is a strong, settled consensus that the opposite is true. Yet his incendiary appeal to racial grievance – that “the black man would have the whip hand over the white man in this country” – dramatises a core challenge to governments seeking to tackle injustices and provide equal opportunity. The only way through an argument about competing grievances is to robustly link issues of ethnicity, faith, social class and identity in a coherent case for fairness, common citizenship and equal opportunities for everyone in Britain.

Enoch was wrong, on civil strife and violence, to think that the British, old and new, could not come together to make it work. Yet too much blood has been spilt on our streets: in the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and too many others whose names never came to such public attention. In the terrorist murders by Islamist fascists in London in 2005 and Manchester in 2017, or of innocent people on their way to prayer at Finsbury Park Mosque. We have stood together in silence to mourn and to oppose the division they seek to sow. We need to build new social movements to challenge and eradicate every source of hatred and extremism that seeks to divide our society.

I saw Britain change for the better on race. I know that my children will almost certainly never see or hear the volume of overt public racism that could be commonplace when I watched football matches in the 1980s. For all of our contemporary anxieties, about immigration or on either side of the Brexit debate, the changes and contact forged in our classrooms, our workplaces and in our relationships, go much too deep for anybody to think seriously that they can turn the clock back to the 1970s Britain I was born into.

This story, of how Britain proved that Powell’s fears were too pessimistic, matters to those of us for whom it is the story of our lives as well as our society. It will matter less to the generation who grew up after that. Perhaps that sense of confidence and standing is not yet shared by the young British Muslim who has grown up in the shadow of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, or the EU citizen who decided to make their life in Britain and still lacks certainty about their family’s future. If a young woman faces prejudice in the streets today, why would a story about things being worse in the 1970s make any difference to her? The next generation has higher expectations again – and they deserve to be met.

The question in 2018 is no longer “was Enoch right or wrong?” To build a shared pride in Britain today, we must respect our diversity but focus more on what brings us all together. The question in 2018 is what we all need to do to make that work.

Sunder Katwala is Director of the independent thinktank British Future. The full version of this article appears in British Future’s new report ‘Many rivers crossed: Britain’s attitudes to race and integration 50 years since ‘Rivers of Blood’.