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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. 

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.

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.”

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’.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge