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Enoch Powell: Let's call a spade a spade

NO SHAME: Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech was seen as a deliberate attempt to divide diverse communities both in the West Midlands and across the country

FIFTY YEARS ago this month, I was sat in my classroom at Woodlands Park Junior School on Black Boy Lane (Yeah, I know, fills me with mirth, too) in Tottenham N15 when my best friend at the time, Ian Clark, asked me what I would be doing that summer, and if I wanted to spend some of the time at his house. I replied uncertainly. “I’m not sure that I’ll still be here,” I told him.

He was miffed. “What, are you moving schools?” he asked almost forlornly. “But you’ve only just moved here from south London.” No, I wasn’t moving schools. “What, are you moving to another area? Again?” No, I wasn’t moving to another area. “Well, not exactly. It’s more like another country. Because I don’t think that I’ll be able to stay here much longer. I might have to move back to my own country.”

That conversation has stayed with me this half century. I remember it very clearly.
And I have often won- dered whether it stayed in Ian’s memory/ I doubt it. Because he was a white guy and wasn’t living under the cloud of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the way that black people in Britain were.

This is not to say that white people were not affected by it and did not suffer as a result of the worsening race relations that was the consequence of the speech, and not just in the West Midlands where Powell had his constituency, but right across the country.

As the saying goes, ‘Who feels it knows it’, and we really felt it when the racist Conservative MP decided to pander to the ignorant masses who came out in their droves to support him.

We were pursued from pillar to post by the baying packs of racists when we walked alone on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, and although we turned and ran away, we usually lived to fight another day.

Back then, many Brits fell under the illusion that Enoch’s “Rivers of Blood” was all about immigration. And I include you and I in that. I suspect that our parents thought otherwise. They knew what it was really about. And so did the most ignorant of white people who heard Powell’s dog whistle loud and clear: it was all about race.

Dr Onyeka Nubia pointed this out to me earlier this week when all the talk was about the 50th anniversary of the speech and whether the BBC should have broadcast it in its racist entirety last Saturday.

Still, after half a century, we are hoodwinked into believing that it had anything to do with immigration – a smokescreen, in Dr Nubia’s view. But Dr Nubia makes sense, because the real consequence of Powell’s racism was all about race.

Even to the extent that it gave the government permission to bring in nationality acts that would discriminate between white Brits and black Brits. Yes, ‘white Brits’ and ‘black Brits’ because as Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust also pointed out in the same conversation “we were all Brits” those of us who are from the Commonwealth.

Legally, our status was British. Especially those of us who were born before independence. Which makes me British – through and through when for years I was under the mistaken belief that I was born Nigerian.

But if I am British as a result of being born in some far off corner of the world that was forever Britain before independence, it is no surprise that I am p*ssed off. I should be really, really p*ssed off by Enoch Powell’s speech.

It is almost as if Powell forgot about us. Conveniently forgot about us. Like he forgot about the history which makes him British and likewise makes me British, the rules of that history that was drawn up in the corridors of power in Westminster at a time when Britain wanted to own the moral rights of Africans at home and abroad through colonialism, and to own that wealth that subsequently flowed through the River Tiber, the River Thames or any other river as a consequence of us all being British.

Well, now I’m really angry. So we had the status of British foisted upon us. And when, we came over here because they were over there (as the late social anthropologist Dr Stuart Hall reminded Britain) we were told that even though we were born members of the British empire (like every other Briton, whether they were born in Kingston, Jamaica or Kingston Upon Thames) that we were now to be considered immigrants in our own country, and this despite us carrying British passports just like every other Brit.

You see, these facts never occured to me when I was considering Enoch Powell’s speech to be about immigration, but when you put migration aside as a red herring and you start picking away the pieces of the racist rhetoric and the way that the then Labour government seized the moment to rush in legislation differentiating white Britons from black Britons to penalise black Britons as not-quite Britons, then you realise that the powers that be were all in it together. We will never ever be British unless we become white.

In short, that is what Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is about. Let us not fall into the trap of intellectualising it to make it more palatable for white folk. Let us call a spade a spade as they say, somewhat euphemistically, and call Powell a racist.
But we should also call the Wilson Labour government at the time a racist government.

As we should call any other apologists for Powell racists. And any other person that exploited Powell to stick it to black Britons. They are all racists. And I am black British, I just can’t get used to the realisation that I am not Nigerian and never was.

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