Almost half a century after Enoch Powell gave his most famously infamous speech on immigration, why does he remain such an important reference point in our immigration debates? asks Sunder Katwala.
“Powell was wrong”, said Douglas Carswell, at last night’s speech hosted by British Future, arguing that Enoch was “too pessimistic” about Britain’s ability to integrate incomers into our national story. “Immigration has not been without its challenges. Yet it has been overwhelmingly a story of success. Britain today is more at ease with the multi-ethnic society that we have become than once seemed imaginable”, argued the UKIP MP.
This rejection of Powell’s vision was a logical extension of Carswell’s acceptance speech when, re-elected Clacton’s MP in UKIP’s colours, he spoke about wanting to represent a party which spoke with compassion as well as passion, and which was “a party for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation as much as every other”.
If UKIP is to aspire to be open to Britons of every colour or creed, it surely becomes a necessary foundation to accept that Enoch Powell’s contribution to Britain’s anxious post-war debates about immigration belongs to the history books now. Our contemporary debates have moved on, to talk about how the society we have now become deals with the challenges of immigration and integration in the Britain of 2015.
It is intriguing too that, after a long and inconclusive debate within Downing Street about whether David Cameron should address the shadow of Powellism for Conservatism today, or better let sleeping dogs lie, that the Conservative party leader has been beaten to the punch by the new recruit to the UKIP banner. This despite the importance to any future Conservative majority of addressing Powell’s legacy.
In my view, it is important for all mainstream voices in the immigration debate to be clear that today’s debate cannot proceed from Powellite principles.
After all, any Briton of black or Asian heritage who returns to read what Powell said in 1968 cannot help but take the argument at least a little personally.
He wished that we had never been born, some years before many of us were. He argued that it would be a matter of national suicide if any significant number of us were.
This was how Powell explained that the British-born children of immigrants would not assist the gradual processes of integration, as many thought it would, but would rather present a still deeper existential problem for our nation:
“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. Unless he be one of the small minority, he will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States.”
Enoch was wrong about that. On that, at least, most of us can agree.
Back in 1968, Enoch’s speech did not stop Commonwealth immigration to Britain.
Indeed, it was exactly a fortnight later that my Dad, having trained as a doctor in India, took a plane to Heathrow, and headed to the YMCA in west London. A couple of weeks later, he had found a job working for the NHS. That quest kept him oblivious to the raging Westminster arguments about whether he should have been kept out, or at least encouraged to return home as soon as possible.
As Carswell argues, Powell was simply too pessimistic about Britain’s ability to integrate – shown particularly by the pride which new Britons and their children feel in our country.
The consequences of the Powell speech have been long debated. It is an exaggeration to say that politicians did not speak about immigration for decades after Enoch. Callaghan, Heath and Thatcher all passed immigration legislation seeking to reduce the flow.
But the polarised debate after ‘Rivers of Blood’ was often an uncomfortable one, and it took rather longer to separate issues of race and immigration than it might otherwise have done. The much-needed debate about integration, a subject still somewhat neglected, was undoubtedly set back by Powell’s insistence that it was not possible.
In 2015, people do want to talk about immigration and integration. What choices should we make about immigration? Could the numbers be reduced sharply – or would that cut out immigration that Britain needs? Should we stay in the EU or leave it? What makes integration work well in the communities that we share?
Above all, most people want a debate about the choices we should make if we want to manage the pressures of immigration and secure the benefits, choices that treat people fairly – whether they are British-born or migrants who join our society – and which keep prejudice out.
That is how we should talk about immigration today. Enoch Powell did speak to the fears of his age. He cannot speak to the challenges of ours.