As Commonwealth leaders gather today at Buckingham Palace for the Heads of Government Meeting, Sunder Katwala reflects on how Enoch Powell misread the public mood when he accused the Queen of being a ‘citizen of nowhere’ over her empathy for Commonwealth citizens
Enoch Powell was the classicist who sought to be a tribune of the people. “Rivers of Blood” resonated by articulating the sense that governments had not sought public consent for post-war Commonwealth migration, though contemporary surveys showed that many of those who were sympathetic to Powell on immigration levels feared that his speech would damage race relations.
Yet how badly Powell could misread the British public too. Take Enoch’s extraordinary, yet now almost entirely forgotten, public attack on the Queen, accusing her of divided loyalties, because her 1983 Christmas broadcast featured images of her trip to India for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Powell felt this would “suggest she has the affairs and interests in other continents as much, or more, at heart than those of her own people,” especially when “even here, in the UK, she is more concerned for the susceptibilities & prejudices of a vociferous minority of newcomers than for the great mass of her subjects.”
Powell saw this excessive Royal empathy for Commonwealth citizens abroad and ethnic minorities in Britain too as ‘pregnant with peril for the future’ of the monarchy, ‘threatening the place of the Crown in the affections of the people.’
This particular pessimistic Powellite prophecy can be tested very directly since the 50th anniversary of Rivers of Blood happens to coincide with the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London for a generation, shortly followed by a Royal wedding in Windsor the following month, which will bring the British Royal family its first mixed race Royal.
Nobody can doubt that Enoch called this one wrong. The public mood will be captured much more by us all putting out the bunting for Prince Harry and Meghan than the apocalyptic nightmares of the Powells and Mosleys.
Extracted from Many rivers crossed: Britain’s attitudes to race and integration 50 years on from ‘Rivers of blood,’ published this week by British Future