Tory MP Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ racist rant 50 years ago. He used disgraceful language in the 1968 speech that would have even appalled in 1868.
Yet Powell’s message is still invoked today, with support for the speech coming in 2014 from Ukip’s Nigel Farage, former Thatcherite minister Norman Tebbit and Conservative MP Gerald Howarth. As well as corrupt former Tory MP and Welsh Ukip leader Neil Hamilton on 16 April this year.
Powell made his speech on 20 April 1968 in Birmingham in opposition to Labour’s proposed Race Relations Bill.
The bill would make it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to someone on the grounds of race, skin colour or ethnicity.
But Powell used the bill’s second reading to launch into a tirade against immigration, particularly from the Commonwealth. This is the same group of ‘Windrush’ workers now facing insecurity and discrimination following Tory failings to confirm their residency status.
At the time there were a million black and Asian migrants in Britain. Most had been encouraged to come here to work to fill the demand in industries such as transport and healthcare.
They were often paid less for doing the most difficult work. This began to change only as black and white workers joined together in the trade union movement to fight for the same pay and conditions for all.
They came mainly from South Asian and Caribbean countries that had been exploited by British imperialism over centuries.
Yet Enoch Powell referred to these workers in disgusting racist language and talked of “the black man having the whip-hand”.
He proposed ending or stemming immigration going onto finish with a quote from a Roman poem: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood”, hence the speech’s name.
He claimed to be speaking on behalf of a concerned constituent who it was later revealed was a ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ variety landlord.
Two months prior to the speech, in Militant (predecessor of the Socialist) we predicted that the actions of the Labour government would provoke this when they passed another bill – the Kenya Immigrants Bill – which following Tory pressure limiting Asian immigration to 1,500 a week.
As Militant said, the Tories used the entry into Britain of persecuted Asian families from Kenya to “whip up the basest racial prejudice”.
Following Powell’s speech Militant explained that this “latest incitement” was “directly related to and is a product also of the capitulation of the Labour government”.
Some workers, especially meat porters at Smithfields market in east London who took part in a march instigated by someone who stood for Oswald Mosley’s fascist organisation in the 1966 general election, were taken in by Enoch Powell and the Tories racist propaganda.
We pointed out at the time that the likes of Enoch Powell and the fascists were advocates of smashing the very unions used by those workers to march and strike in support of Powell.
We said the capitalists would use divide and rule to: “seek to break the trade unions, the labour movement, the very organisations of the workers themselves.”
But other workers at the time reacted differently. A mass meeting of shop stewards at the Ford Dagenham factory condemned the speech with a resolution saying: “Attacks on racial minorities are attempts to divert attention from the major problems.”
This perfectly hit on the real issues – the accusations by the Tories that immigrants are to blame for the lack of jobs and education and pressure on education and healthcare. Similar accusations are made against migrants today.
But as the Militant said in 1968: “In Britain as a whole there is a dire need to replace at least five million houses which are overcrowded or dilapidated”.
We added that many black and Asian workers were living in this slum property and that, “even if the immigrants were expelled this would leave a shortage of four million dwellings to replace before every family could be given a home.”
The same is true with today’s housing crisis, with successive government’s failure to build new or replace sold-off council housing combined with extortionate private rents to blame, not immigration. It’s the same for jobs, education and healthcare.
In 1968 we said: “Racism cannot be fought other than in class terms”. Today we argue the same, that capitalism is the root cause of racism which is used in order to divide working class people so that capitalism can make profit at our expense.
The Socialist Party agrees with Malcolm X, that “you can’t have capitalism without racism.”
The Socialist Party and previously Militant have a long history of fighting racism and fighting the conditions that breed racism.
From responding to Enoch Powell with: “Racial prejudice must be fought tooth and nail”, to confronting the British National Party in the 90s to drive them off the streets of Welling and east London, to more recently mobilising against the English Defence League.
Like in 1968 we need to fight for jobs, homes and services for all as well as against an economic system that relies on racism to justify exploitation of workers divided against each other. That means the struggle against racism must also be the struggle for socialism.