Page last updated at 04:45 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 05:45 UK

Powell's 'rivers of blood' legacy

A black man walking past graffiti days after Enoch Powell made his speech in 1968 (pic by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

By Kathryn Edwards
BBC News, Wolverhampton

Elias Mattu was only nine years old when his family moved to Wolverhampton from India.

Months later his local MP was to make a speech which would spark one of the biggest race debates in UK history.

On the afternoon of 20 April 1968 at the Midland Hotel, in Birmingham, Enoch Powell addressed the meeting of the Conservative Political Centre.

They were words that would raise ethnic tensions in the West Midlands and lead to riots on the streets.

"We were very scared," said Mr Mattu.

"My mother and father used to say, 'Come straight home from school and if you see a skinhead go straight to someone's door'."

Enoch Powell
Powell spoke of a letter he had received about an elderly widow

In that infamous speech Mr Powell gave apocalyptic-style predictions of what would happen to pockets of Britain - such as Wolverhampton - if mass immigration continued.

He compared racial tensions in the United States to the Roman poet Virgil's description of "the River Tiber foaming with much blood" and said anti-discrimination laws were like "throwing a match on to gunpowder".

With 40 years hindsight, what difference did the speech make?

The West Midlands had been one of the main destinations of immigrants, with people from the Commonwealth initially being encouraged to come to work in its many factories.

Race card

Powell, who represented Wolverhampton South West, was not the first politician in that era to find himself embroiled in such controversy.

In the 1964 General Election campaign in nearby Smethwick, supporters of the Tory candidate Peter Griffiths were reported to have circulated the slogan, "If you want a nigger for a neighbour - vote Labour".

The incumbent Labour MP Patrick Gordon Walker lost to Griffiths in a shock defeat.

It was the Race Relations Act introduced by the Labour government in 1968 which prompted Powell's speech.

Elias Mattu (pic by Wolverhampton City Council)
Elias Mattu has lived in Wolverhampton since he came to the UK

He argued it would mean "British" families losing out on matters such as housing, with immigrants being given an unfair advantage.

Black sociologist Dr Clive Harris said that playing the race card at that time had proved to have "mileage" for politicians.

He said: "I think Enoch Powell was aware that what he said in public was what a lot of people were thinking in private.

"He knew there was a lot of panic going on that time at government level about the numbers of Kenyan and Asian immigrants coming into Britain and how to cope with potentially thousands of them."

In the speech Powell referred to what he said were the experiences of one of his constituents - an elderly war widow supposedly the last white person in her street.

'Talk of skinheads'

Powell said a correspondent had described how the woman had repeatedly refused to allow non-white people to rent rooms in her house, which led to her being called a racist and having excrement pushed through her letterbox.

Powell's words earned him the sack as shadow defence secretary, but also generated the support of many ordinary people.

The MP said he received about 100,000 letters backing what he had said. Dockers in some parts of the UK marched to express their agreement.

"I remember the local talk of skinheads," said Mr Mattu, who is now a Wolverhampton city councillor.

I can't bring myself to thank Enoch Powell for that speech, but it was a wake-up call
Elias Mattu

"I think it did give rise to that movement - the speech united them. Those were the bad times."

The nine-year-old saw riots in local streets with members of both the white and Asian communities joining in.

He also saw family friends jailed for their part in the disorder.

Powell estimated that by the year 2000 there would be five to seven million immigrants and their descendants in Britain, about a 10th of the population.

The Office of National Statistics says that in 2001-2002 7.6% of the UK's population was from non-white ethnic minorities.

'Powell was right'

In more recent times, there has been support for Powell's speech.

In October Nigel Hastilow, a prospective Parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives, was forced to resign after agreeing with Powell in a newspaper article.

The prospective candidate for Halesowen and Rowley Regis wrote in his Express & Star newspaper column: "When you ask many people in the Black Country what the single biggest problem facing the country is, most people say immigration."

"Many insist: 'Enoch Powell was right'. He was right."

Mr Hastilow has said he will not give interviews to the BBC about the "rivers of blood" speech.

Dr Clive Harris
Dr Clive Harris said politicians had played the "race card" in the 1960s

The current MP for Powell's old constituency, Rob Marris, was also living in Wolverhampton at the time of the speech.

"The reality is that some people agreed with Nigel Hastilow, but a lot of people did not, especially in Wolverhampton," said Mr Marris, who is a Labour MP.

"I'm not going to say that community relations are perfect in Wolverhampton today, but I would say that they are among the best in the country.

"Things have changed a lot since Enoch Powell's day, but we have to keep working at it."

In fact, some believe that Powell's speech actually did a lot of good for Wolverhampton.

"It showed that there was a problem with racism and that something needed to be done," said Mr Mattu, who now also sits on the West Midlands Equality and Diversity Partnership.

"There was an elderly white lady who lived next to us, who told us not to listen to Enoch Powell because he was an evil man.

"People like her, which was the majority, also united. Community groups worked together to ensure that racism could not continue and in that way Wolverhampton became ahead of its time.

"I can't bring myself to thank Enoch Powell for that speech, but it was a wake-up call."

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