Monday, 10 March 2008

Did Enoch Powell entrench multiculturalism?

I do not wish to give the impression that I spent the entire weekend watching television, but with the 6 Nations and the F.A. Cup quarter finals both on the BBC it wouldn’t be terribly far from the truth. Another interesting programme I happened upon on Saturday was Rivers of Blood (still on I-Player), an examination of the effects that Enoch Powell’s infamous speech had on Britain. The speech was given forty years ago this year and Michael Shilliday has already blogged on Slugger to mark the occasion with a piece questioning whether Powell should be considered a racist.

Whilst it did not seek to label Powell on the basis of his speech, the BBC’s programme did attempt to establish the genesis of the politician’s thinking and the motivations which led him to deliver it when he did. The text was reproduced in parts and indeed footage taken at the time was used, but there was surprisingly little contextualisation of its content.

The film drew in Powell’s experience of India, suggesting that his experiences of a segregated society there made him particularly averse to something similar occurring in Britain. There was a great deal of pragmatism inherent in the timing of Powell’s address however. He had hidden his thoughts on the issue of immigration from his colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet until delivering the speech and it was intended to be a very stark challenge to the authority of Edward Heath, who was then leader of the Conservative Party.

A central theme of the film was the contention that Powell’s speech, rather than checking the advance of multiculturalism, actually had the opposite effect. After the incendiary effect of his words throughout working class England became evident, liberal forces galvanised and entrenched multiculturalism through legislation to counter racism and grant money made available to immigrant communities. “Everybody became ethnic” as one contributor to the programme wryly observed.

This film was an interesting treatment of a fascinating man. The lasting impression it left was that whilst Powell was entitled to raise concerns about immigration, the inflammatory fashion in which he chose to do so was ultimately ill-advised and damaging to his career.

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