Rivers of blood? The school that fought back against the rhetoric of Enoch Pow­ell

As a new poll charts chang­ing at­ti­tudes to im­mi­gra­tion, Michael Sav­age vis­its the pri­mary school at the heart of the me­dia firestorm that was ig­nited by the MP’s speech 50 years ago

The Observer - - Front Page -

In the after­math of Enoch Pow­ell’s in­flam­ma­tory 1968 “rivers of blood” speech, which split the na­tion and in­stantly be­came one of mod­ern Bri­tish his­tory’s most divi­sive ad­dresses, the fall­out was swift and fierce. Pro­test­ers took to the streets in sup­port of Pow­ell’s back­ing for the repa­tri­a­tion of im­mi­grants. De­nun­ci­a­tions ap­peared in news­pa­per ed­i­to­ri­als at­tack­ing his “ap­peal to racial ha­tred” and Pow­ell him­self was cast out of the Con­ser­va­tive shadow cab­i­net, ef­fec- tively end­ing his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions. Also caught up in the col­lat­eral dam­age, how­ever, was a small school in his Wolver­hamp­ton con­stituency.

In the run-up to his speech, Pow­ell made one of his most con­tro­ver­sial claims – that a con­stituent had told him that his child was the only white pupil in their class. West Park pri­mary school was not named, but with its high pro­por­tion of eth­nic mi­nor­ity stu­dents it was soon la­belled as the school in ques­tion.

Al­most overnight, it was placed on the front­line of a na­tional de­bate about im­mi­gra­tion, in­te­gra­tion and race re­la­tions.

News­pa­pers be­gan try­ing to speak to par­ents, staff and chil­dren. Tele­vi­sion cam­eras were trained on the gates. The head­mistress was con­fronted in the li­brary by a group of par­ents claim­ing that the white chil­dren were suf­fer­ing be­cause teach­ers were hav­ing to con­cen­trate on teach­ing English to the ar­rivals. The un­wel­come at­ten­tion in­ten­si­fied when Pow­ell de­liv­ered his no­to­ri­ous Birm­ing­ham ad­dress, proph­esy­ing doom as he warned that the coun­try had gone “lit­er­ally mad” in its em­brace of mass mi­gra­tion.

Yet half a cen­tury on from Pow­ell’s polemic, the school he pitched into a me­dia firestorm has re­fused to shy away from its as­so­ci­a­tion with him. In­stead it has har­nessed Pow­ell’s toxic legacy, de­ploy­ing it as the in­spi­ra­tion for an ex­tra­or­di­nary project ex­am­in­ing the school’s past, ed­u­cat­ing its di­verse in­take on the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate and turn­ing the school into a cham­pion of the kind of in­te­gra­tion Pow­ell had dis­missed.

“It seemed like it was re­ally time to cel­e­brate the diver­sity of the com­mu­nity and be proud of it,” says head­teacher Bri­ony Jones. “Pow­ell’s speech drew a lot of neg­a­tive at­ten­tion to the school. The lo­cal com­mu­nity was up in arms. We thought it was too huge a story not to max­imise as a rich project that the chil­dren could learn from.”

Over the past six months, pupils ditched their planned his­tory cur­ricu­lum and be­gan study­ing old footage of the school, look­ing at old news­pa­per head­lines and talk­ing to for­mer pupils and ex­perts on Pow­ell and his legacy. Teach­ers have not air­brushed out the ug­li­ness the school faced. Pupils heard how, on the very first day its gates opened, chil­dren faced racial abuse from stu­dents at the neigh­bour­ing gram­mar school. A for­mer pupil came in to talk about the day that the first black fam­ily moved into her street – some­thing she treated with fear, she ex­plained, be­cause she had been brought up to mis­trust im­mi­grants.

They have also heard the sto­ries of more re­cent ar­rivals – one man told them how he fled Iraq locked in the boot of a car. An­other brought in the shoes that still bear the marks of the barbed wire he had to climb to make it across the bor­der.

“These chil­dren will go off to sec­ondary schools, know what racism is, un­der­stand the rea­sons peo­ple mi­grate and ask chal­leng­ing ques­tions,” Jones says. “We’re equip­ping them to live in mod­ern-day Bri­tain. They’ve lis­tened to har­row­ing sto­ries and some have har­row­ing sto­ries of their own. How could we ig­nore that?”

The “West Park Wel­comes the World” project has cul­mi­nated in a play, de­vised and per­formed by the pupils, that tells the story of Pow­ell and Wolver­hamp­ton’s post­war im­mi­gra­tion. Shadow pup­petry, con­tem­po­rary footage, mu­sic and chal­leng­ing episodes from the school’s past all fea­ture. The play will be per­formed next week­end at an anti-racism con­fer­ence held to mark the 50th an­niver­sary of Pow­ell’s ad­dress.

It has been ac­com­pa­nied by ini­tia­tives de­signed to bridge the gap be­tween newly ar­rived fam­i­lies and the cur­rent stu­dents. Young in­ter­preters are al­lo­cated to help new chil­dren set­tle in. A group of “par­ent am­bas­sadors” make new fam­i­lies feel wel­come. West Park has re­cently been awarded “School of Sanc­tu­ary” sta­tus, an award handed out by the City of Sanc­tu­ary char­ity in recog­ni­tion of its work on in­te­gra­tion.

West Park’s ef­forts at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the Bri­tish Fu­ture think­tank, which has ex­am­ined the legacy of Pow­ell and the chal­lenges that re­main in a new re­port, Many Rivers Crossed, pub­lished to­mor­row. It high­lights a strong gen­er­a­tional di­vide over Pow­ell’s im­pact. For younger Bri­tons, Pow­ell is al­most an ir­rel­e­vance. Ac­cord­ing to polling com­mis­sioned by Bri­tish Fu­ture, less than a fifth of un­der-34s (18%) can pick Pow­ell’s name from a list when asked who is as­so­ci­ated with the phrase “rivers of blood”, com­pared with 82% of those aged over 65.

A ma­jor­ity (59%) think race re­la­tions have im­proved, say­ing that there was more prej­u­dice in 1968. How­ever, a third of black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic (BAME) re­spon­dents said they had ex­pe­ri­enced racism in the street. Only 17% of BAME re­spon­dents had ex­pe­ri­enced prej­u­dice on­line, but the fig­ure rose to 27% of 18-24s.

In the re­port, se­nior politi­cians re­veal the im­pact that the long shadow of Pow­ell’s speech has cast on them. “I came to the UK from work­ing in east Africa that year with my wife – Olympia – who was east African Asian,” Vince Ca­ble, the Lib­eral Demo­crat leader, ex­plains. “There was an ugly cli­mate of racism and re­jec­tion which lin­gered for years af­ter­wards. Grad­u­ally, I sensed, race re­la­tions im­proved – at least in the more cos­mopoli­tan big cities.

“Un­til two years ago I felt pos­i­tive that the legacy of Enoch Pow­ell’s poi­sonous and pes­simistic rhetoric had been buried. Now I am not so sure. The ‘im­mi­gra­tion panic’ – al­beit mainly di­rected at white east Eu­ro­peans – and Brexit have now brought some dan­ger­ous xeno­pho­bia back to the sur­face.”

‘Since Brexit, the Tory party has too of­ten sounded like an English na­tion­al­ist party’ An­drew Cooper, poll­ster

Se­nior Con­ser­va­tives are ea­ger to take on Pow­ell’s claims. Asked what he would say to Pow­ell now, Sa­jid Javid, the com­mu­ni­ties sec­re­tary, glee­fully points out the po­lit­i­cal progress in Wolver­hamp­ton. “Your old seat is now rep­re­sented by Eleanor Smith MP, a for­mer nurse and a woman of African Caribbean her­itage who is as Bri­tish as you or, in­deed, me,” he says. “I’m cer­tain the irony won’t be lost on you. Over the past 50 years, our coun­try has un­doubt­edly be­come fairer, and de­spite set­backs BAME com­mu­ni­ties are among the high­est-achiev­ing in our schools, pub­lic life and the pri­vate sec­tor. So we have made real progress. But not nearly enough. While BAME em­ploy­ment rates are at a record high, less than 3.5% of peo­ple oc­cu­py­ing the three most se­nior po­si­tions in FTSE 100 com­pa­nies are from eth­nic mi­nori­ties. We have much more to do.”

Some Con­ser­va­tives be­lieve the party’s con­tin­u­ing fail­ure to win over BAME vot­ers is an ex­is­ten­tial threat. An­drew Cooper, the Tory peer and David Cameron’s for­mer poll­ster, says his party did worse among BAME vot­ers at the last elec­tion than Don­ald Trump did in 2016.

“Since the Brexit ref­er­en­dum the Con­ser­va­tive party has too of­ten looked and sounded like an English na­tion­al­ist move­ment,” he writes. “In 2017, for the sec­ond elec­tion run­ning, the Tories lost ground among non­white vot­ers while in­creas­ing its sup­port in the coun­try as a whole.

“The white­ness of the Tory party’s

‘Over the past 50 years our coun­try has be­come fairer ... but we have much more to do’ Sa­jid Javid, cab­i­net min­is­ter

ap­peal means that it strug­gles to win in con­stituen­cies where the BAME pop­u­la­tion is 30% or higher: it cur­rently holds just one such seat. Be­fore 1987 there were no con­stituen­cies with more than 30% BAME pop­u­la­tion. By the next gen­eral elec­tion it is pro­jected that there will be more than 120 such seats. Un­less some­thing changes, be­fore long there just won’t be enough white vot­ers in the elec­torate for the Con­ser­va­tive party to be able to win.”

Bri­tish Fu­ture’s re­search sug­gests that, while race re­la­tions in Bri­tain may have evolved since the 1960s, some se­ri­ous is­sues clearly re­main. There is a strong ex­pec­ta­tion among younger vot­ers that there is fur­ther to go in deal­ing with racial prej­u­dice. Among eth­nic mi­nori­ties, two-thirds (66%) of over-65s and 73% of 55-64s feel that racial prej­u­dice was worse 50 years ago. Among younger peo­ple from eth­nic mi­nori­ties, about half think things were worse back then. How­ever, 22% of those aged 18 to 24 think it may have been about the same and 18% think things were bet­ter then.

There is also con­cern that Bri­tain’s Mus­lim cit­i­zens are the ones now fac­ing the most prej­u­dice. Most peo­ple (56%) said the group faces “a lot” of prej­u­dice and a fur­ther third (32%) said they face a lit­tle. Only 4% said they face no prej­u­dice at all.

“Enoch Pow­ell was wrong about Bri­tain,” says Sun­der Kat­wala, Bri­tish Fu­ture’s di­rec­tor. “Where he pre­dicted ‘rivers of blood’, peo­ple of dif­fer­ent colours and creeds have mixed and learned to live to­gether. We have largely moved on from the racism of the 60s and 70s, and young Bri­tons have higher ex­pec­ta­tions of our so­ci­ety. They de­serve to be met.”

As for mak­ing in­te­gra­tion work, there is one in­sti­tu­tion that all ages and races be­lieve to be most im­por­tant – school. All groups agreed that “chil­dren mix­ing at school with kids from other eth­nic/re­li­gious back­grounds” has made the most sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to race re­la­tions. It is a find­ing that vin­di­cates West Park’s ef­forts in reach­ing out to new par­ents and teach­ing its pupils the hard lessons of its past. Half a cen­tury on from the storm whipped up by Pow­ell, his legacy has been used to help ease the ten­sions he sought to in­flame.

Pho­to­graph by Chris Ware/Getty

Pupils at West Park pri­mary in Wolver­hamp­ton in 1968.

Pho­to­graph by An­drew Fox for the Ob­server Shut­ter­stock

Pupils at West Park pri­mary re­hearse their play that uses pup­petry and mu­sic to tell the story of Enoch Pow­ell and Wolver­hamp­ton’s post­war im­mi­gra­tion. Enoch Pow­ell speak­ing at the Tory con­fer­ence in 1968 and, right, how the Ob­server cov­ered his in­fa­mous speech.

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