Fifty years ago Enoch Powell made national headlines with his 'Rivers of Blood' speech, warning of an immigrant invasion in the once respectable streets of Wolverhampton. This local fixation brought the Black Country town into the national spotlight, yet Powell's unstable relationship with Wolverhampton has since been overlooked. Drawing from oral history and archival material, this book offers a rich local history through which to investigate the speech, bringing to life the racialised dynamics of space during a critical moment in British history. What was going on beneath the surface in Wolverhampton and how did Powell's constituents respond to this dramatic moment? The research traces the ways in which Powell's words reinvented the town and uncovers highly contested local responses. While Powell left Wolverhampton in 1974, the book returns to the city to explore the collective memories of the speech that continue to reverberate. In a contemporary period of new crisis and division, examining the shadow of Powell allows us to reflect on racism and resistance from 1968 to the present day.
This chapter situates Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech within the context of 1968 as a global year of dramatic change. To understand the purchase of Powell’s words, the chapter examines the end of the post-war consensus and how immigration and race both reflected and remoulded a new form of politics.
In 1968, as the world shook, Powell retreated to the provincial backdrop of Wolverhampton. The focus on this Black Country industrial town was entirely new to Powell’s politics. While Powell now spoke of a new ‘immigrant problem’ within his own constituency, this chapter explores a longer history of Wolverhampton as a town that was woven into global movements of people and industry. In the post-war period, the presence of new migrants was shaped by contradictory living and working arrangements that did not always correspond so neatly with the new racial categories Powell had highlighted. This chapter examines the everyday experiences of residents within the town, offering a closer reading of immigration, race and class.
Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech provided a language for a new form of politics in Wolverhampton to coalesce. Within days of the speech, thousands of those very ‘ordinary decent’ people who Powell had invoked responded publicly to his speech. At a time of political and economic uncertainty, their actions illuminated the ways in which a specific section of the population comes to think of itself as white. This chapter takes a closer examination at how this reinvention of race played out in the immediate response to Powell’s words.
This chapter explores in detail the resistance, or what Powell described as the ‘insolence’, of immigrants in the town. The chapter first examines these dynamics within the workplace, with a particular focus on a dispute on the local buses. The chapter then moves on to the school setting and the ways in which immigration was framed in the town’s schools. Both the schools and the buses became critical examples within Powell’s new racial politics. Yet what was happening on the ground seemed to suggest new ways of living and working that would, over the next decade, challenge the racial divisions Powell was stoking.
Since his death in 1998, memories of Powell have been partial yet persistent and forever associated with his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Each year on 20 April, the anniversary of this speech, there are renewed effort to canonise Powell. Many of those who attempt this canonisation of Powell suggest, however, that his legacy must be detangled from a politics of race. Instead, invoking Powell is often used as a signifier in more coded debates as a politics that was first able to establish ‘magical connections’ and ‘short-circuits’ between the themes of race and immigration control, while evoking the images of the nation, the British people and the destruction of ‘our culture, our way of life’. Tracing the genealogy of these memories allows us to analyse the continuities, fissures and contradictions of racism as an ideology which has coalesced around the symbolism of Powell. The chapter examines the survival processes of Powell’s memory and his partial rehabilitation from the wilderness.