Dr Shirin Hirsch's work shows its ongoing relevance to debates about race and racism in modern Britain
Fifty years on from Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, a new book reveals how Wolverhampton became the unwanted epicentre for a growing anti-immigrant sentiment amid the decline of the British Empire, but laid the foundations for the emergence of the modern anti-racist movement.
‘In the shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, locality and resistance’ (Manchester University Press) is written by Shirin Hirsch, Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University and the People’s History Museum, who worked at the University of Wolverhampton while researching the book.
Powell’s speech warned of the supposed dangers of mass immigration and the upcoming Race Relations Bill, using examples from his Wolverhampton South West constituency.
The speech drew national media attention and shone a spotlight on the industrial town of Wolverhampton and its communities.
Hirsch re-examines Powell’s speech; analysing its impact in the town and further afield, why the veteran Conservative MP turned his attentions to local politics, and reveals the hidden histories of local people who lived in Wolverhampton at the time.
The book coincides with the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Race Relations Act 1968 (November 26), and its content contributes to ongoing debates about race and racism in Britain.
She said: “Powell’s intervention in 1968 attempted to reformulate racism through the enemy figure of the immigrant opposing the interests of white Britons.
“My book explores how these words were translated into the lives of ordinary people on a local scale, as well as examining the ways in which people began to resist and build an anti-racist movement.
“At a time of a new and rising far right across Europe, I hope this book can help us learn lessons from the past on fighting racism today.’”
Drawing from interviews and archival material, this book paints a vivid picture of the political and social background to Powell’s speech, both locally in Wolverhampton and the global political ruptures that defined the age.
Hirsch explores Powell’s political outlook, and how the decline of the British Empire after the Suez Crisis saw his attention turn away from international politics to his local Wolverhampton constituency.
She traces the history of immigration into Wolverhampton, explaining how its booming industries attracted Commonwealth migration in the post-war years, but how housing shortages and discrimination at work fuelled racial tensions that Powell’s speech exploited.
My book explores how these words were translated into the lives of ordinary people on a local scale, as well as examining the ways in which people began to resist and build an anti-racist movement.
Hirsch also brings to life the local response to ‘Rivers of Blood’, both in favour and opposition to Powell. She argues that while overt support for the former Conservative MP’s speech had fizzled out by the time he quit his Wolverhampton South East seat in 1974, its legacy as a rallying cry for far-right movements remains.
But, the speech also energised anti-racist campaigns, including in Wolverhampton where an ongoing dispute over the rights of Sikh bus workers to wear the turban was eventually won.
In a contemporary period of new crisis and national divisions, revisiting the shadow of Powell allows us to reflect on racism and resistance from 1968 to today.