It made my flesh crawl to hear that voice again. And those particular words. Last night’s TV had an episode of the ‘Gently’ series, this one featuring racism in 1960s Britain, ‘Gently Northern Soul’. I have no illusions that racism in Britain is dead and buried since then, though some of the barriers are gone. But the irrationality on which it breeds is still there ready to shift its targets at a moment’s notice.
In the middle of the episode was a broadcast of Enoch Powell, MP for Wolverhampton SW, speaking to a small audience in the town, in blood curdling terms, about what he perceived as the dangers of immigration. I lived in Wolverhampton then and taught General Studies in an FE college in Dudley. He terrified me at the time. Who knows what it must have felt like to have been black? Classes at the college were equally terrifying, as students launched a barrage of racist abuse against which reason could barely get a hearing. Only by standing and taking the wave of hate was it possible to get it to subside enough to begin to let reason prevail, albeit only a little.
I am glad and proud of one thing I did at that time. With a friend, Dave Spilsbury, I helped organise a protest demonstration through the streets of Powell’s constituency and into the centre of Wolverhampton. It was 5000 strong, drawing in people from across the country – even Londoners strayed northwards. If I had never done anything else in this life so far, I will remain proud of that (and so should Dave, wherever he is these days). Maybe it was only a gesture, but it was done in the face of a storm.
Equally brilliant was the situationist protest by Wolverhampton Poly students. Powell was due to address a massive public meeting in the Tech. The students gathered in numbers in the hall, ironically cheering and applauding endlessly, so that Powell had to leave the stage, unable to deliver his speech. To their utter shame, the local newspaper printed the undelivered speech in full.
Racists and fascists are still with us, unable to make up their mind between electoral politics or thuggery, though in their case there is very little difference. Perhaps worse is the racism that hides behind respectability and gets the ‘law’ to do its dirty work. We must remain ever vigilant. Do not image for one moment that dear old cosy Britain could never shatter apart. Who knows what stresses lie round the corner in the wake of the current global economic crisis.