As a major new poll charts the country’s changing attitudes to immigration, the Observer visits the primary school at the heart of the media firestorm that Powell ignited
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, effectively 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 on Monday. 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.”
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 non-white voters while increasing its support in the country as a whole.
“The whiteness of the Tory party’s 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 face “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.