December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1981 riots: Enoch Powell plays the race card

3 min read
Veteran right-winger Enoch Powell placed the race card cynically after the 1981 riots trying to blame those from the New Commonwealth

With boring predictability, Enoch Powell rose up after the 1981 riots doing his Cassandra routine and telling us that if only we’d listened…blah, blah. None of this would have happened.

With his usual deft ability to talk in parables and riddles, he intimated that the root cause was race without being too explicit. Though I think a modern audience of millennials would find Enoch Powell pretty distasteful. And rightly so.

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And with equal predictability, both print and TV fell over each other to give Powell a platform to talk drivel. Remember that the 1981 riots were just thirteen years after Enoch Powell had delivered his so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech “predicting”, in his usual Nostradamus-like vague manner, that something awful would happen if we let too many New Commonwealth (black and Asian in other words) immigrants into the country.

For the dim and credulous, Powell has forever retained a kind of all-knowing high priest status. One Alt-Right book that came out a while back was titled “Enoch was Right” – a familiar slogan through the 1970s and 1980s. But it’s difficult to tell what he was right about because he deliberately avoided the detail.

When he did dare to get specific, it would involve putting his words into the mouth of a constituent. Something like this – I’m making this up but check out his speeches and you’ll see what I mean: “I am forced to tell you all as a tribune of the people what I hear on the doorstep from little old (white) ladies who don’t recognise their country anymore…”

You get the drift.

In a House of Commons debate after the 1981 riots, Enoch Powell suggested that the violence would not have happened if the “New Commonwealth” population hadn’t been allowed to grow.  They were expanding while the “indigenous population” must “retreat house by house at the same rate”.

Powell was joined in playing the race card by Ivor Stanbrook MP who told journalists he was going to see the Home Secretary to argue for a ‘voluntary repatriation scheme’. Eldon Griffiths MP, parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation, said “who can say today that racial violence does not threaten the social fabric of Britain?”

This didn’t impress Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw. An old aristocratic Tory, he slapped Powell and the others down pointing out that the black community living in Toxteth, Liverpool had been there for 150 years. They weren’t newcomers. 

More interestingly, Whitelaw said the racial composition of the rioters in Toxteth had changed night after night – becoming noticeably whiter! These are his exact words to parliament on the 16th July, 1981.

“The first night consisted largely of black youths, children of many generations of Liverpool people, erupting against the police. The second saw a concerted attack on the police by white and black youngsters. The third witnessed a predominantly white crowd of looters exploiting the earlier disturbances, while local black leaders played a major part in keeping their young people off the streets”.

Whitelaw admitted young people in Britain were experiencing deep frustration. He added that violence had already been seen breaking out at football matches and had now burst forth on to the streets.

“The problems of urban decay and deprivation are intractable and deep-seated, particularly in Merseyside, despite decades of efforts to remedy them and the expenditure of very considerable sums of public money”.

1 thought on “1981 riots: Enoch Powell plays the race card

  1. During this parliamentary debate, Powell also said about the Bristol riots a year earlier:

    [W]hen what happened did happen in Bristol at the beginning of April last year, I remembered how, 10 or 12 years earlier, I had received from that precise area of Bristol a mass of information expressing fear and anxiety as to what might occur because of the change in that area and the local concentration of New Commonwealth population (House of Commons, Hansard, 16 July, 1981, col. 1413).

    Interesting to see Whitelaw make those comments (and actually order Lord Scarman to conduct an inquiry into the Brixton riots), because his time as Home Secretary also oversaw the amending of the immigration rules to discriminate against non-European migration.

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