In the shadow of Enoch Powell: Race/ locality and resistance | Shirin Hirsch

Shirin Hirsch
Shirin Hirsch | Imagem: MEN

In the spring of 1968, Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (p 1). In the shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, locality and resistance explores its aftermath, successfully synthesising histories of Powell as a political figure, the local community of Wolverhampton, and, to a lesser extent, the nation.

The greatest strength of the book is its nuanced approach to this history. It adds complexity to our understanding of this period of British history by exploring the contradictory ambiguities present in daily lives. Hirsch writes that Powell’s populist racism was ‘challenged by the realities of work and changes within the trade union movement’ (p 92). Reflecting experiences of the racialised migrant communities of Wolverhampton, the book brings to light the interconnected histories of antiracism and of fear (p 112). Hirsch balances moments of racial tensions with moments of joy and solidarity throughout. She presents a positive history of Black people in Britain, a celebration of antiracist resistance, and an assertion that this is important British history.

A consistent theme is the developing confidence of Black individuals and communities in Britain, particularly Wolverhampton, in the years following Powell’s speech. Hirsch explicitly states that ‘the immigrants that Powell had talked of in such negative terms were also developing a newfound confidence in Britain’ (p 93). The agency of these Black actors is considered with equal importance as the agency of white residents of Wolverhampton. In this way the book contributes to a growing number of antiracist histories of Modern Britain. Hirsch acknowledges that ‘black people are often written out of the speech and the town’s history’ (p 7). She has successfully countered this. Her use of oral testimony to continually inject the agency of the Black people she writes about is one of key to this, and the book thus provides a methodological model for historians of twentieth and twenty-first century Britain.

At a more precise level, the book traces the development of resistance in informal ways, contributing to our understanding of so-called New Social Movements by exploring the continuities across generations in class-based activism.(1) Thus, the book has an important place in the historiographical shift towards a closer relationship between sociology and modern British history. Overall, the book is clear, concise and well organised. It is easy to read, investing it with potential importance outside of academia, but this by no means diminishes its historiographical contribution.

The first chapter of the book contextualises ‘Rivers of Blood’ in the political and social climate in Britain, as well as the broader transnational climate. Hirsch’s reference to ‘Another 1968’ in the chapter’s title reminds the reader that the infamous speech took place during a year often remembered for its revolutionary moments. The chapter goes on to situate the speech within the broader history of reactionary conservatism, also highlighting continuities between the language used in the speech and later immigration rhetoric employed by the Conservatives under Thatcher. Hirsch contextualises ‘Rivers of Blood’ in Powell’s political career and in the longer history of Black people in Britain, both of which are explored within the imperial context. In these ways, the first chapter builds on Camilla Schofield’s work on Powell most closely, and also speaks to literature that explores afterlives of empire in Britain.(2)

The second chapter continues to contextualise Powell’s speech but zooms in a bit closer on 1968 and on Wolverhampton. Here, Hirsch further demonstrates continuities in the discourses around migration before and after the speech, while simultaneously exploring its impact. She begins the chapter by offering further insight into Powell’s personal and political motivations for the speech, in particular looking at his ‘retreat’ from a political focus on empire. Hirsch then situates Wolverhampton within the broader history of Black people in Britain (pp 31-33), contributing to a wider body of literature that emphasise the ‘long history’ of racial plurality in Britain.(3)

The chapter also demonstrates the fluidity of constructs of whiteness in Britain at the time (p 34). Throughout the book, Hirsch refers to the coloniality of interactions between white and Black residents of Wolverhampton, demonstrating how the presence of Black bodies in Wolverhampton and in Britain more broadly can be understood as a moment of empire ‘coming home’ (p 35). The notion that postwar migration of Black people to Britain can be understood in this way is contested. Hirsch contributes to these debates by publishing testimony which highlights that, for those coming to Britain, this was a moment of the empire (via them, as imperial subjects) coming home (to the mother country), whether or not this was not understood in the same way by white Britons. Hirsch employs the testimony of Black residents of Wolverhampton to demonstrate that white British people were not always well-informed about the history or status of the empire in the 1960s and 1970s, and that the same white Britons had been taught racial superiority at school (p 36). This is a complicated and conflicting history, and Hirsch makes sense of it by drawing on lived experience through her use of oral testimony.

The second chapter then traces the impact of racism at the quotidian level, in housing and at work (pp 37, 41). Hirsch skilfully integrates these perspectives with those of employers in Wolverhampton, who feared that Black workers having good relations with their white counterparts could lead to militancy in workers’ rights organisation (p 42-48). Here, perhaps, there might be more to say about the idea of the ‘empire at home’. Were these fears driven by employers’ awareness of anticolonial movements across the globe?

Chapter three examines the extent of the impact of the speech, exploring events in its aftermath, and contextualising them in existing structural racism in the town (p49). Hirsch argues that the speech gave white people across Britain a language with which to express their anxieties about Black people, and explores how Powell shaped constructions of whiteness within a ‘specific section of the population’ (p 50). The chapter alludes to what these constructions meant for protestors, who Hirsch describes as having ‘held homemade placards’ when they took to the streets to demonstrate in support of Powell (p 49). This avenue, perhaps, could have been developed a little further, to provide a more explicit explanation of the implications or meaning of these sorts of acts.

Powell’s speech is also situated globally, connecting with the ending of the British Empire, and racial tensions and antiracism in the US. Hirsch is particularly successful in tying together the narratives of white and Black actors, and their understandings of these global events. She demonstrates that a colour bar was present in Wolverhampton, connecting this place in Britain with the US in the same period. Building on Kennetta Hammond Perry’s work, which shows how British media reported on racial tensions with language appropriated from the US, Hirsch maps out ways in which Black people in Britain were cognisant of what was going on in the US, and how this related to their experiences (p 53).(4)

Adding detail to our understanding of the history of the ‘colour problem’, and white reactions to Black migration to Britain, Hirsch notes that Wolverhampton was ‘branded as “another stage” in the progression from Notting Hill to Smethwick’(p 54). She explores how Black migrants were constructed, in Powell’s speech and the media discourse that followed, as being not British through not being ‘true constituents’ (pp 57 – 60). At the same time, stories of belonging and not belonging are intertwined, as these experiences were in the daily lives of Black residents of Wolverhampton (p 61). Hirsch then explores local opposition to the speech, which was unclear and fractured, particularly in the organised left (pp 62 – 65).

The fourth chapter examines antiracism at the quotidian level at work, returning to theme of employers’ use of racism to divide the workforce; and in schools, through pupil interactions with each other, and teachers defending their classroom makeups. At work, Hirsch presents cases of employers allowing strike action in support of Powell’s speech because they claimed to agree with the cause and wanted to let their white workers express their discontent. Pages 73 – 74 in particular explore how the ‘foreigner’ was understood and conjoined with communism, though I would have liked to see more on this. Hirsch then goes on to address overt trade union racism and how this impacted Black workers (pp 75 – 79). She looks at the turban dispute, arguing that the success of this was a source of confidence for Black people across Britain, with regard to their rights as workers (p 79).

At school, Hirsch demonstrates the duality of racializing criticisms of schools in Wolverhampton; that there were ‘too many’ / ‘not enough’ racialised children at local schools (p 80). This local history adds depth to the existing body of work on ‘race’ and education, and is particularly rich with examples of day-to-day interactions. Hirsch explores those who were undertaking ‘multiracial projects’ in their schools as well as those who opposed ‘mixed’ classrooms, to present the full and nuanced picture of Wolverhampton at the time (p 81). The chapter briefly touches on bussing policy and notes that Black children would be bussed out, while no white children would be ‘bused in’ (p 83). In this chapter, we find beautiful expressions of belonging from pupils, such as the example of a girl who ‘hit back’ when her teacher called her a monkey (p 90). Hirsch also demonstrates similarities across generational lines within Black communities in Wolverhampton, for example, writing: ‘Black residents within the town were beginning to assert their rights to be treated… as a key part of the Wolverhampton working class’ (p 91).

Chapter five explores contemporary memory of Powell and the speech, revisiting the links between Powellism and Thatcherism touched upon in chapter one (p 95). Hirsch explores how this history relates to the present, showing that this was not a linear trajectory, but that these political languages were revived in the 2000s, a theme picked up again in the conclusion. She demonstrates that there is a shift in how Powell is remembered in the 2000s, aligned with a reinvigorated racialisation of Muslims in Britain, connecting the hostile environment and racism today with Powellism (pp 94-95, 101, 113-114).

Indeed, in the concluding chapter, Hirsch notes that ‘Powell is now more of a household name than in 1998’ (p 102). Exploring memory and trajectories, she argues that racializing and racist politics are no longer the sole territory of a far right ‘underbelly’, though they are described as such by the same media that continuously gives platform to those views (pp 105 – 108). She asserts that the emphasis on the ‘victimhood’ of whiteness in contemporary politics is just as much a continuation of Powellism just as Farage’s white exclusivist nationalism.(5) Perhaps future research could  connect this very recent history of racism with newer antiracist movements, as Hirsch has done so well for the period following ‘Rivers of Blood’ in the book. I also wonder if a more explicit class analysis would have been useful for understanding these shifts in the last twenty years.

A final thought on finishing the book, which I hope the author can shed some light on, relates to gender and the normativity of the male experience, particularly in histories of workers’ organisations and labour movements. In this book, we clearly see the voices of women. Nonetheless, I wonder if there is a gendered dimension to these stories? Is that something that could be explored in work that builds on the book? Or do the common experiences explored here exist aside form experiences of being a woman or a man?

NB: In this review, as Hirsch does in the book, I use ‘Black’ to refer to all non-white actors, particularly migrants to Britain from the Caribbean, (South) Asia, and Africa, who came from (former) British colonies. I use the capitalised form to denote this Black political identity in this review, but Hirsch prefers ‘black’ with a lower case ‘b’. Debates about terminology relating to racial and ethnic categories are highly contested, and an in-depth engagement with these debates is beyond the scope of this review and, indeed, of the book.


1 Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Studies, Theoretical Legacies’ in Cary Nelson, Lawrence Grossberg, and Paul Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies, 1992
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2 Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain, 2013, and, for example, Jordanna Bailkin, The Afterlife of Empire, 2012
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3 For example, Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, 1984
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4 Kennetta Hammond Perry, ‘”Little Rock” in Britain: Jim Crow’s Transatlantic Topographies’, Journal of British Studies, 51, 1, 2012, pp 155-177
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5 The concept of ‘white exclusivist British nationalism’ is from Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The cultural politics of race and nation, 1987 and The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness, 1993

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Saffron EastUniversity College London.

Referências desta Resenha

HIRSCH, Shirin. In the shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, locality and resistance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018. Resenha de: EAST, Saffron. Reviews in History. Londres, n. 2455, mar. 2022. Acessar publicação original [DR]

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