Paul Uppal reflects on his time as the Tory MP for a seat previously held by Enoch Powell
Looking at the historical election results for Wolverhampton South West on a Friday morning in May 2010, my wife had noticed that Enoch Powell had won the seat from Labour for the first time in 1950 with a majority of 691.
‘Spooky, but why?’ I asked. Because 60 years later I had won the seat from Labour with a majority of 691 – me, the son of Kenyan Sikh immigrants, whose family had moved to Britain in the early 1960s. The irony was now both acute and vivid to me.
Having spoken with Pamela Powell and constituents who had been living in the area during Enoch’s time, I was well aware of the build-up and history to Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. Its delivery had been planned to generate maximum coverage and exposure, timed for April 20, 1968 at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham.
The content and timing of the speech all came together that Saturday afternoon, resulting in an inordinate amount of coverage by the Sunday papers and shored up by the news and current affairs television programmes of the day.
I’m convinced Powell had made the speech in a bid to become the prime minister. Powell had recognised the power of the media and was aware that when he spoke about race and immigration he would be inundated with supportive letters from across the country – hardly surprising if you look at the social climate and culture of Britain at that time.
Earlier in 1968, TV screens had captured and shown African-Asians fleeing from Kenya to Britain. What perhaps went unnoticed was that weeks earlier Powell had delivered a speech in Walsall about immigration, but it had failed to gain national traction.
By comparison, his subsequent speech was laced with emotive language and designed to be hard-hitting. He stated that ‘in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will hold the whip hand over the white man’, epitomised by his reference to the poet Virgil describing a Roman seeing ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood!’
My parents have often spoken to me about how they felt things changed when they heard those words. Real life became far more tense, mistrust spread and there was a palpable feeling of being unwelcome, something which they felt hadn’t existed before in Britain.
As a modern-day Briton of East African heritage, it was therefore particularly satisfying for me to win the seat of MP for Wolverhampton South West in 2010 with that “spooky” numerical majority. It’s tempting to say that things had come full circle, but the truth is that had already happened.
In any given weekend in Wolverhampton, Punjabi weddings occur with people from all backgrounds dancing to traditional Indian music mixed with a modern British beat eating a feast of Punjabi and British cuisine.
Powell had underestimated the ability of the British people – whatever their heritage – to come together in the realisation that culture isn’t static but always changing, modifying and evolving. Although Enoch was no doubt a very bright academic, he had missed the “human” perspective.
The human aspect has often been a failing of politicians for as long as I can remember. During my time representing my constituents in Wolverhampton South West, the same question would continue to arise of how to win over black, Asian and minority ethnic voters. Surely a piece of seminal legislation or a dramatic speech would provide the solution, or so people thought.
The reality is that black, Asian and minority ethnic voters are no different to any other voters. They want good education for their children and better public services and healthcare for their families, and a future they can build on.