Shine A Light

Resisting the Riot Fearmongers: lessons from 1958 and beyond

As right wing commentators channel Enoch Powell, Steven Hirschler counts the human cost of misdiagnosing civil unrest

Steven Hirschler
4 September 2011

Speculation about Britain’s moral decay has dominated commentary concerning the August riots. David Cameron, mustering portentousness and gravitas, warned that the United Kingdom was in the throes of a ‘slow-motion moral collapse’. We have heard about the violent youth culture and the social ills of the British underclass and there exists a perception that an unscrupulous foreign element is overrunning the country. Yesterday’s English Defence League demonstration in London potently revealed that this fear of the ‘other’ extends well beyond the chatter of stuffy bureaucrats and outlandish commentators.

Portrait of David Starkey

In plain speak, the ‘historian of elites’, David Starkey, warns that a boundless black culture is assimilating a once pure British heritage. Columnist Melanie Phillips laments the ‘disaster of multiculturalism’ and contends that it has ‘dissolved’ once unifying ‘social bonds’. These proclamations hearken back to an era when a mixed society was feared and integration deemed nigh impossible: the age of Enoch Powell.

Portrait of Enoch Powell

Strange bedfellows – Phillips advocates the ‘traditional’ family while Starkey unabashedly supports homosexual equality - they have found common ground on the issue of Britain’s ‘broken’ society. Phillips directs her readers’ focus from disaffected youths rioting in Tottenham to the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ that ‘excused’ the ‘criminal wrongdoing’ of British minorities for too long. She implies that wholesale reverse discrimination and the ‘victim culture’ has errantly placed blame on the white majority and has left the ‘bad behaviour’ of minorities to go unpunished. Never mind the devastation Tariq Jahan suffered when his son was killed in a hit-and-run attack, for Phillips and Starkey, the real victims are white Britons whose identity has been ‘intruded’ upon by an abominable foreign culture that exists to undermine the ‘Biblical morality’ Britain once championed.

Not unlike the doomsayers of the 1960s who warned that immigrants brought with them pestilence and lawlessness, Phillips deftly arranges her words so that ‘minority’ and ‘criminal’ are in such close proximity to each other that the distinction between them becomes blurred. Using the same apocalyptic imagery Enoch Powell evoked in his polemic against the 1968 Race Relations Bill, Melanie Phillips forewarns of a burning Britain that will soon be unrecognisable amid the ‘smouldering embers of our smashed and burned-out cities’.

Disregarding the decades of persecution immigrant groups have suffered as a result of racist attitudes and restrictive immigration policies, Phillips and Starkey channel the spirit of Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. For Starkey, the marked difference between Powell’s ‘prophecy’ and the events in August 2011 is that, instead of ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, Tottenham and Clapham were ablaze. From Phillips’s perspective, Powell’s great horror has been realised: ‘the black man’ has ‘the whip hand over the white man’.

In the summer of 1958, a series of conflicts broke out between residents in Nottingham and Notting Hill. Mobs of disaffected white youths known as ‘Teddy Boys’ harassed West Indians and other minorities, damaging their homes and assaulting individuals on the streets. In response, some minority groups began carrying weapons to defend themselves. When the dust settled in early September, whites comprised two thirds of those charged with offences involving bodily harm and the possession of dangerous weapons.

While the composition of rioters in London this August was largely mixed, white youths were prominent participants in the looting and violence in Salford and Manchester. For Starkey and Phillips, though, responsibility for this disorderly conduct does not lie with white Britons. ‘Alien’ behaviour has its source outside Britain’s borders. When unrest cannot be directly attributed to minority communities, these groups must be held accountable for indirectly influencing ‘native’ Britons to perform abhorrent acts they would otherwise be incapable of.

Disturbances in 1958 aroused alarmist debate within Parliament and some MPs seized the opportunity to accentuate the racial nature of the riots. During a debate in the House of Commons in October 1958, Nigel Fisher equated the events in London to the racially fuelled violence in America’s ‘Deep South’. In his aim to tighten the country’s borders, Cyril Osborne declared that there was an ‘urgent need for a restriction upon immigration into [Great Britain], particularly of coloured immigrants’. For Osborne, the ‘unfortunate riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill’ were reflective of an explosive immigration problem, which he likened to ‘dynamite’.

MPs including Martin Lindsay and Charles Grey attempted to downplay the racial element of the disturbances in order to preserve the façade of a harmonious, culturally diverse state. For Lindsay, the riots were nothing more than a sign of hooliganism, which blighted many cities. Grey believed that the term ‘race riots’ was applied too hastily and asserted that the media was ‘magnifying the position out of all perspective’. The Nottingham Council of Social Service declared: ‘The cause of the unfortunate incidents on August 23rd 1958 was not so clear a case of racial discrimination as depicted; it was in fact a drunken brawl, and not a planned attack, between irresponsible people (both white and coloured)’.

As the 1960s progressed, the debate as to whether or not the disturbances of 1958 were indeed ‘race riots’ ceased. In 1961, the MP for Wells, Stephen Maydon, asked: ‘What else were [the riots] but a manifestation of racial discrimination?’ He advised against allowing ‘complete integration’ and dared others to ask their constituents if they would allow their ‘daughters to marry men with different coloured skins’. Maydon proclaimed: ‘They will tell you…that they do not want it.’ 

Peter Griffiths rose to infamy in 1964 when he won a surprise election in Smethwick after pandering to supporters who refused to have a ‘nigger for a neighbour’. While he publicly condemned the slogan, he acknowledged that ‘a citizen may use such a phrase to express his utter frustration and helplessness’. In Griffiths’ terms, the riots were a direct result of the British population’s ‘resentment against immigrants.’

The 1958 riots were accepted as a sign of the imminent conflagration between ‘native’ Britons and the immigrant hoards that threatened to overtake the country. In his notorious Birmingham speech a decade later, Enoch Powell ominously warned that immigrant communities would eventually ‘organise to consolidate their members’ and that tensions would mount to such a degree that outright conflict would be inevitable. His speech appealed to those who felt that the government was out of step with average citizens. Media agencies capitalised on the controversy surrounding his highly charged insinuations.

Enoch Powell went largely unnoticed until April 1968. In the weeks prior to his Birmingham speech, a Gallup poll indicated that only 1 per cent of respondents favoured Powell as a possible successor to Edward Heath in the event of his retirement. Though Powell supported Osborne’s proposed immigration bill in 1965, he was largely silent on the immigration question throughout the 1960s, as he preferred to focus on economic issues. Powell’s obscurity in the public consciousness and his exceptionally educated background – he was once a professor of Greek at the University of Sydney – made his remarks in Birmingham all the more surprising.

Powell’s views immediately resonated with many of his constituents and others around the country.   When Gallup released a second poll shortly after his speech, again asking respondents to indicate their preference for a possible Heath successor, Powell ranked first amongst his rivals. Unfortunately for Powell, this popular support did not translate into backing within his party and Heath ousted him from his cabinet. Powell’s obsession with immigration left him on the fringes of his party until he left it altogether. Still, in the years following his speech, the government adopted many of his views on immigration, including his suggestion that money should be provided to ‘voluntarily’ repatriate migrants, and introduced the Immigration Act in 1971.

When David Starkey announced ‘whites have become black’ on ‘Newsnight’ and made a direct reference to Enoch Powell’s speech, it was natural to draw similarities between the two men. Starkey is well educated and has taken special interest in a subject that has little to do with the common man – the history of royals (Powell was a classicist). Their views of minorities have even garnered similar responses among their supporters. Commenting on a Daily Mail article, ‘Daz’ declares: ‘Here’s a man who dares to speak the truth because Politicians are scared to … Starkey for PM!’ Amid the countless letters of approval Powell received after his 1968 speech, ‘Just fed up’ from Doncaster exclaimed: ‘ENOCH POWELL FOR PRIME MINISTER’.

Despite these parallels, Starkey can never hope to achieve the notoriety Powell enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of his speech in Birmingham. Starkey has secured his position as a pretentious buffoon that others would rather lampoon than take seriously. It is unlikely that politicians will look to take advantage of the piecemeal support he enjoys on internet comment boards, whereas MPs publicly chastised Powell while they simultaneously adopted some of his views to help secure their own political futures. The only similarity Powell and Starkey truly share is the fact that both were ostracised from a community of their peers for espousing extremist convictions. While Starkey is already more of a joke than Powell ever became, his comments are just as insidious and should not be taken lightly.

David Starkey and Melanie Phillips have promulgated an outmoded fear of foreign cultures’ influence on British ‘identity’, which continues to bind this country to an idealised past, as if that identity is something fixed and in no need of changing. For strict nationalists, the British state is a finished sculpture, complete and exquisite. Foreign influence is like a chisel incessantly whittling away at something that is already perfect and divine. In truth, the British state is as organic as the people comprising it; it is defined and enhanced through its engagement with other cultures.

Within ten years, the disturbances of 1958 achieved almost legendary significance. Proponents of immigration controls hijacked the collective memory of the riots and wielded the subject like a talisman signalling an apocalyptic threat looming on the horizon. Fear of foreigners coupled with a sudden burst in immigration from the New Commonwealth in 1961 provided proponents of controls the impetus they needed to institute new legislation. This has led to an ever-evolving succession of restrictive immigration policies.

In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act denied entry to once recognised British subjects who failed to produce employment vouchers allowing them to work in the UK. The 1971 Immigration Act allowed for the detention of suspected illegal entrants, which eventually included families with children. An updated British Nationality Act introduced in 1981 empowered the Secretary of State to deprive people of their British citizenship if they proved to be ‘disaffected toward Her Majesty’ or if they had been sentenced to more than twelve months imprisonment in any country. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act stripped persons subject to immigration control of many of their benefits and introduced the process of dispersing individual asylum seekers across the UK, taking them further away from potential support networks. 

More recently, the government has considered abandoning the Human Rights Act in favour of its own UK Bill of Rights. It is also re-examining migrants’ ‘right to family life’. David Cameron hopes for ‘operational changes to the European Convention on Human Rights’, as this country has passively allowed for the ‘twisting and misrepresenting of human rights’ for too long. Even as Britain continues to incarcerate children in detention centres while they await asylum decisions, Cameron hopes to place the family ‘back at the top of the agenda’ by cracking down on ‘phoney human rights’.

Neither the riots of August 2011 nor many of the responses to them represent a sudden shift in British culture. On the contrary, as a recent Economist article demonstrates, ‘we have been here before’.  After the 1958 riots, policy makers favoured instituting immigration controls rather than combatting xenophobic attitudes. Since then, continuously more restrictive immigration legislation has followed as politicians persistently prescribe a treatment without properly diagnosing the affliction. Melanie Phillips and David Starkey have attempted to return us to asinine discussions of innate, incompatible cultural differences among British residents. While their views may not translate into policy, the government seems all too set on repeating the same mistakes as it seeks to repress the symptoms of a disease it fails to understand, leaving true ailments to go unchecked.

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