Nearly 50 years ago British MP Enoch Powell gave one of the most racist and controversial speeches in British political history. “Rivers of Blood”, as it came to be known, was a tirade against Indians and Africans coming to work and settle in Britain. To him it was “literally mad” that the country was allowing them in. “It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre,” he shrieked in anger and hatred. He said they should be sent back before things changed too much.
There were over 300,000 immigrants of Indian origin in Britain by 1971. They were exceeded in number only by the Irish. People like my parent’s family came over to take up jobs in factories, in the National Health Service, as shopkeepers and much more. Powell and his supporters didn’t care that Indians were very hard-working and went on to prosper beyond their imagination. They believed British whites would suffer by mixing with Asians and blacks. He was afraid they wanted to buy houses next to white families or even follow their own religions.
Powell became too controversial to be government minister but his speech made him a martyr, even to this day. And now it looks like the ghost of Powell is making a comeback. Last week Simon Heffer, a well-known British newspaper commentator, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Theresa May is following Enoch Powell – by actually listening to what British people want”.
Britain may not be back in the 1960s yet but there are ominous signs it is heading back into the direction Enoch Powell wanted.
A worryingly large number of Britons now think their communal hatred has become acceptable in wider society because of the referendum result. According to figures released last week, immediately after the Brexit vote, crime committed against people because of their race or religion jumped by 41%.
There have been a growing number of attacks on Britons of Asian and Eastern European origin. “Go back to where you came from” has become a fashionable insult, again.
We knew this would happen. Most of the key political figures who campaigned to leave the European Union (EU) either made up or exaggerated scare stories about immigration. It became the driving force behind their crusade. So it’s not surprising that many Britons now think that having won the vote it’s time for immigrants to leave the country. They feel their racist views finally have justification and validation.
In the past, even as British politicians talked tough about immigration, the country had a relatively open policy. That is now changing. When she was home secretary, Theresa May had the bright idea of getting vans with a big sign saying “GO HOME” to drive around in areas of London dominated by families of Indian origin. Her department claimed they were only referring to illegal immigrants but the point she wanted to make was as clear as a bat-signal on a dark night.
Even before she gave her first speech as prime minister at the Conservative Party conference a few weeks ago, her team was sending out the signals. British companies must ‘list’ the number of foreign workers they employed, the Times newspaper reported. May wanted to ‘name and shame’ companies who employed too many foreigners, the Financial Times wrote.
Her speech went along the same lines: “Someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair,” she said.
It doesn’t matter there is little evidence to show British workers overall are being undercut by workers from other countries. Facts are the first casualty when a politician is pandering to voters’ prejudices.
May’s Britain is saying to India’s brightest and best: You’re not welcome any more. And she’s right. They are not welcome any more. Not even the students who pay thousands of pounds a year just to study here. They are better off going to the United States or other countries where they will be appreciated.
The strict clampdown on immigration, which is in the works, will hit not just Indians looking to work in the UK, but also those looking to study, visit or join family here. It will also hit Indian companies looking to invest in Britain--who are now vital to British industry.
Make no mistake about it. Britain’s new PM Theresa May is set to deeply shake the economic and cultural ties between India and the UK. It is an act of aatmahatya that senior ministers are anticipating in the way suicide-bombers look forward to heaven.
May won’t ever make racist speeches like Powell did, but the atmosphere and impact created by her policies take Britain back to a darker past. The irony is that a nation that built its wealth by colonising other countries is saying it is better off shutting itself from the outside world.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal