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The Inconvenient Truth About Immigration: Rageh Omaar Asks Was Enoch Powell Right?
By RAGEH OMAAR
On the afternoon of April 20, 1968, when Conservative MP Enoch Powell was making the most provocative and notorious speech in the history of race relations in Britain, I was a nine-month-old baby living in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Speaking at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, Powell predicted that the cost of the burgeoning immigration to Britain would be rivers of blood - communities torn apart by the tensions of conflicting cultures learning to live together.
His words have reverberated ever since.
Now, more than ever, Britain is experiencing unfettered immigration, the like of which Powell could never have imagined.
Each year, around 190,000 immigrants are arriving in this country.
Last week, a report by the House of Lords economic affairs committee concluded that high net immigration has had little effect on income per head in the resident population - in fact, benefiting the population by just 58p a week.
The report also said that ministers should limit the number of workers entering from outside the EU.
My family moved to Britain in 1973, four years after President Shermarke was assassinated in a military coup.
In my family's case, the streets of Britain were paved with gold. We came from a former British colony and my parents wanted us to have a British education and upbringing.
We were not political refugees: this was 18 years before the country's civil war.
Britain became my home. I was educated at Cheltenham College and New College, Oxford - both privileged institutions - which gave me a sense of confidence that I could integrate and feel British. I was very fortunate.
But my parents also stressed my Somali heritage and identity.
We spoke Somali at home, ate Somali food and went there in the holidays. This gave me a pride in my roots and a confidence to get on with people from all backgrounds.
It was people like me whom the London dockers were objecting to in the Seventies when they marched from the East End to the Palace of Westminster carrying placards saying 'Back Britain, not Black Britain'.
It was my family that the factory workers and Smithfield meat porters were striking against when they supported Powell.
So now, 40 years after his incendiary speech, I have traveled around Britain for a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary - Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth - to find out the real legacy of his words, and the state of race relations today.
What I discovered was a complex, sometimes confused, but nonetheless compelling glimpse of a society under the most extraordinary strain it has ever faced outside wartime.
And my investigation led me to the most troubling question of all: Was Enoch Powell right?
In his speech, Powell warned that Britain's native population would become 'strangers in their own country', and 'the black man will have the whip hand over the white man'.
He said: 'They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighborhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated.'
Warning that the nation was 'busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre', he added: 'As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'
A survey by YouGov for Dispatches now suggests that he was right.
Eighty-three per cent of Britons polled said they feel that there is an immigration crisis, and 84 per cent believe that the Government should stop or reduce immigration altogether.
Sixty-six per cent feel their jobs are being undercut by migrant workers, and 69 per cent feel they are losing out because new immigrants are given special treatment.
Certainly, since I returned to Britain, after working abroad as a foreign correspondent, I have noticed that immigration is at the forefront of people's minds and is being discussed across the country.
Many people fear that the uncontrolled number of immigrants has put an intolerable strain on housing, health and education.
My children Loula, seven, Sami, five, and Zachary, two, are at school here, and my wife Nina and I are part of the local community.
People talk about immigration at home, at the school gates, in the workplace.
They worry about the bread-and-butter issues: whether there will be enough places for their kids in our schools, how they will get on in a school where English is the second language, whether they can get a job.
Yet things have moved on enormously over the 40 years since Powell's speech.
Back then, immigration was about cultural issues; about prejudice against skin color and creed.
Now, the grievances are focused on economics and the change in the labor market, on the effect on the NHS and on education.
What I found most shocking was that even second and third generation immigrants are resentful of new immigrants.
You would think that because immigration and race have become entwined as an issue, this would not be the case.
If anything, though, these people's feelings of grievance towards the wave of Poles now arriving in Britain is intensified.
I interviewed Harbhajan Dardi, a Punjabi Sikh who arrived in Britain in 1968 and now lives in Smethwick, Birmingham.
Although he remembered the days when Asians and dogs were banned from his local pub, he still felt animosity towards the new wave of Eastern European immigrants coming into Britain.
'They don't actually contribute to the country, to the economy,' he told me. 'They are not here to settle. They are here to have the benefits.'
Even Jamaican immigrants, who were the prime target of Powell's speech - he provocatively described their children as ' piccaninnies' - felt aggrieved towards Polish immigrants.
Going back to Brixton, where I first started work as a trainee journalist on the black newspaper The Voice, I met Ricky, a carpet cleaner, whose grandparents came over from Jamaica during the Fifties.
He told me he felt his job was under threat because the Poles are undercutting his rates.
Personally, I feel that people are getting over-excited about East European immigrants.
Many of them are not settling here: they are coming over for a few years and then returning home.
For them, England is a constantly revolving door. Many are now leaving Britain and heading back home.
This is because the Polish zloty has become a much stronger currency and they can now earn more there.
These people are not immigrants, but global commuters. They are not settling here and becoming British in the way that Powell feared.
Immigration is, ultimately, an act of hope; an act of economic hope.
Immigrants, by and large, come here to do a job and work harder than anyone else.
They turn up ten minutes earlier and work longer hours because they are leaving their countries, their families and their homes for a better future. This is what drives them on.
During the Eighties, Powell's chilling prediction that there would be 'rivers of blood' came true when riots broke out across Britain.
In fact, I discovered, there are still sporadic acts of violence today.
In Salford, a short drive down the M62 from Toxteth, which went up in flames in 1981, I met Ed Jones, a university lecturer who had invested some money that he had earned writing TV soaps in property, but was forced to sell up after he was targeted for renting rooms to Polish immigrants.
Bricks were hurled through his windows and he was beaten up by a youth who told him: 'Get the f***ing Polish out the house or we're going to come and burn it down!'
However, I don't think we will see the same levels of violence in Britain now as in the riot-torn Eighties because there are a completely different set of social dynamics.
English people are generally more tolerant, and institutions like the police are more enlightened.
The idea of the BNP marching through New Cross in South-East London and policemen giving them the up is unthinkable today.
Our willingness to confront the problems and talk about them openly will prevent them becoming a real battleground in the way that Enoch Powell predicted.
Powell argued that one of the problems with immigration was that the majority of immigrants did not want to integrate and had a vested interest in fostering racial and religious differences.
You may not have communities which are as starkly segregated as in Powell's day, but what you do have - and which modern technology has made available - is segregation of the mind.
People can belong to utterly separate communities, which reject the mainstream and don't want, or need, to integrate.
Instead of multi-culturalism, we are getting tribalisation.
The Muslims are particularly susceptible to this tribalisation because of a minority of extremists in their midst.
Their young could be sitting in a bedroom in Bradford, connected via the internet to a radical Islamic preacher.
In Southall, there are third generation British Asians who have their own community, their own music, their own language. They don't see themselves as British Asian: they see themselves as Punjabi.
We thought that the generation after my parents' one would be totally integrated - but things have gone full circle.
That has got to be the result of a multi- culturalism which encourages loyalty to one's own culture over-and-above all loyalty to the host Britain's.
It would be stupid to deny that immigration has led to resentment and alienation within communities in this country.
But this is not the working class issue it once was. Instead, it is affecting an underclass who have been failed by the education system and the labour market and feel trapped.
They are the ones who can't compete with the Filipino cleaners and Polish builders. They feel a real sense of grievance and anger, which can lead to violence.
But this is not the racism of the 'rivers of blood'. It is about pounds in pockets.
Certainly, it is a challenge for today's politicians.
There is no point them sitting around saying Enoch Powell was a small-minded racist bigot.
If there are people who still evoke his name and ideas, we have to tackle the problem and ask why.
• Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth is on Channel 4 on Monday at 8pm.
Source: Daily Mail, Friday, April 11, 2008