Article by Ammar Ebrahim. Edited and researched by Haley Arnold.
In the years after WWII Britain’s Empire was in decline and the Suez Crisis brought to an end Britain’s glorious image abroad. Domestically, however, Britain was about to undergo a phenomenal cultural transformation that was vibrant, exuberant and unique. At the same time this transformation led to violence, extreme right-wing politics and, at times, a disillusioned society. This phenomenon was multiculturalism, and it has changed the very fabric of British society. Our social relationships are different to that of previous generations and, while many may attribute this to social medias and technology, there is no doubt that our generation has reaped the numerous benefits of multiculturalism and has shown how it can flourish.
In 1968 Enoch Powell delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he gives the anecdote of a white elderly lady in Wolverhampton who lived in a road in which a ‘negro’ bought a house. According to Powell the influx of a black people into the street had damaged its respectability. In his speech he paints the picture of a vulnerable old white woman frightened in her daily existence by a ‘deadly invasion’. If Enoch Powell could see a glimpse of life in Britain today he would realise that all his grim predictions have been replaced by a thriving multicultural society where people of all races cheer on athletes of many ethnic backgrounds representing Britain in the Olympics. It would be wrong to pretend the multiculturalism has been a seamless process; one only has to go back to the Bradford riots of 2001 to see that racial tensions still exist. David Cameron has said that ‘under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other’. In today’s current climate Cameron’s word, it could be argued, may do more damage to our notions of multiculturalism than the legacy of Enoch Powell’s. One can look back at Powell’s speech and see real progress; through our friendships and relationships we have defeated his negative predictions, but the Prime Minister’s speech threatens to undermine years of struggle and ignore the true glory of modern Britain.
In the 1960s, opinion polls showed 50% of people did not want to live next door to a black person. However, even in a climate where attitudes were so different to today’s, certain individuals believed that multiculturalism could prevail. One of these men was Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour party from 1955 until his death in 1963. He described the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 as, ‘brutal anti-colour legislation.’ British attitudes of the late 50s and early 60s reflected early racial tensions between whites and migrant Caribbean families, the Notting Hill Race Riots were the climax of these tensions. The area itself was deprived at the time and many white working class people and Caribbean immigrants were competing for few housing opportunities. The disillusioned white working class blamed the immigrants for their economic woes, and this erupted into violence as 400 white youths attacked the Caribbean residents of Notting Hill.
There are without doubt certain parallels between attitudes of the late 50s and 60s and race relations today. Replace Notting Hill with Bradford, replace Oswald Mosely with Nick Griffin and feelings of institutional racism in the police with…well allegations of institutional racism in elements of the police. Add to this the issues of Islamophobia and events such as the 7/7 bombings and suddenly any notions of a multicultural utopia seem nonsensical. One could argue that both Enoch Powell and David Cameron have a point. Personal experiences of ethnic minorities might lead one to think maybe David Cameron was right, maybe we have ‘encouraged different cultures to live different lives.’ But upon further reflection one realises that individual incidents do not mean that multiculturalism has failed. Our cultures have harmonised in ways beyond anyone’s imagination; mixed marriages are celebrated more than ever before and British cities are hotbeds of different cultures and traditions mixing under the common identity of being British. Martin Luther King had ‘a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.’ Modern Britain is in many ways everything his dream envisaged; virtually everywhere you look you can see different ethnic minorities, religions and cultures living in harmony. There are, of course, areas were the cultures do not mix, but what the media often fails to show are the places where people from different cultures mix on a day to day basis to such a degree that the very issue of ‘origin’ is forgotten.
At the London 2012 Olympics Team GB represented multiculturalism at its best, showing that a person of any cultural background can now succeed in Britain. The opportunities for all races and religions are now endless. It would be great if from time to time we could stop for a minute, look at the progress that has been made since immigrants first came here and give ourselves a huge round of applause. A few religious extremists, out of touch politicians and right wing loonies should not detract from the fact that multiculturalism is what makes Britain glorious today.
- Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech was actually called The Birmingham Speech, it was renamed The Rivers of Blood Speech because of the line ‘as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ The line comes from the epic poem Aeneid by Viril a central theme of which is the conflict between fate and action. The speech led to Powell’s dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet.
- According to the 2001 census 7.9% of the British population come from an ethnic minority.
- Monuments to multiculturalism designed by Frencesco Perilli stand in Canada, South Africa, China, Bosnia and Australia.