Greasy Pole: Wandering in Wolverhampton
Even without the entertainment of 2010 – like Gordon Brown misunderstanding the word ‘mobile’ to mean using his phone as a missile aimed at his underlings – this year’s general election was historically exciting. If we were not moved by sympathy for the defeated leaders such as Miliband, Clegg and Balls and gratitude for their justifying this system of poverty, disease and conflict there was also the matter of the marginal constituencies with their particular tension between some desperately participating tricksters . Prominent among these was Wolverhampton South West, famous as a hyper-marginal but regarded as safe Conservative until it fell to Blair’s runaway victory in 1997. In 2010 it reacted to give the Tory Paul Uppal a majority of 691 over Labour’s Rob Marris who had persistently declared his intention to win the seat back. In all it was enough to satisfy the hungriest psephology obsessive.
It turned out to be one of the few Labour gains, giving Marris a majority of 801. He was delighted: ‘It’s not been a good night for Labour nationally, quite a good night for Labour in parts of the West Midlands and of course a great night for Labour here in Wolverhampton’. For Uppal, perhaps because the late Enoch Powell was once the local MP, it was not so good. He describes himself as a ‘Smethwick-born Sikh’ whose father came from East Africa in 1961 and he was a babe in arms when Powell declared himself to be ‘filled with foreboding’ at the prospect of unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth. He can recall the Deputy Head of his school enquiring of his class if they were planning to spend time during the week-end ‘Paki-bashing’ but now he says there are ‘various groups’ which get on ‘incredibly well’ so that Powell’s widow ‘tells me that he would have loved me’. However there is still anti-immigrant feeling there, directed against those coming from Eastern Europe for roughly the same reasons as did Uppal’s father all those years ago. For all is not well in the Midlands: 32.4 per cent of the employed people in Wolverhampton South West receive below the official living wage of £7.86 an hour, so that the single food bank which was there to help the most needy people in 2010 has sprouted into five.
The immigrants were at first welcomed by Powell but in April 1968, when he was Ted Heath’s Shadow Defence Secretary, he responded to the Race Relations Act and the prohibition of discrimination in matters such as housing on grounds of race by his controversial, enduringly quoted speech which included the passage ‘Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic ….is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come…Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now’. This was ominously attractive; notably the London Dockers demonstrated their support in a march – even although that reference to the River Tiber was a reminder of Powell’s reputation as a classical scholar. As a youth at King Edward’s School in Birmingham he had been one of a select few to be awarded a 100 percent mark in an end-of-term examination. Later at Cambridge he sat an examination in Greek prose which was timed to last three hours but he was able to leave after an hour and a half because in that time he had produced appropriate translations. He went on to accumulate several classics prizes and ended with a Double First degree, presented to him at a ceremony disciplined in the university traditions of dress, speech, demeanour and the like.
Before the protests over his ‘river foaming with blood’ speech Powell’s contributions in the Commons often aroused a torrent of adoring praise: ‘The cleverest person I have seen in this place’ was the opinion of Bruce Grocott, who in the 1970s was Minister of Agriculture and PPS to Tony Blair. From the other side the venomous ex-Etonian Tory MP Alan Clark sneered at the style of some of the MPs in a debate: ‘…bellowing any point concerning which his conscience made him uneasy…’ and ‘…cannot speak or even read particularly well’ but when it came to Powell’s contribution: ‘…perfectly brilliant; what a superb Chancellor he would make’. But Powell was not consistent in his opposition to immigration. During his time as one of Edward Heath’s ministers he campaigned for policies which were designed to assert the superiority of market forces above state planning in matters such as housing, social services and the level of the exchange rate. At this time one opinion of him was Andrew Gamble’s ‘…the foremost critic of the new interventionist state the Conservatives developed to help restructure capital and contain wages’. But in this Powell took no account of the fact that immigration, as a response to the demands of the market and the availability of opportunity, was an expression of market forces; indeed during his time as Minister of Health there was an active drive to recruit immigrants to fill vacancies in hospitals and the like. And during his closing years he confusedly turned his back on the Conservative Party and, in the general election of October 1974, became an Ulster Unionist MP while advising the voters to support the Labour Party. When he died in February 1998 along with his reputation as a political firebrand there were rumours that he had been involved in a Westminster paedophile network. Powell’s biographer Simon Heffer strongly disputes the allegations but the matter had been passed to the police by the Bishop of Durham.
The voters of Wolverhampton South West and of all the other constituencies have questions to consider now, after their votes have returned a Tory government with an avowed policy of tightening the screw of poverty as against the Labour Party alternative to do roughly the same. They should now ask themselves if this is the most effective use of their power to alter this society in the best interests of all its people.