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'The eyes of the world are on us' - Eleanor Smith MP warns against Enoch Powell plaque

By Marion Brennan | Wolverhampton | News | Published:

An MP warned that ‘the eyes of the world are upon Wolverhampton’ as the city debates whether to erect a commemorative blue plaque to ‘Rivers of Blood’ politician Enoch Powell.

Eleanor Smith speaking at the Enoch Powell blue plaque debate

Eleanor Smith, who represents the late minister’s former constituency, said: “A blue plaque would send out the wrong message – Wolverhampton has moved on since those days, the world has moved on.”

She was speaking at a meeting organised by Black Country Stands Up To Racism in the wake of calls to honour the Tory MP with a civic plaque in the 50th anniversary year of his controversial speech which strongly criticised immigration.

More than 100 people packed Powell’s former constituency headquarters, now the Heritage Centre community hub, in Clifford Street to hear a succession of speakers criticise attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ his legacy.

WATCH: Eleanor Smith gives her take on Enoch Powell's views

Eleanor Smith speaking at the Enoch Powell blue plaque debate

Mrs Smith, the city’s first Afro-Caribbean MP, said: “The fact that I was elected in his old seat shows what a long way we have come. Powell is part of Wolverhampton’s history but he doesn’t represent who we are.

“The world is watching us – they will all be down here in April for the anniversary – and we need to show them what a cohesive community we are.”

The Civic and Historical Society of Wolverhampton, where Powell served from 1950 to 1974, received an application from an unidentified person to honour Powell some months ago. A six-person panel will decide whether to accept the proposal.

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Powell, who died in 1998, caused outrage when he delivered the speech in Birmingham in 1968.

Dr Shirin Hirsch

An open letter signed by notable figures across Wolverhampton has been published, calling for the Civic and Historical Society to reject the application. It contains 95 signatures ranging from local and national politicians, faith community leaders, academics and trade union representatives.

Councillor Sandra Samuels, who helped set up the Heritage Centre, described the meeting’s location in Powell’s former constituency office, as ‘ironic’.

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Speaker Shirin Hirsch, a Wolverhampton University academic who has researched the impact of Powell’s speech, argued that as health minister, the MP had actively encouraged immigration and the flood of nurses from the Caribbean but changed his views when he campaigned to become Conservative Party leader. Reverend Ray Gaston, who chaired the meeting, said: “With the increasing rise of right-wing groups across Europe, attempts to rehabilitate Enoch Powell in the city must be be resisted.”

People listen to the debate

Audience members were invited to take part in a national demonstration against racism this Saturday.

The action group, including Eleanor Smith, is due to meet the Civic Society in two weeks time to discuss the plaque. The city’s two other MPs, Pat McFadden and Emma Reynolds, also oppose the proposal. The Bishop of Wolverhampton Clive Gregory has said he strongly opposes the idea, which would be ‘widely interpreted as honouring Enoch Powell’s racist views’.

Council leader Roger Lawrence, too, has called for Powell’s legacy to be left to the history books, warning that a blue plaque would cause disruption.

An Express & Star poll on the subject received more than 20,000 votes, with 70 per cent backing the idea. Next month Dudley North MP Ian Austin will host an anti-racism rally to mark the 50th anniversary at Birmingham’s Burlington Hotel – formerly the Midland Hotel – where Powell made his incendiary speech at a Conservative Association meeting on April19, 1968.

And on April 21, the Heritage Centre will host a conference inviting residents to reflect on the legacy of the speech and how Wolverhampton has responded.

Marion Brennan

By Marion Brennan
@Marion_EStar

News and features reporter, specialising in human interest and local history stories.

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