It’s Powell week. I am due to speak at the site of his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech on Sunday, a rather clever idea dreamed up by my colleagues at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Kamal Ahmed and Patrick Diamond. I must admit I had initial reservations about the proposal. After all, I am a serious public official, and among our breed the idea of speaking in plain English to the Great British Public about things that actually bother them has never found much favour. However, I can see the value of trying to kick-start a new debate about immigration. We are no longer the country of colonial immigration into which I was born. The real migration issue today is economic — how we ride the tidal wave of talented people which is sweeping across the globe. Other nations are cherry-picking the best while we fret over whether we can ‘afford’ more immigrants. The truth is that if we don’t compete, our grandchildren will curse us for leaving them to survive in an economic backwater called Britain unless, that is, they can get work permits to the world’s dominant economies — China, India, Brazil, Australia and the USA.
I reflect on all this as I sit on the platform at the annual meeting of the gay rights pressure group, Stonewall. The QEII Conference Centre hall is packed, not with stereotypical Village People lookalikes, but earnest folk from Britain’s biggest companies, worrying about how to make sure that their companies gets their hands on the so-called ‘pink pound’, a billion-plus bonus that Ben Summerskill, the organisation’s chief executive, has deployed brilliantly. My guess is that most of the 300 or so people listening to me aren’t lesbian or gay at all, but just see this diversity thing as good business. The man from the Royal Bank of Scotland, who is middle-aged, and what our red-tops would describe as a ‘family man’, i.e. probably not gay, rather disconcertingly says: social justice is a good thing — but frankly I’m a banker, so what I’m really interested in is how I get hold of your money. It’s a world that old Enoch would have found baffling.
Even as the sun sets on the empire in which he grew up, the old gargoyle’s shadow has lengthened but not quite faded. His core belief — that racial integration was a ‘dangerous delusion’ — is mainly sustained in its pure form among a raucous bunch of white supremacists. They are politically unimportant, but what matters is their effect on mainstream politics — the 40-year freeze on any rational discussion of immigration and race. The Right fears being labelled racist, the Left being politically obliterated by the potency of the issue. And the public sit on the sidelines increasingly angry that no one in the political classes will address their real concern — which is not that they dislike foreigners, but that no one seems to have a plan to reap the economic windfall from migration while minimising the social costs. My job is, I guess, to try to break the ice.
We spend Friday and Saturday preparing for the big day. On Thursday, Chelsea’s mix of migrants and home-grown artists grind out a 1-0 win over Everton to close the gap on Man U, the only scorer being our Ghanaian hard man Michael Essien. It occurs to me that the Premier League is the perfect metaphor for my message of managed migration and active integration. This is the most successful sporting operation in the world outside the USA, watched in 202 countries, with revenues up tenfold since the early 1990s. It is now turning over £2 billion a year, and it couldn’t have achieved this without the 62 per cent of players who aren’t eligible to play for England.
On Sunday the hall is full and the speech goes down well with the Birmingham crowd. My good friend and former Commission for Racial Equality colleague, Digby Jones, shows up to listen, and makes the case that immigration is nothing new and that Brum is founded on migrant talent. Typically, in his call to put the ‘Great’ back in Britain he shares the opinion that we are a nation of ‘bastards’. I restrain myself from gently pointing out to the independent-minded trade minister that just because that’s the word which trade union officials and his fellow ministers usually put before his name, it doesn’t have to apply to everyone else in the country.
As we leave, an extraordinary thing happens. We have to edge past a phalanx of grim-faced men in tight suits. Preoccupied with how to condense my 50-minute speech into 30-second soundbites for a number of TV news crews waiting outside, I miss the fact that the BNP has booked an upstairs room for a meeting to mark the 40th anniversary of ‘rivers of blood’. They have a Powell lookalike on the bill, who breaks down in tears. I’m not sure why he was overwhelmed. It won’t have been by the charisma of their star turn. As I brushed past their leader Nick Griffin, he didn’t even register. If this is the best that right-wing populism can do, I think it’s clear why their only hope is the failure of conventional politics. Any success they have will be down to the frustrations of ordinary folk, who hold their noses and cast a protest vote for parties that they actually despise.
On Tuesday night, a last-minute own goal by Liverpool in our Champions League semi-final gives Chelsea the edge in the two-leg tie. If we can stop them scoring at Stamford Bridge, we’re in the final. My heart is full of gratitude to their Norwegian defender, John Arne Riise, who headed past his Spanish keeper. Thank God for foreigners, I say.