Strangers are not always a danger: a sideways glance at migration to Britain

Enoch Powell gained infamy with a speech about the future of immigration policy and thus race relations in Britain: he foresaw “rivers of blood”. His precise words in 1968 were: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'” For that vision, he was condemned publicly by many and sacked from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. I don’t know how many or who shared his graphic view, but his party won a surprise victory in the 1970 general election.

Although racially motivated riots had preceded the speech, namely in Notting Hill in 1958, Britain did not see any major eruptions of racial tension for about 13 years after Powell’s speech. But, major rioting occurred in areas with large black and Asian populations in the early-to-mid 1980s. Such violence erupted again in the early 2000s. So, on one level, Britain didn’t dissolve as Powell had forecast.

But, racial differences and animosity showed themselves in other ways. One was in shifts in housing and location. Those white English people who did not like the influx of dark-skinned migrants moved, often not far away, into a ring around the area being affected. They chose segregation.

My parents moved to a western suburb of London at a time when it was about to change dramatically for such reasons. In a way, they chose integration. A significant number of migrants from the Indian subcontinent had already moved to Southall in the late 1950s. The town offered good employment opportunities in factories, and nearby were growing areas and industries, including Heathrow Airport and British Leyland. But, their numbers swelled in the early 1970s after Idi Amin expelled so-called ‘East African Asians’ from Uganda. Many gravitated to Southall. Many were professionals and business people, so did not come with a stereotypical poor migrant profile. Even without much immediate capital, they used cultural and financial links to recreate themselves. They had a middle class base and tried to preserve it.

By the time my parents moved there in the late-1960s, they had established themselves in England–as car owners, homeowners, and moving well in their jobs. They bought a large terraced house in a side street off the main road (Uxbridge Road). It provided great access: I could get a train into central London to school; my father could walk or bike to work; my mother could drive to work easily. It was easy to get to motorways. The area had a nice feel and a decent reputation, though it was soon labelled ‘Little India’.

The Asian children did reasonably well in schools and Asian culture offered new interest for everyone. I learned about Indian food and sampled it often on my walk home each afternoon: I grabbed some Indian sweets or samosas, regularly.

But, the area became unrecognizable to the previous residents. Asian names started to proliferate. Asian bazaar style shops appeared on the high road. Buildings changed use. I never felt uncomfortable with this. I was more saddened by the fact that the cinema and bowling alleys closed, as they were main leisure activities for teenagers.


Changes like that can and do discomfort people, and some react badly and even violently to it. Some let that dislike form into hatred and then lash out at any opportunity, like the ‘fans’ on the Paris Métro this week.

Southall had two riots in the late 1970s- 1980s: one the result of misinformation; the other as a response to a Anti-Nazi League march against the anti-immigration party, The National Front, during which, Blair Peach, was injured and died. I was coming home close to the demonstration that fateful evening.

I took an early morning visit to Southall this morning. Few places were open, but signs of shops opening were there. I was in the hunt for a great samosa store, but no luck. I noticed that the Asians I saw were much older. I noticed many white people, some with Irish accents. I saw signs of new entrants, with Polish names on some boards.

The town looked on the edge of worse economic times, with shops boarded up. New places were there, such as a large hospital on the edge of town. Schools had much higher fences, to keep ‘strangers’ out, and gates were locked. We know, though, that pupils have also shown more violent tendencies.

I passed the market, which has been there since the 1700s: I still have an oak desk my father bought there in a brad-a-brac store.


I went to look at our old house. It had seen better days, but had a shiny BMW parked outside.


Times change. The world turns.

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