‘I see the River Tiber foaming with much blood; in 15 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.’ This quote, from the Rivers of Blood speech made by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in 1968, is etched on the memory of so many first-generation immigrants. My father came to England from Pakistan in the 1960s; the opportunities in the northern industrial cities were limitless if you were willing to work hard, and boy did he work hard. People were generally welcoming, but there were some harrowing experiences. One day, a skinhead gang beat his friend up, stamping on his head until he was unconscious, whilst shouting ‘dirty Paki’. Then there were the episodes of graffiti outside his house, declaring ‘Pakis go home’. And then Powell made his infamous speech and supported the fascists.
Why is this relevant now? Our esteemed College has decided to invite Julia Hartley-Brewer, ‘mainstream broadcaster and daughter of a GP’, to speak at the RCGP annual conference, as part of a Q&A panel. This inflammatory journalist has openly declared that she doesn’t ’see anything in the Rivers speech that he [Powell] got wrong’.
In response to a petition started by Dr Alan Woodall, founder of GP Survival, to decry JHB’s appearance at the conference, the RCGP has stated that ‘a key purpose of the RCGP annual conference is to provoke debate.. delegates are not expected to agree with everything they hear’. But this isn’t about healthcare, it’s about platforming someone who defends fascism. I pay over £500 a year to the College, and I’m an assessor for them. If JHB is allowed to participate, I will follow my peers who perennially ask why I’m still a member (’what do you actually get for that £500?’) and cancel my membership, as well as end my assessor role.
This isn’t about healthcare, it’s about platforming someone who defends fascism
I know some argue that free speech overrides snowflake sentiment, and I acknowledge this argument: why should JHB not have the right to express her opinion? There is an undefined line between free speech and hate speech. Powell’s speech was derided by many at the time – even The Times called it an ‘evil speech’. After it was delivered, there were incidents of violence against immigrants, who shouted ‘Powell’ as they attacked. This speech incited hatred, and any defence of it is indefensible.
I remember my late father telling me about how he packed a suitcase with essentials after Powell’s speech and had it ready under his bed in case he was ‘kicked out’. Even when I was growing up, that fear did not abate. He was insistent that I learn to read and write Urdu, so I’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming to after-school language classes. Years later, he told me that this was in case we were ever sent back to Pakistan by the Government. I remember laughing at this, but in truth, the atmosphere in recent years has become toxic, with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment following Brexit, the Windrush scandal, and the rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia.
I, alongside 141 others, feel hurt by the decision made by the RCGP and have signed Dr Alan Woodall’s courageous petition. I really hope to stay a member of the college, but will not continue if this individual takes part at conference.
Dr Tehseen Khan is a GP in East London