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In the 1950s, Enoch Powell, the newly-elected Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, and Clement Jones, a journalist on the Wolverhampton Express and Star, were both on a fast track to promotion. Powell became a cabinet minister, and my father became the editor of his local evening newspaper.
The Jones and the Powells were friends, but as the impact of the 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was felt throughout the nation, it also triggered a traumatic end of a close family friendship.
While the news cycle was far less frenetic in the 1960s, my father used to say that he in effect became Powell’s first spin doctor. A key strategy in the New Labour playbook of Peter Mandelson, and later Alastair Campbell, was the art of trailing in advance a speech or new policy in order to win the attention of the news media, precisely the kind of techniques that my father had been advising Powell to adopt.
Leading commentators and biographers have asserted that the MP had no prior inkling of the outcry, or racial tension, that would be provoked by his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Far from it, according to my father: Powell had crafted the speech for maximum effect, even predicting the furore that would follow.
Powell, like Farage and Trump before him, was an outsider, and in the late 1960s he tended to operate outside the constraints of the Conservative Party’s publicity machine, determined to continue pitching himself as a potential future party leader.
The essence of my father’s advice to Powell was that to create maximum impact he had to prepare the ground in advance, and that required an understanding of the tricks of the journalist’s trade.
On weekend visits home in the early 1960s, I was often intrigued to find my father and Powell talking animatedly for hours. My father was getting an unprecedented insight into Powell’s thinking as a cabinet minister, and later as member of the shadow cabinet; the MP, who lived a few streets away, was clearly eager to learn all he could about the mechanics of news management.
After an unsuccessful bid for the Tory leadership, he was dissatisfied with the way his speeches were being handled by the party machine, and my father was instructing him on the best way to short-circuit Conservative Central Office.
Father’s advice was that a Saturday afternoon was perhaps the most opportune moment to deliver a hard-hitting political speech. Inevitably there had to be a degree of subterfuge and manipulation. The trick was to deliver an embargoed copy of the speech the previous Thursday or Friday to a hand-picked group of political editors and leader writers on Sunday newspapers. They would see the Saturday afternoon embargo and would seize the chance to get a fresh story for their Sunday editions, safe in the knowledge that it had not been trailed or reported in advance by the daily papers.
Needless to say, Powell was meticulous in following my father’s advice. But during visits home in the late 1960s I began to detect signs of a slight uneasiness in the Powell-Jones friendship. Wolverhampton had absorbed a large influx of immigrants, mainly West Indians and Kenyan Asians, and there were increasing fears of racial tension in the town. Powell’s first public reference to these local anxieties was in a speech in Walsall in March 1968 in which he described the concern of a constituent whose daughter was the only white girl in her class at primary school. After both the Express and Star and the Birmingham Evening Mail failed to track down either the child or the class, my father challenged Powell about the story.
Three weeks later, during a subsequent visit to my parents’ home, he told them he was planning another speech at three o’clock that coming Saturday afternoon, to be given to West Midlands Conservatives in Birmingham. He would not go into detail, but made the following tantalising comment:
‘Look Clem, I’m not telling you what is in the speech. But you know how a rocket goes up into the air, explodes into lots of stars and then falls down to the ground. Well, this speech is going to go up like a rocket, and when it gets to the top, the stars are going to stay up.’
According to my father, Powell had followed faithfully his instructions. ‘I never knew, never for one moment dreamed, that was what he was going to say, but, of course, he was very astute. It was impeccably timed.’
Our two families had spent many happy days together on outings and picnics. But my mother was so shocked by the racist tone of the speech that she told my father that she did not want to see Powell ever again. ‘What we both found so offensive was the reference to a little old lady being the only white person in the street, having excrement pushed through her letterbox, being surrounded by grinning piccaninnies shouting abuse at her.’
The following week was a searing experience for my father as editor of the Express and Star. ‘From the Tuesday through to the end of the week, I had ten, fifteen to twenty bags full of readers’ letters; 95 per cent were pro-Enoch.’
Few provincial editors have had to face a stiffer test of their duty to provide balanced coverage. ‘In each edition, we gave over a couple of pages to them but we had to scrape, every day, to try to find a few balancing letters. ‘I had people ringing me at home, all sorts of hours, saying: “Oh, is that the bloody nigger lover?” Just like that. I had a couple of windows broken at home.’
My father’s principled stand came at a price. Powell began libel proceedings against the Sunday Times which had accused him of spouting ‘the fantasies of racial purity’ and a ‘gagging writ’ was extended to include the Express and Star.
Three months later – to my surprise – my father, at the age of 55, announced early retirement. It was only after Powell’s death in February 1998 (long after my mother’s death in 1991) that he finally talked freely, and I understood my parents’ anguish at the time.
I have no doubt that if Powell and my father were alive today, their discussions about the ever-changing interface between politicians and the news media would be as intense as they were fifty years ago.