Cabinet 'played it cool' over Powell

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The Independent Online
IMMIGRATION WAS the most inflammatory domestic issue of 1968, with the Labour Government terrified it would lead to violence and unrest.

In February, Harold Wilson rushed through controversial legislation to stop immigration by UK passport holders in East Africa. Then in April came the Tory politician Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, disowned even by his own party leader, Edward Heath.

Documents released today show that the prime ministerwas anxious to "play it cool" over the decision not to prosecute Mr Powell for incitement. His speech to West Midlands Conservatives provoked outrage with its inflammatory references to immigration beinglike a nation "heaping up its own funeral pyre".

The address came at a time of growing sensitivity to racial issues as Asian immigrants fled East Africa. He warned of the "national danger", adding the infamous lines: "As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the river Tiber foaming with much blood'."

Within three days the decision had been taken not to prosecute Mr Powell under the 1965 Race Relations Act.

The mood of the British people was one of mounting opposition to immigration, one that the Wilson government felt impelled to take on board.

Documents show that the decision to rush through legislation to cut back on the numbers of immigrants caused a serious cabinet row.

Proposals for the legislation were introduced by James Callaghan, who was then the home secretary, at a cabinet meeting on 15 February. He said the change was needed to deal with four immigration problems. The first to crack down on the clandestine entry of illegal immigrants; the second to stop the entry of children under the age of 16 to single parents; and the third to require immigrants to undertake health checks.

But it was the fourth item that has remained a blot on the history of the Wilson government. This proposed legislation to cease the right of foreign-born Commonwealth citizens to have automatic right of entry to Britain.

A cabinet debate then followed in which the strongest opponent was George Thomson. Mr Wilson summed up the debate by saying he felt the cabinet was not ready to make a decision, but a decision would have to be taken a week later.

However, by the time of the next cabinet meeting, Mr Wilson was taking a much harder line and clearly a great deal of behind-the-scenes political pressure had been brought on his ministers. The Bill was passed the next day and given royal assent inside a week.