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Amazing how powerful some names can be. Last Friday I mentioned Enoch Powell and suddenly all hell broke loose.
In an article supporting Tory leader David Cameron’s remarks on how uncontrolled immigration would change the country, I mentioned that many people say “Enoch was right”.
I have discovered that this is enough, still, 39 years after the controversial speech which undid him politically, to cause outrage.
A Sunday newspaper put it on the front page and said I was an embarrassment to Cameron. It quoted various people calling for me to be sacked as Conservative parliamentary candidate for Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
The story was duly followed up by the BBC on Sunday. It must have been an exceedingly quiet news day for this piece of flammed-up nonsense from one Sunday paper to be turned into the scandal of the day.
But that’s what happened. I was having lunch with my wife, sister and brother-in-law when Councillor Mary Docker called to say she’d had “The Observer” on wanting to know if I was going to be sacked.
Mary, a Sandwell councillor and chairman of the Halesowen and Rowley Regis Conservatives, was a star. She supported me and said she agreed with what I’d said.
Indeed, she said all I was doing was expressing the views of the people who live in my constituency. That was a good thing for a politician to do so no, she would not be asking for me to resign.
Then the Conservative Party press office came on to me, closely followed by Caroline Spelman herself.
Caroline, the Chairman of the party, didn’t mince her words. She was not happy. My political career was on the line.
I was summoned to meet her on Sunday at 2pm.
I turned the phone off and tried to enjoy a fireworks display with, among others, another senior Conservative.
They said they agreed with everything I’d said; they were just very glad it was me saying it, not them.
I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night and by 4am I was checking out
“The Observer’s” front page via the internet. There I was in all my embarrassing glory.
I had made no mention of race. I said Powell was right to warn that unlimited immigration would change the country dramatically.
But “The Observer” injected race into the article in such a way as to imply that I was a racist who endorsed Enoch Powell’s racism.
Not true but, as some journalists say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
I am still stunned that “The Observer” and the BBC considered this a story at all. It’s not as if I’m a big-wig or that I said anything particularly controversial.
Still, the story had legs and by breakfast time it was on the telly where Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Hain offered up the ideal sound bite for the story to run and run.
I had, he claimed, exposed the racist underbelly of the Conservative Party.
Utter nonsense but a good quote to keep the story going. Along with the news that I was about to be carpeted by the party chairman.
Then various members of the Shadow Cabinet condemned me in public as well so that by the time I arrived at Caroline Spelman’s home in Dorridge, near Solihull, I was pretty sure I was a condemned man.
Caroline herself was charming. She explained how sensitive the immigration issue was and how dangerous it was for the party to be considered racist.
She said that an experienced journalist like me must realise the risks involved in evoking the name Enoch Powell. The Tories strived so hard to avoid being called “the nasty party” any more and raising the spectre of “rivers of blood” was really too much.
I explained I had not written about race but about numbers. That immigration was a problem because Britain could not accommodate more and more people from overseas.
Then she cut to the chase. My political career would survive if I signed a press release drawn up by the party’s chief spin doctor, Andy Coulson.
It included this sentence: “Although I did not — and do not — support Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ comments, I accept that some of the wording of my column was incredibly stupid.”
It went on to talk about the importance of choosing one’s language with care and apologising for any upset.
I was also required to submit any future articles for the Express & Star (or anywhere else) to the Conservative campaign headquarters before submitting them to the editor.
It was this, even more than the “incredibly stupid” line, that I couldn’t stomach. If I’d agreed to this I could have stayed on as the candidate for Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
I was sorely tempted. You don’t lightly throw away all those years working for the party and an opportunity to become an MP.
But I felt that if I were to agree to these demands I would lose not just my honour and integrity but my credibility as both a journalist and politician.
That’s why I resigned. We agreed the licence I have as a journalist to speak freely is not compatible with a politician’s responsibility to stay “on message”.
Caroline was decent enough to say on the BBC last night that it was the honourable thing to do.
I am surprised the Conservative Party is so intimidated by the BBC and
“The Observer” that it must toe the metropolitan line at all costs.
But that’s apparently how politics works these days as I have discovered the hard way.
What has kept me going, though, and gratified me is the enormous number of messages of support I have received from the constituency, the Black Country, Britain and, indeed, from around the world.
I truly believe that if this country is to have a brighter future, we must accept the need, and embrace the right of everyone who lives here, to be free to express their concerns.
Without it destroying their political careers as it seems to have done mine.
[Editor’s Note: BBC’s account of this incident (“Migrant Row Tory Candidate Quits”) can be read here.]
(Posted on November 7, 2007)