The beatification of Enoch Powell
November 21, 2007 — Comment
Written by Jenny Bourne
Attempts are being made to rehabilitate Enoch Powell’s reputation.
Mark my words, between now and next April (forty years since the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech) we are going to witness a rehabilitation of Enoch Powell. It has already begun. Television companies are busy preparing those in-depth, talking-head documentaries, radio programmes are taking him up on spots where listeners can suggest the subjects, columnists are at the ready.
In the last two months, Simon Heffer and Michael Portillo have provided the redemption songs. Simon Heffer is one of Powell’s biographers and quite clearly besotted with the man he terms ‘the most influential politician of the post-war period’. He is furious about the removal of ‘racist’ Nigel Hastilow as Tory candidate for Halesowen (because he said Powell was right on immigration), if only for the slur on Powell. For Powell was, according to Heffer, no racist. He ‘was as much a racist as Mother Teresa of Calcutta’, he writes (in the Telegraph on 7 November in an article titled ‘When will Tories admit that Enoch was right?’). Read the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, he urges people, you won’t find the word ‘race’ used once. Heffer seems to rise in defence of Powell at every turn. On a recent Radio Four programme he cavilled about whether Powell advocated repatriation. Compulsory repatriation, he asserted, was the programme of the National Front, not of Powell. And Powell’s reputation as a racist populist was probably created by the popularity of the Alf Garnet character (in ‘Till Death us do Part’).
Portillo’s line (in the Sunday Times of 2 September) is that nothing has transformed post-war Britain as much as immigration. And yet politicians are, because of Powell’s bombshell, not allowed to discuss it. ‘His choice of language was explosive’, ‘his foreboding’ was ‘apocalyptic’ but Powell’s choice of subject – immigration – was quite right then and he is still proved right today by contemporary immigration issues. In other words the message was right, but the medium was wrong.
The medium was the message
On the contrary, the medium was the message. It was the way that he talked, the metaphors he chose, the cadences and rhythms, the apocryphal stories from constituents, the references to personal responsibility, the quotations, the blood and gore, appeal to buried feelings of folklorishness, that made his speeches on ‘race’ (there were in fact three in 1968 and many beyond) so momentous and resonant. The medium was the message, and the message became, to mix a metaphor, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The point that is missed by almost every commentator to date is that Powell, though he might have echoed sentiments of his West Midlands voters, actually went on to create the Rivers of Blood he warned against. The blood shed was not that of the White English – clearly what Powell feared in the wake of US ‘race riots’ in the late 1960s – but of the Black newcomers, which is why it went largely unreported. For following every speech by Powell on immigration, came alarmist newspaper headlines, followed by a spate of attacks on immigrants – mostly Asians – in the poorer areas of inner cities. Much of what became known as Paki-bashing can be traced to the impact of his speeches. For example after the April 1968 speech, a gang of white youths armed with bars attacked Asian youths outside a Southall school and attacks were reported in London’s East End. Some eight years later, Powell still had a similar impact. After ‘leaking’ in June 1976 in a Commons speech, a supposedly ‘suppressed’ Foreign Office report on ‘bogus’ dependants and wives from the Asian subcontinent, which was then headlined in the Daily Express and the Mirror, a series of serious attacks took place. A West Indian mother in Poplar was attacked, two students – one Indian, one Jordanian – were stabbed to death in Woodford, a pregnant West Indian woman was kicked on the street by police in Brixton and an Asian youth was stabbed to death by a White gang in Southall.
Much space has been given over to working out Powell’s motives and no doubt there will be more of it in the lead-up to April 2008. Was he an opportunist? Why did he wait so long to speak out on the subject? Was he a lover of Empire or of Little England or of both? Was he a hypocrite, since he had ‘imported’ foreign nurses when a health minister? Did the people he quoted in his speeches actually ever exist? Was he just influenced by events in the USA, was it the imminent race relations act or perhaps the spectre of thousands of East African Asian immigrants? Was it because his Sikh constituents refused to remove their turbans when working in the transport industry? Was it because he had squandered his hopes of ‘legitimate’ political advancement? Was it to get even with Tory colleagues he despised? Was he sincere in what he said? …. and so on. Really it matters not a jot. In the final analysis it was his impact, not his motives, that mattered.
Racism is what racism does
‘Racism is as racism does,’ wrote A. Sivanandan. ‘Enoch Powell changed the parameters of the race debate in Britain both in Parliament and in the country at large, and gave a fillip to popular racism that made the lives of black people hell. He brought scholarship and reason to white working-class fears and prejudices and, by stirring up the basest emotions with messianic oratory, drove London dockers and meat porters to march on Parliament to demand the immediate repatriation of ‘the coloureds’, who were taking their jobs, their homes, their daughters … He took the shame out of middle-class racism … and to the genteel racism of the haute bourgeoisie, he brought the comforting message that … there were still the lesser breeds.’
At the parliamentary political level Powell institutionalised what became known as the ‘numbers game’. His emphasis on numbers – how many immigrants were coming in, how many dependants were coming, how fast they were breeding and how fast dependants would breed – was to lead to the Dutch auction between the two main parties as to which could be tougher on keeping numbers down. As Sivanandan went on to say, ‘What Powell says today, the Tories say tomorrow and Labour legislates on the day after.’
But let us do what Heffer urges and examine that April 1968 Birmingham speech because it is most instructive. Of course he is right in that you won’t find the word racism there at all. (The extreme Right always argues on the basis that to prove racism one must show a biological inferiority argument akin to a fascist belief.) And of course you find the basis of the numbers game, which was to dominate politics for the next decades. But, interestingly, what one also finds are the racist arguments that the far Right, especially the Thatcherites, were to enunciate years later.
Powell fixed all the new racist arguments
Firstly: integration is impossible. ‘To imagine that [the idea of integration] enters the heads of a great and growing number of immigrants … is a ludicrous misconception and a dangerous one’. Why? Because they insist on keeping their customs. Powell actually means assimilation when he says integration and goes on to quote approvingly John Stonehouse who bemoans the Sikhs’ ‘campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain … [for] to claim communal rights … leads to a dangerous fragmentation within society.’ Not only are the immigrants opposed to ‘integration’ but also ‘their numbers and physical concentration’ mean ‘the pressures towards integration which normally bear upon any small minority do not operate.’
Second: lack of integration will naturally lead to race hatred. ‘That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic … is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.’
Third: Whites are the real, effective victims three-times over – by being robbed physically, culturally and morally. They were suffering shortages in their own areas. ‘They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places.’ And ‘They found themselves made strangers in their own country’. ‘Whole areas, towns and parts of towns in England will be occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population.’ White ‘homes and neighbourhoods [were] changed beyond recognition’. Whites felt that their land had been taken away from them. ‘The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and of resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come.’ But they were also to be victimised by race laws that trammelled personal freedom. By proposing legislation against racial discrimination, ‘the citizen’ said Powell, was ‘denied his right to discriminate’ and ‘the immigrant’ would ‘be elevated into a privileged or special class’ for it gave ‘the stranger, the disgruntled and the agent-provocateur the power to pillory them for their private actions.’ In fact ‘the black man [would] have the whip hand over the white man’.
Fourth: immigration was a grand conspiracy. It had taken place behind the backs and without the consent of the British people. ‘For reasons which they could not comprehend and in pursuance of a decision by default, upon which they were never consulted.’
Fifth: the answer had to be reducing numbers. And this would be achieved by ‘promoting the maximum outflow’ by ‘the encouragement of re-emigration’. Powell’s assertion in the speech that he was merely advocating current Tory policy was untrue. He was actually the first front bench politician to talk about sending people back – even if he did not use the word repatriation (until his Eastbourne speech in November 1968).
No you cannot find in Powell the kind of racial superiority argument that Heffer et al thinks defines a racist. But you can find a host of other racist arguments about race mixing, cultural contamination and the impossibility of assimilation. And, unfortunately, his influence on race relations for some ten years (directly) and further two decades (indirectly) cannot be over-stated.
But in his rehabilitation, it is the argument of Portillo and others like Ulster Unionist Alex Kane, writing ‘Powell had a point about the integration of immigrants’ (News Letter [Belfast] 12 November), that is likely to prevail. Look how apt his warning is to today’s reality, they say. But they are all hopelessly wrong today as Powell was forty years back. For it is not numbers (of [im]migrants) per se that is a problem. The problem is that immigrants are wanted, they are desperately needed for economic reasons but governments and employers are not prepared to pay the social cost of their immigration. That is why we see today all these government projections about the need for managed migrant and seasonal labour while, at the same time, local authorities are complaining that they do not have enough central government support for the demand for school places, to meet pressures on policing, for creating housing etc.
It is within that contradiction that British people are being confused and sold short, not in a political conspiracy of silence over immigration. In the looming debate about whether Powell was right or wrong, we probably won’t hear from either Right or Left the simple truth that the profit from [im]migrant labour goes to the rich and the costs are borne by the poor.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.