Some may now hail the legacy of Enoch Powell's British nationalism, but his pessimistic vision was a recipe for greater strife, argues Sunder Katwala.
UKIP - the United Kingdom Independence Party - is led by Nigel Farage who has become the modernising voice within his Eurosceptic party. His party conference message in early September got little coverage. But he insisted that UKIP needed a more positive vision of Britain's 'sceptic future:"I think we have got to change some of the things that we have been saying and some of the things that we have been doing. Because I think too often it's been easy to characterise UKIP as people who just knock and knock and knock and knock. We have not been offering good positive alternatives.
Now he has given an interview to the new British magazine Total Politics. It shows how uncomfortably his mission of shedding his party's image as an organisation of backward-looking naysayers sits oddly with Farage's nomination of Enoch Powell as his political hero.
The impact of immigration is back in Britain's headlines. The new Minister Phil Woolas taking a good deal of flak for talking about the need to restrict immigration in a downturn. Woolas may have got the tone wrong, but a recession will surely affect immigration flows and government policy too. Picking up on this, the writer Paul Kingsnorth, a progressive critic of globalisation, challenges the idea that the correct left-liberal position is "open borders". He is right. Social democrats take a liberal position on cultural diversity, but need to manage migration so that it does not exacerbate inequalities. We need a politics of solidarity to protect standards and avoid exploitation at the bottom. However Kingsnorth's quest for a progressive Englishness could be fatally undermined by his ugly language of "shipping in millions of cheap foreigners ripe for exploitation in order to keep the markets happy". The language of swamping continues to derail a rational migration debate.
This goes back to Enoch Powell. Nigel Farage has said that his nomination reflects Powell's insistence on British self-government, not the infamous Rivers of Blood speech which came to dominate his career and legacy. Farage is right in claiming that Powell was more liberal than most of his party in voting for the suspension of the death penalty from 1955 and being one of only four Tory frontbenchers to vote for the 1967 bill which legalised homosexuality.
Perhaps it would be possible to idolise Powell but reject his views on immigration and race relations. But Farage does not do that.
He says:"I would never say that Powell was racist in any way at all. Had we listened to him, we would have much better race relations now than we have got".
In my view, Farage simply can not sincerely mean that British race relations would be better had Powell’s advice been acted upon. That would be among the most reactionary arguments possible in British politics in 2008 and incompatible with mainstream politics.
But Farage is a Eurosceptic, not an extremist. And I am not sure this is best explained as the politics of the "dog whistle" either. In his interview with Iain Dale, Farage talks of rebuilding his party around libertarian principles and is candid about an entryist threat from the BNP which he is determined to face down.
I suspect Farage means something fairly commonplace like "we should have discussed immigration more, and done more to restrict post-war immigration in recent decades". But here he falls for a common Enoch myth: that Powell simply sought greater public scrutiny about what level of immigration could sensibly be accommodated - and that he was ignored in this.
Wrong on both counts. The frequent claim that Powell’s speech led to a closing down of political discussion of immigration - "forty years of silence" where the political elite dared not act - is demonstrably false. Powell had considerable success in framing public debate about immigration control, and significant legislation restrict immigration was passed in 1968, 1971 and 1981.
But the Powellite prescription went much further than this. He argued, in all seriousness, that a failure to make "the minimum inflow and maximum outflow" of new Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants the most urgent priority would be a simple matter of national suicide.
Relatively few people now reading his 1968 Birmingham speech would disagree with Tory leader Ted Heath's judgement at the time that the speech was "racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions". But it was Powell's less well known speech – his next speech on immigration, seven months later in Eastbourne - which set out most clearly his own prescription for solving the immigration problem.
And this lesser known speech sets out clearly what "listening" to Enoch would have meant.
(1) It was a fiction to believe that the British-born descendants of African and Asian orgin could be full members of the national political community.The fundamental mistake had been the 1948 British Nationality Act - the tragic failure of the nation to provide "a law defining its own people"."Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still. Unless he be one of the small minority, he will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States"
In his own terms, Powell was not racist. He consistently argued that racial categories did not have any meaning, so could not believe in a hierarachy of racial groups. But what he did believe in was nation: here he was a cultural essentialist. Citizenship was about inheritance, tradition and the bonds of "kith and kin". So Powell did not think that Commonwealth immigrants of African and Asian descent were inferior but he was quite clear they were incompatible.
(2) By 1968, zero net immigration was the minor part of Powell’s policy. The priority had to be on a national mission of repatriation, to reverse the damage.
He said:"People seriously underestimate the scope of the policy and thus neglect and despise the chief key to the situation .... A programme of large-scale voluntary but organized, financed and subsidized repatriation and re-emigration becomes indeed an administrative and political task of great magnitude, but something neither absurdly impracticable nor, still less, inhuman, but on the contrary as profoundly humane as it is far-sighted ... The resettlement of a substantial proportion of the Commonwealth immigrants in Britain is not beyond the resources and abilities of this country, if it is undertaken as a national duty …. organized now on the scale which the urgency of the situation demands, preferably under a special Ministry for Repatriation or other authority charged with concentrating on this task".
So Powell felt that an honourable Dunkirk style spirit could unite the sent back and those sending them. This was perhaps characteristic of the high minded classical scholar, who appeared genuinely shocked at "Enoch was right" and "send them back" being appropriated as slogans by NF thugs on the streets.
(3) Powell's vision was, in effect, similar to that of those who wanted an all white Britain, though he argued always on grounds of national identity, never race. Note the chilling tone of this passage, in which he acknowledges that it is probably too late to prevent an alien presence in Britain of a million or more Commonwealth-descended citizens for years to come."We can perhaps not reduce the eventual total of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population, much, if at all, below its present size: with that, and with all that implies, we and our children and our children’s children will have to cope until the slow mercy of the years absorbs even that unparalleled invasion of our body politic".
The point of listening to Powell would have been to have no race relations at all. By 1968, this consciously reactionary Powellism was surely a recipe for greater strife, and not its antidote.
David Marquand’s Britain since 1918, the strange career of British democracy highlights the battle for the soul of Conservatism between the whiggish ability to adapt to change and a strident Tory Nationalism.
What Powell offers is the Tory Nationalism of catastrophic pessimism. It is always 1940 with the nation facing a further existential crisis – yet we consistently ignore the prophet and step over the precipice to disaster. So Powell experienced the Independence of India as a ‘spiritual amputation’ and a betrayal which ended our imperial destiny. That meant the nation must come home – yet the 1948 British Nationality Act heralded the death of nationhood. The European Communities Act is the end of Parliamentary Democracy; the treachery of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is the betrayal of the Union.
Even the urgent warning of 1968 to a nation building its own funeral pyre was ignored. And so those embers have long since burnt out.
For all of these reasons, we have long been politically dead – yet we carry on as though we were not.
Powell’s was a vision of the nation which could not be rescued by mere withdrawal from the European Union. If Nigel Farage is serious about a positive future vision of Euroscepticism, he will need a different guide than Enoch Powell.
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