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Enoch Powell’s ghost and bigotry still haunt modern Britain

We are better than Enoch Powell – but, as recent events show, not by as much as we think.

Image: Enoch Powell, Allan Warren/Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

To mark its 50th anniversary, on Saturday the BBC controversially broadcast Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in full for the first time, recreated by actor Ian McDiarmid.

Powell, then Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West and Shadow Secretary of Defence, argued the case that immigration from the Commonwealth was irreversibly changing Britain for the worse. His speech took place only days after Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

So what of the BBC programme, Archive on Four, itself? It included numerous critical voices. But it opened with presenter (and BBC Media Editor) Amol Rajan describing Powell as a ‘titan’ - and one of the great post-war politicians in Britain, alongside Clement Attlee, Roy Jenkins and Margaret Thatcher. Powell’s official biographer Simon Heffer then called him ‘a great national statesman.’

Labour MP David Lammy, referring to Powell’s incendiary prediction that “the black man will have the whip hand”, said the language was that of “slavery reversed”. Former Tory MP Matthew Parris thought that the speech was “intemperate” and filled with “evident racism”. Former Labour MP Peter Hain observed that the continual use of ‘classical language’ (the speech notoriously ended with Powell invoking Virgil, ‘Aeneid’ and the destruction of Rome with the river Tiber “foaming with much blood”) gave “a cloak of legitimacy” to racism. Simon Heffer did try to make the pro-Powell argument that he was “not making a racist speech”, but all the evidence wise suggested this is exactly what it was – a racist speech, filled with hate and a lack of the most basic humanity for the people he was describing as the problem.

Much that was important was left unsaid. One such area was the extent to which Powell’s othering of fellow British citizens and racial paranoia had a distinctively English dimension. This seemed one of the great questions left untouched in the programme. Was Powell tapping into and articulating a very English story and one which had deep roots in the English imagination, a yearning not only for the return of the nation, but for Empire and imperialism. After all, Powell was questioning US intentions, as well as European ones.

This terrain and Powell’s pursuit of dogmatic logic led him into blind corners – in 1970 he argued that West Indians and Asians could not be English, saying “The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman.” This is even more of a race barrier than Norman Tebbit’s cricket text of Englishness. It’s explicitly about whiteness and undoubtedly a racist argument.

One defence of Powell at the time was that the views he expressed had popular resonance, with 1,000 dockers marching on Parliament and 20,000 letters received within days. Reality pointed to a more complex situation. A ‘Panorama’ survey in 1968 of ‘white voters’ found 82% wanted further controls on immigration; 74% agreed with voluntary repatriation but only 35% thought repatriation should be compulsory; and 55% thought that Powell has worsened race relations.

50 years on, Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ future has not materialized in Britain, and his deep racial and cultural pessimism has been shown to be wrong. For all the divisions and injustices of contemporary Britain, we are much more at ease with race, ethnicity and multi-culturalism than his apocalyptic vision foretold. A contemporary survey for British Future found 91% of people felt comfortable if their work colleagues were of a different race, and 81% felt comfortable if a boyfriend/girlfriend of one of their children was of a different race and 19% uncomfortable. The highest ‘Powellite’ figure was the 21% uncomfortable with the idea of a UK Prime Minister of a different race, with 79% comfortable.

Where Powell was a political pioneer was in what became known as Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher often acknowledged the debt and influence she owed to Powell as an intellectual, and his role in creating some of the wider climate which allowed her ideas to take root and revolution to succeed. Thatcherism in many respects was Powellism minus the incendiary language and obsession with race.

Then there’s his most notable legacy: Brexit. Powell’s worldview was of an United Kingdom self-governing, expressing the maximum possible national sovereignty, and divorced from the EU. In this Powell was the father of the Eurosceptic tradition that has produced Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan, Nigel Farage and others, who have articulated a fraudulent, mythical and unachievable interpretation of sovereignty. What the likes of Farage have done, more effectively than Powell, is to effectively marry together the two parts of the message: sovereignty and paranoid anxieties about immigration, as exemplified by the slogan ‘Taking Back Control’ and the ‘Breaking Point’ poster. Brexit supporters have sadly succeeded in their championing of a simplistic binary identity - either/or, British or European - with long lasting detrimental consequences.

It says much about contemporary Britain’s tensions and pressure points that the broadcast of the Powell speech caused such a furore. Andrew Adonis, Labour peer, even went as far as to state that Ofcom should intervene and instruct the BBC not to broadcast the speech on the grounds that it is ‘incendiary and racist’. Even if the programme were to be as Adonis described, would anyone really want to live in a country where the BBC could be told what to and what not to broadcast by a regulator?

The weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Powell speech have also illustrated the strength of reactionary, exclusionary Britain. A national scandal has exploded about Home Office intentions to deport people who have lived decades in this country. These are people who have lived two to three generations in the UK, and whose only ‘failing’ is that they are the Windrush immigrants who came to the UK from Caribbean from 1948 onward and were subsequently given an automatic permanent right to remain. Now the Home Office has decided that people who have contributed all their adult working lives to the UK are not ‘British’.

This has brought outrage from many people including twelve Caribbean Commonwealth High Commissioners who signed a joint statement of protest, asked for a meeting with Downing Street, and who were publically refused until it was politically too costly to resist. Who would have thought modern Britain and its government could stoop so low? Would Powell have objected to this amorality or embraced it as the logical consequence of his racial obsessions and lack of humanity? I think anyone being honest can work out where Powell’s argument would take him.

Some of the rage against the BBC over its decision to profile this speech was misplaced, but there is a strange thinking in giving such airtime to one infamous speech which turned out to be so wrong and to give it a special status which other more influential speeches haven’t been awarded. Political speeches such as Nye Bevan on Labour setting up the NHS in 1948, Harold Wilson and ‘the white heat of the scientific revolution’ and ‘the new Britain’ of 1963, or Margaret Thatcher and her ‘the lady’s not for turning’ speech of 1981, are all if not more noteworthy, certainly more influential and succeeded in remaking the political mood.

The Britain portrayed by Powell in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech never came about or even near, but the debate about its anniversary and the ‘Archive on 4’ programme, tells us that something is amiss which should concern us all. We have lost the ability to argue, debate and define the limits of permissible debate, with different sides trying to delegitimise political opponents: take the example of the heat both the BBC and Channel 4 News (and presenter Cathy Newman) faced over giving a platform to Canadian controversialist Jordan Peterson (as well as the sexist abuse Newman faced for daring to challenge Peterson).

While we like to think we have matured and are more attuned to sensitive language than the Britain of 1968, we still live in a culture which tolerates and excuses racism. In Powell’s infamous speech he shamefully described black children in Wolverhampton as “wide-grinning piccaninnies”. But the current UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has also spoken of “flag-waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles” – yet he is still defended by his supporters. On BBC Question Time last Thursday, UK Government minister Jo Johnson (brother to Boris), in response to being challenged by The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland about these remarks of Boris’s, said that his brother “does not have a racist bone in his body”. Such is the way we all to this day are diminished by apologies for racism.

Powell’s speech still touches difficult issues. We have changed - but not as much as some like to imagine. We still live in the shadow of Powell’s racism and lack of humanity and still have to grow up and learn how to deal with difference and race. This feels like an uncomfortable and pessimistic truth. We are better than Enoch Powell, but not by as much as we think.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic on Scottish and UK politics, power, democracy and social change. He has written or edited over two dozen books including Scotland the Bold and the newly published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On (edited with Simon Barrow). His writing can be found at: www.gerryhassan.com

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