Published on Sunday, 08 July 2012 17:53 Written by Adam Carter
On the centenary of the anniversary of Enoch Powell’s birth came the expected flurry of media activity. In the Daily Telegraph, blogs by Ed West, Peter Oborne and Brendan O’Neill sought to differing extents to rehabilitate Powell. Over at the Daily Mail Simon Heffer, author of a lengthy and very sympathetic biography of Powell, used his column to praise his hero while Adrian Hilton focused on the new book Enoch at 100 (Biteback Publishers), edited by Lord Howard of Rising, which features contributions on Powell from Conservative thinkers such as the philosopher Roger Scruton, Tory peer Michael Forsyth, historian Andrew Roberts and former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith (Searchlight will review the book next month).
The case for Powell’s defence among those who wish to rehabilitate him tends to concentrate on his education and erudition, ability to speak multiple languages and his contributions to other political debates – he was an early Eurosceptic and an advocate of the free market monetarism which came to characterise Thatcherite economic policy. Where his contentious views on race and immigration are concerned, apologists such as Heffer deny all charges of racism levelled against Powell. They will mention his war service fighting the Nazis, his passionate speech denouncing the murder of 11 Kenyans and the attempted cover-up by the British in 1959, and his colonialist affection towards India (Powell dreamed of being made Viceroy).
All of these are true but it is also true that intelligent men in public life must bear responsibility for their own words and actions and the consequences that stem from them. If one reads Powell’s famous speech today, one can see that it was powerful and artfully constructed with memorable phrase-making and skilful use of rhetorical flourishes such as the anecdotes of ‘ordinary people’. It was undoubtedly clever but it was also, as I discuss in more detail below, undoubtedly racist in construction and intent. It led in the short term to increased racial violence against Britain’s black and Asian communities and in the longer term it provided overt racists with an air of legitimacy and an intellectual framework for their prejudice which has unfortunately continued to influence public debate on this sensitive issue.
Re-reading the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech
The speech was made on 20 April (the anniversary of Hitler’s birth) 1968 in Birmingham and (which is often overlooked) was one of three that Powell made on the subject of race that year. Powell, who at that time was Shadow Defence Secretary and Tory MP for Wolverhampton, had first criticised the government’s immigration strategy in a speech in Walsall in February, but the media ignored it. Powell was determined that would not happen again. He briefed the media (although not the party leadership) in the run-up to the April speech to ensure the widest possible publicity and brought all his oratorical skills to the fore. The cleverness of Powell’s speech when one reads it today is that it works on several levels – in brief (1) it adopts the populist tone of the ordinary working man, (2) it highlights the most inflammatory words supposedly spoken to him, (3) it switches the blame for racism from the perpetrators to the victims, (4) it creates the myth of the oppressed white minority being the victims of racism, (5) it regards integration as impossible, (6) it opines that the solution to immigration is not improved race relations but a numbers game, (7) a ‘race war’ may well be inevitable. Each of these seven factors have been rhetorical techniques and specious arguments used ever since by organised racists.
By constructing the speech around a series of encounters between Powell and his constituents, it purports to be the voice of the ‘decent ordinary working man (or woman)’. This allowed Powell to adopt a populist tone which would have a wide appeal to the working class, who could identify with these constituents, and to distance himself from charges of racism using the defence that he was merely reporting the genuine fears of his correspondents. There is, of course, considerable doubt about whether the constituents genuinely existed (the press were never able to identify them) other than in Powell’s imagination but by rooting the speech in supposed real-world examples it gave the wider discussion of policy and politics a powerful empathetic and non-rational immediacy.
Powell also underlined the emotional impact by choosing to ‘quote’ the most inflammatory language possible: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man … She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.” As an intelligent master of language, Powell must have known that this was crude race-baiting rather than composed reflection on social problems and public policy.
Blaming the victims
Powell claimed (based on no evidence) that the majority of immigrants did not want to integrate into British society. Unsurprisingly he also opposed the incoming race relations legislation which would prevent discrimination. In fact, rather than addressing the real racism directed against the new immigrants, Powell turned this on its head and tried to claim that it was actually the majority white population that was the threatened minority: “they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted”. Powell switched the blame from the perpetrators of racism and onto the victims of racism: “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 and are still coming.”
Powell’s solution was repatriation “promoting the maximum outflow” by “the encouragement of re-emigration” which he falsely claimed was Tory party policy. Powell was the first prominent politician to discuss repatriation although he did not use the term until his speech in Eastbourne in 1968.
The final and best known rhetorical flourish, influenced by the recent ‘race riots’ in the US, was Powell’s predictions of inevitable ‘race war’ in his gloomy prognostication: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. This infamous section of Powell’s speech actually became a self-fulfilling prophecy as violent racists felt empowered and legitimated by his rhetoric and, in the days and weeks after the widespread media coverage of his speech, there were numerous attacks on ethnic minorities. Many black and Asian Britons have since talked about how they suddenly felt threatened and intimidated in the immediate aftermath of Powell’s provocative speechmaking.
This is the sad truth of Powell’s legacy for race relations. An intelligent and articulate public figure provided succour to bigots of every type from those wishing to ‘rationalise’ discrimination to vulgar street thugs. He was rejected by the Conservative Party when Prime Minister Edward Heath bravely sacked him from the Front Bench and his erroneous arguments and discourse were adopted by the recently formed National Front for which he provided a considerable boost in terms of support and apparent validity. However Powell rejected overtures to become involved with the NF and his own supporting organisation Powellight, established in the early 1970s and run by veteran far-right activist and former wartime intelligence agent Bee Carthew, never amounted to more than a few hundred supporters even if some of them were later influential and well-known.
But rather than his organisational influence, it was Powell’s use of his formidable gifts to foment and legitimise racial hatred that should be his poisonous legacy. In the words of A. Sivanandan, one of Britain’s leading thinkers on racism, “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.”
Every time that the English Defence League claim that they are not racist but speaking up for the white English because no one else does, or the British National Party march under the slogan “rights for whites” or the NF advocate repatriation, or ‘traditionalists’ outline their apocalyptic fears about multiculturalism, or right-wing populists claim to be speaking for the ‘ordinary working man’ on immigration, they are consciously, or not, harking back to arguments articulated most memorably and perniciously by Enoch Powell. His views on race and immigration have no place in Britain in the 21st Century. They didn’t have any place in Britain in the 20th Century either.
Despite much work still to be done, ongoing tensions in some areas and continued attempts by racists to divide us, Britain is undoubtedly a multiracial society where many non-white people are as British as their white counterparts and people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures work and live together harmoniously. Every day British society proves that Enoch was wrong.
- Brown, Andy R. (1999): 'The other day I met a constituent of mine': a theory of anecdotal racism, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22:1, 23-55
- Fry, Geoffrey K (1998): Parliament and ‘morality’: Thatcher, Powell and Populism, Contemporary British History, 12:1, 139-147
- Heffer, Simon: Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)
- Hillman, Nicholas (2008): A ‘chorus of execration’? Enoch Powell's ‘rivers of blood’ forty years on, Patterns of Prejudice, 42:1, 83-104
- Shepherd, Robert: Enoch Powell: A Biography (Hutchinson, 1996)