Obituary of Enoch Powell, Socialist Review, No.217, March 1998, p.12.
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Everyone who wrote about him was certain of one thing: Enoch Powell was not a racist. He ‘said things we didn’t agree with’ (Tony Blair). He was ‘an extreme nationalist, but not a racialist’ (Denis Healey). He inspired racialists ‘but was not a racialist himself’ (Tony Benn). The Tory papers which revered him and called for parliament to be prorogued in his memory would not contemplate the possibility that he was a racialist. The unanimity was complete. Which is all very odd because the most important thing by far about Enoch Powell was that he was a racist pig of the most despicable variety.
The point is easily proved. In a private speech to lobby correspondents some years before he started speaking in public on immigration, he said, ‘Often when I am kneeling down in church I think to myself how much we should thank god, the holy ghost, for the gift of capitalism.’ Powell believed in capitalism just as a religious nut believes in the holy ghost. When fighting elections in Wolverhampton he would spell out the ‘simple choice’ between ‘free enterprise and a planned society’. He gloried in what he called the symmetry of capitalism. Ponderously, with a deliberate form of speech which many mistook for careful thought, he explained how the market drove and inspired the capitalist economy to ever higher summits of perfection. There was only one condition: that capital should be left to find its own place and its own direction.
It followed naturally that if free moving capital were to be allowed the full thrust of its energy, labour must be free to follow. The free movement of labour was therefore as vital a plank of capitalism as was the free movement of capital. ‘Pettifogging bureaucracy’ must be cleared out of the way of rampant capitalism – and of the docile and happy labourers who were pleased to follow. Thus in Powell’s early speeches in the House of Commons in the 1950s, his talk was all of free enterprise. In his first 11 years as an MP there was no control on empire or commonwealth immigration into Britain. Theoretically 600 million people could come to the ‘mother country’ and settle here without restraint. Powell could see nothing wrong in that, in theory. When someone raised the matter with him at a meeting in Wolverhampton in 1956, he spoke out against imposing controls on immigration. During the arguments about the first Commonwealth Immigration Control Act in 1960 and 1961 Powell was minister of health. His department sent emissaries to the West Indies to recruit nurses and ancillary workers for the National Health Service. When he fought the 1964 general election, and loyally supported his government’s immigration control acts, he concentrated still on a ‘pure’ capitalist argument which saw no difference in workers with different coloured skins. ‘I have set and always will set my face like flint’, he said in a sudden rush of the portentous rhetoric for which he was famous, ‘against making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on grounds of his origin.’
All this was theory, pure theory which needed to be tested by practice. And the first big test for Powell was the undoubted fact, which he could see with his own eyes, that an increasing number of people in the two places he knew well – London and Wolverhampton – were black. They were not just black visitors to goggle at nor black maharajahs to remind him of his time in the Indian army, but black workers and their families, spreading all over what Powell continually called ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. If he had been true to his ideology, Powell might have glossed over this fact, perhaps even welcomed it. But he could not be true to his ideology. It conflicted with a passion stronger even than his belief in pure capitalism: a passion for empire, and with it an incontrovertible belief that the white man was ordained by god to conquer and control the world which was populated mainly by inferior black people. Enoch Powell was, in short, a racist to his bones.
It was, he concluded, utterly shocking that these black people should have been allowed into the country at all. As he started, slowly at first, to articulate this conclusion, he noticed something else. Large numbers of people shared his prejudices and rejoiced to hear them legitimised by a front-ranking politician. In 1965 Powell stood for the leadership of the Tory Party against Edward Heath and Reginald Maudling and was humiliated with only 15 votes. He was out of office and out in the cold. From 1967, when he first made a racist speech in Walsall, he realised he could get endless publicity and undreamt of popularity by mouthing his racist prejudices. He launched himself on a racist campaign culminating in his notorious speech in Birmingham in April 1968.
The speech pretended to deal with reality but in fact dealt only in myth. Racist myths were common at the time. Stories passed from area to area about the crime, filth and sexual licence of black people. Politicians steered clear of these myths which were kept away from the public arena. Powell devoted his entire speech to them. A woman in his constituency, so he had heard, had excreta pushed through her letter box and was then hounded by ‘grinning piccaninnies’ who shouted, ‘Racialist!’ at her. The blacks were preparing for power and within 20 years would have ‘the whip hand in this country’. Almost licking his lips, he looked forward to race riots.
The effect of his speech was to unblock a racist sewer and send it swirling freely through public life. The word went round – if Enoch Powell MP said these things, they must be true! Dockers marched in his support (though the racist campaign in the docks soon died out). Floods of letters poured into Powell at the House of Commons. When the Sunday Times denounced him as a racialist, he sued for libel. The paper demanded discovery of all the letters he got after his speech. He promptly dropped the case. The letters proved that the effect of his speech was to whip up the vilest racism.
Powell went on with this racism all his life. There was no satisfying his racist appetite. When immigration slowed to nothing, he demanded repatriation. He extended his colour prejudice to anti-European racism and then to Catholics in Northern Ireland. Whatever else he ever said is drowned out for posterity by the grim cacophony of his racism.
‘The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.’ Mark Anthony’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar gets it exactly wrong. Quite the opposite is usually true. The evil that Powell did was interred with his bones by almost all his obituaries. But it is important for us to remember the awful damage caused by his disgusting campaign, if only to prepare for the next racist demagogue to come along, and to shut him up.
Last updated on 27.11.2004