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Enoch was wrong: the attempted rehabilitation of a racist

For a man so clever, he brought a lot of misery to a lot of people's lives.

Enoch Powell in 1969
Enoch Powell in 1969. Photograph: Getty Images

On Saturday morning, in an item on Radio 4’s Today programme to mark the centenary of Enoch Powell’s birth, presenter Justin Webb asked Daily Mail writer Simon Heffer, “Was Enoch Powell racist?” Heffer paused for a moment while he pretended to weigh the question up and then replied, inevitably, “No, not at all.”

We live in a time where nobody will admit to being racist, even people who say and write the kind of things that a racist might well say or write. In 2012, if a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan were caught mid-cross-burning, he would swiftly explain that of course he isn’t racist and he has a black friend and he was just drunk and he’s very sorry for any offence caused and obviously racism is a terrible thing. But surely the man famous for the most notorious speech in the history of British race relations can still safely be described as racist?

Apparently not. Heffer, who published a mammoth biography of Powell in 1998, maintained on Today that Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech wasn’t about race at all, but immigration, as if the two could be cleanly separated. I would like to have seen Heffer explain to one of the black families persecuted after Powell’s speech that the issue wasn’t the colour of their skin — oh dearie me, no — but their presence in Britain. I’m sure the distinction would have cheered them up as they scrubbed the graffiti from their front door. (Inconveniently for Heffer, fellow guest Michael Cockerell remembered Powell telling him. “What’s wrong with racism? Racism is the basis of nationality.” Oops.)

Heffer went on to point out that Powell loved India and had hoped, pre-independence, to be appointed viceroy. See, he loved brown people so much he wanted to be their colonial overseer! He mentioned that Powell read ancient Greek at the age of 15 and could speak 14 languages, at one point stuttering the mantra, “He was a very clever man,” as if racism were the exclusive domain of the stupid. I wonder if he’s ever seen this clip from The Simpsons:

Webb somewhat apologetically suggested that the speech might have been “pretty incautious” but declined to press the point, and the item ended with everyone laughing about Powell’s love of doing impressions of people on Antiques Roadshow. Good times.

Heffer is no crank pariah. There’s an ongoing effort on the right to rehabilitate Powell. In a mealy-mouthed piece in the Telegraph on Saturday, Ed West did the “very clever man” routine (Powell picked Wagner, Beethoven and Haydn on Desert Island Discs, don’t you know?), threw in some flattering anecdotes and skipped daintily past the rivers of blood to focus on one area where Powell might feel vindicated: his Euroscepticism. Let’s remind ourselves of what West left out.

Firstly, the speech was no gaffe or unguarded remark but a calculated provocation. A few days earlier, Powell had told a friend, “I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up.” Secondly, he chose to quote the most explosive and alarmist comments from his constituents: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”; “When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.” If he were not interested in race-baiting, he need not have used that language. Thirdly, he wasn’t merely expressing reservations about multiculturalism — he was saying that immigrants had no right to be here in the first place. Fourthly, racial assaults, both verbal and physical, increased immediately after the speech, as if Powell had given racists the green light — in one instance white youths attacked Asians with metal bars outside a school in Southall. The likes of MP Paul Boateng and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar have talked about the mood in the playground and the street changing the very next day. In a piece for the Institute of Race Relations Jenny Bourne writes: “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.”

It was hardly the most progressive era and yet the establishment rounded on Powell. Edward Heath sacked him from the shadow cabinet while the Times editorial called it “an evil speech” which “appealed to racial hatred”. To Ed West, it seems, they were all a bunch of politically correct lefties. One section of his piece begs to be quoted in full:

Certainly it was inflammatory in tone, and when a West Indian christening party was attacked soon after by yobs heard to shout “Powell”, the media was quick to erect a cordon sanitaire around his views. Yet there was, if anything, more violence from the Left. Powell’s constituency home was attacked, there were bomb threats when he was due to address universities, an edition of Any Questions had to me moved, and a planned visit to his old school was abandoned for fear of disruption.

Yes, you read that correctly. Never mind the people who had their faces slashed at a christening — they had to move Any Questions!

West stops short of spraying “Enoch Was Right” on the wall but only just. “Was he right? To a certain extent.” Really? To what extent? He was wrong to compare the British situation to race riots in America and communitarian tensions in India. He was wrong to say that the only solution to racial tension was to stop non-white people entering the country. He was wrong to predict race war, although he kept at it, cropping up like a crazy old uncle in 1976 (saying race war would make the Troubles in Northern Ireland “enviable”) and 1981 (saying that the summer’s riots threatened “civil war”). Wrong every time, unless you’re Anders Behring Breivik.

Back to West. “And yet the profound cultural changes following 1968 made it impossible to address these issues, with the rise of television as the dominant political medium and the decline of religion. A new generation wanted their politics to make them feel good about themselves, and to define moral worth.”

Ah, so we don’t like Enoch Powell because we’re all godless telly addicts who can’t handle the truth? No, it’s because of Powell’s hysterical talk of “piccaninnies” and “the whip hand” and “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” that the subject became toxic in mainstream politics. Enoch Powell’s biggest enemy wasn’t Ted Heath or students picketing Any Questions: it was Enoch Powell. By mistaking his own extreme pessimism and racist paranoia for fearless clarity, he brought misery to the lives of many British citizens, ruined his political career and even damaged his own cause. For a man who could speak 14 languages, that doesn’t seem very clever after all.

Dorian Lynskey is a critic for the Guardian. This post originally appeared on his blog here. You can follow him on Twitter as @DorianLynskey