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.

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

Enoch Powell in 1969. Photograph: Getty Images

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.