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:

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.