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

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This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.