Echoes of Enoch Powell

Rivers of Blood, multiculturalism and the BBC - Martin O'Neill on a film that's part of the BBC's Wh

As part of its ill-conceived White season, the BBC on Saturday showed Denys Blakeway's 'Rivers of Blood' documentary, a film that attempts something of a critical rehabilitation of the reputation of Enoch Powell.

Powell is a fascinating, although thoroughly divisive, figure, and would make an excellent subject for a careful, balanced documentary examination. Far from being a one-dimensional right-winger, Powell was a cerebral polyglot (he read in a dozen languages), who was staunchly in favour of civil liberties and against the death penalty. Given his influence, both positive and negative, it is reasonable to think that a clear-eyed understanding of British politics during the past forty years can only be achieved if we are able to make sense of Powell's place within it.

But the BBC's 'Rivers of Blood' was not that careful or balanced examination of Powell. Instead, it was a disgracefully misleading, cowardly, manipulative and politically irresponsible programme, which brings great discredit to Denys Blakeway for directing it, and to the BBC for showing it.

I'll begin with the ways in which Blakeway's documentary is misleading. Despite trumpeting itself as an effort to get at the truth about "the most misquoted speech of the twentieth century", the film was selective in its attention and extremely telling in what it left out.

The most inflammatory parts of Powell's 1968 speech spoke of Black immigrants harassing a elderly white widow in Wolverhampton, who found "excreta pushed through her letterbox" and who, "when she goes to the shops is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies".

Blakeway's documentary attempts to some degree to exculpate Powell with regard to this offensive content by pointing out that Powell was simply quoting from a letter he received in his constituency postbag, rather than speaking in his own voice.

What the BBC documentary did not point out was that Powell's rhetorical device of placing the most inflammatory parts of his speech within the framework of a quotation from a correspondent may well have been no more than a cynical presentational technique. After Powell's speech, a number of national newspapers, as well as the Wolverhampton Express & Star, sent reporters to track down this elderly woman and none produced any results. Moreover, Powell withdrew a libel action against The Sunday Times, which had branded him a "racialist", when he was obliged to provide physical evidence of the letters from which he claimed to have been quoting.

It is hard to resist the judgement of Dominic Sandbrook, in his magnificent history of the Sixties, White Heat: "Powell's story about the old lady, the "excreta" and the "piccaninnies", seemed to have been borrowed from the stock racist fables of the far right. Very similar anecdotes were circulated in the late sixties by the National Front and others: it was the kind of story that most councillors and MPs regularly dismissed as extremist rabble-rousing." Indeed, Powell's persecuted old woman probably never existed.

But let us grant Enoch Powell the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that his correspondent really existed. Despite the BBC film's constant claims to be carefully examining the real content of the Rivers of Blood speech, it is curiously silent on the full setting of the story of the besieged widow. In Powell's speech, the old lady has become the subject of charges of "racialism" from the tormenting "picanninies" precisely because she has barred black people from her guest house.

Powell's argument was that landlords and employers should be free to discriminate against ethnic minorities as they wished. It is no coincidence that the most emotive part of his speech involved inviting his audience to identify with a racist landlady, who would like to run a business as long as she can exclude blacks from it. Powell's conservatism and commitment to a mystic British identity was a commitment to the Britain of signs saying 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish'; where vulnerable immigrants could be kept marginalized, impoverished and downtrodden.

Blakeway’s film is cowardly in that, like Powell’s speech itself, it seeks to make offensive political points not in its own words, but through quotations from unidentified third-parties. The film tells us, right at the start, that "in the wake of riots and terror attacks, many are now asking, was Enoch Powell right to predict disaster in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech?".

At the end of the film, these mysterious ‘others’ appear again – when Blakeway tells us that "ten years after his death, many believe that Powell’s arguments were often prescient." Who believes this? Well, the British National Party believe this, but not many others.

In my view, the film was manipulative. Its simplistic argument was that anti-racist reaction to Powell’s speech led to multiculturalism, and that multiculturalism led to violence, death and suffering. It made this tenuous argument not by reason, but by emotive appeals via arresting imagery. Here again we have an echo of Powell’s methods as with the vivid images of ‘grinning picanninies’ that, despite Powell’s cherished patina of logical argument, actually carry all the argumentative weight in Powell’s infamous speech. Blakeway’s film juxtaposed the use of the word “multiculturalism” with footage of the 7/7 Bombings. Are we supposed to think 7/7 was an inevitable consequence of not following Powell’s advice?

The thought that 7/7 was a direct product of multiculturalism, without making any reference to the broader context of British foreign policy, the Iraq war, and the ‘war on terror’, is insultingly facile. Equally preposterous is the suggestion that Powell’s policies, from advocating repatriation to removing any legal bars on discrimination in housing and employment, would somehow have made for a less violent or more cohesive Britain.

The real absence of Blakeway’s film gets to the centre of both its mendacity and its political irresponsibility. It is the absence of a balanced view of multicultural Britain, of any good news alongside the apocalyptic vistas of bomb damage and race-riots.

The truth, of course, is that Britain is a broadly tolerant, liberal and diverse society, with less racist violence today than it had in the late 1960s. A romantic conservative British nationalist like Powell would have wept at the thought that our national dish might have become chicken tikka massala, or that the Britain of class deference, Anglicanism and hierarchy should be submerged by a more modern Britain of equality and diversity. Reactionaries like Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, whom Blakeway’s film quotes so fully and uncritically, think likewise.

But the tolerant and liberal mainstream of this country – the very people who were outraged by Powell, from the radical student protestors who dogged him wherever he tried to speak after 1968, to the decent liberal Conservatives like Iain Macleod who demanded his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet – do not share Powell’s reactionary, oppressive politics. Macleod’s verdict in 1968 was that “Enoch’s gone mad and hates the blacks”, and therein do we hear the voice of the sane wing of British conservatism.

It is a shame indeed that Enoch Powell’s oppressive and reactionary politics should find their tinny echo in Blakeway’s morally and intellectually backwards piece of film-making. It is an even greater shame that the BBC should have committed the substantial error of judgement in airing such a muddled, mendacious film.

The political ostracism that Powell suffered is one of the glories of recent British politics: it shows that we as a nation decided that there would never be a British version of Jean-Marie Le Pen. If one wants to look for a sense of British identity worth celebrating, you can find it there.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain