Exposing Enoch Powell’s racist lies in a second, almost forgotten speech

This month marks the 50th anniversary of that speech. But the one that followed in the autumn was perhaps more important. 

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Despite the inhumanity of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Douma, neither Britain nor the US should intervene further in Syria. Western meddling in the Middle East – based on the belief that English-speaking nations’ manifest destiny is to act as world police – invariably causes more deaths, more anarchy, more gains for Islamist hardliners. Last year, it is estimated, US-led military operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria killed between 11,000 and 18,000 civilians, mostly from air-launched explosives. Why these deaths are more acceptable than those from Assad’s chemical weapons is not explained.

Syria’s civil war would have ended long ago had the West not meddled throughout. The West aided the rebels in the belief that, with a few more pushes, Assad would fall. Russia duly intervened on his side. For several months, it has been obvious that the dictator will win. All that further Western action can do is to bind Russia and Iran more closely to him, an outcome that Assad desires and which may explain his readiness to resort to chemical attacks.

The centre calls

Conventional wisdom states that a new centre party which, according to reports, has promises of £50m from well-off donors, is bound to fail. Britain’s electoral system squeezes third parties. The Social Democratic Party launched in 1981 against a divisive Tory prime minister and a left-wing, geriatric, badly dressed opposition leader. If its founders – well-known and relatively popular ex-ministers – couldn’t succeed, nobody can.

I am not so sure. Lack of access to TV and radio, which is based on voting strength in previous elections, was once the main handicap for insurgent parties. Now social media, with or without Cambridge Analytica’s help, is as important as the broadcasting channels, perhaps more so. Moreover, voters are ever more volatile. One-third of the 30 million voters in the 2015 general election either switched parties or abstained in 2017. Class, once fundamental to British politics, now tells you little more about people’s voting intentions “than looking at their horoscopes or reading their palms”, say YouGov pollsters.

The new centre party, derided by the shadow chancellor John McDonnell as “of the rich, by the rich, for the rich”, may indeed fail. But another insurgent party may succeed. As we have seen, nothing is impossible in 21st century politics.

Blair’s mental health

Is Tony Blair mad? We raised the question in the New Statesman in 2003, as the then prime minister pursued the disastrous war in Iraq. After talking to psychiatrists and psychologists, the late Peter Dunn, whom I commissioned to investigate, concluded that he might well be a psychopath. We were upbraided widely for our impertinence. Now the Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover asks belatedly: “Has Blair lost his marbles?” Adducing the man’s continued support for Remain and his “near treasonable” plea to Germany to help stop Brexit, Glover also answers in the affirmative.

I am reminded of my Tory parents. They accepted Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 with equanimity. When, six years later, he advised voting Labour, they declared he had gone mad.

Rivers of falsehoods

Talking of Powell reminds me that this month marks the 50th anniversary of that speech. But a second, almost forgotten speech on a Saturday in the autumn was perhaps more important. The first contained no evidence that could be checked for Powell’s claim that “Negroes” were intimidating indigenous whites. In November, he listed specific cases and handed out details in advance to Sunday newspapers.

As a young Observer reporter, I investigated. A London GP brought all four cases to Powell’s attention. One concerned “a widow with two young children” who was disturbed “at all hours of the night by West Indian neighbours”. She turned out to be a Pole who had since emigrated. The other three involved people allegedly hounded out of their rented homes by West Indian owners. A woman of 84 was supposedly forced out of her flat. But a consultant geriatrician who had visited her told me she would not have “managed” so long there without help from the Jamaican landlord and his family. Another case concerned a “young English couple”. The GP, whom I interviewed, could not remember their names. I could establish that Powell’s allegations were largely, if not wholly, correct in only one case: a widow of 79 (Powell said she was “80-plus”) whose West Indian landlady stole her possessions and poured water on her bed. Curiously, the supposedly liberal Observer reported the speech in full but buried my findings at the bottom of a page.

Colourless acting

In his review of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a comedy written in 1700, Mail theatre critic Quentin Letts suggested that Leo Wringer, playing Clerimont, a rather stupid country squire, was “not chinless or daft or funny enough”. Fair enough, though no other reviewer seemed to notice. But Letts then suggested Wringer got his part “because he is black”, thus allowing the “politically correct” RSC “to tick inclusiveness boxes”. The RSC accused Letts of racism. It is 60 years since Edric Connor, a black Trinidadian, played Gower, a character based on a 14th-century white English poet, at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare’s Pericles. I have recently watched an all-female cast performing The Tempest; Glenda Jackson playing King Lear; rapping black actors portraying leaders of the American Revolution; and the black TV star Joseph Marcell playing Lord Lorton, a character that has similarities to Clerimont, in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. In each case, it took me about 30 seconds to make the necessary mental adjustments. Why are we still having this argument in 2018? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war