1960s >> 1968 >> no-766-june-1968

Enoch Powell – Aftermath or Prelude

Alice has stepped through the looking glass. The London dockers have cheered right wing Tory M.P. Gerald Nabarro. Jack Dash has tried to stop a strike. Dockland Communists have taken a couple of clergymen down to the East End for, presumably, moral support. These were some of the immediate results of Enoch Powell’s infamous speech.

One of the many ironies in this situation is its central character. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Powell, whose first name is John, should want to be known as Enoch, with its suggestion of an arid crank, too eager to pronounce harsh judgement. (Quinton Hogg once called him “a sort of Mao Tse-Tung of Toryism”.)

Powell has always acted the part of Enoch. It is doubtful if many of his recent supporters are familiar with his opinions on issues other than immigration, or would understand what he was talking about if they tried to find out.

How many dockers, for example, would agree with what he wrote about the usefulness—or rather lack of it—of trade unions in the Sunday Times of September 6 1964:

    “(the remuneration of labour) is rarely affected appreciably, upwards or downwards, by combination; and then the effect is more or less temporary and purchased at the cost of the general public, including other workers.”

How many Smithfield porters would support his attitude on price control:

    “. . . and management had no business to accept any such responsibility for keeping prices stable or reducing them. The duty of every management was to conduct the business in a way which was likely to maximise the return on the capital invested.” (The Guardian, 29/1/64.)

How many of those who now think they back Enoch would go along with what he wrote about hospital waiting lists in his book Medicine and Politics:

    “It might (!) be thought macabre to observe that if people are on a waiting list long enough, they will die—usually from some cause other than that for which they joined the queue. Short of dying, however, they frequently get bored or better, and vanish.”

Nobody knows if Powell has ever tried to make a joke, but if he has that passage was not one of his attempts. It was written, with much more in the same heartless vein, by a man who was once Minister of Health.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that Powell has an unrepentant contempt for popular opinion. The question is, now, is why he has suddenly played for the mass vote, using the well known demagogue’s trick of throwing a mass of mud knowing that most of it will stick? Why did he use forecasts of immigration which were loaded and distorted? Why did he talk about the man who fears that in fifteen or twenty years the black man will have the whip hand over the white in Britain? Why did he trot out the story of the lonely, harassed widow who cannot be found, even by Powell himself?

This was the first case of a prominent British politician—a prospective Prime Minister, no less—stimulating, and appealing to colour prejudice. Powell’s was a cunning speech which gave him a hero’s reputation but it was a dangerous game he was playing.

What justification is there for Powell’s reputation – How consistent and honest is he?

Most of his vociferous supporters have probably forgotten that during his term as Minister of Health the Health Service was eagerly recruiting immigrant workers of all types to plug the gaps in its manpower. They are also probably unaware that Powell has always stood out for the free movement of labour, for example in this speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in February 1964:

    “We are fearful of the big movement of population and of industry without which industrial progress is not possible. We are timid in the face of change in almost any form.”

Immigration, of course, is a “change”; it is also a “big movement of population”.

Then there was Powell’s famous resignation in 1958, often cited as evidence of his integrity, with Peter Thorneycroft and Nigel Birch. (Duncan Sandys criticised the resigners, Nabarro accused them of “rocking the boat”; Macmillan dismissed the whole matter nonchalantly, as a “little local difficulty”.) The point of dispute was the proposal to increase government expenditure during the next year. Powell was quite clear where he stood on this; in a speech to his constituency party after his resignation he aid:

    “If Mr. Thorneycroft’s conviction that Government spending should be limited to its present level could be legitimately criticised, then it should be on the ground that it was too lax, not too strict . . .” (The Times, 10/1/58)

It is instructive to consider what followed this great stand on principle. In 1958, public authorities’ current expenditure, that is, the combined central government and local authority expenditure, was £6,524m. This kept in rising until in 1960 it reached £7,441m. On principle, then, Powell should have stayed out of government. But in 1960 he managed to stifle his misgivings and accept office as Minister of Health, Government spending continued to rise—in 1961 it was £8,136m. and in 1962 £8,668m. But Powell hung on to his job.

He did, in fact, get in another resignation of sorts, after the Tory magic circle selected Douglas-Home to succeed Macmillan. Powell gave no reason for his refusal to accept office so it was widely assumed that he objected either to Douglas-Home (unlikely—politicians learn to embrace men they loathe) or to the method of his selection, which so clearly excluded the Powells of the Conservative Party.

Whatever his objections, Powell had no difficulty in forgetting them when he wanted to; after the Tory defeat in October he suddenly found it all right to join Douglas-Home’s Shadow Cabinet and there he stayed until Heath sacked him after his Wolverhampton tirade.

These manoeuvres can be simply explained if we forget the theory that Powell is a man of rock-;like integrity and accept him as a normal, ambitious capitalist politician. His withdrawal after Macmillan’s retirement came after a struggle for the Tory leadership. He came back into the Shadow Cabinet—and perhaps, in his own estimation, into the leadership stakes—when Douglas-Home was clearly on the way out and subsequently he stood, with little hope, in the election which gave Heath the job. Now Heath’s standing is in doubt; there is strong criticism of him in his party for not making the most of Labour’s predicament. If Labour begin to pick up their support again this criticism will intensify. This is typically a time for Powell to strike and now that he has done so we may be sure that a fierce and ruthless battle is raging behind those urbane Tory exteriors.

The danger is that Powell has started something which he will not be able to control. The appetite of racialism grows by what it feeds on; each tightening of immigration control in this country has come after a political panic—Smethwick, Duncan Sandy’s scare over the Kenyan Asians and so on. What will happen if other politicians join Powell’s bandwagon and if the working class begin voting in any numbers for organisations like the National Front and Union Movement? Already it is possible, and reasonable, for The Observer to comment “We must only be calm, but must also be willing to have our teeth knocked out in defence of tolerance.” (28/4/68). In this atmosphere it cannot be said that it can’t happen here.

Parallels can be taken too far, but there are undeniable similarities between the present political situation in this country and that in Germany in the Thirties, There is a discredited Social Democratic party, whose responsibility in the failure to solve a chronic economic problem has brought widespread disillusionment with democratic politics. There is a popular impression, as the troops come back from East of Suez, that this country has suffered a military defeat.

There has not yet been a slump to rival the pre-war crash, but there are signs that a catastrophic collapse need not be far off. (The Economist of May 4 cheers us all up with its opening words: “It is possible that there will be another international currency crisis within the next few weeks.”) There is an easily identifiable racial minority to take the blame for all working class problems and frustrations. Finally, there are now politicians in power or close to it who are trying to exploit the situation, as Schleicher and Von Papen did in Germany.

One fact that seems to have been overlooked is that Enoch Powell, an openly declared enemy of the working class, is no more than another capitalist politician. There is no reason to think that he will succeed where others have failed; a Powell government—or even a Powell dictatorship—would no more solve the problems of the British working class than have the Wilson government or the Hitler dictatorship did the problems of the German workers.

The abiding question is what the working class may be willing to go through before Powell is no longer their hero. We are now living in the unpleasant aftermath of his venomous speech. Is it a prelude to something even nastier to come?


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