Today is the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and it seems a fitting week in which to look back on the Tory politician’s triumphant achievement. His “wide grinning piccaninnies” (a racist term recently also used by the Foreign Secretary) are now older people, blinking unexpectedly on our TV screens, or staring balefully from newspaper front pages, their long lives ripped asunder by policies inspired by Powell.
‘Rivers of Blood’ was a deeply political speech, in the very worst sense of ‘political’. It was written, orchestrated, and performed for a very precise purpose – to advance the purposes and ego of the politician who gave it, and to discomfort his enemies. (Remember that in politics, your enemies are in your own party; the other lot are just opponents.) Powell had observed the effectiveness of racism and xenophobia in creating a populist tide which was difficult for political leaders to control. His former near neighbour as a Conservative MP was Peter Griffiths, who defeated the Shadow Foreign Secretary in Smethwick in a notoriously racially offensive campaign in 1964. Monday Club member, Harold Gurden, the racist Tory MP for Selly Oak, sat with Powell as a West Midlands MP at the time, and there were others, who walked the walk, and talked the talk well before Powell began to dabble in inflammatory rhetoric.
Powell, the vain dilettante with few real political achievements to his name, was resentful of Edward Heath’s leadership of the Tory Party. ‘Rivers of Blood’ was above all a bombshell aimed at Heath, a liberal, modernising, pro-European politician, who represented a world Powell pretended not to understand, and into which he did not comfortably fit. Powell took advice from the media savvy, and ensured that he made his speech with an unusually large media presence, timed to make the evening news, and the Sunday papers.
The speech was a sensation, but, at the time, also a failure. It didn’t rock Ted Heath’s leadership; indeed, it probably made him Prime Minister, when the Tories did unexpectedly well in the 1970 general election. It didn’t prevent the 1968 Race Relations Act coming into effect. It exiled Powell from the Front Bench, and eventually from the Tory Party altogether. Powell ended his career as an Ulster Unionist and ardent Europhobe.
And yet, what a staggering success the speech turned out to be.
It proved that race hate is a potent political weapon for the right. It reaches the parts of the electorate other policies and attitudes cannot reach. It mobilises and radicalises people in ways the political Establishment cannot control. It speaks to the romantic, mythic past of an England that never was. It is authentically Conservative, because it is a brake upon the hated forces of modernity and change.
Powell’s legacy is Brexit, a victory bought by anti-immigrant mania. Powell’s legacy is Theresa May, the scourge of the children Powell disparaged and abused in his various speeches on ‘race’.
And yet, might this be both the highest, and the lowest point for the Powellite toxin in the Tory bloodstream?
He could get away with his “piccanninnies” “with no word of English” (really? From Jamaica?), because the newspaper editors, and the great and the good, knew little of the people from the New Commonwealth in their midst. But now, in 2018?
The Windrush Generation are people we know, people we are. The policy of a ‘hostile environment’ on immigration, the obsession with ‘getting numbers down to tens of thousands’, look like bureaucratic heartlessness teamed with political malice.
There is a lesson from 1968, and specifically from ‘Rivers of Blood’, that needs to be learned again.
Heath, the Party leader, and Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, faced Powell down. The petitions and marches subsided. The refugees from Kenya were admitted. The Race Relations Act was passed, and later made tougher, in 1976. The mob was thrown no red meat. And there’s a phrase for that: political leadership.
Stop focus grouping everything, basing policies on polling, following the crowd in search of electorate advantage, and concentrate on principle, and evidence-based policy making. Political leadership can lead us away from this 50 year dead-end of immigration mania.
So make it happen….