This Sunday sees the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech – the nastiest and most calculated piece of racism ever to be heard from the lips of a senior politician in postwar Britain.
Back then, Powell’s words unleashed a storm of racism that directly fuelled the rise of the fascist National Front (NF), the forerunners of today’s British National Party.
But it also sparked a response from anti-racists – one that ended Powell’s career and laid the seeds of the movement that rose up to defeat the NF in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Powell was a front bench Tory MP and shadow defence secretary when, on 20 April 1968, he delivered his speech about immigration.
Powell was careful to dress his shabby racism up in a cloak of educated respectability – the “rivers of blood” reference in the speech came from ancient Roman poet Virgil – but it was designed to unleash the most brutal forces.
Then as now, racist myths were common, and Powell’s speech pretended to deal with reality while trading only in myths and lies.
He claimed a white woman in his constituency had excrement pushed through her letter box and was being hounded by “grinning piccaninnies” – a derogatory term for black people – who shouted “racialist” at her.
Appealing to racist fantasies of black domination and the imagery of slavery, Powell claimed that black immigrants in Britain were preparing for power and within 20 years would have “the whip hand in this country”. Almost licking his lips, he painted an apocalyptic picture of a country torn apart by race riots.
Racists everywhere looked to Powell and drew confidence from him. There was a sharp increase in racist attacks on black and Asian people.
Dockers and porters
Even worse, as the post-war economic boom began to stutter and crumble, some groups of white workers began to rally to Powell – dockers in the East End of London and porters in the Smithfield meat market took strike action in support of him. The beneficiaries were the NF, whose vote began to creep upwards in the early 1970s.
There is a middle class myth surrounding Powell that claims there was something brave about his actions – that he took an “unfashionable stand” without heed to his political prospects.
The reality is that Powell’s speech was a product of his political ambition. He hoped that by playing the race card he would win a groundswell of support to strengthen his position within the Tory shadow cabinet – and put him in a stronger position for some future leadership challenge.
To understand Powell’s real political motivation we have to set his views on immigration in the context of his more deeply held convictions – in particular, his fervent belief in capitalism and his worship of the British Empire.
In Powell’s early speeches in the House of Commons in the 1950s, his talk was all of free enterprise.
During his first 11 years as an MP, there were no controls on immigration into Britain from the Empire or Commonwealth. Theoretically some 600 million people could come to the “mother country” and settle here without restraint. And theoretically, Powell could see nothing wrong in that.
When someone raised the matter with him at a meeting in Wolverhampton in 1956, Powell spoke out against imposing controls on immigration.
Powell was minister of health during the arguments that led up to the first Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962. His department sent emissaries to the West Indies to recruit nurses and ancillary workers for the NHS.
During the 1964 general election campaign Powell concentrated on a “pure” capitalist argument that claimed to see no difference between workers from different ethnic backgrounds.
“I have set and always will set my face like flint against making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on grounds of his origin,” he said.
But this was soon to change. Only four years later Powell became the most virulent propagandist against immigrants – especially black immigrants.
Powell was a fervent supporter of British imperialism. It was a passion stronger even than his belief in free market capitalism. As a new MP he drew up a plan for Britain to reconquer India – an idea that even Winston Churchill dismissed as “lunatic”.
As part and parcel of this imperialism, Powell held the incontrovertible belief that the white man was ordained by god to conquer and control a world populated mainly by black people.
Eventually Powell’s racist convictions overcame his faith in the symmetry of capitalism. However badly capitalism needed immigrant workers, he didn’t want any of them – and he campaigned to throw them out
In 1965 Powell stood for the Tory leadership against Edward Heath and Reginald Maudling. He was humiliated, winning only 15 votes and ending up out of office and out in the cold.
But in 1967, Powell made a first racist speech in Walsall. He soon realised he could garner endless publicity and undreamt of popularity by mouthing his prejudices. He launched himself on an anti-immigrant campaign that culminated in the notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham.
As he began to articulate this racism, he noticed that many people shared his bigotry and rejoiced to hear it legitimised by a front-ranking politician.
Labour had won the 1964 general election three years earlier, but amid the euphoria the party lost the Smethwick constituency in Birmingham with a 7.2 percent swing to the Tories.
The Tory candidate Peter Griffiths ran a notoriously racist campaign which culminated in his supporters chanting the slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
From that point onwards a cynical and opportunist game of racist trumps became a feature of the election trail.
In March 1968 the right wing press and the Tories whipped up a scare that Asians in Kenya who held British passports might “flood” into Britain.
The then Labour government rushed an immigration bill through parliament in a day and a night. It was a blatantly racist law that restricted the right of Kenyan Asians to enter into Britain. That was the immediate context for Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech.
Comfort and confidence
After the speech racists took comfort, gained in confidence and pulled the political climate to the right – opening up the door to more racism from the state and the establishment. That is a cycle which continues until it is challenged.
While some dockers did march in support of Powell, the racism that Powell fuelled in the docks did not go unconfronted. The late Terry Barrett was a London docker active in the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party.
Together with a small group of socialists and others opposed to racism, he tried to dissuade dockers from marching by distributing a leaflet that read:
“Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his class. He is a director of the vast National Discount Company (assets £224 million) which pays him a salary bigger than the £3,500 a year he gets as an MP. He lives in fashionable Belgravia and writes Greek verse.
“What does he believe in? Higher unemployment. He has consistently advocated a national average of 3 percent unemployed. Cuts in social services.
“He wants higher health charges, less council houses, charges for state education and lower unemployment pay. Mass sackings in the docks. Again and again he has argued that the docks are ‘grossly overmanned’.”
While the arguments raged around him, Powell remained wedded to racism. There was no satisfying his appetite. When immigration slowed to nothing, he demanded repatriation.
He extended his prejudice to Catholics in Northern Ireland, attempting to resurrect his career by throwing his lot in with the reactionary Ulster Unionists.
But even as a bigot among bigots he was never quite trusted, and Powell’s career soon faded into oblivion.
As campaigning journalist Paul Foot wrote in the 1960s, “Politics can drive the knife home or remove its menace. No one can underestimate the danger of that choice. The tiger of racialism, once unleashed, knows no master. It devours its liberators and its prey with equal ferocity.”
The work of the left in standing up to Powell in 1968 laid the seeds for much of the anti-racist campaigning for decades to come. And black and white working class unity is the key to fighting racism in a wider sense.
Racist arguments over immigration controls are not just about keeping migrant workers out of Britain. They are also a powerful weapon wielded by the ruling class to divide and weaken workers by stoking up racism.
Ultimately fighting racism and fascism means fighting the system which produces the conditions that allow it to grow. That means standing up to rats like Powell and his latter day followers – but it also means getting rid of the sewer they crawled out of in the first place.