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Enoch Powell: wannabe posho and lover of British Empire

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Fifty years on, anti-racists will defy the message of Enoch Powell’s racist speech, says Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2600

Racist Enoch Powell (Picture: Allan Warren/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Enoch Powell was desperate to enter into the ruling class club that runs Britain. He became a zealot for its most reactionary ideas.

Powell’s racism was rooted in his love for the British Empire, which he learned as an officer in India during the Second World War. He was too zealous even for the British generals who ruled India through brutal oppression.

The plans Powell drew up for the British Army in India after the war were steeped in racism. He thought that more British officers would have to be recruited because there weren’t enough Indians that were educated or had the same “officer qualities” as the colony’s white imperial masters.

British field marshal Claude Auchinleck, who refused a peerage in 1947 for fear of being associated with a dying British empire, found the report “formalistic if not nonsensical”.

As soon as he was discharged, Powell volunteered his bigotry to Conservative HQ in London. He was soon disappointed that the Tory leadership had abandoned keeping hold of India in the face of mass opposition to imperialist rule.

His dream of being Viceroy of British-ruled India was dead after independence in 1947. But Powell kept quiet. He now hoped to lead the Tory party. And his ambition took a step forward when he was elected as Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West in the 1950 general election.

Powell was totally opportunistic in his arguments against immigration. As minister of health in the 1950s, Powell recruited African Caribbean migrants to work in the NHS.

That’s because he was a staunch defender of capitalism. As British capitalism expanded during the long post war boom it suffered an intense labour shortage that could only be solved by immigration from the former colonies.

But as capitalism dipped into crisis, the ruling class looked to scapegoating migrants. And Powell’s life-long infatuation with British imperialism came to the fore.

With British-rule in India gone, Powell concluded the British Empire was dead. He replaced his imperialist mission to civilise foreign countries with a racist desire to keep out foreigners.

And Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech was also a product of his political ambition after he came third in the Tory leadership election. Powell thought his racist speech would build him a base of support among the Tory grassroots that would bolster his position within the shadow cabinet. He was sacked from the shadow cabinet by Tory leader Edward Heath and later left the Tory party.

He turned his bigotry towards Catholics in Northern Ireland and was an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party until losing in the 1987 general election.

‘We’ll reject the legacy of the racist Tory Powell’

Anti-racists will mark the 50th anniversary of racist Tory MP Enoch’s Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech next week by rallying in the room in which he made it.

Every far right supporter is hoping to use the anniversary to whip up racism against migrants. That’s why Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and the Midlands TUC union federation are holding a Rivers of Love event to push back against them.

Weyman Bennett from Stand Up To Racism said, “Powell famously said that a white woman in his constituency had excrement pushed through her door and was being harassed by “grinning piccaninnies”— a racist term for black people—who shouted ‘racialist’ at her.

“Although Powell is now looked back on as a marginal figure, at the time of the speech he was in the mainstream of British politics as a Tory MP and the shadow defence secretary.” Powell made the speech in the Midland Hotel Birmingham, now called the Macdonald Burlington Hotel, on 20 April 1968.

Powell posed as a “man of the people”, and he also tried to appear respectable. But his rhetoric was focused on developing a racist storm. His speech referenced a supposed conversation where a man had said to him, “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

Powell added, “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

It was a deliberate attempt to use racism against African Caribbean migrants to bolster his position within the Tory party. Powell’s speech boosted every right winger and bigot in Britain and unleashed a wave of racism across the country. Racist attacks against African Caribbean and Asian migrants rose sharply. And it fuelled the rise of the fascist National Front (NF) in the 1970s and 1980s.

It was one of the most racist speeches made by a mainstream politician—and came off the back of a dangerous political game of racist competition. In 1964 Labour lost the Smethwick constituency in Birmingham with a 7 percent swing after the Tory candidate Peter Griffith had run a racist campaign against black people.

And later the right wing press whipped up racist fears that Asians from Kenya in East Africa would “swamp” Britain. They had British passports as former subjects of the British Empire.

The Labour Party tried to head off the right wing—by being more racist than them. Harold Wilson’s Labour government rammed a Commonwealth Immigration Act through the House of Commons in the space of two days in 1968.

It was a dangerous and opportunistic concession to racism that restricted the right of Asians from Kenya to come to Britain. Seeing a chance to build support on the racist right, Powell made his “Rivers of Blood Speech”. Powell shows how the ruling class will push racism—and how scapegoating from mainstream politicians can fuel racism across society.

Resisting Powell’s legacy today means building a mass movement against racism that takes on the Tories and bosses who push those divisive ideas.

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