Tuesday, September 22, 2009
What sort of Britishness, what sort of nationhood, did Enoch Powell defend? Before coming to his infamous Birmingham address from 20th April 1968, I want to mention a few things about Powell's formation as a politician. He was the off-spring of petit-bourgeois Black Country denizens and, as a child of the lower middle class, he was also a career-minded imperialist. He had risen through the ranks of the armed forces without seeing combat, and aspired to the highest position in the empire available. He wanted to be the Viceroy of India, the local proxy of the British crown and as close to royalty as someone of his class and rank could ever aspire to. He wanted to be a king. Powell, a classicist, was also a devotee of Britain's desert travellers, such as Wilfrid Thesiger, Richard Francis Burton, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Charles Montagu Doughty. He admired their unworldliness, their readiness to escape from modernity, their self-imposed exile from life. He experienced the deserts himself as a Lieutenant-Colonel in Algiers and Cairo during World War II, though his experience was not particularly heroic. He couldn't boil water, or handle a simple tin of sausages, and he once burned his moustache when he tried to get a fire going for some cooking. Still, he thought he was the right stuff to rule over a few hundred million 'coolies'.
He was also of that shade of imperialist opinion that detested the rising influence of the United States, believing America to be hostile to the British empire. And he hated Chamberlain not because of any instinctive anti-fascism but for selling Britain out. Because of his disgust over Munich, he even voted Labour in 1945, though he joined the Conservative Party. His regal dreams, as it turned out, were shattered by Indian independence, but he remained committed to the same monarchical and racial principles. In fact, upon being elected as an MP in 1950, he drew up a plan to reconquer India, which even Churchill thought was insane. And he went on to espouse the most right-wing 'free market' economics in a period when it was extremely unpopular.
There is a peculiarity in British imperial practise which is important to take note of, however. Although Powell later made his name by attacking immigrants from the Commonwealth, the traditional stance of empire was that all citizens loyal to the British monarch could have free entry to Britain. This stance was not fundamentally adulterated in the immediate period following World War II. So, for example, in 1948, one year after Indian independence was formally conceded and in the same year that the vicious suppression of the Malayan rebellion began, the Labour government introduced the Nationality Act. The Act upheld the practice of allowing free entry to the UK of all citizens of 'dependent' Commonwealth countries, affirming continuity in the face of certain post-war changes. The Act was more symbolic in this respect than it was substantial, since it did not alter the principle of free entry, supported by both Labour and the Tories. It was later falsely cited by Powellites as the basis for 'uncontrolled' immigration. What it really did was define the basis upon which immigration would be controlled, since the apparatus of exclusion was maintained for citizens of 'foreign powers' and so on.
What changed after 1945 was not the law so much as the problems facing the British state, and British capital. These included how to keep the empire, or keep as much of it as possible; how to handle the arrival of the American behemoth; how to restore the health of capitalism, and divert the growing radicalism of the working class; how, in effect, to remain a competitive centre of capital accumulation with what had been astonishing global dominion. Much capital had been destroyed by the war, and the labour force had been depleted. There was money ready to enter circulation as capital, of course, but in a dirt poor society where consumption was rationed, how was it possible to realise any surplus? With a tight labout market and a militant working class, how much surplus would it be possible to extract in the first place? The social democratic policies that capitalists often objected to were functional in this respect, since socialised housing and health significantly reduced the cost of labour. Nationalisations in vulnerable and unprofitable parts of the economy helped support more dynamic parts of the economy. And if much of the colonial apparatus was to be lost to independence struggles, thus shutting off valuable sources of hyper-exploitation, the Commonwealth could still help solve the labour supply problem. So, in 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury with 500 Jamaican passengers, all of them British subjects and all of them responding to a newspaper advertisement requesting labourers to come and work in the UK. The public sector began to recruit extensively from Jamaica and Barbados, raising an extra labour army of about 170,000 people before the first restrictions were introduced in 1962.
Did Powell have a problem with this? If he did, he was careful to conceal it. He had spoken out against immigration controls in 1956 and, as the Tory health minister, he had continued to draft Carribean labour according to the system's needs. In 1964, he still said that he could not support "making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on grounds of his origin". But things were happening that would soon make racist demagoguery an excellent career move. There had already been racist riots in parts of Britain throughout the 1950s, and there were plenty of shops and landlords who would have no truck with black Britons. In 1962, the Tory government had decided to impose the first controls on Commonwealth immigration, with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The labour supply problem had been dealt with, so the British state no longer had an incentive to defend immigration. The Act said that no Commonwealth citizen could migrate to the UK without an employment voucher issued by the government. By implication, though they were subjects of the British crown and citizens, black workers were being treated as a problem and a threat to be carefully managed. After Powell lost the Tory leadership election in 1965, he settled into the shadow cabinet and, after a few years, emerged in a new guise. He first debuted this new get-up in an article for the Daily Telegraph in 1967, entitled 'Facing up to Britain's Race Problem', in which he described the presence of Commonwealth immigrants as an "invasion" a "rising flood" that was seeing white people "driven from their homes and property" as house prices dropped. He went on to test the waters again at a speech in Walsall in 1968, where he denounced Sikhs for striking over the right to wear a turban in the workplace. I'll come back to this example in a minute. The notoriety that he received for this stance must have inflamed his ambition. He could become popular by vocalising the racist sentiments that he had denounced only a few years before.
So, he began his speech in Birmingham in April 1968 by asserting that the mark of a good statesman was a willingness to face up to dangers. The main danger, as he saw it, was described by a "quite ordinary working man" that he had encountered, who told him he would leave Britain if he had the money because he feared that "In this country in fifteen or twenty years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man". As if he was confirming the diagnosis of this "ordinary working man", Powell went on to say warn that in twenty years time there would be three and a half million Commonwealth migrants in England. He said that by 1985, the decendants of immigrants would be in a majority, and that by allowing the inflow of "raw material" for the future "immigrant-descended population", Britain was "heaping up its own funeral pyre". He quoted correspondence from a constituent, who complained about a neighbour, an elderly white woman, being harrassed by "grinning picanninies" as she went to the shops. The correspondent said they could not speak English, but did know how to shout "racialist" at her. And, therefore, if she was thus accused, might she not end up in prison under the terms of the Race Relations Act? Powell made no attempt to refute this obvious drivel, but instead used it to bolster his claim that the presence of black citizens was a national crisis, an imminent threat to white Britons, whose freedom to live and speak within their 'own' country was being repressed. He predicted "civil war" between white and black Britons, and urged repatriation ("voluntary", of course) as the urgent solution. In so doing, he knew full well that he was encouraging the most poisonous elements in British society. He may have hoped to place himself well for a future leadership challenge, but the main effect was to strengthen the appeal of the far right National Front (NF), which grew in leaps and bounds for a decade afterwards.
Subsequent governments chose to pander to the racism that he had encouraged. The Heath government introduced the 1971 Immigration Act, and the rate of migration slowed to near zero.
Labour politicians began to attack migrants, as when Bob Mellish MP stood in the commons in 1976 and said of Malawi Asians, "Enough is enough". He was followed by Powell, of course, who repeated the same demand. The NF gained more than 5% of the vote in the Greater London Council elections the following year. The Labour government responded by increasing deportations, while immigration officials imposed "virginity tests" on Asian women. If the NF was eventually defeated by a broad antifascist coalition, though, the Tory party adopted precisely the kind of new Right policies that Powell had long advocated, and its right flank represented by people like Norman Tebbitt defended his ideas, as indeed they still do. Pursuing a particular class project, known today as neoliberalism, the Tory right also articulated in different ways the reactionary discourses of nationality and race that Powell, a would-be Viceroy and failed imperial traveller, had propounded.
It is worth noting a few things in conclusion. Powellism's defenders have always said that his followers were largely not racists. The journalist Diana Spearman analysed his post-bag in 1968 and decided that only a minority could be classified as racist, with the majority of his support attributed to fears for British 'culture' and 'traditions'. It was pointed out by anti-racists at the time that this involved precisely the typical racist gesture of constructing a non-white minority as a threat and a legitimate object of abuse and repression. This was the ideological basis of Powellism. Its staple conviction was that more black people meant less harmonious race relations, and that relatively few black people meant peace. That such culturalist arguments are still used as a justification for racism today suggests that the debate has not advanced that far. Another familiar argument, made by the dockers who protested on Powell's behalf after he was dismissed from the shadow cabinet, was that they were only protesting about 'free speech'. An Englishman, they claimed, had no right to say what he felt in his own country. And one other echo of the present was when Powell denounced what he called "communalism" during his speech in Walsall in February 1968, and then again in Birmingham that April. He was referring to the desire of Sikhs to preserve customs that he referred to as "inappropriate to Britain", namely the right to wear their turban in work. This was what he called the "canker" of "communalism". In other words, "communalism" was a code for what would now be called multiculturalism. The current obsession with questions of 'integration', the pseudo-problems of 'tolerance' and its limits, and the ends of multiculturalism, have roots in the seedy and sad career of John Enoch Powell.