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By Ian Austin
2:20PM BST 22 Jun 2012
On the centenary of his birth this week, we have been told several times about Enoch Powell’s prescience and wisdom. He has been condemned for the last 44 years as a racist, but a campaign to rehabilitate him is under way. A new collection of essays is graced with a foreword by Iain Duncan Smith, and several high-profile columnists have written in praise of him. After recounting his war record, his supporters list the languages he’d mastered, praise the power of his oratory and tell us how he saw the future. But they are wrong, and so was he.
Duncan Smith warmly recounts anecdotes about platforms and journeys they shared, discussing his views on Europe, the nation state and the constitution, before eventually getting to Powell’s notorious speech. He exonerates him of racism, criticising only his “injudicious use of inflammatory language”, but excuses that on the grounds that his “low opinion of Ted Heath distorted his judgement.” In case we’ve not get the message, he gives the last word to Anne Robinson, quoting her description of him as “a worthy hero.”
Their claims that he was not a racist are, as Dorian Lynskey pointed out in the New Statesman this week, undermined by Powell himself asking BBC journalist Michael Cockerill, “What’s wrong with racism? Racism is the basis of nationality.”
The Times was right when it condemned Powell for making “an evil speech” which “appealed to racial hatred.” The Sunday Times said he was spouting “the fantasies of racial purity.” Ted Heath said it was “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions”. Iain Macleod, Edward Boyle, Quintin Hogg and Robert Carr demanded he be sacked from the front bench, promising they’d go if he didn’t.
It is not racist to worry about immigration and its impact on jobs or on scarce public services. I’ve raised my constituents’ concerns about these issues regularly, but the truth is that Powell didn’t just raise worries about immigration. Read what he said.
He claimed a constituent he described as a “a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman” had told him that the country would “not be worth living in”, because “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. He complained his constituents were becoming strangers in their own country, that their wives could not get hospital beds to give birth in, or their children school places. He proposed “generous grants and assistance”, so that immigrants would leave the country. He even predicted race wars, quoting the Aeneid and its “wars, terrible wars”. “As I look ahead,” he said, “I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”
And he raised a letter he said he’d received from someone in Northumberland about an elderly woman in Wolverhampton who had become her street’s only white resident and was, he claimed, being harassed each morning by black residents wanting to ring their employers. “She is becoming afraid to go out,” he claimed. “Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming wide-eyed piccaninnies.” But Powell had not spoken to the woman: in fact, he’d not even bothered to check whether she was a real person.
Clem Jones, then editor of the Black Country’s evening paper, The Express and Star, and a man of great bravery and integrity, set out to establish the facts. He searched the electoral register and sent his journalists out to pound the streets, but could find no evidence to that the Wolverhampton woman existed.
He was concerned because, a few weeks before, Powell had made a speech in Walsall in which he claimed a constituent had complained that his daughter was the only white child in her class. Jones’ son Nick, the former BBC reporter, says his father’s journalists had been unable to substantiate those claims, and that he warned Powell that he’d been receiving similar anonymous complaints which turned out to be false, and had been traced back to members of the National Front. Powell wouldn’t listen, boasting instead about the bags of letters he’d received in support.
Jones also knew – whatever Powell claimed afterwards or Duncan Smith believes today – that Powell knew in advance exactly what impact his speech would have. He had been a close friend of Powell’s, even advising how to attract publicity for his speeches. In the week beforehand, Powell told Jones he would be making another speech the following Saturday, but refused to tell him what would be in it.
“Look, Clem,” he said, “I’m not telling you what is in the speech. But you know how a rocket goes up into the air, explodes into lots of stars, and then falls down to the ground. Well, this speech is going to go up like a rocket, and when it gets to the top, the stars are going to stay up.” Powell was appealing to the worst racist prejudices, and he knew exactly what he was doing.
Under the headline “Coloured family attacked”, the Times reported that 10 days after the speech a black family’s christening party in Wolverhampton had been attacked by a gang of racist thugs chanting “Powell” and “Why don’t you go back to your own country.” The baby’s grandfather was slashed in the face with a knife. He’d been in Britain 13 years, and said “nothing like this has happened before. I am shattered”.
A few months ago, I was with a group of people when an article they’d read about an asylum seeker came up. “Scum of the earth,” one said, before another replied that “Enoch Powell was right. He was just too clever for them.” I told them what he’d said and why he’d been wrong. But it showed that excusing or minimising what Powell said can encourage abuse and racism elsewhere.
Despite the prejudice his speech encouraged, despite the fact that black people were attacked because of his speech, and despite all the challenges Britain has faced in the 44 years since, the race wars he predicted have not happened.
He might have been able to quote Virgil and speak lots of different languages, but none of his apocalyptic prophecies came true. Despite his paranoia, Britain is a country in which people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures work and live together harmoniously. Iin Britain today what matters is not where you or your parents were born, what you look like, but the contribution you make, the way you behave and what you believe.
So whether it’s in a collection of essays, a newspaper, at work or in a pub, the next time someone tells you “Enoch was right”, tell them the truth: in the speech for which he is remembered, he was utterly wrong.