15 June 2012

Powell: “best understood as part of our history”

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Enoch Powell, born a hundred years ago tomorrow, was perhaps the most significant twentieth century British politician who was never Prime Minister, says Sunder Katwala. Certainly, no political speech echoed down the decades as much as that famously infamous tract now universally known by its “Rivers of Blood” shorthand. It sparked fierce public debates about immigration, race and national identity.

It is hard not to take Enoch Powell’s argument personally, for any Briton of black or Asian heritage.  He wished that we had never been born. He argued that it would, he said, be a matter of national suicide if any significant number of us were.  The fear of Powellism for an earlier generation was more tangible than theoretical. When I spoke last year at Bristol University about the legacy of Powell’s speech for how we do and don’t talk about immigration in Britain, the first questioner, a Sikh in his sixties, gave his personal testimony of how Enoch’s name and the “send them back” slogan was turned by the thugs of the National Front into a term of street abuse and worse in the 1970s and 1980s. So it matters that the foundational Powellite claim – that Britain could never succeed as a multi-ethnic society – is today rejected just as firmly on the Conservative right as it is by the liberal-left.

It was only a fortnight after the Rivers of Blood speech, on the May bank holiday in 1968, that my father arrived at Heathrow airport, invited by the British government to come and pursue his career as a doctor. He was oblivious, in those first days, of any raging political argument about whether he should be kept out, or at least encouraged to return home as soon as possible. (Enoch did have an ally, on this specific point, in my Indian grandfather, who flew to England a couple of years later to try to persuade my father to return to India, where he could set him up in medical practice, and might help to arrange a suitable marriage too. But my Dad had by then, in an NHS hospital not far outside London, met my mother, a nurse, born in County Cork in Ireland, and so chose to make his life here).

Yet that was not their first point of connection. For Enoch himself had been in India on the day that my father had been born, a British subject though 4000 miles away in Gujarat, almost a quarter of a century earlier. How Enoch loved India.  “I soaked up India like a sponge soaks up water,” he wrote home to his parents. “I felt as Indian as I did British.”’

I have never felt that myself, despite being proud of having family links to both India and Ireland. But, then, I have never spent two and a half years in India, as Enoch had during the war.  Still, an enormous puzzle remains, as to how the same man who could claim to feel so Indian quite so quickly in the 1940s, would go on to argue that those of us born and bred in Britain would never feel truly British. Powell’s 1968 speeches can not be properly understood without realising how much they were the product of this post-imperial spiritual amputation. All he ever wanted was to be Viceroy of India. That was why he went into politics in the first place. He believed deeply in romantic bonds of Empire and Commonwealth before, on being rejected, he was to go on to argue that we could barely have anything in common at all.

This is how Powell explained that the British-born children of immigrants was not a solution, in assisting the process of integration, but rather presented a still deeper problem:

“Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still. Unless he be one of the small minority, he will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States.”

Powell can be acquitted of the charge of crude racism, as Simon Heffer shows in his biography of Powell, citing too his vociferous denunciation of British imperial abuses in Kenya. But there was a chilling edge to what he did believe, and say. Take his language in discussing how, in 1968, it was already impossible for his repatriation agenda to avoid the reality of a multi-ethnic society, while still hoping to reverse that in time:

“We can perhaps not reduce the eventual total of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population, much, if at all, below its present size: with that, and with all that implies, we and our children and our children’s children will have to cope until the slow mercy of the years absorbs even that unparalleled invasion of our body politic.”

Powellism was contested at the time most fiercely by the political left, which is one significant reason why the Labour party was able to build a deep and enduring relationship with black and Asian voters which still largely persists. But the Powellite claim about who can count as British today has as few advocates on the right as on the left.

The Conservative party has always had a liberal wing on questions of race, through Disraeli to Iain MacLeod and John Major. Though they admired Enoch more broadly, these Powellite foundations were rejected by the party’s right-wing too. The 1983 election poster “Labour says he’s black; we say he’s British” was already a repudiation of Powellism on national identity though often combined, in Norman Tebbit’s cricket test, with an assimilationist vision of what integration should mean.

David Cameron’s Conservative party is much more the party of Paul Uppal, Powell’s successor as MP for Wolverhampton South West, than of Enoch Powell.

The centenary of Powell’s birth is now being commemorated in different ways.

It is now time to understand Powell as a historical figure, an important, troubled voice in Britain’s difficult transition to the post-imperial society which we have become.  As part of this, some are seeking to rescue Powell’s reputation from being entirely dominated by Rivers of Blood. That is the spirit in which Iain Duncan Smith writes a foreword to a new centenary collection about Powell, and is something previously achieved by Simon Heffer’s magisterial biography of Powell, a book which never shies away from evidence which Powell’s critics, as well as his admirers, would find useful.

However, there is also a fringe attempt to resurrect an ethnically exclusive idea of the British nation, and to do so in Enoch’s name. That appears to be the spirit in which the “Traditional British Group” is holding a centenary dinner in Powell’s honour. This strange group even rails against Michael Gove as a “socialist” for making mixed race adoption easier.  This is to celebrate an Enoch whom his fiercest enemies would recognise too.

The strange thing is that even Enoch himself would have known that it was too late to pursue the lost cause. Indeed, he had spoken with such urgency in 1968 because a large part of his argument was that it was already too late.  That was why he argued that immigration control was less important than repatriation, and why he stated in 1968 that the argument would become impossible after the mid-1980s, when most of the immigrant-descended population would be British-born.

We will never now know whether even Enoch Powell would have been surprised, during the Jubilee celebrations of 2012, by just how far a shared sense of British identity, persisted during the many changes of the last half century. We can guess that he would have been a vociferous critic of David Cameron’s Conservative party, but I am less sure that he could rail against the right of the voters of Wolverhampton South West in choosing Paul Uppal as their representative to succeed him in the House of Commons.

There are many debates about identity, immigration and integration that we still need to have. A centenary after his birth, Enoch Powell’s contribution to them are best understood as part of our history now.

Sunder Katwala


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