Paul Foot

Powell’s poison platform

(December 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 93, December 1986, p. 13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WHY SHOULD anyone want to victimise a 74 year old gentleman who wants to speak to small university audiences on constitutional reform? His set speech, by all accounts, is very boring and not even very reactionary.

The gentleman is a former Tory MP (now an Ulster Unionist), but he has a reputation as a bit of a rebel in the Tory ranks. He was one of the first Tories to vote against capital punishment. He has always been sceptical about Britain’s independent nuclear weapons.

In 1974, in the middle of an election campaign, he suddenly resigned his Tory candidature and urged people to vote Labour because he was opposed to the Common Market!

With such a record, as I say, why should anyone want to discriminate against the Rt. Hon. J. Enoch Powell MP?

No one suggests that people should be stopped from speaking just because they are Tories. Surely, socialist students should leave this old gentleman alone.

Such is the argument being voiced by the Federation of Conservative Students, whose leadership has just been disbanded by Norman Tebbit because it is too right wing!

The FCS are hawking old Enoch round the universities, demanding for him free speech, and playing on his “fine record” as a “distinguished parliamentarian”.

In truth, however, there is only one reason why Enoch Powell is popular with the FCS leaders. They like him not for his “maverick” views on capital punishment, Europe or defence. Indeed, they try to stop him mentioning any of these matters.

Quite accurately they have singled out the one issue which has made Enoch Powell famous – the issue which he himself has pushed to the fore unceasingly for the last 18 years – the issue of race.

At the start of his political career, in times when it seemed that the system he loves, capitalism, appeared to be working, Powell never expressed any interest in race or immigration.

During the big boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s when there seemed no end to permanent economic growth, and when black people poured into the country, free of all immigration control, to staff the lower reaches of the burgeoning industries and services, Powell, who represented Wolverhampton, a town of heavy immigration, uttered not a single racialist murmur.

When the Tory government finally imposed some controls on citizens of the Commonwealth, Powell supported them. But as minister of health (1960-1963), he sponsored schemes for recruiting black nurses and ancillary hospital workers in the West Indies, especially in Barbados.

It was the decline of the capitalist boom which sparked off Powell’s innate racialism. In 1968, spurred by the then Labour government’s capitulation to racialist pressure to introduce special and entirely unnecessary immigration controls on East African Asians, Powell went to Birmingham to deliver a speech which reeked of racialist hate against the black minority. He used the foulest racialist language, referring to black children as “grinning picaninnies”.

He gave full vent to all the crudest racialist stereotypes, linking people’s propensity to crime, fecklessness and disorder to the colour of their skins and their countries of origin. He predicted in the most colourful phrases a race war unless the numbers of blacks were cut down.

The response was devastating. Powell touched a deep racialist nerve, not just in his own class but in the working class as well. London dockers went on strike and marched to parliament calling for “Enoch for Prime Minister”. All over the country racialists, who until then had felt something shameful about abusing immigrants, shed their inhibitions.

Although Powell was promptly sacked by Tory leader Heath from the shadow cabinet, his speech led to a great wave of suddenly respectable racialist propaganda. Much of this found its way, through the post, to Powell’s house. He boasted of “sackfuls of mail” which filled his basement. His boast was soon to turn against him. When the Sunday Times (then a newspaper of some repute) branded his speeches racialist, Powell sued for libel.

The Sunday Times won a court order demanding that all the letters sent to Powell be handed over to them. They argued that these letters might prove the real, racialist nature of the support which Powell had stirred up. Almost at once, before handing over the letters, Powell dropped the action.

Since then, he has never objected to the word racialist. Indeed, he has seemed to revel in his racialist reputation. Again and again over the last 18 years, every time the relationship between the black and white communities was rocked by some crisis, Powell has intervened to stoke up the flames.

None of his monstrous predictions in 1968 have come true. Yet he has persisted with the same racist demagogy, hurling insult after insult at black people.

His demands have been unclear, but consistent. First, he demanded more effective immigration control. When he got some more controls (as in the infamous British Nationality Act of 1971) he demanded more. He would not rest, he said, until all black people (including families of people already here) were banned from entry.

Gradually, this was conceded. In the 1970s, black immigration into this country was virtually stopped. When there was no more juice in that campaign, Powell turned his attention to the people already here, arguing with greater and greater force that they must be got out of the country if the apocalypse was to be avoided.

This logic drove him on, inevitably, to a call for compulsory repatriation. In a speech and a series of articles in 1985, he outlined his plan for a “repatriation programme” which must cut down the black population by a huge percentage.

Since Powell’s own figures show that the black population is growing by about a hundred thousand a year (at the least) this means that every ten years, under his programme, a million black people must be “got back” to the so-called “countries of origin” (though of course many were born here, and know no other country).

There is no other way in which this could be carried out except by the cattle truck. Mass expulsions of people because of their race harks directly back to Fascist Germany, Fascist Austria, Fascist Poland, Fascist France, shortly before and during the last world war. “Expel them to save us from the holocaust of racial violence!” was the cry. The result was a racial holocaust on an unimaginable scale – the greatest atrocity in world history.

This is the reality behind the apparently friendly face which is being introduced on the campuses by your friendly new storm-troopers from the FCS. It is because of his record on the race issue that the National Union of Students have included Enoch Powell on their list of speakers who should not be invited on any campus anywhere.

This list is small. Apart from openly fascist organisations, for instance (who would be the first to put a stop to any free speech at all), it includes only Powell and a couple of spokesmen for the racist dictatorship in South Africa.

The argument is simple. Most speech leads to action. Speech which does not lead to action is usually futile and irrelevant. Racialist speech leads to racialist action. Permitting racialist speech, therefore, is permitting racialist action – encouraging the hounding and victimisation of people because of the colour of their skin and the country of their birth, neither of which is a matter of choice for anyone.

Thus there are occasions where tolerance of free speech can be tolerance of the very opposite.

This is certainly the case with the Rt. Hon. Member for South Down – and the Federation of Conservative Students know that very well indeed.

Last updated on 29 October 2019