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International Socialism, March/April 1976


Wayne Asher

Powellism, Racism and the Conservative Party Today


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March 1976, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Wayne Asher writes: Eight years ago, on 20 April, Enoch Powell made his most famous speech on race relations, in which he predicted ‘rivers of blood’ if black immigration were not halted. The speech received amazing publicity, making headlines in most papers of any importance and receiving support from many. Overnight the race issues moved to the centre of the political stage as, to the glee of the ruling class, economic issues took a back seat. It set off a phenomenon as militant London dockers struck in support. The Economist mused [1]:

‘Not in living memory have groups of workers across the country gone on strike in favour of a Tory politician as they did for Enoch Powell ... a Tory whose views on every aspect of politics apart from race and immigration they barely understood, and would reject even if they did’.

It is clear that one of the reasons why Powell spoke out was the constant desire to divide the working class, but there were other reasons too. The Tory party had been massively beaten in 1966 and as a result demoralisation had set in among the rank and file who were soon in a mood to grasp at any straw that would give vent to their mean and petty prejudices. (The Tories generally turn to the right when their morale is low, a recent example being in the summer of 1974 when the Financial Times index dropped below 200 and leading Tories were busy forming private armies.) Furthermore, large numbers of workers had become disillusioned and angry at the freezes and unemployment carried out by Labour and Powell clearly hoped their resentment could be channelled into the Tory camp. In the absence of any class lead, the tactic worked. Since Labour were heading to a new low in popularity, they were in no position to reply to Powell (even if they wanted to) since their sell-outs and betrayals overshadowed everything they said and did, the revolutionary left was small and unable to make its voice heard while the Communist Party, which still had considerable influence in some areas, declined to use it to fight Powellism. (In the London docks for example leading party members called in two vicars to speak against Powell so little confidence did they have in marxist argument).

Labour have in fact much to answer for in analysing the role of Powellism. They had kept quiet on race while problems and resentments piled up, hoping they would go away when in fact they just got worse, leaving a vacuum into which Powell stepped. This was a major reason for his success – he suggested solutions to problems for which no-one else was willing to speak. To millions of people he seemed to be the only man who understood their problems and who was prepared to speak up for them, even at the risk of trouble to himself.

Powell’s achievement was not to create racialism, what he did was to dredge up feelings from the subconscious and make it respectable to express them. Previously such views had been considered to be those of cranks and extremists but now the same views were being expressed by a nationally known politician. Powell became the spokesman of a silent majority of dissatisfied people, alienated from conventional capitalist politics, but who grasped eagerly at something that seemed to relate to the problems they lived with. If the Labour and trade union leaders had spoken out against racialism earlier, then Powellism might never have happened, but they didn’t and it did.

He continued to make his carefully-timed racial provocations throughout 1968 and 1969 and race feeling rose to a new high. One result of this was that blacks tended to form their own groups whose main concern was often self-defence against the assaults of Powell-inspired thugs. Few such groups held anything like socialist ideas, they were small, generally short lived and none was really a national organisation, but they showed that blacks were not prepared to be the scapegoats for the shortcomings of capitalism.

In some areas the atmosphere was one of imminent race war and inevitably serious violence occurred in the summer of 1969. It broke first at Leeds in July as the death of a white youth in a gang fight sparked off the worst race riot ever seen in Britain as white mobs went on the rampage causing much damage. More violence took place at Gloucester in November and in the same month the attempts by the Brixton police to arrest a Nigerian diplomat on trumped up charges led to another street riot.

Eventually, Powell became identified not merely with racialism, but with a general right wing reaction on other emotive issues like ‘law and order’ and ‘the permissive society’ and at the general election of 1970 he made a serious of speeches, deliberately designed to catch the headlines in which he appealed to the full range of prejudices by playing on people’s emotional insecurity and subconscious worries. He said that:

‘There are at this moment parts of this town which have ceased to be a part of England except in the sense that they are situated within it geographically;’

he warned of whole cities being one fifth or one quarter black. He talked too of ‘the enemy within’, of the universities and Northern Ireland, of ‘the mob’ using deliberately inspired disorder for its own purpose. [2] Against all expectations, the Tories won the election, and the diffuse, right wing protest vote which focussed round Powell was a major factor (of the 20 seats with the highest swing to the Tories, no less than 12 were in the Midlands). Powell has indeed rendered a service to the ruling class [3] as was admitted by one of his admirers in a book which was an open apology for him [4]:

‘Failure to improve the economic climate would give a stimuluus to policies against which the Conservative Party is designed to be a barrier. One of Mr Powell’s chief merits is that the attention he has received so far – not only in relation to immigration – gives him a better chance of blunting class conflict propaganda, which remains the Labour Party’s strongest suit, presents the gravest threat to the Conservative Party and is one of the most objectionable of political inventions’.

Now the Tories were back in power, Powell’s usefulness to the ruling class was declining. They passed the 1971 immigration act basically as a sop to the right wing and then got on with the serious business of shackling the working class, and from this point on, race became less of a political issue as working class resistance to the Tories stiffened, and more days were lost through strike action in 1972 than in any year since the general strike. The Tories hoped that the Ugandan Asian influx in the autumn of 1972 would distract workers’ attention away from the real issues, but in fact it caused more problems for them than it solved. It is written that one shall reap as one has sowed, and having sown the seeds of racialism while in opposition, the Tories now reaped a whirlwind of racialism as they found it impractical to pander to every little prejudice of their rank and file. As a result, the extreme right wing of the party looked increasingly towards the National Front for a political lead and for a time Heath and Co. were very, very worried by the prospect of a right wing breakaway. This is why they reacted so violently to National Front infiltration of the Monday Club in 1973. If the Front gained control of the club, they would then have a foothold in the Tory Party itself from which position they could recruit thousands of new members and cause untold damage to Heath. That he did not overestimate the influence of the far right is shown by the votes they attracted in three by-elections in 1972-73; 9 per cent at Rochdale, 12 per cent at Uxbridge, and an astounding 16 per cent at West Bromwich.

But by mid-1974, the times were a-changing. What was seen as soft-peddling on race had caused a small but significant number of voters to support the NF while the Tories’ latent racialism was causing all blacks to vote Labour. By October 1974, the black vote might have cost the Tories as many as 30 seats, crucial in parliamentary terms. So the Tories were getting the worst of both worlds, losing black votes because of racialism and losing white votes through not being racialist enough. Clearly it couldn’t go on. To make matters worse, the Tories’ appeal to working class voters in the big cities was declining fast, and without working class Conservative support, they would be finished. In 1970-74, the swing from Conservative to Labour exceeded the national swing by 3 per cent in Leeds and Manchester, by 4 per cent in Birmingham and Leicester, by 5 per cent in Liverpool and by no less than 11 per cent in Wolverhampton. This is most worrying for the Tories and some of the more intelligent right wingers like Rhodes Boyson and John Biffen have been pointing to the need to recapture these votes to form a government. In January two party reports appeared, one recommended that the entire electoral machinery be overhauled to attract more support in the cities, while the other warned that if this was not done, the party would face decimation in Greater Manchester.

The Tories must work out a new strategy soon. There will come a time, quite possibly within the next year, when there will be mass disillusionment with Labour, and when that time comes, Labour’s usefulness to the ruling class will be ended and they will look to the Tories to provide ‘strong government’, and yet the Tories will be equally useless if they are incapable winning a majority, so we can expect a change fairly soon. They basically have three options; they can continue to sit on the fence as regards race and rely on the normal swing of disillusionment to carry them into power, but this looks unlikely given the pressure from powerful right wingers like Boyson and Biffen for a positive change.

The second option is to try and remove the stink of racialism and try and attract the black vote. This might just be possible given the decline in racial tensions over the past few years (for example racist motions to the Tory conference declined from a high of 80 in 1968 to only 17 in 1975) and it might result in many middle-class Asians supporting the Tories. They have already selected their first Asian parliamentary candidate (at Greenwich). But to set against this, such a policy would certainly cause more right wing defections in terms of members and votes to the NF, and this would seem to rule it out.

So the only remaining option seems to be to return to an overtly racialist policy. This would do many favourable things for the Tories, it would probably restore their flagging electoral support in the big cities, heighten party morale and cause deep divisions within the working class, particularly the unemployed. [5] If the initiatives of the National Rank and File Movement are even mildly successful in building a mass movement against the dole are building a mass movement against the dole then ruling class pressure for such strategy will increase.

[This might] prove very attractive to the Tories. The general political level of their rank and file is very low, and they respond best to emotive, seemingly clear cut issues in which all their prejudices can be brought into play. The obvious example of this is straightforward union-bashing, but that is out since the experience of the Heath regime proved to the ruling class that such a frontal attack would not work. However, this truth has not really been recognised by the rank and file, many of whom would love a confrontation with the workers, and Thatcher, who largely owed her election to these feelings, might find it to her advantage to divert the venom of her rank and file into other such issues, like ‘law and order’ – or racialism.

At this moment in time, the Tories are largely irrelevant to the serious task of keeping the working class in line since Labour is quite clearly getting away with things that would never have been tolerated under the Tories. This means that they can indulge in moonshine like monetarist economics to their heart’s content with no-one caring since they don’t have to put it into practice. If however, their influence was greater, then they would be forced to make an about-turn (and rescue British Leyland for example) and in such circumstances a racialist campaign would not merely be an admirable smokescreen for this turnaround, but would also appease the Tory right who would be resentful at having to backtrack on such a Tory ideal. If the Tories do resort to a naked racialist campaign, and the evidence presented here seems to point to it, we can expect a rapid rise in race feeling which, among other things, will demonstrate to large numbers of blacks that the only solution to their problem lies in ending their cause – by the revolutionary abolition of capitalism.

Increasingly, such people will, as Marx put it, ‘Have nothing to lose but their chains’.


1. The Economist, 26 April 1968.

2. Powell’s success is a graphic illustration of how often the power of emotion triumphs over logic and reason. His arguments were merely empty rhetoric, but that did not affect their potency in the least. It is also instructive to compare his speeches, full of vague warnings and prophesies, with his monumentally boring writings.

3. It is perhaps worth noting that this right wing backlash for which Powell became the spokesman was international. In the USA, Richard Nixon largely owed his 1968 election victory to it while in West Germany it facilitated the rise to national influence of the neo-nazi NPD.

4. Powell and his 1970 election, Elliot, rightways books, p.16.

5. The adoption of such a strategy by the ruling class will require some consistent work since one of the effects of massive youth unemployment seems to have been to make black and white youths aware, albeit in an apolitical sort of way, that they share the same problems. To combat such a strategy will also require some work for the left since it will be necessary to fight a concept, which is always higher than fighting an individual. There has been for example, a tendency for some people on the left to point to the Nazis who run the NF, and use this as an easy way out, rather than taking the harder road of combating racialist ideology itself.

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