Enoch Powell, Labour and the dockers

Submitted by Anon on 30 March, 1998 - 1:40

Enoch Powell, the most important British racist politician since Oswald Mosley in the 1930s, died in February. His most famous outburst was in a speech on 21 April 1968, when he said that continued increase in the black population in Britain would lead to “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”. Tory leader Edward Heath sacked Powell from the front bench; London dockers marched to support him. Workers’ Fight, forerunner of Workers’ Liberty, commented that Powell had “outbid” James Callaghan. Callaghan, who later become prime minister in 1976-9, was the Labour minister responsible for excluding the Kenya Asians. Those Asians had been offered, and had taken, British citizenship when Kenya became independent; when, in 1968, they tried to use their British passports to flee persecution in Kenya, the Labour government simply changed the rules and declared their passports invalid. This article from Workers’ Fight comments sombrely on “a wave of reaction... the level of general socialist understanding at its lowest ebb”. A matter of days after the article was written, the great general strike of May-June 1968 in France began; it would lead to the biggest upsurge in the revolutionary left since the 1920s.

Enoch Powell’s notorious speech has given the professional back street racists something apparently solid upon which to build their racialist propaganda. Playing on the backward emotions, fear and insecurity of normally non-political workers, fascists, both open and incipient, have moved into action to organised racialist committees in certain industries. In some London areas, the old markets and docks due for the axe, places where workers see their jobs threatened and, unable to see any other solution, blame things on the nearest scapegoat — in these places the racialists have found fertile ground for cultivating their own brand of gangrene.

When thousands of workers, including the most militant in industry [London dockers], stop work in support of the calculated demagogy of a “civilised” Tory barbarian, it is a grim warning to all socialists and all thinking elements in the labour movement. A wave of reaction is creeping up on us. And it could gain greater force as the Labour government grinds slowly, and by all appearances inevitably, to an ignominious end.

There is a general atmosphere of crisis and helplessness; an atmosphere of bitter and savage disappointment with the government. The pressures of rising unemployment and cuts in living standards are increasing. There is widespread confusion as to causes — and solutions. Socialist explanation is noticeably absent from the scene: the level of general socialist understanding of the overall picture is at its lowest ebb. Widespread cynicism about politics is like a creeping fog, and working-class action in response to and in face of the treachery of the “workers’ party” [in government] has narrowed down to industrial action. Though immensely promising, the raw material of progress and the beginning of socialist wisdom, this is not enough. Though industrial action today has unavoidable political implications, it has not brought about, for the workers as a whole, a clear consciousness of working-class politics and solutions. Socialist leadership on a mass scale is non-existent. The official Labour Left becomes more pathetic and more loyal to [Labour prime minister] Wilson with each day and each new government outrage.

And the pressures become still more intense. In the absence of a socialist consciousness and an effective socialist movement to fight for it, the workers are now, more even than usually, wide open to the lying demagogy of press and politicians. In this situation racialism, endemic in this country as the former colonial master of Africa and Asia, is a handy weapon.
Racialism has been sanctified in Acts of Parliament setting the seal of officialdom to the ignorant bigotry about “overcrowded island” and “strains on the social services”. Labour and Tory are quite bipartisan about it — they vie with each other in the use of it. Labour’s reaction to Powell was that of the man outbid, and Tory leaders hastened to stress that their disagreement was with Powell’s language, not his meaning. (A source of the sympathy for Powell, leading to the demands for “free speech” [behind which the dockers’ march was organised]).

Some lessons are clear: don’t soft-pedal on the politics. Don’t tail-end after simple syndicalism. There are no vacuums. It will be either working-class politics, or Powell’s and the Daily Express’s, or even, in a deeper crisis, worse. There is an enormous gap between the pressures and the consciousness of the workers involved. Only the socialist movement can bridge that gap, and it now lags enormously behind what has to be done as the pressures increase and the gap widens further. The fear of politics as “sectarianism” only helps perpetuate this, as just one example shows.

The “Communist” Party, which has some influence on the London docks, strongly opposed including the necessary politics in the fight against Devlin [rationalisation on the docks]: as a result [CP dockers’ leader Jack] Dash didn’t dare show his face for the two weeks that the dockers went mad. The picture presented in the newspapers of CP Executive Committee member [Danny] Lyons standing forlornly at the dock gates flanked on either side by a Catholic and a Protestant priest as the workers streamed contemptuously past, is one that socialists should not forget in a hurry. If this is the only answer to Powell, we have lost before we start. Thus it can be a short road from denouncing as “sectarian” the politicising of a strike, to playing the altar-boy at the dock gates!

After the Notting Hill riots, and in face of the mounting campaign of prejudice-fostering propaganda and misinformation, the Left should have launched a massive campaign to counteract this [racialism], and to integrate the immigrants in the labour movement. That this wasn’t done is one measure of the feebleness of the Left. If we don’t do it now, we will surely be pushed aside by the bandwagon which Wilson and [Home Secretary James] Callaghan set going for Powell..

Abridged from Workers’ Fight 6, May 1968 (with three sentences from an article in Workers’ Fight 7, June 1968).

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