Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “River of Blood” speech”.
The contents of the speech are well known, arguing that black and Asian people were an immutable and alien pollutant in Britain and that immigration should be stopped and reversed through repatriation.
The speech’s classicism sounds odd today, but it was a highly functional mask of over-educated respectability which barely concealed its main content — vernacular racism. Powell alternated between allusions to ancient Greek history and vox populi stories purportedly from people in his constituency. These stories are almost certainly fiction – the old lady with a house on a street where now lived only “Negroes” who pushed “excreta” through her letter box with “wide-grinning piccaninnies” chanting after her their one word of English, “racialist.” This mix of the sacred and the profane allowed people to see their own racism as respectable as the suited former classical scholar who spouted it.
This opened the door to the recently formed National Front to present its fascism in respectable electoral clothes in the following decade — they averaged eight per cent of the vote where they stood in local elections the following year. Of more lasting significance, Powell brought to the fore the long existing right wing of the Conservative Party. They combined the economics of the free-market (Powell had resigned from the Cabinet in 1958 demanding spending cuts), populist racism and opposition to the European Union. Their ultimate heirs to this were Thatcher and the Brexit right.
Much of the coverage in the liberal media has presented the speech as bringing a subterranean racism to the surface in British politics, but greater damage had already been done by the Labour government then in power. Both Labour and Conservative governments had considered controlling Black and Asian immigration after 1945. Eventually, the Conservatives introduced racist controls in their 1962 Common Immigrants Act. Labour’s opposition to this measure was always contingent. While they branded these controls racist, they framed their opposition in a “reasoned amendment” stating that the governments of Commonwealth countries should be consulted.
On the whole immigration was not an issue in the 1964 election, but Labour were panicked by the loss of their Shadow Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, in Smethwick where the local Conservative candidate had refused to condemn the local use of the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
Even before the election many Labour MPs had been edging towards supporting control. In power, Labour not only accepted the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (after an entirely fake consultation with Commonwealth governments) but in 1965 drastically reduced the number allowed to enter under it.
Worse was to follow. When in 1968 the Kenyan government began to drive out its Asian population, many of whom held British passports and promise of refuge in Britain, the Labour government again took the racist option and in a matter days in February 1968 passed another Commonwealth Immigrants Act removing the Kenyan Asians’ right to settle in Britain. Even more than the Conservatives, it was a Labour government that racialised and stigmatised black and Asian immigrants. The ground had been prepared for Powell by Labour, although the liberal-faced Conservatives contributed too, having included tighter immigration control and voluntary repatriation in their 1966 election manifesto.
The Labour government’s initial response to Powell’s speech was also dreadful. As the hatches were battened down, Home Secretary James Callaghan went on BBC1’s Panorama to emphasise that the government’s tough controls meant pro-Powell strikes were pointless, and highlight an existing low-profile repatriation scheme (one of his own civil servants criticised him, calling it a “mouse of a scheme” which was “at least a well-regulated, suitably compassionate, and thinking mouse.”) After a Cabinet revolt in early May the government did hesitantly make cautious anti-racist statements and even attempt, although without fanfare, to direct some slight funding to inner-city areas through the Urban Programme. This was too little, too late and too much in the shadow of years of anti-immigration measures.
The response of the left did not adequately fill the gap left by the government. Widespread support for Powell was reflected by a small but significant numbers of strikes, firstly by TGWU members at Heathrow, then by steelworkers in the Midlands and most famously by London dockworkers.
The Communist Party, with a base in the London docks, could only responded by taking a Protestant vicar and Catholic priest to the docks, appealing to the brotherhood of man. The International Socialists (now the SWP), who were claiming to be building up a rank-and-file movement, produced a leaflet written by a leading member, Paul Foot. No copy of the leaflet appears to have survived, but chunks that have been quoted suggest it attacked Powell for being a Belgravia-dwelling rich Tory, but failed to mention immigration or racism.
The forerunner of the AWL, Workers Fight, although only a handful of people, did better. Workers’ Fight March-April 1968 concluded: “We can only combat racialism by organising the rank and file of the labour movement against it, utilising the strength of the working class. We cannot expect to look to the organs of the capitalist state to abolish what is essentially in its interests,” a conclusion that remains true today.
• Full text of Workers’ Fight article: bit.ly/2Fdbx7U