I once had the opportunity to do serious physical harm to Enoch Powell and it still shocks me that I even contemplated it. It was around 1987. I had arranged to meet a Palestinian friend outside Gloucester Road tube. She would be taking me to a meeting nearby of other Palestinians and supporters of their struggle for justice. As I waited for her, I saw an old man, fairly smartly dressed and wearing a hat, who was having to make quite an effort to climb the stairs that led up to ground level from the tube. He was definitely familiar. It took no more than a few seconds to recognise Enoch Powell. I felt rage inside for so many victims of racial violence, including young people with their lives ahead of them who had died, their attackers ultimately inspired by his hateful words. I fleetingly, but seriously, contemplated turning and “accidentally ” bumping into him as he reached the top of the stairs, making him tumble down them.
I am a socialist because I choose love over hate and believe in the capacity for (almost everyone) to become fully human, cooperative, and imbued with a desire to live equally with their fellow human beings. I hate the policies that cause such misery and impoverishment for many, but I rarely personalise that. In Powell’s case I make an exception, and still feel 50 years on from his Rivers of Blood speech, that the BBC have been marketing with such tabloid sensationalism, (just responding to everyone’s deep interest in the phenomenon, you understand), I can feel hate, although I know it is a different kind of hate to that which he admitted harbouring as a young man.
Last night I hurt my back digging in corners of my office space so that I could rummage through a couple of boxes of old pamphlets for one I knew was there somewhere. Sure enough I found it. Published in June 1969, by the Labour Research Department (LRD), Its title, Powell and his Allies, was printed in a suitably Gothic font. I have never thought it a coincidence that his searing and poisonous “Rivers of Blood” speech was delivered on Adolf Hitler’s birthday, a date on which small groups of far-right activists have not only held memorial ceremonies but often committed outrageous acts. Hitler would have been celebrating his 81st birthday that day, had the Nazis succeeded and his own health been sustained.
I remembered correctly that the LRD pamphlet began with a short verse written by Powell as a young man, which gave a clue to the values that would shape his later life:
“I hate the ugly, hate the old
I hate the lame and weak.
But most of all I hate the dead
Who lie so still in their earthen bed,
And never dare to rise”
The pamphlet exposes the typical features of Powell’s speeches that inspired admiration among those susceptible, and hatred among those who saw it plainly for what it was: the sense of foreboding, the harsh and threatening language, the wildly exaggerated statistics plucked from thin air, meant to scare and enrage his audience, the cynical attempts to personalise his arguments with made up characters, which also betrayed his sexism – the helpless “little old lady” – the sole white inhabitant in the street, terrorised by her black neighbours, trailed by “wide grinning piccaninnies” who can’t speak the language properly except for the word “racialist” which they chant; the little old lady who is made to feel “a stranger in her own home” by her new and unwelcome neighbours, painted in the least flattering way.
The pamphlet says: “His metaphors and adjectives are almost exclusively ugly and cruel; his speeches are splattered with ‘evils’, ‘insane’, ‘mad’, ‘lunacy’, ‘tyranny’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘filthy’, etc.” it draws attention to violent and military associated phrases that pepper his speeches too: ‘invasion of our body politic’, ‘alien territory’, ‘occupied’, ‘detachments from … the West Indies or India and Pakistan encamped in certain areas’, ‘whip hand’, ‘blood’, ‘national disaster’.
In telling us about his allies – the key purpose of the pamphlet – it reveals an important point lost on too many anti-racists, who often imagine the kind of people who would respond positively to these hateful messages as poor, uneducated, hopeless, and embittered; an underclass looking for someone to blame for their own condition.
We know that Powell generated active support from low paid workers – dockers in an industry that was rapidly declining, Smithfield Market porters, who got up to do their hard physical work at unearthly hours. When those porters joined dockers on a political strike to march to Parliament in support of Powell, they were led by Danny Harmston, a bodyguard for the veteran fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1960s. Harmston himself stood as a parliamentary candidate in Islington for Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Union Movement in the 1966 General Election. But the great strength of this pamphlet is how it shows the support Powell got from the highest echelons of society especially in the business world
And Powell gave something back to them. Alongside his well-known racist views, Powell said “When I see a rich man I give thanks to God.” He described how, when he was kneeling in church “i think to myself how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost for the gift of capitalism”. Powell attacked the concept of council housing as “immoral and socially damaging”. He condemned the “work-spreading, profit-hating, almost Luddite attitude of trade unionists”, and called for “denationalising industries. All of them”. In a very candid moment, interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in October 1968, he describes himself as “a virus. I am the virus that kills socialists.”
One group of key Powellite supporters organised themselves in the “Society for Individual Freedom”. They enthusiastically lapped up his racist messages which they married with their absolute commitment to free enterprise and shrinking the state. At the time they had 35 MPs and several members of the House of Lords among their members. They were captains of industry such as Sir John Rodgers, MP for Sevenoaks and director of the world’s largest advertising agency; Lord Lyle, simultaneously a director of Tate and Lyle and of Rhodesian Sugar Refiners; and Lord Renwick who chaired the institute of Directors and sat of the board of British United Industrialists, which gathered huge amounts of money from companies to hand over as donations to the Tory Party. In other words, he had a lot of support from the upper and upper-middle classes who have inflicted so much capitalist damage on people’s lives as well as through their influence in politics. And these people were racist through and through, supporting the vestiges of white supremacy in Rhodesia and South Africa. The Tory Monday Club, on the far-right of the party was another home for these types, and their strongest period was in the decade after Powell’s speech.
At the other end of society it did indeed give strength to that underclass who felt disenfranchised and disempowered, and who drew a simple conclusion from Powell’s words – to go “Paki-bashing”, to put bricks through the home of African-Caribbean neighbours. Almost a decade on from Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech there was a spate of vicious racist attacks especially in East London which resulted in the deaths of a young Sikh, Kenneth Singh, in Newham, a Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali, in Whitechapel, Micheal Ferreira, a young man from a Caribbean family in Hackney, and another young Bengali, Ishaque Ali. But the first murder victim in East London was Tosir Ali in April 1970 – a Wimpy Bar worker – attacked by two skinheads as he walked home from work. They slit his throat and left him to die.
That violence was commonplace in the febrile atmosphere created by Powell and the far right organisations he gave a boost to, such as the National Front (NF) formed in 1967. In the next few years the NF was able to recruit many of those young skinheads and give them a fuller ideological “education” about who their enemies in society were. And while we remember the names of those whose lives were actually ended, we are less familiar with the catalogue of young people who suffered life-changing, life-limiting, injuries that can be traced back to the speeches of incitement by Enoch Powell.
Ten years after his Rivers of Blood speech he briefly returned to the limelight to give a speech in Billericay, Essex, in which he spoke of the “swamping” of inner cities. Inciting his audience not just to anger but to action, he told them “Violence does not break upon such a scene because it is willed or contrived … but because it lies in the inevitable course of events… those who foresaw and feared they would be swamped will be driven by… strong impulses and interests to resist and prevent it”. The very next day 150 NF-supporting skinheads did just that, as they rampaged down Brick Lane attacking Bengalis on the street and in their shops, injuring many.
It was those victims, and the often powerless but poisoned perpetrators, who were deep in my consciousness as I saw Powell slowly ascending the stairs of the tube station I was waiting at, but I also had in mind those very well placed in high society who easily marry deeply racist ideas with commitment to their gods of profit, property and economic power and control. Several years after Powell was booted from the central political stage and regarded as a bitter has-been, his admirers such as Margaret Thatcher were elbowing their way to the top. Today, in the era of Theresa May, the vestiges of the Monday Club and Powellism are found in the Traditional Britain Group, a deeply racist and dangerous organisation, filled with people from the most economically privileged sectors of society, led by Tory members Gregory Lauder-Frost and Lord Sudely. They regularly provide a platform for alt-right antisemitic, Islamophobic, white supremacists from several countries. Our struggles against racism and fascism must always be a struggle simultaneously against capitalism and the upper eschelons of society.