Saturday, 14 April 2018

Rivers of Cant

One reason for the strong reaction to the news that BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a reading of Enoch Powell's 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech tonight is the common belief in the power of political rhetoric. A cynic might suggest that some of the excitement arises because Powell's fifty year-old words are a cut above the contemporary norm in terms of quality (the emphasis on his classical allusions in many reports certainly supports the idea that nostalgia for a higher tone is at work), but I think this claim cannot stand up to scrutiny when you consider the actual speech, which is a farrago of dubious anecdotes and prophecies of a race war in which the foaming Tiber is actually less notable than that old standby of neighbourly intimidation, shit shoved through a letterbox. The chief accusation by those who deplore the BBC's decision is that Powell's speech was, and still is, inflammatory. The emphasis on the power of words misses that Powell's wider significance, and the specific importance of this one speech, is to be found more in the realm of political ideas than political language.

Enoch Powell wasn't a thoroughgoing racist so much as an equal opportunities misanthrope. As a clever, lower middle class provincial, who was impressed in his youth by Nietzsche and never quite lost the chip on his shoulder, he had a low opinion of most people in practice. This explains why he idealised people in his politics to the point of inventing representative types, such as the constituents quoted in his speech who may or may not have been real. Though he was rigorous in justifying his often maverick positions on topics such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and reform of the House of Lords (he was in favour of the first but not the second), there is little doubt that his public persona was as much showman as don. His speeches, like his resignations and departures from one party to another, were performances in which the ostensible objective - to influence government policy - often seemed secondary to his vanity. While not without humour, his claim as an Ulster Unionist MP in 1975 that "until the Conservative Party has worked its passage a very long way it will not be rejoining me" was a fair reflection of his solipsism.

Powell's influence was significant, not because he was a particularly effective minister (though he was certainly not incompetent), or an insightful thinker, but because he articulated three key ideas that would come to dominate British politics. The first of these was his idealisation of the free market. Long before Margaret Thatcher came to power and monetarism entered the mainstream, Powell was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, the incubator of neoliberalism, who advocated privatisation against the grain in the 1960s and was contemptuous of the old school establishment that dominated industry and the City of London. The second key idea was the primacy of national sovereignty, which would not only lead to his antipathy towards the EEC and later the EU, but which convinced him as early as the 1940s that the US posed a greater threat to British interests than the Soviet Union. It also led him to abandon his early imperialism, reject the Commonwealth and advocate a separatist and defensive attitude towards national identity that would inform both his antipathy towards immigration and his later role as an Ulster Unionist MP.

The third idea, which was also the central argument of the 1968 speech, was that the true victims of immigration policy were the natives: "The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and of resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come and are still coming". Powell saw this not as some unfortunate accident but as the consequence of at least neglect and quite possibly conspiracy: "For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country". In effect, Powell was helping to conjure up the modern idea of the white working class as not merely under threat but disenfranchised by a metropolitan elite. This would immediately provide a paradigm for the explicitly racist politics of the National Front and later the BNP, but the lasting influence was on the politicians and commentators who condemned his speech at the time but later found it convenient to employ his populist idealisation of a beleaguered and misunderstood people. His true heirs were not Nigel Farage and UKIP but the wider group of politicians and media outriders who have normalised the cant of "legitimate concerns" and the myth of political correctness (the nominal target of Powell's speech was the Race Relations Bill, which for many PC-phobes was when the rot set in).

Powell's speech has been regularly disinterred for examination over the years, usually in order to prove that his prophecies were ill-founded, but this half-century occasion has got peoples' backs up not just because an actor will read the words in an impersonation of their author (the original speech was only partly recorded by TV) but because of the tone of giddy excitement adopted by Amol Rajan, the BBC's Media Editor, in promoting the broadcast. This could be excused as Rajan's background in newspapers coming to the fore when a more sober tone was called for, but it also highlights the BBC's institutional drift as the demands of the market (to entertain) increasingly overpower the demands of public service broadcasting (to inform). The programme will obviously not be a celebration of the speech, but it is another stage in the partial rehabilitation of Powell that started in the late-80s when his views chimed with the growing euroscepticism of the Conservative Party and which arguably achieved vindication in the EU referendum. The emerging consensus appears to be that while he might have been wrong about the prospects for integration and tolerance, he was right about the importance of sovereignty.

The conflict between market and society visible in the BBC's calculation was, of course, at the heart of Powell's own worldview. He famously said that "all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at some happy juncture, end in failure". One explanation for his own relative failure as a politician is that he appreciated that the market and society could not be naturally reconciled and so the latter had to be buttressed by appeals to blood and soil if not religion. He was an identitarian avant la lettre, which ironically made this High Tory one of the most American of British politicians. His belief in an idealised national identity was nowhere more obvious than in Northern Ireland. Where most people saw a sectarian conflict rooted in historic discrimination, Powell saw "a part of the United Kingdom [that] has been under attack from an external enemy assisted by detachments operating inside". The idea that the Republic was waging a proxy war was absurd, and Powell wisely avoided articulating the implication of his own logic, that nationalists should be expelled as hostile aliens, but traces of this cockeyed belief can still be seen in the DUP's claim that the negotiations with the EU27 over the Irish border are part of a nefarious Dublin plot.

If Brexit is Powell's chief legacy, then this is less in respect of the anxieties over immigration that fuelled the referendum vote than in the popular delusions of sovereignty that were probably decisive. The chief disservice of the Radio 4 broadcast is that it perpetuates the idea that Powell was defined by his xenophobia. The 1968 speech certainly marked a pivot in his career, and he would never successfully shake off the accusation that he was ultimately a racist, despite his frequent denials, but a more realistic view is that his antipathy to immigration was just one more manifestation of his idealisation of an organic, national identity and thus ultimately a defence of sovereignty. Given his history, I have little doubt that were he alive today, Powell would be appalled at the reality of "taking back control". As a British Prime Minister bypasses Parliament to launch missile attacks in Syria, in support of a US President who will probably repay the favour in time by imposing disfavourable trade terms on the UK, there is more than a touch of irony in the BBC broadcasting a programme that will seek to marginalise Powell's influence by admiring "how far we've come" in respect of race relations.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment14 April 2018 at 19:08

    “As a British Prime Minister bypasses Parliament to launch missile attacks in Syria, in support of a US President who will probably repay the favour in time by imposing disfavourable trade terms on the UK”

    Not disfavourable trade terms, say it isn’t so!

    My god, here was I thinking the main concerns were of the mass casualties, the potential for the conflict escalating, the fact that Assad would never use chemical weapons given this is the red line that would threaten his, his families and everything he holds dear existence, which beyond any reasonable doubt means the rulers in the West fabricate chemicals weapons attacks to justify military action and means the rulers of the West are criminal monsters!

    Seriously, get another fucking angle to all this!