By David Osland
Saturday afternoon racist demagogy in beer-scented upper rooms above a hotel in Birmingham rarely aspires to eloquence. But Enoch Powell mastered the singular art.
The Rivers of Blood speech he delivered 54 years ago this week remains one of the pivotal addresses delivered by a top British politician in the twentieth century.
It was guttersnipe in content, little more than a call for voluntary repatriation of what polite terminology of the day called ‘coloured immigrants’, as advocated by the newly launched National Front.
But it was elegant in form, to the point of ostentation: the oratory conjoined multiple classical allusions with letters supposedly written by local little old ladies from Wolverhampton, the greater to generate impact.
The text was circulated in advance. The regional broadcaster was duly tipped off, ensuring the presence of cameras to record the event both for posterity and, more importantly, that evening’s television news.
The timing was dictated by the second reading of what became the 1968 Race Relations Act, which the Tories were opposing, just three days later.
Powell’s probable goal was to blow up Ted Heath, in furtherance of his ambitions to lead the Conservative Party. Instead, it led to his sacking from the shadow cabinet, and a loss of political standing from which he never recovered.
But the blue touchpaper had been lit, with polls demonstrating majority backing for Powell’s inflammatory outburst. London dockers and Smithfield meat porters marched on Parliament in his support, carrying placards declaiming that Enoch was right.
On Powell’s death in 1998, more sophisticated right wing commentators exonerated a man they regard as Thatcher’s John the Baptist from accusations of any sentiment so base as actually being a racist himself.
Even if the case for the defence is upheld – and most on the left will instantly see it as shoddy – what is at least true is that he was willing to mobilise popular racism behind a political project.
Six decades later, the Tories are not in opposition but in power. And this time the same desire to mobilise racism behind a political project permeates an entire government.
Making Powell’s successor in this endeavour a diminutive woman of south Asian extraction is one of God’s better little jokes. It’s not for nothing that Home Secretary Priti Patel has been dubbed ‘the Female Enoch’, in mocking homage to Germaine Greer.
Patel flew to Kigali last week to sign what is officially known as ‘the UK-Rwanda Migration Partnership’, while Boris Johnson handled the public announcement in front of the House of Commons.
These days, not even Conservative politicians can advocate the repatriation of black people to any degree greater than the government is already practising by means of deportation flights. Well, not publicly, anyway.
The new target is asylum seekers, in line with the panic over ‘the clandestine Channel threat’ obligingly conjured up by the tabloids.
The big idea is to take people fleeing persecution and political violence and get them on a plane somewhat less luxurious than Ms Patel’s government jet, allowing them to be ‘processed’ – and how revealing is the very choice of word? – in the former Belgian colony.
Britain has previously built detention camps in Africa in the Boer War in the 1900s and Kenya in the 1950s, but clearly has not been chastened by the experience.
The instincts of Patel and Johnson on this one are closer to those of Marine Le Pen than Angela Merkel’s mainstream continental Christian democracy. They are the instincts of Powellism redux.
The Rwanda scheme is grotesquely symbolic. The camps will not be on a scale capable of making any discernible dent in asylum seeker numbers.
The accompanying rhetoric is not of Romans seeing the river foaming with much blood, but of deportation with a human face.
Britain is rather helping asylum seekers ‘rebuild their lives’ in ‘one of the safest countries in the world’. And give or take the odd 800,000 death toll genocide and participation in a still-simmering war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who would deny President Kagame’s dictatorship such an accolade?
Happily, there have been no dock strikes this time. A plurality of voters recognise this farrago for what it is.
Even so, more than 30% are strongly behind the Patel proposals, which are of course expressly designed to appeal to Britain’s irreducible racist core.
Would that the Labour leadership were as liberal as the electorate. Labour’s disappointing response so far has focused on the legal complications and the cost.
Such is the inevitable outcome of an unfortunate conjuncture of morally debased government and morally uncertain opposition. Those seeking forthright condemnation must unfortunately look to SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford instead.
Many cross-Channel asylum seekers are running away from the consequences of the British-backed illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is not as if Labour is devoid of culpability here.
Greater courage may eventually be mustered once focus groups have reassured the fainthearted that it really is OK to call Priti Patel out. But socialists will have to bear in mind that it is hard to summon focus groups over a bank holiday weekend.
Given Keir Starmer’s newfound enthusiasm for unshakeable commitments, an unshakeable commitment to scrap the camps would be most welcome.
Racism – like any addictive drug – needs ever-stronger doses to recapture the initial headrush. What started with Go Home vans and the Hostile Environment policy and developed into the Windrush scandal and deportation flights to Jamaica clearly has further to go.
After all, Brexit was the right wing revolution, and we are now in the consolidation stage. The Rwanda announcement can plausibly be presented as Britain taking back control of its borders.
Palpably flimsy half-arsed PR stunt it may be. But Patel may just – to use a reference that would doubtless have pleased Powell – have crossed the Rubicon.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland
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