Powell seems to be quite the rage at the moment. After publicity whore Tory MEP Dan Hannan cited Enoch Powell as one of his key influences nobodies seems to be able to stop talking about either of them.
Powell has been painted a racist, and it is clear that some people think that Hannan is trying to use a “racist dog whistle” to bolster his growing profile. Like adding sodium to water, one thing is certain, Hannan never fails to produce a explosive reaction.
On one hand there is the corrosiveness of introducing Powell to any debate, given his reputation, but as Mark Thompson successfully argues diatribes like Sunny’s may be counter productive, only narrowing the political debate in this country. Speaking as an extremist, I don’t want extremists silenced.
In the end, Guido has actually spoken to Hannan and cites his earlier telegraph article as evidence that Hannan rejects Powell’s position on immigration. The below exchange is what has caused all the current heat.
Q: “Who are your political influences? I’ve seen you reference Ron Paul, I believe you have referenced Hayek and Friedman on your blog.
Hannan: “Yeah, all of those guys…In the British context, Enoch Powell. He was somebody who understood the importance of national democracy, who understood why you need to live in an independent country and what that meant, as well as being a free marketeer and a small government Conservative.”
I am fairly convinced of Hannan’s Friedmanite stand on immigration. If it’s not considered damning with faint praise, he’s definitely more liberal than Phil Woolas. Ultimately, I think this situation may boil down to one of three things. Either it proves once and for all that Hannan is simply a publicity seeking egotist; it shows that for all his posturing he is still a political novice, or it shows that there is still a great deal of unsavoury things we do not know about Mr Hannan. I’d plump for a little from column a) and a little from column b).
However, what this situation does provide is an excellent chance to look at how Powell has affected and reflects the way we discuss immigration. And how in the decades of change and progress since, a great deal has remained the same.
Sadly, a frightening similarity exists between the way immigrants were discussed in the bad old days of the 60s and 70s and the contemporary speeches of our Labour Government, their opposition and the press which was meant to protect us.
Most interesting is the similarities between the language used in Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, and the Eastborne speech discussed by Sunder, and the language used by our modern press.
In the 1960’s race played an important role in the political debate and contemporary politics is no less enthralled to the more amorphous topic of “immigration.” In the 1960s “wide-grinning piccaninies” molested old ladies and Powell declared Britain “mad, quite mad” to allow so many immigrants to enter. In contemporary Britain asylum seekers and refugees from around the world are not quite met with such blatant racism, nevertheless, the diverse language used to describe these immigrants is frighteningly similar to the language used four decades ago.
You only have to browse The Sun Lies, The Enemies of Reason, Tabloid Watch, Angry Mob and so on, to see just how poisonous the national debate on immigration and race still is. But, this post is not going to look at any “new” stories, the purpose of this post is to look at what old stories they are still reporting.
Tony Benn – “Enoch Powell is raising the flag of racialism over Wolverhampton, a flag which is beginning to look suspiciously like the one that fluttered over Dachau and Belsen”
In Wolverhampton in 1968 Powell begins the speech, which was to see him pushed of the Tory front bench, with an anecdote, in which he talks with an “ordinary” man, who describes his fears for the country. This culminates in the peculiar prophesy that “in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” In a later speech Powell again switches the relation between Empire and colony:
It is… truly when he looks into the eyes of Asia that the Englishman comes face to face with those who would dispute with him the possession of his native land.
The imperial imagery is not mere rhetoric, in Powell’s view England should only ever be presented as strong, masculine and dominant. Powell’s world revolved around an England which remained unchanged, and immigrants are presented as unassailably un-English. By reversing the imperial imagery he none too subtly links immigration with national decline. And later uses this to link national restoration to the repatriation of immigrants.
National decline was a hot topic in the 1960s and is only slightly less prominent today. However, modern narratives tend to focus on a nation declined, not a nation in decline. Immigrants still feature prominently in this narrative.
Worryingly, before I even arrive at the Tabloids there is a vile example equating immigration with national decline from a paper in the aledged “quality” press. As Anton Vowl describes, The “Telegraph can’t be bothered with dog-whistles; [so it] goes for straight racism.” The story in question argues for a “middle-class baby boom” to correct some sort of balance.The message is clear, the “wrong sort” of people are having babies, immigrants and the poor, and they are going to ruin everything. Much in the same vein as Powell’s prediction 40 years ago.
Of course there are further examples of this. Five Chinese Crackers offers an excellent take on the Express and Mail fitting unyielding facts to their own narrative. The Office of National Statistics has recently brought out figures on immigration, births, deaths and population; these show the UK population hitting 61 million for the first time. The upshot of this is – immigrants now appear to be leaving as we have entered recession and there are no jobs, they are not “benefits scroungers,” net immigration is at a 10 year low, and predictions of a Muslim takeover were and remain based on ludicrous demographic assumptions.
However, in an effort to squeeze an anti-immigration story out of these figures both the Mail and the Express have created an “Immigrant Baby Boom.” Just as in the 60s children or “dependants” are depicted as a time bomb waiting to sabotage “our” national heritage. The implicit assumption here is that 2nd generation immigrants (or as I like to call them British people) may be fellow residents, but the are still just another immigrant. The not so implicit message here is not far from Powell’s declaration that:
The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.
Floods and Influxes
Rhetoric about floods and swamps of immigrants (or Asylum Seekers) is not new before Powell, Duncan Sandys, a Conservative MP, called for “turning off the tap” on immigration; moreover, Powell himself said that the flow of Commonwealth immigration would never go away and that “turning the inlet tap down or off” could never be the solution.The language of “floods” or “influxes” will be familiar to those with any passing reference to our Forth Estate; for example here, here and here.
The language of floods and influxes extends to all corners of the national debate on immigration and race. In the early 1970s in response to Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, The Telegraph said that a “further large influx of coloured immigrants to Britain is wholly undesirable on social grounds.”
The language used suggests that immigration controls are a restraint on an indeterminate flood of immigrants who wish to enter. It has been pointed out repeatedly, and research confirms this, that migrants largely travel to where there is work. They also travel, not in floods, but in brave expeditions, with only a few members of an given population likely to take the colossal risk.
Modern discourse on immigrants has gained new intensity as asylum seekers are denounced as bogus. As Paul Gilroy describes in There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack “the wearisome task of dissecting the rhetoric is not helped by its lack of originality: ‘they’ are taking our jobs and houses, using up local resources and undermining ‘our’ culture and, in return, offering ‘us’ disease and terrorism.”
I hope Everyone’s got Volcano Insurance
From the outset the Labour government of Tony Blair had made clear its attitudes towards asylum seekers. The tiny British overseas territory of Montserrat was being threatened by the impending eruption of a volcano, and help was not forthcoming. As an island with the same territorial status as the Falklands, the islanders expected help as unquestionably genuine refugees; however, Britain regarded their pleas as a nuisance. No effective measures were enacted to aid travel to Britain, but those islanders which eventually arrived were seen as a burden, Clare Short [Minister of State for Overseas Aid and Development] described their petition for help after a Volcano shattered their island as akin to asking for “golden elephants.” The continuity in bigotry obviously made its mark on policy for this Labour Government.
There are some worrying similarities between the language used in Powell’s era and today, but also some interesting differences too. The most striking similarity is the continued use of language presenting immigrants as both a drain and a burden. Powell presented immigrants as parasitic on locales previously pleasant, and the government of 1997 clearly resented the legitimate needs of the Montserrat residents, comparing them to asking for help with asking for “golden elephants.”
There is a good reason to be worried about the continuity in our public discourse from those dangerous days. The threat of fascism has returned with two MEPs elected and Daily Mail articles are now used as BNP propaganda. Unfortunate, there are differences which signal a worse deal for some of the most vulnerable. In the case of Ugandan Asians government and opposition spoke of a “clear obligation” to help, once the horror of Amin’s regime was revealed. Now, even British subjects threatened by volcanoes cannot expect help, and refugees who do make it to Britain can expect to be labelled as illegal immigrants, or “bogus” asylum seekers.
Discussing immigration is difficult in this country, often it descends into one side calling the other racists. Or more commonly, a writer beginning a piece by stating that it is no longer possible to discuss immigration in this country, without being accused of being a racist. I don’t think that this is a particularly healthy way to conduct debate.
What I hope to have shown is that the way immigrants are represented and discussed now, bares a scary resemblance to how they were discussed when racism and bigotry was unashamedly on show. Any discussion on immigration in this country is poisoned by this. You cannot blindly argue that avoiding the race of an immigrant means avoiding the racism of the way you present them, the two remain intertwined.