It was in 1968 that the Conservative politician Enoch Powell gave his notorious speech, in which he claimed that “in fifteen to twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. He invoked the language of ‘excreta’ and ‘wide-grinning picaninnies’ in relation to Afro-Caribbean immigrants.
Powell imbued this inflammatory portrayal with a classicist reference to the poet Virgil: “as I look ahead I am filled with foreboding like the Roman I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Immediately the speech became notorious and has since remained an artefact in the collective imagination of British life. Every so often there is an eruption of racial strife and the phrase ‘Enoch was right’ is bandied about. Yet the speech had not emerged from a clear sky. In the mid-1960s, Powell had penned articles against Indian men sporting turbans and beards at work. There had been serious racial tensions in the past. The Notting Hill riots of 1958 were followed by calls for the doors to ‘coloured’ immigration to be shut. The Far-Right participated in these riots and sought to propel themselves further on the basis of racial strife.
If you look back at old newsreels from forty to fifty years ago you can see people saying things like “We want to keep Britain white”. It was a slogan for far-right organisations like the White Defence League, the National Front, and later, the BNP. In the aftermath of Powell’s speech people would march under banners and placards that displayed the same or similar messages. He had tapped into the racial consciousness of the white working-class. As a prominent right-wing politician Powell had given credence to sentiments widely held in the country. He had gone out on a limb in a bid to unseat his rival Ted Heath as leader of the Conservative Party.
In his career, Enoch Powell pioneered a combination of English nationalism, racial populism and free-market economics. He was nostalgic for the imperial past of Britain, as well as vehemently anti-socialist, an early exponent of monetarism, who called for the privatisation of public services. In the aftermath of imperial collapse, Powell argued for a constrained and isolationist foreign policy, as well as nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. He was even sceptical of the ‘special relationship’ with the US, as he partly blamed the American government for the loss of Britain’s empire.
In response to the speech, Ted Heath set out to marginalise Powell and harden his position as Conservative leader. He immediately forced Powell out of the shadow cabinet. Once in government, Heath moved to implement immigration reforms and curtail ‘coloured’ immigration. Powell later left the Conservative Party in disgust and became an Ulster Unionist MP. It was a move befitting of a nationalist politician. The cause to secure Northern Ireland in the midst of “the Troubles” had natural appeal to him and the loyalists embraced him.
Rights for ‘Whites’
As a Conservative, it is clear that Powell was on a particular side in history, and one which many modern Britons would rather forget. Powell may have had doubts about the possibility of rebuilding empires, but he certainly didn’t think concessions in the Six Counties were in order. Having become synonymous with racial hatred, Powell moved to Ulster loyalism. Perhaps in his mind, it was the last and the first outpost of Great Britain and its past. The occupation and partition of Ireland is fundamental to the history of British colonialism. So this is not as far flung from anti-immigrant politics as it may first appear.
It was Theodore W. Allen who pointed out that the oppression of the Irish by the English has many parallels with the oppression of Africans by the settlers in North America. When England was Anglo-Norman in the early thirteenth century the primary way of dealing with the contradictions between English law and Irish tribal law was to refuse to recognise Celtic law. The Irish were to be, conveniently, excluded from the rights of English law. As a consequence, Irish men and women could be killed and raped by the English with impunity.
Out of the Protestant Ascendancy comes the destruction of the original forms of identity among the subject population, and the exclusion of the Irish population from admittance into the forms of identity normal to the colonial power. According to Allen, the Penal Laws of Ireland and the slave codes of Anglo-America, hold four characteristics in common: 1) declassing legislation, directed at property-holding members of the oppressed group; 2) the deprivation of civil rights; 3) the illegalisation of literacy; and 4) the displacement of family rights and authorities.
In Allen’s mind, this is no coincidence. The oppression of the Irish was racial, even though we today would regard the Irish as ‘white’ as they themselves no doubt do as well. The history of this is not straightforward. Race is not biological, nor is it simply a social construct belonging to another era. Race is objective, but not scientifically; it is objective insofar as it exists in social relations and interactions, and in our everyday life. The treatment that the Irish, and later Irish Catholics in the North, were subjected to, was certainly objective. Whether it was the Potato Famine or the use of literacy tests to eliminate the Catholic vote in Northern Ireland.
Marx argued that the emancipation of the Irish from British colonialism would open up the space for the English working-class to be liberated. In terms Marx may not have used himself, the racial and national oppression of the Irish was vital to British capitalism, which could not overcome the conditions of within England and had to reach beyond its borders to do so. No longer would English workers be able to accept their own position as superior to those of the Other. The solidity of the class structure of English society could be undermined if the working-class no longer feels bound to the ruling-class by virtue of being English.
The racial character of the oppression of the Irish doesn’t just reveal a lot about British history. It also reveals a lot about the racial language we still employ. The card of colour may seem unique to racism towards Africans and Asians, but the claim to white-skin was not always extended to the Irish. Irish people were caricatured as apes in outlets like Punch. In the days before legislation, businesses still put up signs such as ‘No Irish or Coloured’. It was a part of job requirements and housing. On this front, Enoch Powell was opposed to “interference” from the state to stamp out such practices.
It was in the United States that the Irish became ‘white’ at long last. This was after facing a nativist backlash against Catholic immigration. Once these Irish-Americans, who had gained their ‘whiteness’, and had aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, some campaigned against German immigration on the grounds that the Germans were ‘not white’. History is rich with ironies. The Irish joined the ranks of the ‘white’ American working-class. The same working-class which, as it developed trade unions, largely refused to grant membership to Black labour. Even the New Deal minimum wage didn’t cover 60-70% of the ‘non-white’ workforce in agriculture.
Culture over Race
The significance of British colonialism in the history of UK immigration should not be ignored or played down. It wasn’t until the British Empire was collapsing in 1948 that there was an attempt to distinguish between a British citizen and a British colonial subject, at least in formal legal terms. As far as the law was concerned, both were regarded as subjects of the Crown. The asymmetry of rights and freedoms across the range of Her Majesty’s subjects was huge and concealed by this indistinct concept. This was not the last development in British nationality and Commonwealth citizenship. Changes would continue to be made up until the 1980s.
Due to the absence of a written English constitution, the British state has been in a state of ongoing development which has not always been gently gradualist. Sudden bursts have occurred over the centuries. The longevity and continuity of British institutions should not be taken as totally indeterminate in origins, timeless and non-contingent in condition. Institutions and legal formations of feudal provenance remain intact in Britain to this day. We still live with a hereditary principle, an unelected second chamber, a state-church, an ‘unwritten’ constitution, and huge swathes of land remained in the hands of aristocratic families.
The newcomers to Britain came up against many businesses, even trade unions, and workers, who wanted to prevent them from gaining access to the same standards of living: whether it be in housing, employment, education, health-care, or social benefits. The social democratic consensus in Britain had established a better lot for the English working-class than it had seen before WWII. Migrant workers from the Caribbean and South Asia were received as a threat to the developments enjoyed in the UK. It was British capitalism and its imperial reach which had amassed the material surplus that the Labour government had used to save the system after the war. Much of that wealth was extracted not just from the UK working-class, but from colonial subjects abroad.
By the 1990s, the transition had been made to a diverse society mainly out of a compromising acceptance of the growth of a settled migrant population into significant communities. Indian, African and Caribbean communities had made up 1% of the population in 1940 and by 1990 this figure had risen to 6% and by 2010 these communities had grown to over 10%. Yet popular perceptions of immigration would put see the Black and Asian population as 30%. Likewise, the widespread belief is that the percentage of those foreign-born in the UK comes to 31%. When the 2011 census found that the foreign-born populace had risen to 13% from 6% in 1971. At the highest, the figure rises to 15%, if we take into account estimates of the number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants living in Britain. The media has had its role in shaping such perceptions.
Even still, it may be said that the diversification of British society has been dramatic. As of 2013, the white British population of London accounts for 45% of its whole population. In 2010 the BNP leader Nick Griffin described London as ‘lost’ and affirmed that the Party should become a ‘civil rights organisation’ for the “white minority”. John Cave, a far-right activist in Burnley, told Daniel Trilling, the only reason the BNP exists “is to give people a chance to say they don’t want multiculturalism, they don’t want integration and they want, what John Tyndall used to say, a white Britain.” Yet when Nick Griffin became MEP for North-West England white people made up 91% of the population.
It looked for a time as if race was being relegated to the past; much like class has been, albeit for different reasons, in both cases, and now culture would fill the void in the discourse. People talked of a multiracial society, and would soon start talking about a multicultural society. The language of discourse shifted away from integration. This has come about around the same time as so-called ‘political-correctness’, – which we might best understand as a newfound sensitivity in language – a phenomenon defined mainly by the right-wing press as a new left-wing menace. The emphasis on culture holds obvious advantages over the old discourse of race. The problem was that the racists have been liberated into a cultural discourse. We’re warned about the dangers of Muslim ‘culture’ and even Black ‘culture’.
We’re led astray in some way by this trajectory. As we refrain from talk of race from a critical standpoint, it also means that the old enemy can talk in the language of culture. The fact that the UK has utilised immigration to supplement deficiencies in its labour supply can be glossed over in the current discourse. As multiculturalism has become the default position of liberals, and opposition to it the default reaction of nationalists, we find that the dichotomy feeds into itself. Multiculturalism was a compromise by the establishment after its efforts at restricting ‘non-white’ immigration largely failed or backfired. Yet the forces of reaction (some much more subtle than Powell) have been able to assert the view that it was a state-sponsored engineering plan simply to impose diversity from above. If we don’t critically examine race, then it will rear its ugly head, unchallenged. UKIP, anybody?
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit