Powell and right-wing populism


IT is a measure of the dramatic changes in the thinking and attitudes of people in the West that some leaders are making huge electoral gains for expressing anti-immigrant views for which British politician Enoch Powell was removed from his party’s shadow cabinet. A brilliant academic and a decorated soldier, Powell was an MP for 37 years, first for the Conservatives and then the Ulster Unionist Party. He also served briefly as minister for health and financial secretary to the Treasury in the Macmillan government. He never again held high office, though he remained a MP until 1987.

It was on April 20, 1968 that Powell made his incendiary speech that cost him his position in the Conservative Party and made him a political pariah. Addressing a Conservative Party association meeting in Birmingham, he expressed his concerns about immigration to UK from Commonwealth countries, such as India and Jamaica. His forebodings about white people being humbled by the rise of ethnic-minority power, and racial conflict creating rivers of blood have proved unfounded though it sent a chill through Britain’s ethnic-minority population.

But his fears about the growth of the ethnic-minority population have turned out to be broadly correct. Ethnic-minorities that numbered around one million (two percent) in 1968 now stand more than 8 million (13 percent). Similar is the case in other parts of the continent.

There are fears that half a century on, there is an attempt to rehabilitate him. But given the upsurge of anti-immigrant sentiments in Britain and many European countries, there is no need for such attempts.

Even Powell would have been astonished to see America, the world’s major multicultural democracy, elect a man who stigmatize Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as terrorists as its president. The fact is that ideas for which Powell was condemned by his own party and the opposition Labour now form part of the mainstream politics in Britain and many European countries. Powell would not have liked to be a poster boy for far-right politics in Britain, but his themes of national sovereignty and a determination to keep out undesirable immigrants have been embraced by far-right politicians such as France’s Marine LePen, Holland’s Geert Wilder, Hungary’s Victor Orban, England’s UKIP, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany and the alt-right in the US.

If anyone is to be blamed or held responsible for Britain’s move to the political right affecting the 2016 vote to leave the European Union (EU), it is none other than Powell. He was a bitter critic of the EEC (the European Economic Community), a forerunner of the 1992 European Union (EU).

The Times of London called the Rivers of Blood “an evil speech,” and the first direct appeal to “racial hatred” made by a senior British politician. But Powell or his fiery speech is no way responsible for the growth of Islamophobia in the West. He was expressing his apprehensions about the non-white immigrants weakening the social cohesion of British society or Britain “building its own funeral pyre.”

A white middle class constituent whom Powell quoted was worried that the levels of immigration would one day mean that the “black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

The only community he singled out for attack was the Sikhs whose “campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain is much to be regretted.” He was against Sikhs claiming “special communal rights (or should one say rites?)” leading to “a dangerous fragmentation within society.”

Muslim leaders everywhere have to think why the target of nativist anxiety about otherness in Britain and the rest of the continent has shifted from blacks to Muslims. Powell was against unrestricted entry of non-White people to UK. Unfortunately, attitudes about immigration have become entangled with policies about one single community. Though unforeseen by Powell, Muslim leaders should have been alert to this danger.