Holiday Tangent: Hanif Kureishi on UK’s Enoch Powell: How just one racist-populist politician can color the debate in an entire society


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Hi Blog, and Happy Impending Holidays. As a Holiday Tangent, the Guardian offers an excellent account of life for migrants, immigrants, and citizens of color in a society in flux (Great Britain in the 1970s, as it adjusted to the effects of a post-empire Commonwealth).  It depicts well how one racist-populist politician, Enoch Powell, could affect an entire society, and though fear-mongering invective effectively accelerate the othering and subordination of residents.

But that was just one person.  Imagine the effects of a proliferation of Enoch Powellesque racists and fearmongerers throughout a society, such as the leader of a party (Hiranuma Takeo), the governor of the capital city (like Ishihara Shintaro), or the Prime Minister of an entire country (like Abe Shinzo), or Japan’s entire national police force (see here, here, and here in particular).  Enoch had his effects, and Kureishi can now look back with some degree of “the past is a foreign country” relief.  Japan cannot.  Not right now.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


Hanif Kureishi: Knock, knock, it’s Enoch
The novelist and screenwriter remembers the effect of Enoch Powell – it’s impossible not to summon his ghost now that immigration is again centre of the political stage
The Guardian, Friday 12 December 2014, courtesy of PKU

I was 14 in 1968 and one of the horrors of my teenage years was Enoch Powell. For a mixed-race kid, this stiff ex-colonial zealot – with his obscene, grand guignol talk of whips, blood, excreta, urination and wide-eyed piccaninnies – was a monstrous, scary bogeyman. I remember his name being whispered by my uncles for fear I would overhear.

I grew up near Biggin Hill airfield in Kent, in the shadow of the second world war. We walked past bomb sites everyday. My grandmother had been a “fire watcher” and talked about the terror of the nightly Luftwaffe raids. With his stern prophet’s nostalgia, bulging eyes and military moustache, Powell reminded us of Hitler, and the pathology of his increasing number of followers soon became as disquieting as his pronouncements. At school, Powell’s name soon become one terrifying word – Enoch. As well as being an insult, it began to be used with elation. “Enoch will deal with you lot,” and, “Enoch will soon be knocking on your door, pal.” “Knock, knock, it’s Enoch,” people would say as they passed. Neighbours in the London suburbs began to state with some defiance: “Our family is with Enoch.” More skinheads appeared.

It was said, after Powell mooted the idea for a Ministry of Repatriation, that we “offspring”, as he called the children of immgrants, would be sent away. “A policy of assisting repatriation by payment of fares and grants is part of the official policy of the Conservative party,” he stated in 1968. Sometimes, idly, I wondered how I might like it in India or Pakistan, where I’d never been, and whether I’d be welcomed. But others said that if we were born here, as I was, it would be only our parents who would be sent back. We would, then, have to fend for ourselves, and I imagined a parentless pack of us unwanted mongrels, hunting for food in the nearby woods.

Repatriation, Powell said, “would help to achieve with minimum friction what must surely be the object of everyone – to prevent, so far as that is still possible, a major racial problem in the Britain of AD2000.” It was clear: if Britain had lost an empire and not yet recovered from the war, our added presence would only cause more strife – homelessness, joblessness, prostitution and drug addiction. Soon the indigenous whites would be a “persecuted minority” or “strangers” in their own country. It would be our turn, presumably, to do the persecuting.

The influence of Powell, this ghost of the empire, was not negligible; he moved British politics to the right and set the agenda we address today. It’s impossible not to summon his ghost now that immigration is once again the subject of national debate. Politicians attack minorities when they want to impress the public with their toughness as “truth-tellers”. And Powell’s influence extended far. In 1976 – the year before the Clash’s “White Riot” – and eight years after Powell’s major speeches, one of my heroes, Eric Clapton, ordered an audience to vote for Powell to prevent Britain becoming a “black colony”. Clapton said that, “Britain should get the wogs out, get the coons out,” before repeatedly shouting the National Front slogan “Keep Britain White”.

A middle-class, only child from Birmingham, socially inept and repressed, Powell had taken refuge in books and “scholarship” for most of his life. He was perhaps happiest during the war, spending three years in military intelligence in India. Like a lot of Brits, he loved the empire and colonial India, where he could escape his parents and the constraints of Britain. Many Indians were intimidated by and subservient to British soldiers, as my family attested. Like most colonialists, Powell was a bigger, more powerful man in India than he’d have been in England. No wonder he was patriotic and believed giving up the empire would be a disaster. “I had always been an imperialist and a Tory,” he said.

On his return in 1945, Powell went into politics. Like the grandees he aspired to be, he took up churchgoing and fox-hunting. Before his speeches on race, he was an obedient, relatively undistinguished servant of the state. But he was also, in fact, a proto-Thatcherite: a supporter of the free market and lower taxes with a utopian vision of unregulated capitalism where, miraculously, everything people required would be provided by the simple need for profit. Soon, as Thatcher said, there would be no alternative.

But, in 1968, that great year of newness, experimentation and hope, when people were thinking in new ways about oppression, relationships and equality, there was a terrible return. This odd Edwardian figure popped up into public life, and decided to became a demagogue. Richard Crossman, in his diary of 1968, worried about Powell’s celebrity appeal to “mass opinion, right over our parliament and his party leadership”.

Appealing to the worst in people – their hate – is a guaranteed way to get attention, but it is also fatal. Powell talked in whole sentences and was forever translating Herodotus, so was known for his cleverness. But he wasn’t smart enough to resist the temptation of instant populism for which he traded in his reputation. Racism is the fool’s gold, or, rather, the crack cocaine of politics. The 1970s was a dangerous time for people of colour – the National Front was active and violent, particularly in south London, and it was an ignoble sacrifice for Powell to attack the most vulnerable and unprotected, those workers who had left their homes to come to Britain. He elevated his phobia to a political position, and there was no going back.

Like many racists, Powell was nostalgic in his fantasies: before all this mixing, there was a time of clarity and plenitude, when Britishness was fixed and people knew who they were. Powell refused to allow his certainties to come into contact with reality. He had wanted to know India, but barely troubled himself with Britain and, apart from some weekends in Wolverhampton, lived most of his life in Belgravia.

In contrast to the crude caricatures of people of colour perpetrated by Powell, the Guyanese-born, Cambridge-educated writer ER Braithwaite – who served in the RAF before becoming a teacher in the East End because he couldn’t get a job as a engineer – writes in detail about race between the late-40s and the mid-60s. Three important works in particular, To Sir, With Love, Reluctant Neighbours and Choice of Straws engage with this era. From this clear-eyed, brave novelist we learn about the everyday humiliations, abuse and remarks that people of colour had to face after being invited to help run the NHS and transport system. To make the future it wanted, Britain needed the best doctors, engineers, architects, artists and workers of all kinds, and it imported them, before insulting them.

Powell liked to complain about every vile “imputation and innuendo” made about him; he was keen to be a martyr and victim. Braithwaite, for his part, really suffered. He catalogues the systemic and degrading exclusion from jobs and housing that so disillusioned immigrants about the British with their babble about fairness, liberty and the mother country. His books describe the rage and hate that relentless humiliation inevitably engenders – as colonialism did, in its time. Powell probably intuited the simple idea that tyranny creates resistance, and grasped that future conflicts would be caused by the tyranny he supported, hence his apocalypticism.

Powell developed his own schoolmasterish look. Always in black, sometimes in a long overcoat and occasionally in a little homburg, he was punky and subversive, and came to enjoy making everyone furious with his provocations. And he had the cheek to call us “a roomful of gunpowder”. He didn’t fit in; but he certainly liked to disorientate and traumatise us. After he spoke, we were in freefall; we didn’t know where or who we were. Powell wanted to confirm us as outsiders, as unintelligible and unwanted, but this helped us clarify things and created resistance. Out of Clapton’s statements, for instance, came Rock Against Racism, created by artists, musicians and activists to combat fascism. Then there was identity politics. We were not nothing; we had histories and, unlike him, we had futures.

Powell was creating the conflict he claimed to be the solution to. He soon found himself supported by the National Front. Powell had called himself a Nietszchean as a young man, but Nietzsche would have hated the wretched appeal to the mob or herd. Powell was merely addressing the bitter rabble, and, for so fastidious a man, this would have been distasteful, and he must have considered how incapable our intelligence can be when it comes to protecting us from the temptations of self-destruction.

He cheated his followers, because all he gave them was the brief thrill of superiority and hatred. Nothing substantial altered in the world, and the wild, amoral capitalism that developed from his Hayek-inspired economic vision created wealth for some, but otherwise had no respect for the homes or jobs of Powell’s followers, nor for the other things he cared about – tradition, national borders, patriotism or religion.

Although he was attacked and condemned by students wherever he went, he didn’t trouble himself to think about the profound social changes sweeping the country, as young people attempted to liberate themselves from the assumptions of the past. Britain wasn’t decaying, it was remaking itself, even as it didn’t know how the story would end.

In London now, if you stroll through the crowds on a bright Sunday afternoon near the museums and decorated shop fronts, even for those of us who have been here for years, this multiracial metropolis – less frantic than New York, and with more purpose than Paris, and with its scores of languages – seems like nothing that has ever been made before. And it grows ever more busy, bustling and compelling in its beauty, multiplicity and promise, particularly for those of us who remember how dull and eventless London could seem in the 70s, especially on Sundays.

Britain survived Powell and became something he couldn’t possibly have envisioned. He was a pessimist and lacked faith in the ability of people to cooperate with one another, to collaborate and make alliances. The cultural collisions he was afraid of are the affirmative side of globalisation. People do not love one another because they are “the same”, and they don’t always kill one another because they are different. Where, indeed, does difference begin? Why would it begin with race or colour?

Racism is the lowest form of snobbery. Its language mutates: not long ago the word “immigrant” became an insult, a stand-in for “paki” or “nigger”. We remain an obstruction to “unity”, and people like Powell, men of ressentiment, with their omens and desire to humiliate, will return repeatedly to divide and create difference. The neoliberal experiment that began in the 80s uses racism as a vicious entertainment, as a sideshow, while the wealthy continue to accumulate. But we are all migrants from somewhere, and if we remember that, we could all go somewhere – together.


9 comments on “Holiday Tangent: Hanif Kureishi on UK’s Enoch Powell: How just one racist-populist politician can color the debate in an entire society

  • That’s a really good article Dr. Debito, and so much of it could easily describe Japan’s right-wingers;

    ‘socially inept and repressed’- Ishihara.
    ‘ It was clear: if Britain had lost an empire and not yet recovered from the war, our added presence would only cause more strife – homelessness, joblessness, prostitution and drug addiction. ‘- like Japan, except that Japan’s losing the economic war too.
    ‘Like many racists, Powell was nostalgic in his fantasies: before all this mixing, there was a time of clarity and plenitude, when Britishness was fixed and people knew who they were. Powell refused to allow his certainties to come into contact with reality’- like Abe, and his ‘beautiful Japan’ fantasy of his pastoral Yamaguchi childhood.

    I could go on…

    But the point is that the UK went through this process 50 years ago, and rejected Powell’s ideas. Japan, on the other hand, has not only failed to look up from its navel, and see that this ideology fails, but is still at the stage of playing with it to see how they can make it work. So far behind.

  • Daniel Nagase says:

    There’s a very good documentary on YouTube which shows some examples of how Enoch Powell framed the debate on race during the period discussed in the article. Its discussion on how the media distorts and misrepresents race is timeless, but it also sums up the social and political background of race issues in Britain during the 70’s quite well.

  • Slight tangent, but the same theme nonetheless.

    Notice how those women cabinet members that had links to neo-nazis were brushed away and not investigated to the point at it has been “accepted” as a ‘really sorry error’ and nothing is meant by posing in photo’s of such racist gits.
    Interesting how even the mere whiff of neo-nazi in other countries is played out in the media:

    “..Republican Steve Scalise in hot water over 2002 meeting with ‘neo-Nazi group’..” *


  • @Daniel.

    That was an excellent documentary. I wish someone would do that about TV in Japan.
    That and the exploitation of children, which also seems a massive social problem here.

  • Baudrillard says:

    No, Ishihara, Hiranuma etc are mental r-tards if simplistically compared to Powell, an intellectual giant with a unique double first from Cambridge whose name nad reputation, in typical postmodern fashion, has been warped into a symbol for things he never actually said or supported- a bogeyman for Hanif Kureishi, and now a way for the power elite to tar anyone who attempts to challenge or question the UK’s membership in the EU. Have Ishihara or Hiranuma EVER ever stood up for any foreigner? No, never. Yet Powell has. Even critical of the Special Air Service (SAS) shootings of three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar in March 1988.[6]:918

    Allow me to play the Devil”s Advocate-for that is what we have been taught subsequently that was what Powell was, to fit into the Neo Conservative/New Labor PC version of modern history, in which, in the words of Thatcher we supposedly fight for “values” (although values, as Powell pointed out ” exist in a transcendental realm, beyond space and time. They can neither be fought for, nor destroyed.’ Mrs Thatcher looked utterly baffled. She had just been presented with the difference between Toryism and American Republicanism.[48])

    Powell learnt Urdu because he felt that his long-cherished ambition of becoming Viceroy of India would be unattainable without knowledge of an Indian language.[6]
    I cant see Ishihara or Hiranuma bothering to learn English or Portuguese to understand immigrants or countries Japan does business with.

    Similarly, Powell rushed to enlist to fight Nazism Rather than waiting to be called up, he claimed to be Australian, as they were allowed to enlist straight away.[12]:39 Meanwhile we have Ishihara and Aso expressing admiration for HItler and the Nazis.

    Whereas in 1945 onwards, Ishihara was sulking because an American GI took his ice cream.

    Its all on wikipedia- Powell was a far more complex and maverick a figure, than the simple demagogues of the boring predictable Japanese right could ever be. He earned respect from his opponents-“The future Labour leader Michael Foot remarked to a reporter that it was “tragic” that this “outstanding personality” had been widely misunderstood as predicting actual bloodshed in Britain, when in fact he had used the Aeneid quotation merely to communicate his own sense of foreboding.[1]”

    Thirty years after the speech, Edward Heath admitted that Powell’s remarks on the “economic burden of immigration” had been “not without prescience.”[1]

    Whilst he was Health minister, he encouraged a large number of Commonwealth immigrants into the understaffed National Health Service…. there is no doubt that in easing non-white immigrants into what was considered a prestigious form of career, he boosted the confidence of the immigrant population and helped lay the foundations of a future immigrant-descended permanent Afro-Caribbean and Asian middle class in Britain.[21][22]

    Similarly, Powell stood against the imperialist racism of the times: “On 27 July 1959, Powell gave his speech on the Hola Camp of Kenya, where eleven Mau Mau were killed after refusing work in the camp. Powell noted that some MPs had described the eleven as “sub-human”, but Powell responded by saying: “In general, I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgement on a fellow human being and to say, ‘Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow’.”[16]:206–7 Powell also disagreed with the notion that because it was in Africa, different methods were acceptable:”
    Denis Healey, a member of parliament from 1952 to 1992, later said this speech was “the greatest parliamentary speech I ever heard… it had all the moral passion and rhetorical force of Demosthenes”.[6]:25

    Also, in 1967, Powell spoke of his opposition to the immigration of Kenyan Asians to the United Kingdom after the African country’s leader Jomo Kenyatta’s discriminatory policies led to the flight of Asians from that country.[24]”

    Sure, Powell was, in his latter years, a relic, a man out of an earlier, imperial time (though he opposed British imperialism after Indian independence) and behind the times, or perhaps more, an oddball at odds with the (in my opinion ghastly) Thatcherite narrative that had taken hold at the time. Too clever for the dumbed down, too easily misunderstood, and a thorn in the side of the Thatcher government and arguably, its pro American policy, (excluding the Falklands).(“(1966) Britain “has behaved perfectly clearly and perfectly recognisably as an American satellite”.)

    Without doubt, “Rivers of Blood: was an ill conceived, evil speech The Times called “”This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our postwar history.”[26]”

    But it is naive and so postmodern to remember just this later defining, demonizing “brand” of Powell and completely forget the man’s earlier achievements, oft on the side of the underdog.

    — Thanks for this, but my take: I don’t think Powell was framed by the establishment. As nuanced as his take on race relations may seem, it didn’t matter in the end — he allowed himself to be portrayed as a racist by racists and non-racists alike, thanks to his statements that allowed him to be hoisted by his own petard. He did an insufficient amount of distancing and renouncing of his past selves and statements — if he was all that smart, he could have fixed his own image. He chose not to. Why? Because in the end, he was on nobody’s side but his own, doing what was necessary to his political survival, regardless of the peoples he hurt in the process, as Kureishi highlights.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Japan’s top politicians are poorly educated, owing their positions to aristocratic nepotism and inherited, rotten boroughs. There is not a single Japanese university in the world’s top 20 (Tokyo University is at #21) (ref. The Economist 2015). Think of Mori, Aso and their ignorant, popularist gaffes.

    Rather than Powell, if there is a western politician I can compare their abject stupidity to (none spring to mind- Japanese politicians are really in the world’s lowest leagues of mediocrity and uselessness) it might perhaps be Northern Ireland’s Ian Paisley who in 1983 ironically denounced Powell as “a foreigner and an Anglo-Catholic”.[6]:872- double the irony considering Paisley maintains Northern Ireland is British and Powell was of course British.

    That reminds me of Ishihara’s “he is a foreigner so his opinion does not matter” remark.

    Finally, “Powell’s detractors often assert that he was ‘far-right’, ‘proto-fascist’ or ‘racist’. His supporters claim that the first two charges clash with his voting record on most social issues, such as homosexual law reform (he was actually a co-sponsor of a bill on this issue in May 1965 and opposed the death penalty, both reforms unpopular among Conservatives at the time, but he kept a low profile to his stance on these non-party “issues of conscience”).[7]:318 Powell voted against the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1969, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1979, 1983 and 1987. It was not until the late 1960s that he made speeches on immigration and nationality.”

    “Powell’s speeches and TV interviews throughout his political life displayed a suspicion towards “the Establishment” in general, and by the 1980s there was a regular expectation that he would make some sort of speech or act in a way designed to upset the government ”

    Not so in Japan-Ishihara (until recently), Aso, etc are all in the establishment. And none of them ever voted Socialist (as Powell did) to punish the establishment. They are all firmly on the reactionary right and their voting records hold no surprises. This also is further evidence of the “top down” nature of Japan and political conformity.

  • Baudrillard says:

    but Debito, Kureishi says “it’s impossible not to summon his ghost now that immigration is again centre of the political stage”.

    I would say its a red herring to summon the ancient ghost of Powell now, out of the 60s context, and a tool of the pro EU establishment to stop all sensible discussion on unnecessary immigration to the UK from the EU.

    This is my point- its a different context now. The UK was not in the EU when Powell made his rivers of blood speech.

    Its hardly like Japan where there is a labor shortage, or a demographic crisis. No, immigration in the UK now is driven by the UK’s treaty obligations to the EU to free movement of labor.

    So now it is like “oppose the EU? You must be a racist like Enoch!” When in fact, the immigration from the EU to the UK is overwhelmingly white European- which still drives wages down as UK corporatist businesses rub their hand in glee at all the cheap labor they are getting. Plus the fact that immigration is out of control- the last labor government admitted they DO NOT KNOW how many people came into the UK, and they predicted 12,000 but 500,000 came. And now its going to happen again (ok the Daily Mail isn’t the best source I know)-

    Gordon Brown and his “bigoted woman” comment comes to mind
    followed by another quote of his “UK workers must work harder for less”- some champion of the British working class Brown was not, and as an unelected official (he was not elected as PM), unsurprisingly contemptuous of his own supporters and the electorate in general.

    Brown’s attitude reminds me of the sense of entitlement and contempt of the voters that is displayed by Japanese politicians, who basically inherit their seats and think it “a mistaken idea that the people decide things” (forget exact quote, by a J official, quoted on this website).

    — Points and clarifications taken, thanks very much for them. But you’ve taken the tack away from “Powell is misunderstood” and made it “Powell is inappropriate to this time frame”; significantly different. Anyway, now let’s relate it back to Japan. I made the case for how even one racist (or interpreted racist) can change a society. Now how about a whole cluster of them in Japan’s power elite? You’ve addressed that in a separate comment above. Anything else to add, or anyone else with a comment?


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