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The Politics Of Powell

article-2158958-00D932F600000190-599_638x378On 20 April 1968, a television crew traveled to the Midland Hotel in Birmingham and recorded a political speech which was unlike any that had been heard in Western Europe since the 1930’s, when Adolf Hitler ruled Germany.

The individual making the speech was a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet, not a politician of the far-right or from a marginal party.

Within weeks, he had been sacked. His comments had been so over-the-top his party knew they couldn’t defend them, even if some of its ranks agreed with every single word he had said.

His sacking was a shocking event, not for that it happened (it had to happen, it was right that it happen) but for what came afterwards. It led to strikes, to riots, to civil unrest and to the uncovering of a deep rooted racism in a country which had prided itself on having defeated the evils of Nazi Germany and saw no concurrence between the two.

An opinion poll taken the same month found 71% of people agreed with what he’d said. That sparked the government into action.

Enoch Powell did this country a big favour, but not in the way he intended.

His Rivers of Blood speech was certainly inflammatory and deeply disgusting, but far worse was the public reaction to it, as the “great British people” rushed to embrace views the Nazi dictator himself would certainly have taken to his heart.

The ignorance, the racism, the sheer naked hatred at the heart of so much of the population was laid bare … and so the Labour government of the day made sure the anti-discrimination legislation’s which had prompted Powell’s notorious rant were rushed through Parliament.

See, the public response had made it undoubtedly clear just how needed they were.

Slowly, over time, things got better.

But eventually, sadly, shockingly, the clock started to run in reverse.

Anti-immigrant hatred is now rampant across parts of Britain. The right-wing press hyped Powell’s speech at the time, and vast swathes of the public embraced it, but the political class was disgusted. See, those were the days when our elected representatives were attuned to something greater than focus groups and when they were more than just followers of opinion polls.

They knew there was a cancer at the heart of the national psyche and if it couldn’t be rooted out it certainly had to be guarded against … and they moved to do just that.

Today’s political class is different, possibly because even the so-called “liberal media” is unbelievably right wing at times. You find a lot of revisionism going on today regarding that speech. Many think it made valid points, albeit in a somewhat over the top manner.

Nigel Farage, perhaps the most over-hyped politician of our age (which is saying something) is one of the few senior political figures willing to stick his neck out and praise it in its entirety. He believes the speech was right on the money. He is not alone, but he at least has the courage of his backward convictions.

In the wake of his party’s victory over the Tories at Clacton and his nearly-thing at Heywood, the whole of the British media, and members of both major parties, are scrambling to move their parties towards his own views.

They are chasing votes and nothing more, and in doing so, on this ground, they are shifting the centre of gravity not simply rightward but decisively to the far right.

On some level they must be aware of the deep seated social consequences of what they are doing but it appears not to concern them.

We expect this from the Tories of course. Powell had prominent supporters within his party, including Margaret Thatcher, who thought the tone of his speech was regrettable but agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in it. Yet, even they realised he had to go. He’d said in public what was only supposed to be said in private.

This appalling, island mentality persists, spread through the Tory Party from top to bottom, and is the reason UKIP’s rise has been viewed so seriously.

It has implications for all our futures if we withdraw from the EU, something many of these people have had as their mission in political life for decades now. They are on the verge of getting what they want.

What sickens me to my soul is to see Labour MP’s trying to force their own party to pander to sheer ignorance and bigotry by adopting UKIP style policies. (I use the word “style” very deliberately; UKIP is a ridiculous political organisation, with no actual iron clad policies per se, only a set of prejudices piled one on top of the other.)

It’s not just in Scotland that Labour does not get it. The myopia of Labour in England is even more acute, and even more frightening in many ways as this is the rank and file of the party people here in Scotland voted No out of their faith in.

I have spent the week first marveling at, and then recoiling in horror from, the total incomprehension within the ranks of Labour as to what has gone wrong with their national electoral strategy.

At the start of the week I read, with much mirth, of how senior Labourites want Miliband replaced by Alan Johnson.

The rationale for this appears to be born of nothing more than his being from a working class background, which, it was thought, would resonate more with voters in the heartlands. There was no indication of how policy would change, if indeed it would.

Johnson himself has said, repeatedly, he would not welcome being leader of the Labour Party, and in a refreshingly honest assessment of his skills, said he was not up the job of being Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, he was once a postman. Ergo, some in Labour think appointing him would be a progressive move … or at least one that could win votes.

It staggers me that some in Labour’s ranks thinks that’s good enough; that a change at the top without any alteration of the political platform of the party would win back swathes of voters who feel disconnected from them.

Worse was to follow. A day or two later we were treated to a flood of news stories about Nigel Farage “showing Ed Miliband how to eat a bacon sandwich.”

That they would make such a facetious comparison between those two men is a symptom of Miliband’s wider problems, and it is little wonder the public feels that the press insults their intelligence, when it credits them with any in the first place.

If I thought this was just a matter of the public and the press judging the guy on superficial nonsense that would be one thing, but I actually almost laughed myself to a hernia when I read Jack Straw – in all seriousness it must be said – say he thought part of the problem was Miliband’s “panda eyes and strange lips.”

This is how they view voters and our opinions. With sheer contempt. They really do believe that Ed Miliband’s appearance has made a blind bit of difference to the national picture, instead of the empty shelves behind him where serious policy proposals should be.

What they don’t seem to understand is that if Miliband had defined himself, and his party, a little bit better the press and the opposition wouldn’t be able to get away with this kind of garbage in the first place.

It is one of the great truisms of political life; if you don’t present the public, the press and the opposition with a clear idea of who you are they will create one themselves, and more often than not it will be composed of all manner of nonsense like this.

The objective is to make Miliband look like a joke, so that voters cannot even picture him standing on the doorstep of Downing Street. The problem is, Miliband has really done nothing to counter this perception. He appears weak because he is.

The whole of the party is weak, north and south of the border. There is no longer any shred of ideological conviction.

They are blowing in the wind, and the results of the two by-elections had hardly come in but the amoral cowards on the parliamentary benches were demanding the party veer even more wildly to the right to “reconnect with the core vote.”

When did the Labour Party see its core vote as anti-immigrant and anti-social safety net? When did their parliamentarians become so brazenly, nakedly self-interested that they would see attacking the most vulnerable people in our society as a legitimate move to keep their own seats?

These are the people many on the No side believed when they said one of the problems with independence was that it abandoned the working class in other parts of these islands. These people don’t even understand the people they represent.

The tragedy of this is that many No voters would continue to support them, even now, even with this egalitarian reason for their decision utterly betrayed.

UKIP exists for two reasons only; the first is that the distance between the main parties and the public has become a chasm that neither Miliband nor Cameron really cares to try and bridge. The retreat of both parties to the “core vote” strategy is a sure sign that they’ve actually given up on the wider public.

Even this pathetic strategy is failing for them, and their rush to try and outdo UKIP – a political movement that hasn’t even thought through its positions on 99% of the issues facing us as a country – would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic, and frightening.

This is the second reason for the rise of UKIP, and the fault of it lies with the Labour Party much more than the Tories.

It seems to me that there are, broadly, three classes of people who vote for UKIP.

On the one hand there are disaffected Tory voters who think their party isn’t going far enough on welfare, on immigration, on law and order and on Europe. They hear Farage and others – and they see MP’s from the far right flank of the party, like Carswell, defecting – and they think of how much better the country would be if it were run by the editorial staff of the Daily Mail.

They embrace the stupidity and ignorance of UKIP, because their own hate for entire sections of the population is too extreme to see clearly through. Frankly, anyone who thinks this Tory government is not right wing enough should be denied the vote for their, and everyone else’s, own good.

Secondly are disaffected Lib Dems who saw their own party betray every principle, every ideal it held, who see its leaders in bed with this Tory Party savaging the poor and the weak, and thinks “if our own party has stuck its snout in the trough, where, then, is the radical voice?”

These are the people who thought the Lib Dems were a radical voice in the first place, and any one of them who was unaware that its own political leadership was comprised of the kind of people who would drop all their banners, and their drawers, for the first offer of cabinet seats to come along probably ought to be pitied as much as sneered at.

Their own rude awakening was perhaps the harshest of all. That some of them have latched on to the “new radical voice” in British politics is hardly surprising.

It’s a witless act, but no more witless than putting your faith in Clegg, Alexander and, especially, Vince Cable.

Tell me this, before I move on; am I the only person in the country who thinks Vince Cable is a snake oil salesman who’s started to believe his own hype? He gets good press, but I am sick of this clown telling us how terrible the coalition government is, all the while drawing a salary as a cabinet minister in it.

Is there a person in British political life more lacking in principle than this halfwit? He either doesn’t believe a word he is saying or he does believe it but values his position more.

Yes, I can understand how many of this party’s voters would rather plump for Nigel Farage, who wears his prejudices and even his ignorance on his sleeve. It’s a better home for them than a party which says one thing and does another.

The third group are one time Labour voters who look at the party and its complete lack of ideological cohesion and see nothing to suggest it cares about them at all. The vast majority of them are in work, but in low paid jobs with flat-Iining incomes.

These are not people on “average earnings.” This is a term you hear a lot but which has no basis in reality at all.

In January this year, current “average earnings” in the UK were £26,000. Yet four out of every five new jobs created in this country have salaries under £17,000.

In 2012, there were 5.5 million individuals whose incomes placed them in the HMRC bracket of “relative low income” as compared to the national average. On top of this, there were 5.9 million more in the bracket HMRC terms the “absolute low income” bracket.

There were 2.5 million people whose incomes were less than £7000. In all, there were 7.1 million people with incomes under £10,000. 13.5 million have incomes below £15,000. There are over 18 million whose incomes are below £20,000.

In contrast, there are 6 million citizens who’s income falls into the £20,000 – £30,000 range which qualifies them as “average incomes” and there is no detailed breakdown of how many of those are in the £26,000 and upwards category.

There are a further 6 million people whose income ranges from £30,000 to the £1 million mark. 4 million of those have incomes in the £30,000 – £50,000 range.

Average median income in the UK is a term of abuse, and that abuse is directed at us, the ordinary citizens, whose income doesn’t get near those levels.

One of the reasons this site depends on donations is that I, personally, don’t earn anywhere near the so-called “national average” and need all the help I can get just to keep it running.

More than half the population lives well below that line, and cannot aspire to moving more than one place up the ladder.

Oh yeah … and in Scotland the picture is worse. Average median income in Scotland is £7000 below the UK level, at around £19,000. You can imagine how many of our citizens live in, or below, the “relative low income” range.

UKIP’s “working class voters” are mostly amongst the 13.5 million people whose income falls in the low thresholds, i.e. incomes below £15,000 … nearly half the “national average.”

I ponder these people most, and I dislike their alleged politics every bit as much I do that of the UKIP Tories, but I have more sympathy for them than I do for the UKIP Lib Dems.

These people have been betrayed – genuinely betrayed – by the whole political class, but Labour especially. They are largely blue collar. They struggle from day to day. Many are not well educated and they live in perpetual fear because they are the most precariously perched on the edge of the abyss. They are the most at risk from rising prices and frozen wages. Many of them depend on the state for some form of help or support, without which they would be destitute.

Some people mistakenly believe they are right wing. They’re not, by and large. If they were right wing they would never have been Labour heartland voters. If they were selfish, anti-immigrant and anti-welfare they would have a very comfortable home in the modern Conservative Party.

Yet ask them. These people would rather chop off limbs than vote Tory, and they have the same visceral loathing for the yellow slime of the Lib Dems.

I look at their “opinions” on major issues and I see scattergun views, the product of too much negative spin in the media and amongst the political class. They believe what they are force fed by the press and the parties.

They look at the state of their lives, and when they’re assured that it is immigration that’s to blame, or told to consider how many in society have a better standard of living but aren’t prepared to work for it, dependent on over-generous welfare hand-outs, the alternative to accepting that is to go and find out the truth.

Frankly, these are people who have more important things to do with their time than go sifting through statistics and government reports. Stuff like surviving. Like making sure their kids can eat. They neither have the time nor the inclination to investigate these matters, and, to be frank, the idea is daunting for them.

These people depended on the media to play with a straight bat, instead of bending the knee to the politicians. They needed someone willing to fight lies with the truth and they depended on Labour to steer them in the right direction, instead of following the UKIP Tories in the blame game.

The complete surrender over the debate of which Labour is shamefully guilty, has resulted in a political environment where immigrants and welfare claimants are the powerless whipping boys for every parliamentarian who wants a cheap headline or an easy ride.

Even now, staring down the barrel of UKIP guns, and for the first time aware of the serious and rising disenchantment amongst those on who’s votes the party depends for its very existence, their solution has been to chase these same ghosts, to hammer on these same poor people, in the mistaken belief that it will bring home those who’ve deserted.

Even if it were true, it is immoral and wrong and turns the stomach.

Yet as much as these disenfranchised people have accepted, in part, the narrative they are being forced to accept, as I said before, they are not predominantly right wing by inclination. Most of them don’t vote UKIP out of support for some of its political views; they are the ultimate protest voters, sickened by the lack of respect they’re shown by the big three, offered an alternative to not voting at all.

They are willing to give their votes to UKIP because that’s all they’ve got, and that party at least pretends to listen and care and on a superficial level seems to speak their language; that of frustration, fear and anger.

These people aren’t completely stupid though. They know their own life situation puts them on the verge of total dependence on the very welfare system sections of the Labour Party think should be dismantled to win their support. The level of disconnection it requires to actually propose this in an effort to get votes is almost mind-numbing.

The only way Labour could bring these people home is to change direction completely. To embrace reform of the City of London and the redistribution of wealth.

To actually challenge the existing narrative on social security, to defend it with every drop of blood instead of rushing to bury it under a mountain of opprobrium in an effort to appeal to a section of society that loathes even the word Labour, and who are positively ecstatic at dragging the political discourse on this issue exactly where they wanted it to go.

The narrative on immigration is even more skewed, because since the days of Powell and Rivers of Blood this one has burned brightly in certain parts of the British psyche.

Immigration is not evil and immigrants are not responsible for every social ill. Most of us know this. Trying to argue it in the present political climate, against a press where the right’s detestation for those not wrapped in the Union flag borders on the lunatic, and where the so-called liberal papers are shrieking hypocrites and cowards, is to invite your opponents to unleash the hounds of Hell.

Yet it’s never been more important for our political classes – and for Labour in particular – to show guts in the face of such irrational hate.

That they will not is damning. That they seem on the verge of upping the volume on that hate is disheartening and sickening. That they might be willing to “out UKIP” their political rivals in a desperate scramble for votes completes their march into darkness.

That drags us back not to the 80’s and the era of Thatcher, but to that day in Birmingham when a senior British political figure tapped into the black sickness at the heart of our society by echoing the language of Nazi Germany.

Then, much of the media spoke out in condemnation and, but for a few renegades on the far fringes, the political class disowned him and shoved him aside.

When the public reacted in anger to that, our politicians acted to safeguard against that outpouring of prejudice by enacting laws in opposition to it. That was an act of supreme courage which, eventually, paid off.

Our society is more tolerant than it was then, and multiculturalism is no longer frowned upon. Their anti-racism laws started that process.

Yet the same undercurrents flow through some sections of the population, the products of ignorance, abandonment and despair.

Instead of fighting against that and the things that cause it, our current political class embraces those horrible views, and it colours the whole of our national life. It has led us into foreign wars, to creating barriers in our society where none ought to exist and it may yet lead us to withdraw entirely from the rest of the world by leaving the European Union.

Scotland, of course, had a chance to escape this Hellish fate. Some chose to vote No, out of tribal loyalty to Labour and the belief this party reflected their tolerance and decency, and still carried the flame of hope.

By Friday morning, that flame had been extinguished along with much else.

There was once a gameshow in the States called Truth or Consequences.

Here’s the truth:

Labour has lost its soul, and some of you followed them into the abyss. You were duped. That’s started to dawn on some of you, but it’s too late.

Now you, and the rest of us, have to pay the consequences.

Here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be for long.

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2 comments to “The Politics Of Powell”
  1. Good article James, and I think that it nails a lot of targets that No voters seemed to be oblivious to. My experience of the Referendum was that the media were at least as much to blame as the politicians, if not more so and you could find plenty of material for another article in that.

    There is a case to be made that the media and their owners are the puppet masters of the politicians, you just have to look at the way that UKIP are almost entirely a product of the BBC.

  2. Revisionism. Some things are reinvented and the truth lost in the mists of time. The reason for war given at the start of WW2 is not what we, especially the youngsters, imagine. Hitler was feted in British and American society, his views were shared by many. Remember the atrocities were discovered and generally known about much later. Recession, depression, slump – all need scapegoats. Thatcher decimated industry and blamed the unions. Oil receipts saved her bacon and she was feted as ‘saving Britain’. Led by Farage the pols have decided to blame immigrants from Romania (echoes of previous leaders?). Anything to distract the voter. When deep financial problems spread worldwide and the populace is unhappy with bankers and politicians two things will have inevitably follow; scapegoating and war. War is a consequence of politics, not the other way round.

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