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  • Writer's pictureThomas Compton

Latter Day Powellism


Enoch Powell doesn’t have a legacy. He has a speech. Delivered in 1968, the month after the assassination of Martin Luther King, he proclaimed the incoming death of British Imperialism at the hand of weak elites allowing (Black) immigrants to take supremacy over the whites. Some liberals would like to think of Powell’s speech as the most racist moment in British politics. The BBC and The Guardian call the speech either ‘divisive’ or ‘anti-immigration’. [i],[ii] Sometimes he’s the only racist in British politics, sometimes he’s merely misunderstood — so there never were any racists.

The latter is popular in the right-wing ecosystem; celebration or apologia for Powell can often be found. Often, he is talked of like a comedian who pushed the bar a little. It’s not that his words had consequences it’s that he indulged in hyperbole. Political commentators have spent the decades after Powell legitimising fears of immigration and this racist narrative of the decline of the West due to immigrants refusing to integrate or of miscegenation (breeding with local whites). I wonder how we should feel about Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, a fawning account of Powellism, as we consider how far we have come since Powell. Kaufmann is a Professor of Politics at prominent UK University Birkbeck. Although Whiteshift is no New York Times Bestseller, it was The Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times and Evening Standard Books Of The Year 2018.

Kaufmann begins: ‘Was Powell racist? Many didn’t think so and some today continue to suggest he was right to raise the alarm[.]’ How do we remember Powell? Kaufmann seems to be engaging in apologia but is there reason to give Powell the benefit of the doubt? Nigel Farage, the figurehead of Brexit and prominent racist claims Powell’s ‘rhetorical flourishes’ went too far.[iii] Farage was a mentee of Powell and is politically aligned with Kaufmann. We might wonder if this quotation alone has given more charity to Powell than his closest associates might — a confused and unjustified bias that might tip Kaufmann’s hand more than he realises.


There are some things we do not need to question. Any rational person could read the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and conclude it is racist. Powell is attributing harmful motives to ‘black’ people when he states ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’.[iv] It is not as if he is unaware of the blatant racism as the proceeding line acknowledges people will be appalled by his comments (‘This should make those of us who accuse him of racism think harder about what precisely it is that makes him guilty of the charge.’) Strangely, Kaufmann agrees with me here. He later claims Powell was racist, so why muddy the waters with the above quotation? (‘Powell thus preferred exclusion to assimilation as his favoured mechanism of ethnic boundary maintenance. These facts make him racist.’) Even in condemnation, he plays the It’s-Not-Racist-If-It’s-Right game of the post-racial rationalists. His get out of jail free card is ‘irrational’ (‘I define racism as an irrational fear or hatred of or prejudice against a member of another ethnic group’). It is only racist if your prejudice is not rationally justified — we see, in his condemnation of Powell, his arbitrary criteria for rationality. Understanding racism is not about listening to the voices of the oppressed, as the voices of the oppressed say it is. It is playing the rationalisation language game. If only one could imagine lurid acts committed and then coated in rationalism. Or better yet, read the racism of arch-rationalist philosophers.

The book goes beyond messaging historical facts and manipulating our image of Powell, going so far as to determine whose voices are important in deciding who is and who is not racist. We might ask ourselves whether racism should be best understood by the white rationalist or the racially oppressed. Or perhaps whether we could really understand what racism means without the impassioned critiques beginning symbolically with Toussaint L’Overture and articulated by Frederick Douglass. Again, Kaufmann goes further, ‘[Whites] shouldn’t be labeled racists for holding group preferences […]’, where I have insert italics to exemplify Kaufmanns move beyond the mere fact but to the normative. To his plea for more than tolerance of racists but an unshakeable benefit of the doubt. He wants to take ethical arguments against racism off the table to open up new opportunities for minoritisation and discrimination as routes to power for populists.

It would be an easy ending to call for Enoch Powell’s racism to be beyond question. For us to write in every book that Powell’s speech is the peak of British racism and condemn it in isolation. But the problem isn’t that Kaufmann is laundering Powell’s ideas or reshaping his legacy. Powell and Kaufmann are merely defenders of politics that were never supposed to be defensible. British Imperial policy and politics burned in project legacy or vile (crypto)racist, Populist politics that can only be sold as ‘natural’ or ‘necessary’ and in the service of something larger, to struggle against the battle with an (imagined) irreconcilable other. The question is not whether we should view Powell, and perhaps one day Kaufmann as good or bad. Rather, it is whether we should view them at all and exhaust resources into drudging old racisms up. When this time would be better suited to celebrating black figures. So, I end this essay by falling on my own sword and suggesting others might be better to avoid giving ground to their desires as I have here.

[i] Fifty years on, what is the legacy of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech? (2018) the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/14/enoch-powell-rivers-blood-legacy-wolverhampton (Accessed: 8 June 2021).

[ii] BBC News (2018) ‘BBC defends Rivers of Blood broadcast’, 12 April. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43745447 (Accessed: 8 June 2021).

[iii] Kassam, R. (2018) Enoch Was Right: ‘Rivers of Blood’ 50 Years On. Independently published.

[iv] BBC Radio 4 — Archive on 4, 50 Years On: Rivers of Blood (2018) BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09z08w3 (Accessed: 11 June 2021).

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