Powellism and the advent of the British far right: The Communist Party response

48 years ago this week, Tory Minister Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, in which he predicted dire consequences for Britain if further immigration from the Commonwealth continued. While criticised by many at the time, Powell’s speech opened up a political space to the right of the Conservative Party, mobilising around the issue of non-white immigration. This opening of the political space allowed far right organisations, such as the Monday Club, the National Front and the British Movement, to come to the fore and take advantage of the expression of popular racism by sections of the British public. For the burgeoning anti-racist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Powellism presented a significant threat that had been underestimated by many anti-racists and those on the left, including the Communist Party.

This post is based on an extract from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s. I submitted the final version to the publishers today, so look out for it in early 2017!

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Although concerns over the social impact of non-white immigration had been expressed in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary discourses since the 1940s, a major turning point in the discourse was Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in April 1968, who brought the populist tone of the far right to a mainstream audience. Speaking at a local Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, Powell launched a tirade against non-white migration, stating:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre…

We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population… Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences, with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow immigrants and then over the rest of the population…

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.[i]

Powell’s speech alluded to the views of the ‘ordinary British citizen’ on race relations, immigration and ‘alien cultures’, appropriating the ‘crude and inconsistent racism expressed in the factories, shopping centres and pubs… endorsed by a politician who had the authority of education, political office and a position in the Shadow cabinet’.[ii] Powell attributed one of the most controversial remarks of the speech to an anonymous constituent, ‘a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man’, exploiting the anxieties of a large section of the British population in his declaration: ‘In this country in fifteen of twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip over the white man’.[iii] Although dismissed by Edward Heath for the shadow cabinet, Powell’s exploitation of popular racism generated much support for him with a Gallup Poll in May 1968 revealing that ‘74 per cent of those questioned agreed in general with his views and 24 per cent said they would like him to be leader of the Conservative Party if Edward Heath retired’.[iv] In the week following Powell’s speech, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst the London dock workers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech.

It was also Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that allowed the National Front to exploit popular racist attitudes as Powell ‘brought the language and arguments of the neo-fascist political fringe into the heart of the establishment’.[v] ‘There can be little doubt’, Richard Thurlow wrote, ‘that the NF would not have survived if Enoch Powell had not unwittingly given it such a helping hand in its infancy’.[vi] Powell’s speech gave the NF a massive boost, with it claiming 10,000 members in April 1968, although Searchlight editor, Gerry Gable estimated that it was probably around 7,000 ‘fully paid up’ members.[vii] However Powell was still seen as part of the Conservative establishment, which the NF tried to distant itself from. This led to a clash between the NF’s Director and BUF veteran, A.K. Chesterton and the more militant members, such as John Tyndall and Martin Webster, who were ‘desperate… to capitalize on support for Enoch Powell’ – a strategy that Chesterton, who eschewed the populism of Powell, had ‘resolutely opposed’.[viii] This clash resulted in Chesterton resigning in October 1970, with John O’Brien, a recent convert from the Conservative right via the National Democratic Party (NDP), becoming chairman in February 1971.[ix] Of the other founding members, Andrew Fountaine had earlier been expelled by Chesterton in mid-1968 and John Bean (from the British National Party) publicly disassociated himself from those who ousted Chesterton, despite being suggested for the post and withdrew from active politics.[x] O’Brien attempted to purge the NF of its neo-Nazi elements, represented in the leadership by Tyndall and Webster and throughout 1971, the factional fighting continued, but Tyndall was able to survive. In early 1972, O’Brien and his supporters defected to the National Independence Party (NIP), with Tyndall replacing him as chairman.[xi]

The formation of the National Front in February 1967 largely escaped protest from anti-fascist forces, with Nigel Copsey explaining that ‘opposition to the NF in the late 1960s was mainly restricted to a small amount of militant anti-fascists who followed the pattern of covert activity undertaken against the NF’s immediate predecessors’.[xii] This covert anti-fascist strategy, as well as the National Front’s relative obscurity, saw the Communist Party not particularly involved in anti-fascist action against the NF. The CPGB, symptomatic of the left in Britain as a whole, was ‘more concerned about the racial populism of Enoch Powell than the National Front’.[xiii]

Enoch Powell’s speech had encouraged ‘vicious racialist and fascist forces’ into ‘stirring up hatred against coloured people’ and ‘trying to whip up mass fear and hysteria’, but the ‘real enemy of all working people’, the Communist Party stated, was capitalism and the ‘Tory and right wing Labour Governments [who] keep the system going’.[xiv] Powell was described by Joan Bellamy in a 1968 CPGB pamphlet as ‘a diehard Tory who has never done anything to help the working people’, but this did not mean he was a fascist.[xv] However, by using the racist language normally associated with the fascist far right, Powell had ‘deliberately chose[n] to use words that would fan the flame of hatred, words that help to create an atmosphere in which people no longer listen to rational argument and facts’.[xvi] Joan Bellamy stating that, ‘Leading fascists were quick to recognise what Powell was doing’, noting that Colin Jordan, Oswald Mosley and Dennis Harmston of the Union Movement were in public agreement with Powell’s argument.[xvii]

The Communist Party relied on reports from Jewish organisations, the anti-fascist journal Searchlight and its own intelligence for knowledge on the fascist far right. The most detailed CPGB document on the NF in the early period was a May 1969 internal memo on ‘Rightist and Fascist Development’, which outlined the major figures in the NF and the structure of the organisation.[xviii] This report claimed that the ‘most serious and dangerous organisation appears to be the National Front… trying to take over right groups’ and able to ‘mobilise people quickly’.[xix] However as an article in Comment in July 1969 stated, for the CPGB, ‘Enoch Powell emerges ever more clearly as the most reactionary influence in British politics today’, with the author declaring that the Party must ‘redouble our efforts to defeat Powellism’.[xx]

Enoch-Powell-007

Powell’s speech tapped into existing feelings of popular racism and in the week following, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst London dockworkers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech. The response by the Communist Party was to emphasise who Powell was and what his politics were, stating that Powell was a ‘diehard Tory who has never done anything to help working people’ and a ‘declared enemy of the trade unions’.[xxi] At the executive level of the labour movement, where the CPGB held significant influence, the Morning Star reported on official motions of opposition to racism by the trade unions,[xxii] but at shopfloor level, the Party’s presence was less prominent. John Callaghan described the Communist Party members on the docks, who distributed leaflets denouncing Powell and ‘bravely addressed hostile mass meetings’, but acknowledged that the support for Powell demonstrated how marginal the Communist Party’s influence could be.[xxiii] With its members on the docks put ‘clearly on the defensive’ by the Powellite strikes,[xxiv] CPGB and LCDTU member, Danny Lyons ‘decided to bring in one of the Catholic padres to speak at the dock-gates’ in a hastily organised meeting.[xxv] While this action was felt to be misguided by other Communist dockworkers, Jack Dash, a leading Party member on the docks, stated retrospectively, ‘I thought it was wrong but then they had to do something’,[xxvi] which turned out, in the end, to be very limited. The Party’s limited influence on the docks at rank-and-file level and its dependence on its broad left allies in the labour movement had a significant impact upon its ability to fight racism during the Powellite strikes, but what the strikes did reveal was the level of popular racism still existing within the organised labour movement and the difficulties ahead for the Party in the struggle against racism.

In the wake of this, there was push in late 1968 and early 1969 to emphasise the campaign against racism by the Party and the YCL. A memo from the National Organiser at the time, Gordon McLennan to Frank Stanley, the London District Secretary, in May 1969 called for greater activity, particularly amongst the labour movement. This was to include ‘[t]he distribution of a Party leaflet on a wide scale at factories, trade union meetings, houses, etc, as well as ‘[f]actory gate and street meetings in which the fight against racialism will feature.’[xxvii] Most of the Party’s anti-racist literature produced between 1968 and 1970 concentrated on Enoch Powell and the influence that he had over sections of the Conservatives. What the Communist Party were anxious over was the continual tightening of controls as both Labour and the Conservatives made tougher proposals. As John Hostettler wrote, the Labour Government was ‘trying to show it [was] not to be outdone by Mr Heath who [was] trying to show he [was] not far behind Mr Powell’.[xxviii]

Throughout the early 1970s, Enoch Powell continued to dominate Conservative thinking about immigration and there is a suggestion by scholars that the Conservatives were eventually convinced by Powell’s argument, leading to the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971.[xxix] The Communist Party attempted to emphasise the association between Powellism and the National Front, trying to break the ‘respectable’ racism of Powell and the Monday Club. In a flyer distributed by the Westminster CPGB branch, it announced that ‘fascism is on the march again’, warning that it ‘wears the “respectable” face of Enoch Powell’, as well as appearing in ‘its most naked form in the National Front’.[xxx] The flyer called for the banning of a NF march in London, but also warned against Powell, ‘who pours out racialism whenever he appears on the telly’ and ‘publicly stated that whenever he sees a rich man he thanks God!’[xxxi] For the CPGB, the NF were ‘working to strengthen the capitalist system’, blaming black immigrants for the problems of capitalism and despite any appeal to the interests of the working class, ‘racialism plays into the hands of the capitalist class’.[xxxii] The aim of the NF was ‘to smash the trade union movement and make it servile to the state in the interests of state monopoly capital’, with ‘racialism… only the most obvious of their anti-working class policies’.[xxxiii] Essentially this was viewed as the same agenda as Enoch Powell, who Joan Bellamy described as ‘a declared enemy of the trade unions’.[xxxiv] The consensus was that Powell’s speech had given the fledgling NF valuable exposure that allowed the fascist fringe to exploit popular racism and anti-immigration sentiment. ‘“Enoch is Right” became the slogan of everyone from the Tory Monday Club through the National Front out to every tinpot little nazi sect’, Bob Campbell wrote in the Morning Star, linking Powell, the NF, various anti-immigration groups and the Orange movement.[xxxv] However there were differences between the various elements of the far right. Powell, as a traditional Conservative, ‘warned of the dangers of a corporate state emerging from the relationship between the Labour Government, the TUC and the CBI’, while the NF ‘tend toward[s] corporate statism… and suggest they are opposed to capitalism’.[xxxvi] But ‘what unites all the elements of the ultra right in Britain’, he wrote, ‘is the racist campaign on the question of immigration, and against black people as a whole’.[xxxvii] Although in private correspondence with Vishnu Sharma, a CPGB and IWA member, Joan Bellamy criticised Campbell for elevating the danger of these far right organisations when ‘the major enemy is racialist attitudes among people who do not have a consistent fascist or even right wing position, and the cowardly connivance of Troy and Labour politicians with right wing demands.’[xxxviii]

However, while Powell enjoyed wide popularity as an individual between 1968 and 1974,[xxxix] his political momentum stalled as he became a Tory backbencher and decided not to join one of the many anti-immigrant or far right groups that supported him (or form a party of his own). ‘Powellism’ and its anti-immigration message was soon overtaken by the Conservatives with the Immigration Act 1971, and then by the fascism of the National Front – and in the end, this racist populism was imbibed by early Thatcherism.

Anti-immigration march by Smithfield market porters

[i] Powell, Enoch, 1991, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, in Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell, selected by Rex Collings, London: Bellew Publishing, p. 375; pp. 378-79.

[ii] Miles, Robert & Phizacklea, Annie, 1984, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics, London: Pluto Press, p. 64.

[iii] Powell 1991, pp. 373-74.

[iv] Miles and Phizacklea 1984, p. 64.

[v]Thurlow, Richard 1987, Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 276.

[vi] Ibid., p. 279.

[vii] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’, 2 May 1969, in CPGB archives CP/CENT/SUBS/04/16, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[viii]Walker, Martin 1977, The National Front, London: Harper Collins, p. 94.

[ix]Shipley, Peter 1978, ‘The National Front’, Conflict Studies, 97, p. 14.

[x] Anti-Fascist Research Group, Anti-Fascist Bulletin, 5, March-June 1971, p. 27.

[xi]Lewis, D.S. 1987, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 252.

[xii] Copsey 2000, p. 116.

[xiii] Copsey 2000, p. 116.

[xiv] Bellamy, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, pp. 2-3.

[xv] Bellamy, Joan, 1971, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, >London: CPGB pamphlet, p. 3.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’

[xix] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’

[xx] Barnsby, George, ‘Wolverhampton and Powell’, Comment, 12 July 1969, p. 442.

[xxi] Bellamy, 1971, p. 3.

[xxii] Morning Star, 25 April 1968.

[xxiii]Callaghan, John, 2003, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p. 112.

[xxiv]Lindop, Fred, 2001, ‘Racism and the Working Class: Strikes in Support of Enoch Powell in 1968’, Labour History Review, 66, 1, p. 91.

[xxv] Jack Dash, interview by Fred Lindop, 1984, MSS.371/QD7/Docks 2/10/1, Trade Unionism in British Docks, in Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Letter from Gordon McLennan to Frank Stanley, 28 May 1969, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/02, LHASC.

[xxviii] Hostettler, John, ‘Immigrants, Race Relations and the Law’, Comment, 12 July 1969, p. 438.

[xxix] See: Ben-Tovim, Gideon and John Gabriel 1982, ‘The politics of race in Britain, 1962-79: A review of the major trends and of recent debates’, in ‘Race’ in Britain: Continuity and Change, edited by Charles Husband, London: Hutchinson, pp. 150-51; Miles and Phizacklea 1984, pp. 68-9; Turner, Alwyn W. 2008, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, London: Aurum Press, p. 27.

[xxx] ‘Westminster Communists Say… Outlaw the Racists’, n.d., London: CPGB flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/EVNT/03/07, LHASC.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] ‘Don’t Be Fooled By The National Front!’, n.d., London: CPGB flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/IND/KAY/03/05, LHASC.

[xxxiii] Trade Union Committee Against Racialism, ‘National Front – Election Campaign Notes’, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, LHASC.

[xxxiv] Bellamy, 1971, p. 3.

[xxxv] Morning Star, 22 February 1973.

[xxxvi] Morning Star, 1 March 1973; Italics are my emphasis.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Letter from Joan Bellamy to Vishnu Sharma, 15 March 1973, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, LHASC.

[xxxix] Schofield, Camilla 2013, Enoch Powell and the Making of a Postcolonial Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 317.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting article. I wonder if you have any idea whether the National Front or similar organisations already engaged in violent street actions against opponents and/or ethnic groups as early as in the late 60s?

    In my view, organised street violence (the ambition to control the streets) is what distinguishes a fascist organisation from an ordinary right-wing one, so it would be interesting to know whether the NF only evolved in this direction in the late 70s or earlier.

    Secondly, there was an epidemic of ‘paki bashing’ in 1969-70, especially in London’s east end. Usually, the blame is laid at the door of skinheads – and, to a lesser extent, their rude boy/reggae boy companions. Yet almost every single original skinhead I spoke to denies any involvement, claiming they only learned about ‘paki bashing’ in the media.

    My question would be: is there any evidence – or at least strong pointers – that the NF or similar groups were involved in organised/orchestrated ‘paki bashing’. I.e. is there a possibility that many of these incidents were not the ‘spontaneous outbreaks of popular anger’ in the wake of Powell’s speech than is commonly assumed?

    1. I think the NF only start ‘occupying the streets’ in the early-to-mid-1970s and start their campaign of street violence around 1973-74. Before this, they’re trying to siphon off disillusioned Tory voters.

      I haven’t come across any evidence of organised ‘Paki-bashing’ by NF sympathisers in the late 1960s. I think there is a new article by Satnam Virdee and others which looks at racial violence in the early 1970s which might be helpful.

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