So, there’s a provocative headline, and deliberately so, but not for the reasons you’d think. There are some on the right who believe that Powell was right about immigration. I, for one, don’t, for the simple reason that immigration has made Britain a richer country. How that increased wealth has been shared out, or perhaps hasn’t, is another issue admittedly, but that’s not why I’m writing about Powell.
There’s an ugly fact about Enoch Powell that people don’t like admitting, and it is that he was genuinely popular at his height in the late 1960 and 1970s. Had he founded his own party, the cruel First Past The Post system would probably have strangled it at birth, but not before making both Labour and Tory leaders sweat. Ordinary people marched and wrote to Powell in their thousands after the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Many were undoubtedly what today we would call racist, but even more importantly, here was a politician whom many people, of many class and many tribal party loyalties, felt spoke for them and their values. Let’s not forget, either, that this was a time when the self-censorship of Political Correctness had not yet taken root, and where, for example, in 1964, a Conservative candidate had been elected in Smethwick on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
The reality was that Powell forced the main parties to engage on the immigration issue. Some of that engagement was ugly, but it was never to the degree that he wanted. More importantly, it was enough to destroy the rise of the National Front in the 1970s.
Which brings us to UKIP: is Nigel Farage the Powell of the day? Personally, he isn’t a racist, but then neither was Powell. Is he the candidate of choice of racists? Probably. But that raises another uncomfortable point. What’s healthier? Racists feeling that the democratic system at least recognises them and their opinions, if not actually acting on them? Or driving a very substantial section of the electorate out of the democratic system?
There is a body of opinion in Western society that calls for public debate to only be limited to an acceptable and narrow strip of opinions, normally in the centre and centre-left, with some opinions not just being distasteful but actually banned from public discourse. It’s almost impossible to raise the immigration issue without someone playing the racist card. I’m not convinced that is a healthy way for a democracy to evolve. Indeed, it’s possibly a guaranteed way of reducing the legitimacy of that very system. After all, British elections in the 1960s and 70s, where opinions of the hard right and hard left were far more prevalent, had a considerably higher turnout than they do today.