The Great Statesman: Enoch Powell’s Error!
That Enoch Powell was a genius is apparent to anyone who cares to examine his life for longer than it takes to pronounce the meaningless epithet “racist”. That he was the last true statesman in British politics, and perhaps the last this country will ever produce, is also eminently arguable. Almost the youngest person ever to be appointed a full professor at a Western university (second only to Friedrich Nietzsche), able to rise to the rank of brigadier in the British Army within six years of enlisting as a private, he possessed the almost forgotten virtue of true independence of spirit—a man able to deliberate, to fix on a moral end, and to dedicate his life to pursuing it, whatever the consequences for his own self-interest might be. May, Corbyn, Cameron, Blair, perhaps even Thatcher, are destined to be footnotes in history, mediocrities remembered only for the trends and forces that they embodied and which swept them along as they scrabbled for power and pelf; but Enoch Powell will stand out on a lone promontory of solitary genius, the last great English eccentric, even if ultimately judged to be a false or misguided prophet.
His prophecy, too, will be remembered. No one, not even a professional politician or political journalist, can now fail to notice that immigration is transforming Britain’s culture. When Powell delivered his famous (and badly misquoted) prediction of “rivers of blood”, the areas experiencing this transformation were home to only a small minority of native Britons, and the liberal establishment were arrogant enough to brush him aside. Doubtless his inflammatory language bares some of the responsibility for his failure, but by accusing him of the Kafkaesque crime of “racism”, impossible to define or to defend oneself against, the political elite deliberately chose to avoid thinking about any of the hard questions he raised—the meaning of nationhood, its relation to ethnicity and race, and the social and political consequences of the mixing of cultures in a previously homogeneous land.
Today, we are slowly realising that his central prediction was right, though we are usually too scared to give him credit. Since Sir Trevor Phillips’s report last year, the fact that there are enormous, and growing, cultural differences between different ethnic communities in Britain has gradually become an accepted truth, but this recognition is too little and too late. For the most part, public debate on immigration remains hopelessly banal. The idea that Brexit was won on the basis of some false promise of three-hundred-and-fifty million pieces of silver for the NHS, or even worries about the effects of migration on unemployment, could only take hold in a country that still systematically practices the art of avoiding uncomfortable thoughts. If we are now gradually groping toward the idea that culture has some causal power, and that it is—astonishing!–affected in some way by the mass movement of people from one corner of the globe to the other, we are clutching only the tip of a very large iceberg.
In very rough terms, there have been two types of immigration to Britain since the HMS Windrush arrived in 1946. Black African and Caribbean immigrants have, over two to four generations, largely assimilated to the culture of the country’s native inhabitants. Mostly Christian, and often instinctively sympathetic to and identified with traditional British culture, they have married white Britons, integrated with them socially, and gradually become more and more like them. South Asian immigrants have not. British Indians, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis even more so, have integrated much more slowly, and in some respects have actually moved further apart from the cultural mainstream. In part this is because of clannish cultures in which ties to extended family govern large parts of one’s life, and so limit sympathetic interaction with those outside an ethnic fold; in part it is because of religious differences between Muslims and Christians or post-Christians; and perhaps most of all because of the extremely common practice of marrying British Pakistani or Bangladeshi men to women from the home country, meaning the old culture is renewed each generation and children don’t grown up significantly more British than their parents. In some areas, up to 85% of British Pakistanis marry in this way.
This judgement is the central conclusion of Dave Goodhart’s The British Dream, the major book-length study on post-Windrush immigration to these islands, and Dame Casey’s recent report on community integration also identifies a growing rift between the social values of Muslim and non-Muslim communities. It is likely that the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe will ultimately follow the African/Caribbean trajectory, with those of them who do not return home gradually assimilating into the cultural mainstream due to the fundamental affinities between the cultures.
Before 1946—and it is a point that oughtn’t need to be laboured, but the absurd myth that we are “a nation of immigrants” has become widespread—mass immigration was simply not an issue in the modern sense. A few hundred thousand European Jews had arrived since 1880, fleeing various waves of persecution and at times involved in tension with native Britons, but the ethnic balance of the population remained at the end of World War Two over ninety-eight percent white British, and around ninety percent of this group can ultimately trace their genealogy in Britain back fifteen thousand years to the end of the last Ice Age. Successive waves of Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and Huguenots had scarcely altered the homogeneous composition of the population, with demographically small groups, spaced out over many centuries, eventually assimilating completely into the native culture. And since the Conquest of 1066, all subsequent immigrant groups had been assimilated more-or-less on the terms of the native inhabitants. Foreigners would have been a common enough sight in major cities by the middle of the twentieth century, but almost nowhere would the country population have felt “diverse” or “multicultural” to any meaningful extent.
Powell’s fundamental point in his 1968 speech was that mass immigration from very different cultures would ultimately transform the lives of native residents, both through altering the social structures of the communities in which they lived and through changing the identity of the country itself. In both these respects he has been proved completely right.
In some highly diverse areas like Bradford or Leicester today, ethnic communities live more-or-less parallel lives, interacting only in the workplace or on public transport and living in separate districts from each other. Admittedly, outright geographic ‘ghettoisation’ is rare in Britain and there are very few homogeneous majority-minority areas, but in a way, this makes the problem worse. A huge body of sociological research since Robert Putnam’s first publication on the subject in 2001 has found that ethnic diversity in communities tends to reduce social capital and trust even within individual ethnic groups. When you share physical space and civic institutions with people who in important respects are ‘not like you’–whose habits, manner of dress, language and customs are alien to your own, and perhaps betoken a fundamental difference of attitudes and outlook—social interactions become difficult and social norms become fluid. The shared expectations and standards that facilitate community cohesion become uncertain and people retreat into private bubbles.
Moreover, the culture of native Britons is tied to the country’s public institutions, and when those institutions become culturally neutral, that culture is therefore undermined. Over half of all white British people live within five miles of their place of birth, and their sense of identity is tied to local shared spaces—the council, the pub, in many areas (though few now attend outside Christmas and Easter) the parish church. When an area becomes culturally diverse, these shared spaces either become sectional rather than public—as must the church and the pub in an area with a large Muslim population—or people lose a sense of ownership over them. Local government ceases to be something that is meaningfully ours for an area’s residents, the community changing from something through which we forge our self-conception to being a centre for Rawlsian adjudication between the claims of different groups for a share of its collective resources. The idea that you can allow twenty thousand Africans and Asians to move into the millennium-old town of Aylesbury without harming the original residents, compensating for the loss of cohesion by building a huge plate-glass “multicultural centre” in the demolished town centre, is one of the most absurd fantasies to be widely believed by the elite classes.
And this same process can be seen writ large on a national scale. The culture and identity of any people who have lived unconquered and largely untroubled by outsiders on the same island for nearly a thousand years will necessarily become tied to their political institutions. Even now, the British state is not a neutral administrative machine. It sponsors a Christian religious establishment, titled aristocrats sit in its legislature by virtue of their social rank, and its workings are consecrated by a monarch who is theoretically anointed by God. All these things are part of, and stand in a relation of mutual reinforcement to, the particular culture of its native subjects. When the proportion of the population who are part of that culture decreases, so long as the state takes an inclusive view of cultural minorities, this system becomes unsustainable. It is hard to imagine, for example, Charles’s coronation taking the form of a modified service of Holy Communion like his mother’s, because this would exclude from meaningful participation the large and growing number of his subjects for whom Anglican Christianity is no part of their cultural heritage. In a homogeneous nation-state, the culture of the nation is connected to the practice of the state. And in a modern society, for most of us the nation is the most salient serious loyalty above the level of the family, so when its identity changes we become alienated from our own culture.
Enoch Powell perceived this clearly. Mass immigration would transform Britain’s national identity and rob its people of their inheritance; and in order to preserve this identity it must be stopped–if possible, reversed. But it is fair to say that he perceived the local aspects of this transformation less clearly and largely by instinct, and this explains some of the stranger and less savoury things that he said.
Sensing that immigration would destroy the dense social networks of Britain’s local communities and undermine the values embedded in them, the classical scholar struggled with the language of sociology. Not knowing how to articulate this concern to others or to himself, he instead resorted to claiming that native Britons would be persecuted by newcomers and to dubious anecdotes about old ladies being hounded by gangs of “picaninnies”. It was his suspicion that traditional community structures were directly threatened by immigration that led him to believe that anti-discrimination laws would lead to the persecution of white natives. It is true that in a few areas, such as Tower Hamlets, well-organised immigrant communities have gamed the system to exclude and marginalise the original residents, but this is very much an exception to the rule, and the for the most part newcomers have been kind, respectful, and socially-minded. Sadly, the mechanisms through which diversity can cause the social evisceration we have seen require no ill-will on the part of anyone.
If some of his more outlandish judgements can be explained by an inarticulate grasp of this crucial fact, others may legitimately be chalked up to a degree of racial prejudice. Though he explicitly disavowed ethno-nationalist ideas on numerous occasions, it is entirely possible that Powell harboured irrational racial prejudices. Late in life he would claim that it was “very difficult” for a black person to become British, but struggled to explain exactly what conditions would have to be met. Perhaps some of his disgust at the transformation of his beloved West Midlands, some of his fear of displacement by newcomers, was a result of a disposition to fear and dislike persons of African extraction.
But even were this psychological speculation wholly correct, it doesn’t grant very much, or admit anything particularly interesting or important, to affirm it. Almost everyone is influenced by irrational prejudices to some extent, and dogmatic liberals are often the most bigoted people of all. When prejudice accords with the liberal zeitgeist, however, it tends to be ignored, while conservative prejudices are treated as an ever-present, potentially all-consuming danger requiring constant vigilance and self-examination.
What, then, was Enoch’s error? The same error made by traditionalist opponents of immigration in this country ever since. He failed to notice the equally vast disruption of British society created by domestic changes in social values, occurring simultaneously with the rise of a multi-ethnic society in the 1960s. In 1968, true foresight would have seen that the hippies of San Francisco and the petulant students of Paris would ultimately change society just as much as the Jamaican immigrants of Wolverhampton.
To some extent, it is understandable that traditionalists in Britain tend to attribute their sense of alienation and suspicion that the country is in decline to the revolution wrought by mass immigration. Immigrants are the most visible sign of the changes the older among us have observed, and the easiest to pin down. But blaming immigration is a cop-out that serves as salve for a guilty conscience, for Britain’s atomisation and loss of moral cohesion has been almost as profound in the areas as yet untouched by it. In every stable, settled, homogeneous English village, gangs of hoody-wearing youths loiter by the shops, schoolchildren sit at home on their smartphones slitting their wrists in despair, the church sits empty, and the smell of marijuana lingers outside the old corn exchange. It is true that the loss of national confidence linked to mass immigration is part of the problem, but for the most part none of this is caused by immigration itself. Traditionalists in these as-yet monocultural communities, ensconced in the comfortable corners of the shires with “fight the ban” stickers still in the back windows of their Land Rovers, do not want to face up the uncomfortable truth that their country has slipped away from them for the simple reason that they failed to pass on their values to their children and grandchildren, and in many cases drifted away from them themselves.
Powell poisoned traditionalism by allowing it to become associated with racial prejudice, and the stifled discourse we have had since then has never faced up to the huge task that confronted it. Since 1960, the proportion of children raised in broken homes has surged from less than one in thirty to nearly half, church attendance has fallen by three quarters and Confirmations by ninety percent, crime has risen ten-fold (and forty-fold since 1900), and rates of serious neurotic illness have increased by at least one—possibly two—orders of magnitude. And far from being the result of immigration, the presence of large Muslim communities in Britain, with their strong family and religious values, actually conceals an even deeper decline in traditional ways of life among white Britons.
A large part of the motivation for Brexit was driven by a sense that Britain was disappearing, that our culture could only be retrieved by regaining control of our government and borders. But though immigration is undoubtedly transforming the country, we have done most of work of demolition ourselves. The Britain remembered by elderly supporters of Brexit was inseparably linked to traditional, Christian values that have now all but disappeared, and Powell bares a share of the blame for failing to perceive that they were doing so.
Benjamin Schwarz, writing on Unmaking England in The American Conservative last year, concluded that Britain’s impending abolition is ultimately the result of the doubling of the pace of immigration permitted by the globalist ideology of the Blair government. In 1997, he writes, “…British—again, really English—society remained defined by a national culture that Orwell would have recognized.”
But this, surely, is a huge mistake. The first section of Orwell’s 1941 The Lion and the Unicorn, in which the mild, gentle social conservative envisages a socialist transformation that would leave English society and culture basically intact, is frequently cited in attempts to understand the old Britain, and remains a deeply poignant source of nostalgia. But if Orwell could have visited the England of 1997, he would have found that little of the culture for which he had such a deep affection had survived. He would have been distressed by the indifference to patriotism, disturbed by its dirty and crime ridden streets, appalled by the epidemic of divorce, disgusted by the promiscuity and loose sexual morals of the young, distressed by the conformist casualness of its people’s manners and dress, and baffled and saddened by the national obsessions with television and motoring. Gone was his beloved “nation of flower-lovers…stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans”; gone was the English eccentric. Surveying a town like Slough or Watford he might even have doubted whether the price paid for the abolition of the slums whose horrors he so carefully documented had been wholly worth it in the tarmac wastelands that sprung up in their place.
If we accept this argument, it becomes clear that the error of Enoch Powell was a fatal one. The real unmaking of England was not caused by a wave of immigration imposed from outside by a liberal elite, but by choices we have made ourselves. As long as we continue to avoid a reckoning for these choices, no “populist” upsurge will make a jot of difference, and, in the annals of history, Brexit will prove to be no more than a blip on our long downward march into denatured, de-moralised depravity.