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These ruthless, bigoted Tories would have Enoch Powell smiling from his grave

The recent spate of vile anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Tories shows they have decided that stoking hatred against minorities is their only way to avoid electoral annihilation
Rishi Sunak leaves Conservative Party HQ in London having been announced as the winner of the party's leadership contest, 24 October 2022 (AFP)
Rishi Sunak leaves Conservative Party HQ in London having been announced as the winner of the party's leadership contest, 24 October 2022 (AFP)

On 20 April 1968, Enoch Powell, the most divisive Conservative politician of the post-war era, made his notorious “rivers of blood” speech at a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham.

Powell was inflamed by Labour’s Race Relations Act, which gave equal rights to immigrants. His speech remains one of the most notorious events in British political history.

Powell, a brilliant classical scholar, referred to the Roman poet Virgil when he told his Midlands audience: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'.” 

He quoted one of his constituents, who had told him: "In this country in 15 or 20 years' time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man."

There has always been a racist element in Britain, as in most societies. Powell’s speech went down well with his Conservative audience and it electrified the far right, to whom he remains a hero.

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But it horrified mainstream opinion. The Times, then edited by William Rees-Mogg, whose son Jacob became a cabinet minister in the Boris Johnson government, called it "an evil speech", adding: "This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our postwar history."

Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson told that year’s Labour conference that "the struggle against racialism is a worldwide fight. It is the dignity of man for which we are fighting”. 

The Beatles, by far Britain’s most popular band, implicitly addressed Powell and his speech in one of their most famous songs, Get Back.

The Tory leader, and future prime minister, Edward Heath, instantly sacked Powell and saw to it that he was driven out of the Conservative Party and confined to fringe status.

Heath, like almost all serious politicians at the time, understood the grave dangers of Powell’s putrid and inflammatory oratory. For many decades most people, myself included, took it for granted that the removal of Powell marked the moment when racism ceased to be acceptable within the Conservative Party.

I am afraid that we have to accept that we were wrong. Racism is back, big time and centre stage, in Rishi Sunak's Tory party.

Dangers of populism

In the short term, Heath defeated Powellism. In the long term, however, Powellism has won the battle for the heart of Conservatism.

It’s been obvious for some time that something had changed. Zac Goldsmith's smear campaign against Sadiq Khan in the 2016 London mayoral contest was an early indication.

In a disgusting attack on Khan that same year, then Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that an innocent South London imam was an Islamic State group supporter at prime minister’s questions. 

Boris Johnson has used racist words, including one - piccaninnies, an offensive term for a small black child - which had infamously been used by Powell. I very much doubt this was a coincidence. Johnson, in his sly way, was giving a friendly nod to the far right.

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Serious politicians have always understood the dangers of populism. They know there are always votes to be won by stirring up sectarian resentment and hatred, and that it is much easier to win elections by stoking up division. 

But they also know the dangers. You only need to look around the world today to understand that this is the case. Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungary are all examples. They win power, but at a terrible cost to social cohesion.

Edward Heath had travelled around Europe as a young man in the 1930s. He understood with great clarity from personal experience the dangers of whipping up sectarian and ethnic hatred. This helps to explain why he was so prompt to dismiss Powell 56 years ago.

That lesson has been forgotten by the current generation.

As I explained in an article for Middle East Eye just after Christmas, Rishi Sunak - whose family were among the immigrants Powell targeted - has adopted the Powellite policy of stimulating hatred and division, especially by targeting British Muslims. 

This strategy became apparent when, in an episode mysteriously under-reported in the British press, the British prime minister flew to Italy on 13 December to speak at a political event hosted by Italian premier Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy.

Previous speakers at this event included Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and well as Orban. Sunak warned that immigration would “overwhelm” Europe. He was talking something close to the language of Powell.

Anti-Muslim bigots

Sunak was also sending an unspoken message to his own party: this year the Tories will fight the general election in the same repellent way that Powell wanted Heath to fight the 1970 election.

Namely by appealing to white racism and targeting vulnerable immigrant minorities.

As he signalled on his visit to the far-right Brothers of Italy, Sunak plans to fight this year’s general election on a domesticated version of the great replacement theory

This helps to explain the outbreak of virulent language within the senior ranks of the Tory Party in the last few days.

There have been too many of them to be a coincidence.

The ludicrous but lethal claim by former Home Secretary Suella Braverman that Islamists are in charge of Britain; the exposure of  inflammatory Twitter traffic of Tory donor - and owner of far-right GB News - Paul Marshall, including one retweet: “Civil war is coming. There has never been a country that has remained peaceful with a sizeable Islamic presence.”

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s visit to the United States, where she failed to challenge Steve Bannon when he said that far-right activist Tommy Robinson was a "hero"; Tory MP Paul Scully's false and divisive statement that there are Muslim "no-go” areas in London and Birmingham.

Tory MP and former party deputy chairman Lee Anderson’s revolting attack on Sadiq Khan: “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London.”

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There are plenty of other examples.

The Tory Party has become the party of anti-Muslim bigots. 

There has been an understandable tendency for mainstream commentators to give Sunak an easy ride on the problem of Tory racism on the basis that he himself comes from an immigrant family. I was initially minded to do so myself.

But this argument no longer holds.

It is the job of a British prime minister to show statesmanship and calm down sectarian division.

Sunak is whipping up hatred, and the reason why is obvious.

As he signalled on his visit to the far-right Brothers of Italy, Sunak plans to fight this year’s general election on a domesticated version of the great replacement theory. This is a racist, white nationalist conspiracy theory which holds that foreigners are taking over Europe. 

Ruthless political calculation

With the economy in recession, public finances a mess and the Tories' reputation for competence at rock bottom, all the evidence suggests that Sunak’s Tories will fight the election by targeting minorities - especially immigrants and, in particular, Muslim ones.

This explains Sunak’s weak and complicit reaction to this week’s outbursts of Tory bigotry. 

A British prime minister worth her or his salt would have removed the whip from, and made a public example of, Truss, Scully and Braverman. 

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But Sunak has not even rebuked them. He has punished Anderson by suspending the whip - but refuses to say his statements were racist, while some press reports appear to be indicating there is a way back into mainstream Tory ranks for Anderson.

Sunak’s reaction is wretched. But there is a ruthless political calculation behind his tolerance of vile bigotry.

Look at the most recent polls. Keir Starmer’s Labour ride high at 40 percent or more. Sunak’s Tories poll by contrast at barely 20 percent.

There is, in the mind of Tory strategists, one glimmer of hope. By winning over the 10 percent of voters who are telling pollsters they will vote for the far-right Reform party, perhaps the Conservatives can avoid an ignominious defeat.

For this reason, Sunak has chosen to play the migrant card. It’s horrible politics which shames Britain.  

Enoch Powell will be smiling from his grave. But we should not forget that the bulk of the British people are decent. Edward Heath went on to win the 1970 general election - despite sacking Powell.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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