(Bloomberg) -- On April 20th, 1968, the conservative British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell made a notorious speech advocating repatriation for non-white people and outlining a racially exclusive future for Britain. This week, near the 50th anniversary of Powell’s speech, came several reminders that the past is not dead; it is not even past.
Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd was forced to resign, following revelations that she was aware, contrary to her denials, of arbitrary targets set by her office for the deportation of “illegal” immigrants. This policy of creating a “hostile environment” was explicitly defined in 2012 by the present Prime Minister Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. It had been invisibly shattering lives for years. But outrage erupted when the Guardian exposed May’s victims as elderly men and women from the Caribbean who started to arrive in Britain in June 1948 to help rebuild the war-ravaged country.
The original targets of Powell’s racial animus in 1968, the Windrush generation, so called after the ship that brought them to Britain, have in recent decades become an attractive symbol of Britain’s ethnic and racial diversity. The ill treatment of its members, many of whom, though citizens for decades, were deported or denied public services, turned into a damaging scandal for the Conservative Party, which is already struggling to manage the problems unleashed by the vote for Brexit.
But it is too easy to conclude, on the basis of public sympathy for the Windrush generation, that Powellism is extinct in Britain. A series of events, from 1968 to Brexit, suggest that it has been gaining ground, in proportion to the decline of Britain as a great power.
It was a Labour rather than Conservative government that in 1968 introduced legislation designed to keep Kenyan Asians out of Britain -- what even the conservative writer Auberon Waugh denounced as “immoral.” Labour also administered “virginity tests” in the 1970s to young brides from the Indian subcontinent.
Politicians and journalists across the party-political divide responded to the political and economic emergency of the 1970s by raising an alarm about black immigrants as people prone to criminal behavior. In 1978, the prime minister-in-waiting Margaret Thatcher peddled a soft Powellism, claiming that British people were “really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”
Britain’s Labour leaders rebranded their increasingly multicultural country as “Cool Britannia” in the late 1990s. But the exclusivist white identity originally formed by the conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples did not disappear. Even self-declared modernizers and globalizers in the Labour Party invoked the imperial past of white supremacy. Asserting that “the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over,” Gordon Brown called for an American-style flag-waving nationalism.
Powell, in retrospect, looks more clear-eyed and consistent in his Little Englandism. He believed that the English attachment to their lost empire was sentimental and misleading. He worked to outline a racially pure, post-imperial identity for England that was free of such baggage of empire as dark-skinned people.
He was, not surprisingly, virulently opposed to the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union, on the grounds that it diluted the sovereignty of an ancient and proudly self-sufficient nation. On the eve of the referendum in 1975 that decided Britain’s membership of the EEC, he predicted that if the people of Britain voted in its favor, they would one day “rise up and say: ‘We were deceived, we were taken for a ride, we will have no part of it.’”
Anticipating today’s fanatically anti-EU Brexiteers, Powell now seems the original and prophetic voice of English populism. His vision of an autonomous and homogenous England has settled in the mainstream, and its inherent racialism has proven irresistible to politicians and journalists during social and economic crisis.
Indeed, as Stuart Hall, the public intellectual who was coincidentally a member of the Windrush generation, once wrote, race has become “the framework through which the crisis is experienced. It is the means by which the crisis is to be resolved — ‘send it away.’”
That’s precisely what Theresa May deployed in her “hostile environment” policy, which was an attempt to diagnose and resolve Britain’s seemingly terminal crisis of sinking living standards and failing public services.
She has frequently gone too far in her anti-immigration crusade, for instance in a speech in 2015. Hailed by the far-right leader Nigel Farage (“Nice to see Theresa May repeating so much of what I have said about uncontrolled migration”), May was attacked by the more business-friendly and cosmopolitan wing of her own party for what a writer in the right-wing Spectator called her "stale and noxious concoction of tawdry nativism.”
As more such condemnations of the Windrush atrocity from the right and left poured in this week, May was again exposed as an over-zealous pupil of Enoch Powell. Her position looks untenable. But make no mistake: She is merely an unsophisticated exponent of an ideology — Powellism — that is now more entrenched than ever in British life.
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