Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Powell Lite

I raised a few hackles among readers of this blog a few weeks' back for daring to criticise Boris Johnson, so I was interested to read about the report by Compass on why the former Spectator editor is unfit to be Mayor of London.

Frankly, I think the Brownite think-tank was being a bit po-faced by quoting Boris's comments on driving a Ferrari against him - "the whole county of Hampshire was lying back and opening her well-bred legs to be ravished by the Italian stallion".

It may be tasteless, but most readers would probably take this comment in the light-hearted spirit in which it was meant. Racism, though, is a different matter - especially in a city as multiracial as London.

In its report, Compass described Johnson as "a type of Norman Tebbit in a clown's uniform." Perhaps a better comparison, though, would have been with Enoch Powell.

The Compass dossier, which delved back into Johnson's journalistic career as well as his more recent political utterances, reminds us that Johnson once wrote a piece in which he referred to black people as "piccaninnies with watermelon smiles."

The phrase "wide-grinning piccaninnies" was of course used by Powell in the notorious Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 which effectively ended his career in frontline politics. As such it is a word which all aspiring Tory politicians should surely avoid.

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8 comments:

ThunderDragon said...

That phrase was used in the letter from a constituent which Enoch Powell read out in that speech, rather than his own words, though.

Tim J said...

Just as Johnson used it to satirise Blair's messiah complex in foreign affairs. Calling racism on this devalues the term to a ludicrous degree.

MorrisOx said...

For the sake of accuracy, thunderdragon, it should be pointed out that the letter in question supposedly came from a lady in Northumberland who was referring to what seemed an incredible tale of abuse of an elderly white woman by 'negros' in Powell's constituency.

Incredible is the word. When journalists of the time sought to follow-up the story with the woman she could not be found.

The consensus is that she never existed, and that the resemblance the story bore to racist myths circulated by the far right probably pointed to its true origins.

Powell had no business exploiting such nonsense. And Johnson should know better.

ThunderDragon said...

Even so, he didn't write the phrase himself.

Charlie Marks said...

I just love to point this out:

Powell was a free marketeer in favour of privatisation and opposed to workers' rights. As a government minister, it was he who incouraged workers to come from the colonies to work in the UK...

Anonymous said...

The woman was found recently by an investigative journalist. Powell had always promised that he would not identify her. her identity was confirmed by Lord Howard (who worked for Powell at the time) when the journalist put the name to him.

The trouble with criticisms of Powell (and I am afraid I would have to included you Paul in this) are that his detractirs are usually nowhere near his own level of intelligence and criticise him by smear rather than taking his arguments on. The same could be said about these criticisms of johnson.

Playing the man rather than the ball!

Stephen Rouse said...

The woman was not found. A paper exercise was conducted which identified the most likely candidate. Lord Howard actually refused to confirm the name to the BBC. When she was named, neighbours and friends came forward to say they remembered a sweet-tempered tolerant old lady who got on very well with her West Indian neighbours. Powell's story remains very much unproven.

I don't think Paul, or many other people, would ever claim to be on Powell's intellectual level. That's precisely what makes it so tragic. One of the most gifted of the post-war generation, with an outstanding capacity to do good in the world, chose to sully his talents by pandering to the basest instincts of our society in a botched leadership bid.

As for taking his arguments on, the main thrust of the Excrement through the Letterbox Speech (to give it a more accurate title - Powell never actually used the phrase rivers of blood) was to attack Labour's then upcoming Race Relations Bill. This was the first time racial equality had been codified in law, for example making it illegal for landladies to put "no blacks" when advertising rooms. Is anyone seriously suggesting Powell was right to condemn this?

MorrisOx said...

You can't keep a bad myth down, can you? But myth it was and let there be no doubt whatsoever about that.

Powell was an intense intellectual who took himself far too seriously and had little time for others, his Wolverhampton constituents included.

I don't think Powell was an out-and-out racist, but his own failure to be self-critical led him to come up with a string of impractiucal, insensitive and frankly ludicrous ideas.

This was the man, remember, who when he was in the Conservative Rsearch Department in the early 1950s wrote a paper for Churchill advocating the reconquering of India...