It's something of a love that dare not speak its name, but Powellism has remained a major subtext on the British right for something like half a century, and the rise of UKIP marks only the latest incarnation of this ongoing infatuation.
David Osler is a London-based journalist and writer
It’s something of a love that dare not speak its name, but Powellism has remained a major subtext on the British right for something like half a century, and the rise of UKIP marks only the latest incarnation of this ongoing infatuation.
It may seem a bit of a stretch to compare the small movement around a reactionary intellectual such as Powell, which extended only to a few hundred people in the Powellight Association, with the impact of a 26,000-strong party led by a man who so effectively adopts an ordinary-bloke-down-the-pub persona.
But Powell was far from being as patrician as the constant classical references peppering his speeches may have suggested; indeed, his lower middle class grammar school upbringing was certainly less posh than that of Dulwich College City Boy Nigel Farage.
Moreover, the crux of Powellite politics, as Tom Nairn discussed in some of his influential writings on Britishness in the 1970s, boiled down to an articulation of England’s latent nationalism, and that very much summarises what UKIP stands for in the contemporary climate.
In his day, Powell led the way on UKIP’s two touchstone issues. While he is most famous for his opposition to what was then called coloured immigration, do not forget that he swung the February 1974 election by calling for a Labour vote, perceiving Labour to be more opposed to the forerunner of the European Union.
In the years that followed, Powellism mutated into Thatcherism, described by one well-known journalist of the time as ‘Powellism by other means’.
Thatcher was not a racist in the same direct sense as Powell – indeed, she represented a constituency with a substantial Jewish population – but she was all too aware of the potential of sensitivities over immigration as a tool to mobilise popular support for her rightwing economic programme.
In more recent years, any hint of sympathy for the proposition that ‘Enoch was right’ has been a hanging offence in what was supposed to have been a detoxified brand. One Tory prospective parliamentary candidate in a winnable west Midlands seat after was forced to step down after making just that claim only a few years back.
But Powellism hasn’t gone away, you know. The base of support that has always been there is now being effectively tapped by UKIP.
There are differences as well as similarities with the past; no longer is anachronistic nostalgia for imperialism a viable basis for an electoral project.
Moreover, UKIP is devoid of the intellectual content Farage evidently cannot produce. That may work to his advantage, given that in contemporary British culture nobody likes a smartarse anyway, and all politicians are intent on presenting themselves as pretty straight sorts of guys.
Hence we are left with the logical absurdity of a ‘libertarian’ opposed to gay marriage and unfettered immigration. Farage reduces what is a serious political philosophy to a demand for the right to smoke fags in pubs.
He starts from a single issue and bolts on prejudices pretty much ad lib, plucking random numbers of Bulgarians out of thin air with which to scare the horses while his supporters propose buying in policies from think tanks off the shelf.
Where this project is going remains unclear. Some of Farage’s utterances indicate that not even he sees UKIP becoming a viable party of government in its own right, capable of superceding the Conservative Party as the main vehicle for the British right.
He has even portrayed its role as analogous with that of SDP, restricted to drawing one of the mainstream parties in the desired direction. If he succeeds in that, and he well might, Powellism Lite will finally have reached fruition.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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