Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The ultra-Politics of Powell.

Delusions of Nationhood.

The economist Friedrich von Hayek was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and so was Enoch Powell at the same time. Powell would later garner a reputation as a 'maverick' in the Conservative Party. He posed as a libertarian critic of the welfare state, immigration and European integration. Even though Powell voted for Clement Attlee in 1945 out of disgust over the way that the war ended and stood in opposition to immigration controls in the 1950s. As Health Secretary under Macmillan, Powell personally oversaw the employment of the Commonwealth immigrants at the NHS which was understaffed at the time. He was opposed to attempts to restrict employment of immigrants in the public sector on the basis that it was wrong to treat an individual differently on the basis of their origins. Powell was a libertarian and a staunch nationalist who believed in the Empire, which he saw collapse in his own lifetime and he yearned for it to be restored. As MP Powell drew up a plan to reconquer India in 1950, which Churchill dismissed as "madness". He was opposed to US influence, Irish reunification, Communism and European integration out of this belief in the British Empire.

Milton Friedman, a fellow member of the Mont Pelerin Society, praised Enoch Powell as a principled man. Powell stood by monetarism throughout the predominance of Keynesian theory and the widespread practice of social democratic policies throughout the Western world. The sumptuous distance from power that Powell enjoyed later functioned as a plateau from which a shot could be fired at the Establishment in standard populist manner. Of course, the distance served the ultra-right as a comfortable place for indulgence away from any chance of serious reflection on policy and theory. The point of excessive rhetoric for Hayek was to bolster support for the old system reconstituted behind the mythic guise of 'free-market'. The state-planners of social democratic capitalism would be placed by a managerial state-capitalist nexus, whereby the 'competitive order' is maintained. Powellism is no different, it was the standard Tory combination of classical liberalism and cultural conservatism. It parades before the rabble in the proto-populist garb of parochial nostalgia for the imperial glory and unfettered capitalism of the Victorian era.

Enoch Powell became a strident opponent of immigration after Ted Heath became Conservative leader in 1965, with Powell coming third behind him and joined the Shadow Cabinet as Secretary of Defence. Around this time Powell became increasingly critical of immigration and came out in opposition to Sikh men wearing turbans at work. It may have been a bid to position himself for the leadership role in the long-term. It couldn't have been pure opportunism on his part given that it was a position he maintained for the rest of his life. He saw himself as a prophet and it came through in his language, it was the words of Virgil he invoked. But it is clear that the 'Rivers of Blood' speech was timed to put Ted Heath on the spot and shape immigration policy dramatically. He was silent in opposition to the Race Relations act when it was discussed by the Shadow Cabinet just 10 days before he made his notorious speech. If Ted Heath failed to undertake tough policy-decisions on immigration it could have meant another Labour victory in 1970, after which Powell could have challenged Heath and become party leader.

Tried and Tested.

Once in power Ted Heath abruptly castrated Powell as a potential rival with the 1971 Immigration act, which reduced immigration to zero in the early 70s. Heath rejected the suggestion, as Powell had, that the state could manage the economy. The Conservative government embarked on a new approach to the economy, which hoped that the unhindered market would reconstruct British industry and society. Powell had long been a proponent of such an approach and now there was the chance to see it realised. But the Heath government abandoned the approach abruptly as unemployment started to rise and industry was left devastated. The new strategy was a "dash for growth" with the liberalisation of credit and a higher level of public spending. It was for a moment that the British economy boomed before the phenomenon of stagflation emerged as inflation and unemployment to rise simultaneously. The Keynesian orthodoxy was left perplexed and the monetarists found the chance they had been looking for.

Even though Heath had abandoned the market as the instrument to organise society and, much to the chagrin of Powell, saw Britain join the European Economic Community, the Conservative government helped set the conditions for Thatcher - which was heavily influenced by Powellite thinking. The Heath administration had removed exchange controls and opened up the UK economy to the international financial markets, money could now be moved in and out of the country on a whim. The threat to democracy of deregulated finance proved correct as we have witnessed a political stasis in the West since the global economy underwent the first stages of financialisation. It was the stagflation which opened up the space into which monetarism could enter as an alternative to Keynesianism. The failure to manage the economy gave credence to the position that the state could not manage the economy and should not be expected to. The way that the labour movement defeated the Conservative government demonstrated that the working-class had to be broken.

Powell was the consummate precursor to Thatcherism, in many respects, and had good reason to take delight in the collapse of the Heath government. Of course, Powell had a lot in common with Heath and a lot more than he would have admitted. The immigration policy of Heath was crafted to neuter him and the economic doctrine could only be salvaged for Powell as it was aborted. Under successive Labour governments there was an increase in deportations and the introduction of virginity tests on Asian women coming to live with their husbands in Britain. Again, Powell could languish at a distance from power and comfortably refuse any critical self-reflection at all. The Heath administration was not 'pure' in its approach to economic affairs and it sold out to the Europeans at the first chance. Powell could reassure himself that the ideas in his mind had yet to be realised. Then came the rise of Thatcherism and this time it would be different as Thatcher made clear when she said "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to."

No more U-Turns?

This time the government did not back down to the trade unions and instead systematically crushed every union it provoked into confrontation. In many respects Thatcherism was Powellism adjusted to the processes of globalisation and financialisation. The austerity measures of the early 1980s led to violent riots across the country in some of the most deprived and vulnerable communities. The ideological justification for the cuts came out of neoliberal doctrines which Enoch Powell supported and propagated throughout his career. The process by which the state was "rolled back" left the population devastated. It required the shock of the Falklands war to bolster patriotic support for the government. But it also required a means to explain away the social problems that the process generated. This is where Enoch Powell is on the side of the Establishment. The riots just supported his thesis that there would soon be violence and destruction on a huge scale if immigration were not reversed. Conveniently Powell could spout this line and not confront the consequences of the economic policies which he supported.

At the same time, Powell could hide behind the fact that the policies did not go far enough and the social democratic settlement was not obliterated totally. The doors were periodically opened to permit a spurt of immigration in order to boost the supply of labour. The so-called "special relationship" between the US and the UK continued as the US permitted the British retaliation to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. This was a war fought in America's backyard against an action undertaken by a dictatorship that Washington had supported. The days when the British rebelled against American foreign policy were long gone. Integration with Europe continued steadily as it had since the 1950s, with Thatcher pushing through the single European act - perhaps one of the most integrationist measures. Thatcher was also a member of the Heath Cabinet which took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973 and campaigned for a Yes vote in the 1975 referendum. Margaret Thatcher was no bastion of 'national sovereignty' rather she never deviated from the traditional Conservative position on European integration which we might describe today in the vein of UKIP as Europhilic as opposed to Eurosceptical.

The Euro was a right-wing project from the very beginning as the European Central Bank has no qualms about the level of unemployment. Yet it is often portrayed as a leftist project by the ilk of Powell for the reason it is a state-system and we are reminded that the state fails to do good even on the rare occasions that it means to. The convenient blind-spot is to the neoliberal role of the state as a managerial system of a 'competitive order' in Hayekian theory. The right-wing opposition to social democratic capitalism was just an opposition to the particular form of the state-corporate nexus. Instead of state-planners looking to provide services and a social safety-net to the poor and most vulnerable, people like Powell were looking for a bureaucracy which would do more for business than society. As convenient as it may be for reactionaries like Powell to dismiss the Left for having ideas, it has to be said that the return to the glory of Victorian Britannia really is utopian. The only acceptable state project is on the side of 'national sovereignty' which has no place for the poor except as a dis-empowered rabble to be exploited.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't recall who said it, but I believe Enoch Powell was described as having "The finest mind in English politics, until it was made up". Rather neatly sums him up, I think.