Kith and Kin: Britain after empire, 1966
Outside Agitator (they/them)
- Jul 29, 2012
EYE OF THE STORM
A HISTORY OF THE COLD WAR IN THE BEVAN YEARS
DENIS HEALEY 1976
Kith and Kin: Britain after empire, 1966
It would be easy to imagine, given the great significance with which the trouble in Guyana may be viewed in hindsight, that its effect upon the public consciousness back in Britain was immediate. Inevitably, this was not the case. Although news coverage of the Guyanese ‘emergency’ was certainly prominent, with the wreck of the Isabel-Flores and the reaching of a compromise between Jagan and the GPC each making the headlines in June and September, the intervening coverage was less sustained. Over the month of July, news bulletins much occupied by the FIFA World Cup in Yugoslavia, at which reigning SIFCO champions France beat the hosts 2-1 in a memorable final. (The Commonwealth team were defeated in the quarter-finals by eventual bronze-medal winners Brazil, losing to a team that included many players who had won gold in Mexico four years prior.)
This is fantastic footage of France's 1966 World Cup qualifying victory over Yugoslavia in October 1965. It's not applicable to the imagined game here, but I include it because frankly it is too good to miss out. The interviews with he team at the start are great pieces of footage, and it's a lovely slice of football 'as was'. To see the goal, skip forward to about 52 mins in.
The big story in August, which historically coincides with the ‘silly season’ of the British press calendar, was the death of King Albert in Canada and the subsequent accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne. While the British media remained wholly unromantic about the institution of the old monarchy, the new queen was an intriguing figure and sparked a fair amount of comment. Born in the year before the beginning of the General Strike, Elizabeth was evacuated to Newfoundland before her third birthday and grew up during the reign of her unfortunate uncle, the so-called ‘King in Canada’. Although born in Britain, Elizabeth was nevertheless seen as emblematic of the second generation of the Canadian aristocracy: those for whom ‘going back’ was never a possibility worth entertaining, and for whom resentment for the Commonwealth was only ever a background concern. Elizabeth’s father was generally seen as a man who regretted the business of ruling just as much as he regretted the revolution, and the result of these twin regrets had been a pragmatic, markedly reserved style of rule. The ‘Britishness’ of the Canadian monarchy was something that sat awkwardly in Ottawa, and the diffident Albert did little to overcome this. Elizabeth, it was generally thought, would have an easier time convincing the country of her ‘transatlantic’ credentials, and the monarchy certainly benefited from her own personal popularity. Relatively youthful, unquestionably telegenic and speaking with the mid-Atlantic inflection of the new Canadian aristocracy, Elizabeth and her family very much fit a new ideal for royalty. Even in Britain, the public could hardly help their fascination.
Queen Elizabeth, 1966.
Succeeding her father Albert in the summer of 1966, Elizabeth's accession promised a new era of the Windsor Monarchy.
With all of this going on in the world, it is therefore not impossible to see how ongoing political violence in a country of 600 thousand people would hardly have troubled the wider public imagination. Instead, the day-to-day progression of the Guyanese debacle was confined initially to small sections of the gradually-liberalising press. Since 1963, when Bevan had divested the LUPA of control over the Daily Herald (at that time still boasting a daily circulation of 10 million), the British press had begun the journey along the road to liberalisation. The initial trigger was the breaking-up of the newly-independent Herald, whose gigantic apparatus was divided between regional editorial co-operatives. Thus by 1966 Britain had five main daily newspapers: three tabloids (the Daily Herald, The Tribune and The Mirror) and two broadsheets (The Morning Post and The International). Of these, the Herald, The Tribune and The Morning Post remained ‘loyal’, editorially speaking, to the governing LUPA-PF coalition. Both The Mirror and The International took a more independent stance, frequently reporting from the perspective of the left opposition. The International in particular carved itself a niche, suggested by its name, reporting on foreign news, quickly gaining a reputation for the quality of its global correspondence. It was rewarded for its diligence with the lowest circulation of any of the ‘successors’ to the old Herald, the only of the five to sell under one million copies per day. Although not a direct consequence, it is worth highlighting the fact that The International provided by far the most detailed coverage of the situation in Guyana of any of the major British newspapers.
The right opposition had to wait until 1966 before they could point to national papers of their own. Unable to rely upon the Daily Herald inheritance, their emerging media appeared from the ground up. The pioneer in this regard was the New Spectator, a weekly political and cultural journal established in 1964 by a group led by the social democrat Ian Gilmour. In many ways the original locus of social democracy in the Commonwealth, the Spectator attained a respectable circulation of 40 thousand per week by the end of its first year. When Gilmour handed over editorship of the magazine to Iain Macleod in 1966, the magazine began to find its feet – and after, its audience. Macleod was a specialist in foreign affairs, particularly as related to the former empire, and he was keenly interested in the world crises of 1964–66. Initially confining the Spectator to comment on the American intervention in Vietnam, a ‘safe’ topic for the immediate post-censorship world, he expanded the magazine’s focus to take in the Malaysian confrontation as the conflict in South East Asia escalated.
Iain Macleod outside the premises of the New Spectator, 1966.
In spite of its oppositional stance, the Spectator’s issue with the Bevanite foreign policy was not its insistence on 'divestment'. Macleod was wholly unsentimental about British imperialism, and if anything welcomed a reduction of Britain’s global commitments as being sound economics. The result of this ambivalence was the formulation of a critique which the Bevan ministry has still been unable to shake off in the historic imagination, which is one of indecisiveness. Bevan, the pages of the Spectator argument, was hamstrung by his prosecution of diplomacy along ‘moral' grounds, not because an ‘immoral’ policy would have been preferable, but, bluntly, because it encouraged neither consistent nor clear thinking. Between 1961–63, Britain raced to grant autonomy to all of its remaining dependent states, giving little thought to what would follow other than an ill-defined commitment to ‘co-operation’. After 1963, Britain realised that decolonisation was by no means so cut and dry, and as the growing calls to resist American expansionism supplanted autonomy as the primary moral imperative, the government was forced to perform a partial turn away from its earlier policy. This proved successful in Malaysia, but Bevan’s ministers now had to confront the matter of what its promised ‘co-operative’ policy would entail elsewhere. Was it simply economic, or was it a firmer alliance? Memorably, Macleod attacked the idea of ‘co-operation’ at the height of Malaysian confrontation by writing: ‘I believe the sort of co-operation that Mr Boothby imagines is the sort that one usually sees between rider and horse.’ He feared that Britain planned to impose its assistance upon the former colonies in much the same way that it had lately imposed its presence upon them, and advocated instead for the ‘free association’ of sovereign states. By no means was he opposed to links between Britain and its former possessions, so long as the impetus for a continued relationship did not come from inside Britain itself.
On this basis, Macleod opposed intervention in Malaysia as aiming ultimately towards an outcome (Malaysian affiliation with Britain) whose popular currency was dubious at best. He backed up this ‘populist’ argument (populist albeit from the point of view of the Malaysians) by adding that Britain could hardly afford to prop up an entire global bloc by force of arms. After all, this had been the logic behind divestment in the first place. To return to a position of de facto imperial hegemony made neither practical sense nor ‘moral’ sense, and by this measure it had to be opposed. The implication, of course, is that in the absence of a British response Macleod must have encouraged the ‘Americanisation’ of the postcolonial world. This was not at all the case; Macleod was certainly capable of attacking Americans and British simultaneously, and he opposed the attempts of both London and Washington to secure for themselves ‘new’ imperial domains. In effect, Macleod was sceptical of the necessity of fighting the Cold War at all, holding that the machinations of the warring superpowers prevented newly autonomous nations from exercising true (economic) independence. Undoubtedly, this was a novel way of conceptualising British foreign policy at the height of the Cold War. In large part thanks to it, the Spectator catapulted to national notoriety in 1966, and by the end of the year its circulation had virtually doubled from 1964, selling 75 thousand copies per week.
Enoch Powell, 1966.
If Macleod was the acerbic choirmaster of the dissenters at the New Spectator, his foil was a far more impassioned, divisive voice. Today, Enoch Powell is remembered as a figure of such considerable controversy that it is scarcely believable to think that as late as 1966 he was practically unknown. Powell was a brilliant classics professor from Birmingham who, like Macleod, took great interest in foreign policy. When Macleod took over the editorship, he doubled the size of the foreign affairs desk and hired Powell as its editor. Macleod was impressed by Powell’s industry and his intelligence, and despite contrasting personalities (Macleod the playboy, Powell the ascetic) the two men became good friends, bonding among other things over a shared love of literature. Powell also shared Macleod’s unsentimental attitude towards the former empire, and in fact took it further towards a palpable antipathy. As a young man, Powell had, rather eccentrically, set his sights on becoming the viceroy of India. When the United Kingdom was overthrown by revolution in 1929, any hope of Britain holding onto India vanished, and in 1934 the All-Indian Commonwealth duly received its independence. He came to terms with this breakneck change in policy by doubling down into logical absolutism, reasoning that if India was lost then the whole Empire should go. In this way he came to oppose Mosleyite developmentalism wholesale, and in the late 1950s he even found himself in an unlikely alliance with the campaign for Kenyan autonomy. Characteristically, Powell once took the opportunity to speak out against British treatment of interned KLFA fighters while delivering a lecture on Demosthenes.
KLFA fighters, 1950s.
Powell was an unlikely supporter of the KLFA in their struggle against Mosley and the Kenyatta regime (1950–56; 1962–63), finding sympathy with their opposition to the continued British presence in Kenya after autonomy.
As the Spectator’s foreign affairs editor, Powell was equally fond of dropping classical references into his own philippics, and in this way he cultivated his appeal as something of an eccentric dissident character. But this singular figure was animated by a firm political programme, which grew in confidence and continued to calcify as the 1960s progressed. On June 3 1966, Powell gave what was at that time perhaps the clearest indication of his philosophy to date in an article marking the end of the British intervention in Malaysia. In the article, published under the title ‘The Long Way Back From Malacca’, Powell attacked as unrealistic the idea that Britain could sustain itself as a ‘policing’ world power. He argued that Western intervention into non-Western conflicts was counterproductive, preventing the establishment of a settled ‘postcolonial’ order whereby new nations would be able to protect their own interests:
However much we may do to safeguard and reassure the new independent countries in Asia, the eventual limits of American and Chinese advance in those directions will be fixed by a balance of forces which will itself be Asiatic. The two empires are already in a state of mutual antagonism; but every advance or threat of advance by one or the other calls into existence countervailing forces, sometimes nationalist in character, sometimes expansionist, which will ultimately check it. We have to reckon with the harsh fact that the attainment of this eventual equilibrium of forces may at some point be delayed rather than hastened by Western military presence.
At work in this argument were two things which deeply influenced Powell’s thinking on foreign policy during the middle of the decade. The first was a deep distrust of the United States, which stemmed from Powell’s career as an officer during the Pacific War. Although Britain and the United States had fought together against the Japanese, Powell became aware through contact with his American counterparts that they viewed the war against Japan only as the first step towards securing control of Asia for themselves. By the time of the war Powell was already antipathetic towards the survival of the empire, but this antipathy by no means extended towards a favourable view of American ambitions. Powell’s belief might be summed up crudely as: ‘If we can’t have it, no one can’, and he viewed with great suspicion the formation of an American ‘empire’ during the mid-century. Over the summer of 1966, he wrote frequently and vituperatively against American ‘imperialism’, in one piece recalling a 1943 article by American conservative diplomat Clare Luce Booth, who claimed that the removal of the British from Asia would be ‘the greatest victory in the war for democracy’. Powell was profoundly mistrusting of this American ‘democracy’, mocking the self-righteousness of the American belief that theirs was, in his words, ‘a unique society … where God has put together all nationalities, races and interests of the globe for one purpose—to show the rest of the world how to live.’ This pre-occupation with race was not coincidental. While Powell was opposed to American exceptionalism, he was not immune to indulging his own form of British exceptionalism, which pervaded his thinking on foreign affairs. Doubtlessly the strongest example of this in Powell’s writing for the Spectator was in his coverage of the situation in Guyana.
Powell as an officer during the Pacific War.
It was while serving in Burma that Powell had first developed his strident anti-Americanism, judging that the true ambition of the United States in fighting the war was to weaken the British position in Asia, ready to occupy the region themselves.
Powell had opposed British intervention in Malaysia for the same reasons as Iain Macleod, believing it to be unproven that the Malaysians wished to continue to be associated with the London government. Consistent with his belief that Western intervention only weakened the ability of non-Western nations to take care of themselves, Powell attacked the deployment of British troops to Borneo as damaging and unjustified. By contrast, in the Guyanese support of Cheddi Jagan, Powell saw a genuine expression of Guyanese desire to remain close to Britain. The vigour of the American opposition to the Jagan government only convinced him of the validity of this conclusion, and he diagnosed the racial tensions in Guyana as the product of American interference – life after the American example of ‘how to live’. (Between 1965–67, racial violence was as much a feature of life in the United States as it was in Guyana or Indonesia.) Believing that these factors justified intervention far more than the Malaysian situation had, at the start of September 1966 Powell went against the Spectator’s usual ambivalent non-interventionism in calling for British forces to be sent to repel American influence in Guyana. It was not a question of control, he argued, but of expediency: the Guyanese, he claimed, wished to uphold their relationship with Britain, but acting alone they had no hope of doing so. Britain was thus compelled to act to preserve Guyana’s ‘orderly independence’.
Macleod was far less enthusiastic, and by no means did he share Powell’s view of British ‘orderliness’, but he remained steadfast in his laissez-faire attitude towards the editorship and happily ran Powell’s writing alongside his own. It was a canny move; Powell’s articles spread in notoriety and he became a national figure. In the week after Powell came out in favour of intervention in Guyana, the Spectator claimed to have received 5 thousand letters in support. This was a tiny minority, but in Powell it had a vocal spokesman. So long as he kept writing, and so long as the government remained inactive, its dissent would not go away.
‘The Great Betrayal’
It is important at this point to remember that the right opposition did not have the monopoly on foreign policy criticism. While the pages of New Spectator bulged weekly with fresh comment on the deteriorating situation in Guyana, and with argument for and against the futility of British intervention, the left opposition were also engaged in discussions of their own. This discussion took place simultaneously in the legislature, in the left media and in the culture, and it was characterised by a number of key distinctions with the opposition being put up by the right. Most strikingly, the left conception of the Guyanese crisis framed it overall as a humanitarian emergency, which was in stark contrast to the more abstract geopolitical arguments advanced by the Spectator. While Powell and Macleod traded deft phrases over the duty of responsibility Britain may or may not have held towards to its former empire, the socialist opinion focused much more on the duty of the British to the Guyanese (or, more basically, 'man’s humanity to man'). This was readily evident as early as June, when the sinking of the Isabel-Flores became a rallying cry for the urgency of the humanitarian efforts to support ‘comrades’ in Guyana. At the start of July, folk singers Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl debuted "The Wreck of the Isabel Flores" at the Partisan Coffee House, a song whose lyrics explicitly related the collision to the struggle on the ground in Guyana. "The Wreck of the Isabel Flores" was swift to find favour with the London folk crowd. (Singer Roy Harper and guitarist Jimmy Page recorded what is perhaps the definitive interpretation in September, which found radio success over the autumn.)
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, 1966
The duo scored a hit with "The Wreck of the Isabel-Flores" when Guyanese affairs were at their worst.
At the same time, the socialist bloc in the Assembly picked up the cause of the Guyanese and kept it high in the minds of the government. The chief spokespeople on foreign affairs after the 1963 election were Anne Bersey, a veteran of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and Ernest Millington, a former teacher who had served as a pilot during the Anti-Fascist Wars. While Millington’s role was to scrutinise the strategic implications of the government’s action (or lack thereof), taking the lead on questions of military intervention, Bersey was concerned above all with human rights. She could be relied upon during foreign policy debates to advocate for those most profoundly affected, and she needled Boothby on his attempts to frame the crisis purely in terms of policing and intervention. Just before the parliamentary summer recess, she won a notable victory over a proposal to send an airlift of food and medical supplies to Guyana, which was approved by the Assembly. Outside of parliament, she was also active in co-ordinating grassroots efforts to support the relief of Guyana, raising money for supplies to be sent across the Atlantic, and organising collection drives for old clothes and tinned food. All of this, however, was only the prelude to what would prove the most fiercely contested battle of the Guyanese Emergency in Britain, which erupted, after a brief period of respite, at the start of autumn.
Anne Bersey, left, demonstrating against racial violence in Guyana, August 1966.
First elected in 1963, Bersey was the international affairs spokesperson for the Independent Socialist opposition in the People's Assembly.
Over the course of the summer’s violence, just under 15 thousand Guyanese had been displaced by arson, bombings and other such destruction. Despairing of any peaceful future in Guyana, the majority of these displaced persons – about four fifths – fled abroad over the course of the autumn. About one quarter of those fleeing migrated to the United States, joining family in New York or Chicago. An eighth ended up in Canada, mostly in Toronto, and another eighth stayed in Trinidad and Jamaica, where they had stopped when first leaving Guyana. The other half – 6 thousand people all told – made their way across the Atlantic and into Britain. About three quarters of those who came to Britain were ethnically Indian, either coming to work in new factories or else in the health service. Many settled in the West Midlands, where an Indian community had been established since the 1930s. Others moved to South Yorkshire, and a small group of families ended up elsewhere. While the immigration of the 6 thousand Guyanese was significant statistically, representing a doubling of the mean annual immigration to Britain since 1929, in real terms the number was not so large, and spread out across the country their arrival did not upset existing relations between white and non-white populations. The socialist leadership welcomed the Guyanese to Britain and took up their cause as victims of conflict. The orthodox trade unionist leadership were less effusive, mostly silent on what they saw as an issue of foreign affairs that ‘did not affect’ the labour movement.
This silence over the ‘racial issue’ was, even in the most generous reading, progressive only by half measures. Inevitably, ambiguous statements about the ‘brotherhood of labour’ led to trouble further down the line. At conference in September, newly-elected TUC general secretary Jack Jones insisted that “[t]he trade union movement is concerned with a man or woman as a worker. The colour of a man's skin has no relevance whatever to his work.” Jones was a man of the left whose anti-fascist credentials were impeccable, and his election earlier in the year had given the government cause for concern after five years of chummy union relations with the moderate George Woodcock. But even he emphasised ‘integration’ over opposition to discrimination, and operating with a view towards workers as ‘workers’ tout court, he neglected to consider the specific problems faced by Black and Indian workers newly arrived within the British workforce. The TUC therefore saw no need to develop specific ‘racial’ policies, and race relations were left at the local level. This accorded with Jones’s desire to return British unionism ‘to the shop floor’, hoping to erode the power of floor managers by elevating shop stewards to their level of power in the factory hierarchy. Industrially, this had the potential to be a powerful policy for change – but it was not ideally suited to the new issue of race relations.
Jack Jones, 1966.
Before long, the TUC’s ‘velvet glove’ policy revealed its shortcomings. In October, the first ‘migrant strike’ took place at a food processing factory in Luton. The previous month, 60 Guyanese workers, all ethically Indian, had taken up positions within the factory upon their arrival in Britain. On the shop floor, they were all put to work in the same part of the labour process, operating within conditions which were, without doubt, less safe and less clean than those enjoyed by their white colleagues. Wishing to increase productivity before the end of the year, the factory management struck a deal with the union representatives to approve the details of any new plan and to work out the conditions under which it would be implemented. In the end, and not by coincidence, all increases in output were confined to that part of the production process undertaken by the migrant workers. This was concluded without any input from the Guyanese themselves, who had to rely upon the representations of a white shop steward. Under the revised plan, the workers would be required to operate one and a half machines each instead of just one. By way of compensation, they would be given a pay rise of 3 per-cent. This was of course a wildly disproportionate offer, and the Guyanese unanimously rejected the new terms when they were explained by their shop steward. Apparently the factory management had not anticipated their refusal, and the following day workers on the afternoon shift were interrupted by line managers who arrived with paint to demarcate the new half-machine divisions. Again, the workers refused to go along with the new plan and promptly downed tools, staging a sit-in that lasted for for the rest of the shift. The machines clogged and production came to a halt, and at the end of the day the Guyanese walked out.
The Luton dispute soon erupted onto the national consciousness as a cause célèbre. For the Bevanite establishment, the episode was deeply embarrassing, highlighting the fragility of its ‘consensual’ industrial policy even before the racial aspect was considered. The political socialist bloc led the charge in coming down against the national leadership and on the side of the migrant strikers, although the degree to which advocates emphasis their ‘migranthood’ was mixed. For those not inclined to think in racial terms, the basic fact of a worker being asked to increase his output by half for a 3 per-cent pay rise was inadmissible, and thus formed enough of a basis for opposition on its own terms. Some were more willing to recognise the racial factor; in the Assembly, socialist industrial spokesmen Lawrence Daly, later a member of the Russell–Camus Tribunal convened to investigate Western war crimes in Asia, harangued the government and the unions over their tolerance of a ‘racialist’ policy. During an hour-long speech that recalled the international character of the struggle against capitalism and fascism, Daly invoked Mikhail Bakunin and Emma Lazarus to describe how personal freedom was only valuable insofar as it has been ‘confirmed by the liberty of all’. He condemned the Luton policy as a return to the ‘divide and conquer tactics’ of capitalism, and called upon Bevan and Jack Jones to intervene on the side of the Guyanese. Similar levels of opposition extended beyond parliament. Small but vocal pro-migrant protests took place in numerous cities in the days after the strikers first downed tools, and across the south west engineering technicians stopped work in sympathy with the migrants, encouraged by regional union organiser Ken Gill. This is not to mention the actions of solidarity undertaken by by the wider immigrant community in Britain, whose political organisation on a level above the local can be traced back to the Luton dispute.
Members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF) and the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians' Association (DATA) strike in the South West in sympathy with the migrant workers in Luton, October 1966.
The result of this somewhat unanticipated furore was a climb-down by the factory management. After five days of action by the Guyanese workers, the authorities reversed their initial decision and committed to find a solution which, so far as was possible, would spread the increased productivity demands across the workforce. Yet despite the undeniable racial flavour of the dispute, the factory management did its best in the resolution to hide any suggestions that the incident had been anything but a ‘straight fight’. There was no mention in the official press release that the striking workers had been migrants to a man, nor was any ink given over to the complete ambivalence of the white workforce towards their fight. The hope seemed to be that, in playing up class relations, the racial element would be forgotten as an aberration, and the authorities could return safely to their previous, informal policy of ‘integration’. In hindsight, this would prove hopelessly naïve.
Food processing factory interior, 1960s.
Enoch Powell looked on intently as the Luton affair ran its course. He was horrified by the idea that industrial relations could be overturned by a racial dispute, and he believed that the episode proved that his ideas about the troublesome influence of the former colonies on Britain were correct. Powell believed that British society was fundamentally an orderly society, in which happiness was maintained, irrespective of shifting political orthodoxies, by the fact that every citizen knew their place within the wider scheme. For Powell, it was this sense of order that gave the British their ‘independence’ as members of society, hence anything that threatened the social order threatened the independence of the British people by implication. On these grounds, Powell was intensely opposed to the settlement in Luton. He outlined his opposition in a draft of an article that would discuss the ‘importation’ of the Guyanese racial dispute into Britain. Contending that the ‘ordinary British worker’ had been ‘sold out’ by union leaders seeking to ‘placate’ the migrants, Powell claimed that the arriving Guyanese had shown themselves to be a ‘destabilising influence’ on British society, and attacked Bevan’s ‘weak’ foreign policy for having allowed things to reach this point. He took the article to Macleod for review, expecting his editor to respond with characteristic generosity of outlook. Instead, when Macleod saw the proof copy he was horrified. Rejecting his friend’s argument as ‘pure racialism’, Macleod refused to print the article. He compounded his refusal by saying that, if this was what Powell truly believed, then he no longer wished to have anything to do with him.
Powell was stunned. To him, the argument that he was advancing was a simple matter of logic, and to lose both his friendship with Macleod and his position at the Spectator at once was a serious blow. But he was not to be deterred, and in a flash of inspiration he decided to take his message to the source. On Saturday October 15, Powell travelled to Luton to meet with representatives from the factory workforce who had opposed the migrant strike. By this point Powell had a growing national reputation, and his visit to the Luton factory attracted the attention of the local press. In the afternoon, journalists were present when he gave a short speech to the white workers condemning what had taken place in their factory. Describing his view of the threat posed by migrant workers arriving in Britain in large numbers, he made sweeping references to racial violence in Guyana, Malaysia and the United States, before warning that he watched these developments with a great ‘foreboding’. Characteristically, he framed his dread in classical terms, casting himself as the Sibyl in the Aeneid who warned of ‘wars, terrible wars, / and the Tiber foaming with much blood’. Continuing to allow immigration to Britain from the former colonies, he said, would be akin to Britain “heaping up its own funeral pyre”. He concluded the speech by stating that “to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.” There could be no doubt as to who, Powell supposed, was betraying whom.
Powell speaking, 1966.
The editorial in the following morning’s edition of the Luton Herald & Post proclaimed that Powell’s speech had ‘fizzed like a rocket’, predicting further that ‘whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up.’ Elsewhere, the reaction was not so effusive. The Morning Post called the Luton speech ‘evil’ and stated that Powell himself had ‘destroyed his credibility’ by making a direct appeal to racial hatred, ‘unprecedented by any public figure since the revolution'. At the last-minute instigation of editor Will Marr, the October 20 issue of the New Partisan Review was given over entirely to issues of race and the post-colonial world, with contributions by Black and Asian writers including Tariq Ali, Stuart Hall and Claudia Jones. Even the New Spectator joined in with the condemnation. Eager to distance his magazine from Powell, lately its most well-known contributor, Iain Macleod published an extensive rebuttal of the speech on October 17. Macleod repeated his denunciation of his former colleague’s ideas as ‘pure racialism’, adding ‘I believe quite simply in the brotherhood of man – men of all races, of all colours, of all creeds.’ While Macleod’s article doubtless helped to keep the credibility of social democracy in Britain afloat during its infancy, it was not universally popular with his own constituency; the October 24 issue of the New Spectator reportedly saw a drop in circulation of 15 per-cent on the previous week.
Beyond the emergent independent presses, Powell’s speech was widely denounced also in the traditional media. Tony Benn caused some controversy when, during the course of his Radio 1 Sunday evening news bulletin, he deviated from his script to label the speech “filthy and obscene racialist propaganda”. The wider issue of race relations formed the subject matter of a special edition of Nationwide, aired on CBC1 on Friday October 21, which investigated reported cases of violence against immigrants in the days after Powell’s appearance in Luton. In something of a developing theme, this programme was no better at staving off controversy than Benn’s impromptu denunciation had been. The Nationwide producers interviewed a man who had heard Powell’s speech in Luton, who said that it had “made me feel proud to be an Englishman.” He also claimed that earlier on in the day Powell had assured the food factory workers that “if this matter was swept under the rug he would lift the rug and do the same again”, before concluding “We are representatives of the working man. We are not racialists.”
Supporters protest in support of Powell's speech, October 1966.
Within the cabinet, Bevan and his ministers were divided on whether to take action. Bevan himself was in favour of prosecuting Powell on the grounds that he had incited racial hatred, but he faced opposition from colleagues who were wary of turning Powell – a marginal figure, though controversial – into a martyr. Deputy premier David Lewis believed that going after Powell would be the fastest way to crystallise his support base, and was also reluctant to re-open Mosley-era traumas that surrounded criminalising ‘dissent’. Ultimately, enough of the cabinet shared Lewis’s concerns not to take action against Powell himself, but Bevan and his allies were resolved not to be absent on the issue. The chairman addressed the Assembly on October 24, giving a brief but impassioned speech in defence of racial tolerance that, according to Dick Crossman, reminded many in the chamber why they had supported Bevan in the first place through the long years of opposition. “I am not prepared to stand aside”, Bevan said, “and see this country engulfed by the racial conflict which calculating orators or ignorant prejudice can create.”
Nor in the great world confrontation on race and colour, where this country must declare where it stands, am I prepared to be a neutral, whether that confrontation is in Bedfordshire or Borneo. In these issues there can be no neutrals and no escape from decision. For in the world of today, while political isolationism invites danger and economic isolationism invites bankruptcy, moral isolationism invites contempt.
Wrapped within this emphatic language was a commitment to draft legal protections for racial minorities, to be put before the legislature as a matter of urgency. This was Bevan’s home territory, forcefully campaigning against a clearly defined social ill, and he played to his strengths. Improbably, having looped around the world and back again, from Georgetown to Luton, Bevan seemed well set to confront the moment of crisis on the home front. One can only wonder how different things might have been in this case had the old saying not been proven to be true: that misfortune may always be counted upon to travel in packs of three.