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From Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher

Robbie Shilliam

Often seen as an outlier in British politics, Enoch Powell was in fact deeply influential in the development of the Conservative Party – and laid the intellectual foundations for the Thatcherite project which followed him.

Interview by
Alex Doherty

On 20 April 1968, Conservative MP and former minister Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

Enoch Powell: Britain’s First Neoliberal Politician’, a new article by Robbie Shilliam—professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University—considers Powell in a different light from his most common modern framing. Far from being a political throwback, Shilliam argues, Powell was a key figure in the emergence of neoliberalism and Thatcherism.

In the latest episode of Politics Theory Other, Alex Doherty spoke to Shilliam about how Powell, in contrast to many Conservatives, became hostile to nostalgia for the British Empire, and how he believed that an independent Britain—neither ruling an empire, nor becoming part of the embryonic European Union—would find its proper place in the world.


At the start of the article, referencing Arun Kundnani, you write that Britain’s first neoliberal politician was not Margaret Thatcher, nor even Keith Joseph, but rather the country’s most accomplished racist, Enoch Powell. Part of what’s particularly striking about that claim, perhaps, is that racism is often—especially in liberal circles—treated as something atavistic and anachronistic, whereas here, you’re situating Powell as a thoroughly modern figure. And as you go on to argue, Powell is not modern in spite of his racism; instead, that’s a part of it.

Before we address the issue of race more directly, could you explain the ways in which Powell’s economic positions actually fit quite well with the standard descriptions of neoliberals—those that emphasise the superiority of the market as an information processor, in contrast to state-directed economic planning—and how Powell influenced the economic thinking of ministers in the first Thatcher government?


We could do a genealogy of neoliberalism working for eugenics, Victorian-era eugenics, and that provides a slightly different gloss on the contemporary laity of neoliberalism to the genealogy of neoliberalism which treats it as neoliberal – i.e., looking back at Adam Smith’s ideas of a liberal market, which was then updated to the neoliberal.

If you run it for eugenics, you get a different take: from the mid-1800s onwards, liberal political economy was always attuned to the growth of scientific racism and eugenics. Part of this has to do with a distinction between what people came to call ‘social Darwinism’ and eugenics, which are not the same thing.

Social Darwinism would basically say ‘let nature take its course’. Who dies, dies; and who lives, lives. That’s passed both as a kind of racial category and as a kind of individual category of character development and genetic heredity.

One might think that neoliberalism is more accordant with social Darwinism, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s more accordant with eugenics, because what eugenics said was, ‘If we don’t do something, if we don’t intervene, nature is going to ensure that the weakest, the poorest, the dirtiest, the most undeserving of us are going to take over and outbreed the more deserving.’ Eugenics was an intervention into nature, and part of that intervention was to say, ‘We need to put in place measures, negative and positive, to enhance the reproductive possibilities of those who accord to the particular values we ascribed to good governance.’

Those values were basically all set around what I would call ‘orderly independence’, meaning that you took care of your own family’s business, and you accepted responsibility for that. You wouldn’t be dependent, but neither would your independence be anarchical or revolutionary. You knew your place in the patriarchal class and racial hierarchy. You held to your place, and holding to your place was what would actually help the whole race and nation reproduce itself and succeed.

What you have in there is all this stuff that we today associate with neoliberalism. It’s making of the self, the entrepreneurial self, the crafting of individualism, but also with a certain moralistic element to it. For me, eugenics is the way in which we have a proper genealogy of neoliberalism, and eugenics is always linked to empire – and by the 1940s, the prospect of Britain losing its empire, but having to retain its eugenic strength. That’s where Powell comes in.


Typically, in discussion around race and migration and the Conservative Party, it’s often assumed that those on the right of the party are inclined to be nostalgic for empire and defenders of empire.

But you point out that it’s emphatically not the case regarding Enoch Powell. So could you explain why he was opposed to nostalgia for the empire, and how that opposition to empire was entwined with his opposition to economic planning and his advocacy of an identifiably neoliberal way of thinking about human subjectivity?


Initially he’s quite for empire, and that has to do with his own personal experiences of India. But by the 1950s, he’s turned against it. Part of it is because he sees empire as sullying the English genus, and this genus is both racially and culturally one of orderly independence. In fact, Powell thought that the Anglo-Saxon genus was distinct and unique because only it produced individuals who were of orderly independence who would stick to their place in the hierarchies: workers, for example, who would stick to their place in the hierarchy, and would not depend or seek dependence on the higher-ups to hold their position.

Powell saw two things happening in empire. One was that the influx of peoples from non-Anglo-Saxon heritage within the empire, and he was especially actually worried about Indian people, not black people. They brought with them a certain communalistic politics which was destructive of orderly independence. The other part of it was that he saw that the attempt to preserve empire would induce an economic policy based on a whole series of dependencies, which would then mitigate against England doing what it does best.

So he goes back, and he says, ‘We were never the leader of the globe.’ He says, ‘This fantasy that once we were the leaders of the global economy, once we were the workshop of the world, this fantasy makes us try to live beyond our means. What we need to do is find our natural place in the market, in the global market, and then we defend that.’

That’s also partly why he wanted to get rid of empire and any nostalgia towards empire – because it mitigated against following the market logic, and at the same time induced dependence which was ill-fitting for orderly independence. In other words, he associated that with welfare.


I suppose that’s both a welfarism at home, and a kind of international welfarism in the sense of defending a protectionist economic unit with all the economic planning that’s part of that.


Right. The amount of public debt that you would have to incur to do that, especially when you’ve got the sterling crisis after the Second World War. You’ve got the disintegration of the Commonwealth, at least economically speaking, and of course that’s why he saw entry into the EEC as a kind of neo-imperial dependency, because this would be exactly the same thing.

The EEC would make us live beyond our means. Powell did not actually believe that the principal purpose of economic policy was economic growth, not by any means. He saw that economic growth by the wrong policy mechanisms would induce dependency. In the ’80s and the ’90s, then, we’d be saying that he couldn’t be a neoliberal.

Now, what were all the neoliberals—the populist neoliberals—talking about with Brexit? They were saying, ‘It doesn’t matter. We will sacrifice our position. We will sacrifice our economic growth. We will sacrifice this and the other, so long as we can be free and independent.’ And of course, all that was linked up with a racialised understanding of Englishness.

Is that to say that there isn’t a imperial nostalgia for the white Commonwealth? Of course, there has been that, and these are always contending positions. I’d dare to say that that nostalgia is far less harmful than the actual ideology that Powell espoused, and which I think Brexit has actually put back in gear, because what it does is conflate Powell’s agenda and global justice for the imperial division of labour and its consequences with socialism and internationalism.

This is where we are in the UK. Look at Keir Starmer. He’s basically played entirely into that. How do you get out of that box? You can’t. To me, that’s far more damaging than these fantasies about restarting empire, which are palpably bullshit and aren’t going to go anywhere.


Just on that point regarding Powell’s attitudes towards the European Economic Community as it then was. Was his opposition to the EEC as racialised as it was in the case of the empire, or do you think perhaps it’s more tightly focused on economic questions of dirigism and state intervention in the economy? Or did he in fact see the French and the Germans as inferior because of their commitment to those economic policies, which for him may perhaps have been an indicator of their supposed racial inferiority?


The thing to think about with Enoch Powell—and in fact with most white nationalism—is that it’s usually very unclear and illogical when it comes to other people. All of its exposition about politics, economy, and morality is all to do with the white genus or with the Anglo-Saxon genus. It’s fairly incoherent when it comes to asking whether the Poles are white, or whether the French are a different race to the British.

That doesn’t really matter, because what drives it is a very strong idea about the exceptionalism of the Anglo-Saxon genus and its ability to craft and reproduce and hand down orderly independence. In that case, everything pertains to those forces which might degrade or sully the Anglo-Saxon genus.

When we’re thinking about racialisation with Powell, that’s what we need to think about, rather than whether he has a logical cartography of different races. So what did Powell say about the EEC? He said we needed a declaration of independence from the EEC. I can’t remember if it was exactly those words, but basically he used the words of Ian Smith in Rhodesia.

And Smith from Rhodesia said, ‘You guys will want to decolonise Southern Rhodesia? Never in a million years. We will have our unilateral declaration of independence, and we will retain this apartheid system. We’ll go in on their own.’ Powell uses exactly that, phrase on purpose, a unilateral declaration of independence from EEC.

In Rhodesia, what they’re worried about is the sullying and degradation of the white settler population when black Zimbabweans come to rule and then put in all their crazy socialist experiments. Powell is rhetorically analogising that for the preservation of the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race in England against the EEC.


With Powell, your description of him is both this quite modern figure, very much the sort of right-wing neoliberal that we see today who supports Brexit, and also someone who informed the politics of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and her economic policy advisers in that early neoliberal period.

Where would you try to identify any particular break, if there as one, where we have the emergence of the populist moment that our current era is often described as? It seems to me that you’re describing a lot more ideological continuity than many other people might suggest.


I think that’s right, and I don’t mean to smooth it all over. We also have to point out that New Labour are partially complicit in this as well. What I’m talking about is not a project simply of the Right, although it certainly has its bedrock there.

There were moments, like when New Labour came in, and for a minute it seemed like they were going to embrace Bhikhu Parekh. He had this big thing about a devolved and postcolonial national identity, which New Labour looked for a minute like they were going actually call accord to, and then suddenly, after the uprisings in Burnley and in the North in 2000 or 2001, they switched to what we now know as anti-Muslim racism, and ideas about ‘social cohesion’ – and by the end of their tenure, they were basically trying to get the leap on the UKIP language to preserve the electoral politics.

I’m not saying that it’s a smooth history. What I am saying is that this eugenics-framed political economy idea of the right subject, which is this Anglo-Saxon patriarch of orderly independence – that subject is the staple of British politics. It frames British politics, from abolition to now, and it frames it in the way in which those who try to break out of it get comeuppances. Those who tried to reform often ended up reproducing that frame.


And you would say that New Labour did nothing to combat that?


There were moments when it looked like it was going to be different, and I think Corbyn was a slightly incoherent attempt at trying to break that as well. Where does it place us now? If I’m looking at the UK from the US—and the US has plenty of problems—all I see is the end of ideas, at least in the formal institutions of politics. It’s the end of ideas because they got what they wanted. What does that mean? It means more neoliberalism but far more just rampant and destructive than ever before.

It’s basically a kind of zombiism, a zombie-Powellism. Because if you think about the neoliberals in the ’60s and the ’70s, even if you think about Powell, what are they trying to do? They’re trying to preserve the idea of a human, the properly-human subject, or they’re trying to engineer it anew. They’re thinking about how you change institutions and policies so that you reproduce a new human.

Now, if you think about all of these neoliberal populists from 2010s onwards, they are the grandchildren of Thatcher and Reagan. They have no inclination or intellectual competency by which they are envisaging a reproduction of a new human subject. It’s the end of days for them. It’s a party, and they don’t care. All they want to do is leverage the hedge funds, leverage electoral politics.

That’s where we are. And we are like that because we have not seriously thought about this, wider than party, and wider than specific ideological assumptions about what the proper subject of politics is for Britain, which was always an imperial power, never a nation. Now it’s becoming a nation and it can’t figure out anything else.


That particular positing of this notion of the right and proper English subject as self-reliant and entrepreneurial in spirit and so on – at this stage, how conducive is all that to the aims of these politicians? It feels like we’re in a very different situation from the 1980s when that entrepreneurial story seemed at least intuitively more plausible to people – it did seem feasible that if you worked hard, you could buy your own home, you could do well for yourself, and so on, however accurate or not that was. But now, in such an incredibly rentierised economy, where the prospects for young people in particular are absolutely dire, do you still think there’s much mileage left in that story?


I think there’s plenty of mileage, and the reason is this. Even in the ’80s, that kind of ‘neoliberal hegemony’ was entirely racialised, entirely gendered. Thatcher broke from Powell to the extent that she believed that you could induce in black people, black people in Britain, an orderly independence. And indeed, if one thinks about Stephen Lawrence and the way in which that catalysed even the Daily Mail to call out institutional racism, part of the reason why that horrific death gained traction was because you could frame it as taking place in an upwardly aspiring, orderly, independent black family, who were trying to be English – ‘English’ in the sense I was talking about with Powell.

That’s how Thatcher broke from Powell, but she didn’t break from anything else. In the ’80s, too, you get this ever more acute criminalisation and demonisation of black people, which frames them as unable to be orderly and independent. The same thing happens with the South Asian population. Of course, all of that was incredibly patriarchal. Thatcher’s thing about there being no such thing as society except individuals and families and communities which work together, a la Edmund Burke’s little platoons, but in an orderly fashion. My point is that this has always been there.

From the mid-late ’80s and early ’90s, what might have changed? I don’t want to use the word ‘privilege’ – there was a benefit to your whiteness, even if it was unevenly distributed, even if it didn’t change hierarchies, in terms of work conditions and wages and security from the late ’40s up until probably the mid-late ’80s. That benefit is no longer structurally there.

There’s racism. Don’t get me wrong. But the state, the economy, and labour do not work hand-in-step as they did to reproduce that white benefit from the ’40s up until the mid ’80s. It’s not that racism isn’t there anymore. If you have a name that sounds African or Indian, you’re not going to get the same kind of jobs – that’s still there. But the lockstep triangulation between the state, labour, and the economy which existed – that’s gone. And that’s neoliberalism.

What now remains of your white benefit is entirely an ephemeral and vicarious sense that you are still the most important, and you’re not. It’s not about equality. It’s why people scratch their head and say with Boris and with Trump, ‘But don’t they realise that their kids are never going to go round and play with Boris’s kids or Trump’s kids?’ Yes, of course. But that’s absolutely not the point. That’s not where the vicarious benefit comes. The vicarious benefit comes in the sense that in the pecking order, you are above these other degenerates. That’s it. And it’s a purely vicarious one.


And Boris will kick other people in the face rather than you.


Right. People don’t care about that because it’s not about saying, ‘I want what Boris has.’ It’s about saying, ‘I don’t want these others to have what has been promised to me.’


A very low expectations kind of racism.


Right. That’s why, when you talk this vicarious white benefit on a national level, it’s all posited on public services and social security – because that’s all that’s left by which to funnel this vicarious sense of your white benefit. These other bastards can’t have what you have been promised by your betters and your superiors. Tell me what Leavers are going to change about that. How is it that the Tories are still on 40 percent after a year of annihilation?

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About the Author

Robbie Shilliam is professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, and his most recent book is Decolonising Politics, published by Polity Press.

About the Interviewer

Alex Doherty is the host of Tribune Radio's Politics Theory Other podcast.