Whenever I find my faith wavering in Nigel Farage and the UKIP project, all I have to do is open my morning newspaper to be reminded why they are both so very necessary.
Yesterday’s Telegraph was a case in point with its snide, insinuating story about how in 1994 Farage wrote to Enoch Powell – the Conservative intellectual and politician long acknowledged as one of his heroes – asking him to support his candidature in a local election. UKIP also wrote on several occasions to ask Powell to stand as a candidate in two national elections.
So far so very ho-hum. Powell – a highly intelligent, supremely principled politician with a fine war record, well loved by his constituents – would have been a natural fit for UKIP with his anti-EU views, his ability to connect with the views of ordinary people and his brave refusal to allow the immigration issue to be swept under the carpet as the Establishment was so keen to do then and remains so eager to do so today.
Why then the story?
Well, it was pegged to the fact that on Thursday night a priapic, soap-dodging, informationally-challenged pocket demagogue called Russell Brand accused Farage on BBC Question Time of being a “pound shop Enoch Powell.” And amazingly, the Telegraph was inviting us to take the view that this grandiloquent half-wit’s cheap shot – playing on the popular leftist meme that Powell was a “racist” because of his “Rivers of Blood” speech – ought to be taken as a valid criticism.
Wearing the mask of sage neutrality, the Telegraph opined in its accompanying editorial:
Whatever the stance one takes, it should be remembered that it was the language used by Mr Powell in the Sixties that so poisoned the immigration debate – and arguably made it so difficult to reopen until very recently. Back in 2005, Michael Howard was accused of having a “Powell moment” as Tory leader when he questioned the wisdom of uncontrolled immigration. That spectre has often been used to shut down such conversations, to the advantage of no one.
Hence, while many in Ukip will be unrepentant in their admiration for Mr Powell, they should surely take note of the bitterness that followed the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and consider the consequences of over-heated rhetoric. Certainly, a debate about the impact of immigration needs to be had – and it should be a prominent part of the mainstream political agenda, rather than left to fester on the margins. But this vital discussion is best conducted with calm, reason and respect for the feelings of others.
Ah yes. The old “over-heated rhetoric” canard.
It always puzzles me when I see one of my fellow journalists wheeling it out. It’s akin to a restaurant critic trying to make a virtue of the fact that from now on he’ll only be reviewing establishments that don’t serve meat; or a poet renouncing rhyme. Why would you want to do such a thing? Why would you want to shackle yourself in this way? The point, if your stock in trade is language, surely, is that you want to be free to employ it in all its rich variety – a bit of low snark here, a bit of Augustan rhetoric there. You’re appealing not just to your reader’s intellect but his emotions too. The idea that, say, strong imagery should be off-limits lest some bad person responds incorrectly is as absurd as ordaining that cars should only travel at 10 miles per hour because any faster and they might kill someone.
And exactly the same thing applies to political oratory. In the decades since Powell made that speech in 1968, it has become accepted wisdom that it killed free public debate on immigration stone dead and that the reason it did so was because of its inflammatory language. I’d concede the first part because it is depressingly, self-evidently true. But the second part is a nonsense.
It wasn’t Powell’s inflammatory language that killed the debate. What killed it was that a political and media Establishment which for various reasons didn’t want to have the debate – some for reasons of ideology, others out of moral cowardice – found it convenient to close it down by shooting the messenger. They didn’t have to close it down. There was no law that declared “If any politician quotes Virgil in a speech on immigration and some people get upset or offended by the fiery tone then for a period of no less than half a century the subject of immigration shall be off limits in case any more people get upset or offended.” Rather, it’s because, a craven political and media class chose to close it down, with consequences we are ruing to this day.
Farage, like an increasing number of us, gets this. It’s one of the reasons he’s so popular: because he doesn’t have that filter so many career politicians have which prevents them saying what they actually believe and which only permits them to say what they feel it’s politically acceptable to be seen to believe.
And it’s why, in his day, Enoch Powell was so popular too. (As Ed West notes in his book The Diversity Illusion, in every national opinion poll on his speech between 67 and 82 per cent of people expressed agreement with him. He received 100,000 letters of support, with only 800 expressing disapproval. So you could reasonably argue that 1968 was the year in Britain when the gulf really opened between what the electorate actually wanted and what the political class deemed was appropriate for them; when the “Westminster Bubble” began to inflate).
One of the things that Farage and Powell have in common is their willingness to say the unsayable. Really, in any civilised culture, there oughtn’t to be such a thing as “the unsayable.” But there is – and thanks to the sloganeering of agitators like Brand (supported, unfortunately, by one or two sections of the media that really should know better) it’s getting larger by the day.