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From Conrad’s Kurtz to Enoch Powell: Conservatism Takes a Dark Turn to the Past

Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the Conservative Party has reversed half a century of attempts at post-imperial reform and is now embarked on a campaign of ‘othering’ – targeting enemies within and without

Enoch Powell in 1969. Photo: PA

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The 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by the Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad laid bare the brutality of the colonial project of European powers in Africa – focusing on the fictional character of Kurtz, an ivory trader and post commander on the Congo River, driven into savagery: the coloniser devoured by the brutality racistly ascribed to the colonised.

The work inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1979 war movie, Apocalypse Now, exploring America’s own corruption by its neocolonial exploits in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s. Marlon Brando brought to life the paranoia of Kurtz in his memorable portrayal, with the declaration to “exterminate the brutes!” and his dying words “the horror… the horror”, both of which appear in Conrad’s book.

In the original – based on Conrad’s own experience in colonial Africa – the disturbing story is recounted by a steamship captain who had navigated the Congo River, Charles Marlow, now moored up on a ship in the port of London. It ends on a sombre understanding that the Thames itself “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness”. Both the film and book suggest that colonisers are changed by colonisation, just as much as the colonised – incorporating both the guilt and supremacy of an ‘empire state of mind’ into their psyches. 

It is a dark current which still flows through British politics to this day.

Back in 1968, when the would-be Conservative leader Enoch Powell made his famous claim that racial resentment would destroy Britain and that he could see the River Tiber would be “foaming with much blood”, the Conservative Party was faced with another classic scene from Latin literature: a Rubicon. 

Would post-Imperial Britain, having conquered a quarter of the world and helped during two world wars by colonial soldiers and workers to support it, instead turn on its new multi-ethnic citizenry back in the home country? Would the global colonial project turn into a domestic one – creating a racialised system of conflict, suppression and violence: from the enemies overseas to the enemies within?

Like Kurtz, Powell’s speech was full of psychological projection and the fear of retribution, as he predicts that the black man will have the “whip hand” in 50 years’ time over those who have “found themselves made strangers in their own country”. This is, of course, a reverse colonial mentality: having actually made people strangers in their own countries and exerting a very real whip hand, the coloniser feels that it will inevitably happen to him. 

Powell’s doom-laden projection of racial warfare never came to fruition in 2018. But the underlying apocalypse needs no end date, and Powell’s “evil” genius (“evil” was how The Times described the watershed speech) was to make it a constant, future threat – one which is always around the corner; or on boats heading across the Channel. 

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Brexit and Othering

Powell’s version of Britain was effectively suppressed within the Conservative Party half a century ago. But, as Byline Times columnist Peter Oborne explained in an interview with Byline TV, “it’s very fascinating that that great historic battle which appeared to have been won by Edward Heath, has actually been won by Enoch Powell – through the medium of Boris Johnson”.

The seeds of Powell’s politics of othering were sown in Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Although they distanced themselves from Nigel Farage’s overtly racist ‘Breaking Point’ poster, they employed the same dog whistles by claiming significant numbers of Turks would be coming to Britain and that this, along with immigration from other countries in the Middle East, posed a terrorist threat.

Many other variations from this playbook have been deployed by Johnson’s Government ever since.

Five years on, these seeds seem to have flourished and spread. The Brexit vision – for all its claims to be about a ‘global’, outward-looking Britain – appears to have crystallised, for some in the Conservative Party and on the populist-right, into an ethno-nationalist project; predicated on the ‘threats’ from abroad and fifth columnists within.  

Now the country has finally exited the EU, the attempts to blame ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ are harder to maintain – though various Conservative MPs and ministers attempt to blame perfidious France over fishing rights in the Channel.

Though quick to summon up mythic images of Britain standing alone during the Second World War, the Europeans don’t make good enemies these days. Through countless physical, economic and cultural ties, we are too close to them – and Johnson’s Britain has none of the economic power, or imperial hinterland, to genuinely go it alone.

But the ethno-nationalist vision always requires barbarians at the gates – so new ones are needed.

In the first half of 2021, a major domestic front was opened up with the ‘war on woke’; a crusade to find enemies in culture and civil society. The campaign had limited success. 

As that faltered, the Home Secretary opened up a new front, both in high-profile PR campaigns and in legislation, against more easily demonised barbarians at the gates: ‘illegal migrants’ crossing the Channel in boats – even though the majority of them turn out to be genuine asylum seekers; among them the many abandoned by the UK’s peremptory evacuation of Afghanistan.

While Johnson constantly plays with the fires of division, it is the Home Secretary he has chosen – a daughter of immigrants and the granddaughter of refugees, Priti Patel – who is the figurehead feeding the flames.

She presides over a hardline approach towards certain ‘bad’ and ‘undeserving’ immigrants – the same attitude that Enoch Powell and others expressed towards the Ugandan Asians welcomed to Britain by Ted Heath. For Powell, despite their British passports, Patel’s relatives weren’t really British and should have gone “back” to India. Despite this, his perpetual, future threat from ‘others’ appears to be a key pillar of her department’s policies.

The dehumanisation of asylum seekers and the stoking of fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants is not unique to British politics, nor to Priti Patel. It accelerated under the brief post-Brexit tenure of Theresa May as Prime Minister, when she made a distinction between those who ‘belonged’ and “citizens of nowhere” – be they feckless cosmopolitan elites or foreign marauders.

Almost inevitably, just as the versions of leaving the EU became more and more extreme, so has this othering of strangers – until Britain has become estranged from itself. The imagined porosity of our external borders has created new, hard internal borders – literally in the case of the Irish Sea and the transit of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Resisting the threat of alien invasion has metastasized – as in the case of Shamima Begum – into a policy of removing the inalienable rights of British citizens. We are all potentially citizens of nowhere now.

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The removal of historic citizenship rights is just one part of a spiral of escalation that acts out the often unconscious ethno-nationalist tendencies behind the Vote Leave regime that took power in 2019. Nothing is enough.

We were told we would remain close to Europe and stay in the Single Market or a customs union. But, at each stage, the rhetoric became more extreme until we achieved an ultra-hard Brexit, just short of a ‘no deal’.

The rupture with the EU became a rupture within the UK.

Exiting the EU soon became an excuse to abandon our own traditions, with voter suppression measures to deter voting, neutering of the Electoral Commission, and two new bills on borders and policing removing ancient rights of identity and protest. Soon, Boris Johnson was not only promising to break international law over the Good Friday Agreement, but also unlawfully trying to usurp the sovereignty of Parliament by proroguing it. 

A year into full withdrawal, the acceptance of – sometimes celebration of – the material economic harm of leaving the EU merely emphasises how Enoch Powell is a much more important influence on the Conservative Vote Leave Government than Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, or the liberal or neoliberal thinkers who dominated the party for the past 40 years.

So important is the narrow project, Johnson’s Government is willing to abandon all the previous Thatcherite nostrums of small government, fiscal frugality, free trade, and open markets. These days, Brexiters openly talk – in ‘sado-populist’ terms – about how leaving the EU must be costly, and only worth it because it hurts. We summon our sovereign pride by material suffering, and those sacrifices of trade, living standards and international connection, are like wafts of sacred incense around the altar of national purity.

And with that, the Vote Leave project will have achieved its hidden objective – and, like Conrad’s Kurtz – have left the norms and standards of the modern world. 

Peter Jukes is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor and Hardeep Matharu is the Editor of Byline Times

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