Enoch Powell: To the Northern Universities Dinner, Federation of Conservative Students, York

by J MW

Enoch Powell: To the Northern Universities Dinner, Federation of Conservative Students, York

This speech was delivered at the Northern Universities Dinner: Federation of Conservative Students, York on March 7, 1970 by J. Enoch Powell, MBE, MP (1912-1998) 

We should do well in the Conservative Party to take extremely seriously the phenomenon of university disorder. It is in my opinion nearer to its beginning than to its end. Moreover it is closely, not to say integrally, connected with that more general civil disorder or anarchy which I believe is also on the ascendant and is destined to be perhaps the chief preoccupation of government during the coming period which we hope will be one of Conservative administration.

The last three or four years have been long enough time for observers not wilfully blind to recognise the marks of the beast. Once known, the symptoms can be readily detected, even in the most diverse of contexts. The essential ingredient of the success of anarchy in its new form is the enslavement of the majority by a tiny minority. In the political sphere the technique is comparable in importance and in novelty to the development of the nuclear weapon in the military sphere; for a method has been discovered of achieving immense results with negligible initial effort, thanks to a sort of gearing or leverage which brings the majority into play under the direction and control of the minority.

The object of this minority is the destruction of authority, of the institutions of society and of society itself – not, as in the classical revolutionary movements, for the purpose of substituting a different order and better institutions, but in order to destroy for destruction’s sake. The great discovery has been how to turn authority, institutions and society against themselves, and to use the majority which accepts and approves them as a battering ram to smash them down. The method is essentially simple; but in its simplicity lies its subtlety and its efficacy. The secret weapon is the assumption that violence and disorder imply grievance. From this it follows that the grievance must be removed in order to stop the violence and disorder. It also follows that the real blame lies not with the violent and disorderly but with those responsible for the assumed grievance, namely with authority and society itself. The burden of accusation and condemnation is thus automatically diverted from the guilty on to the innocent, from the attacker on to the attacked, from the plotter on to his intended victims. The majority of members of the institution under attack, the organs of vocal opinion, and at last the general public itself, are so mesmerised by this technique that they become the instruments of its success. They take up and re-echo the taunts and complaints of the attackers, until the terrified holders of authority, finding themselves apparently surrounded by accusers on all sides, abandon their posts and buy off the aggressors.

We have just been treated to a perfect specimen of this process in the course of February, 1970. A few young ruffians broke into the administrative building at Warwick University and got at the files. It was an offence against discipline and against the law for which there was not a vestige of excuse. They announced, what was not true but what, even if it were true, would have afforded no palliation, that the files contained political reports upon students. In the twinkling of an eye what was wrong became right, and the university authorities became the butt of denunciation. From end to end of the land it was realised that the subversive and violent were on to a good thing, and that there would be immunity and impunity for all.

Listen to the comment in a national, Conservative newspaper:

‘The extent to which political judgments are contained in information forwarded to universities by schools and the extent to which (if any) such judgments are fortified by university authorities themselves is a legitimate argument on behalf of the students, an argument now being brought unnecessarily into contempt by the direct action groups who urge others to break into university buildings and appropriate documents which are, and must be, confidential.’

The newspaper has it exactly wrong. The argument is not being ‘brought into contempt by the action groups’. It was brought into existence by them; it was a bubble blown by disorder, which had no substance apart from the disorder. Notice, however, that the leader-writer is already ranged against the authorities: the student argument is ‘legitimate’, it is ‘unnecessarily’ brought into contempt. So enthusiastic does the writer become that he ends with the declaration that:

‘Any student in the land is entitled to stand up publicly and to assert that the governing body of any university is inept, corrupt, reactionary or plain stupid. What such students are not entitled to do is to incite others to violence.’

This is an inversion of the truth. If it were not for the violence, no one would dream of making such a preposterous assertion as that any student is entitled publicly to denounce the authorities of his university as ‘inept, corrupt, reactionary or plain stupid’. I cannot resist adding an example from a Midlands newspaper.

‘Two wrongs do not necessarily make a right. We deplore the action by groups of university students to obtain by force confidential documents relating to the student body. The most recent example of this sort of impolitic behaviour has now occurred at Oxford.

But we deplore even more the fact that universities should consider it part of their duty to keep secret records of a highly personal nature about students and presumably staff also.’

It is fascinating to study the language. It is assumed at the outset that both sides are ‘wrong’ but, though ‘deplored’, the acts of violence are merely described as ‘impolitic’ – a most remarkable adjective for breaking open other people’s property. On the contrary, the assumed ‘fact’ of the authorities’ alleged behaviour is ‘deplored even more’. So there it is: the newspaper chooses between the two sides and ends up against authority and for anarchy.

By this time the National Union of Students had demanded to meet the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, who dropped their other duties and rushed to obey the summons of their tormentors. The outcome? Well, you know: the humiliating scene where the chairman of the Vice-Chancellors, with Jack Straw at his elbow, like a baron standing over King John, made a cringing and public apology for an offence which had not been committed and would not have been an offence anyhow and promised that there would be no repetition. In order to find an adequate parallel – and it is a significant one – it would be necessary to go to Maoist China and watch the professors paraded in dunces’ caps and made to read confessions to their students.

If anyone thinks that is too far-fetched, I invite attention to the scene which immediately followed. The next stage in the successful operation is always to demand immunity for those who, without a shadow of justification, have broken the law and violated the rules, and furthermore to condemn the very idea that they might be punished or that any legal protection or redress should be sought, as an insult offered by the universities to their own alumni. There was a particularly fine collector’s piece of this sort, which will be treasured by all students of anarchist tactics, in the proceedings at Manchester. There we were privileged to see Master Jack Straw announcing to a hall full of students that ‘the only way to show you will not put up with the authorities’ extremism is to take all students out in support of your demands’. Needless to say, the key word here is the term ‘extremism’ applied to the university authorities for having the impudence to attempt by lawful means to prevent offices from being smashed open and the life of the university from being disrupted. That single word summarises the method of anarchy – the inversion of normal meanings and relationships in obedience to the assumption that violence is automatically in the right and authority necessarily in the wrong.

Here the real responsibilities of students come into the picture. The assertion is commonly made that the great majority of students are not involved and do not approve. Nothing could be more mistaken. These things can only happen because the majority allow themselves to be taken for a ride and, having uncritically swallowed the anarchist assumptions, positively enjoy it. We find not a few dozen but literally thousands of students, from Swansea to Manchester, ranging themselves on the side of the violent and disorderly as soon as there is any question of discipline being re-established. What is required of students is not that they should take the law against fellow students into their own hands: that in any case simply plays into the hands of anarchy. It is that they should support the enforcement of the law and of institutional discipline by the authorities, and abstain themselves, and, so far as in them lies, discourage others, from anything which weakens or interferes with that enforcement.

This is not all. A union of students to hold debates, or to maintain club premises (preferably at their own expense), like any other form of free association between students with interests in common, from Conservatism to philately, is harmless and natural. But the unionisation of students as such, as if they were workpeople bargaining collectively for the price of their labour, has always been absurd and has now become a dangerous vehicle of anarchy and disorder, especially when organised on a national basis in the so-called National Union of Students and linked with similar organisations in other countries. I am aware that in some universities membership of the students’ union has been made virtually a condition of studentship, and that these unions are affiliated to the National Union. This does not mean that Conservatives in the universities should not take their own attitude towards the whole principle of the unionisation of students. It is a mistake to suppose that by recognising, or working with, and taking a part in, the National Union of Students Conservatives will exercise a moderating influence. This is the hoariest of all the pathetic delusions of the anarchists’ victims. Instead they find themselves dragged along in the wake of those who are bent on disruption, and forced to give them countenance by their own participation. So far as the Conservative Party and its official spokesman are concerned, I have always urged that they should have nothing at all to do with the NUS.

However, our prime responsibility in our several situations is to denounce folly and absurdity for what they are. Unless and until this is done, every successive outbreak of disorder, with its accompanying conditioned reflex of vocal approval for the demands of the disorderly, will mark another stage in the lapse of the universities into anarchy. The central folly and absurdity which cries aloud to be denounced is student participation. There is no, repeat no, rational justification for students to participate in the academic or administrative or disciplinary management of the universities. The whole idea is utterly nonsensical.

The fact that it has received lip-service from those who know better, has been tacitly or vocally approved by politicians of all parties, has been hastily embodied into the institutions of one university after another, does not make the idea any less nonsense; it only makes it infinitely more dangerous and more difficult to eradicate. There is no more sense in the students participating in the management of the universities than there would be in a union of housewives participating in the management of Marks & Spencer’s stores. The students are there, strange as it might seem, to study and (I will go so far as to say) to be taught. They have, or should have, a reciprocal bond and duty connecting them not with their fellow students but with their teachers. They may, or may not, like those who teach them, or what they are taught, or the way in which the institution is arranged. If they do not, they have the same remedy as other free men, and as a dissatisfied customer at a supermarket, and that is to take themselves and their custom elsewhere.
It is an old delusion to suppose that those bent on violence and anarchy can be satisfied with instalments of what is miscalled reform. If reform were the object, they could be: but the object is not reform, the object is destruction. When a concession has been extorted here, it will be followed by another demand there; when one humiliation has been inflicted on the authorities, the means will instantly be sought of inflicting another. There is no quantity of danegeld which buys off anarchy; there is no end to the instalments which will be swallowed and leave the aggressor unsatisfied.

Sooner or later, therefore, and sooner better than later, there has to be a halt; and the Conservative party has a peculiar responsibility in this, not only as the potential government, under whose aegis the taxpayers’ money will be exacted to maintain and expand the universities, but as the Party which claims a special identification with law and order. So far our record has been unimpressive. We have been content to stand on the touchline and watch the university authorities, in their pitiful inexperience and gaucherie, go down to one defeat after another without so much as a word from us. Worse, we have often played the anarchists’ game ourselves by joining in approval of the anarchists’ demands. The time is overdue to stand and be heard out loud. We shall not want for echo from the people, who wonder that those who should speak for them have been silent so long.

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