We’ve noted before a tendency in some Left quarters to launch into Nazi comparisons a little too easily. During the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove seem to have been similarly incapable of conducting an argument without invoking Godwin’s Law. This extract from Alwyn Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? goes back to an earlier incident…
In the 1970 election, Enoch Powell’s contribution was the subject of huge press coverage. With Edward Heath widely expected to lose, there was little doubt among commentators that Powell was positioning himself for a leadership challenge in the aftermath of defeat. His words were superficially supportive of the party, but his colleagues were not fooled as to their intent. ‘I hope and believe that Mr Enoch Powell will learn to support the policy of the Conservative Party,’ warned Quentin Hogg, ‘but the Conservative Party does not support Mr Powell.’
Meanwhile, so intense were the feelings that he stirred that he had a police guard mounted on his home, and at the local Conservative Association all the signs identifying the building were taken down and security measures taken: ‘Bolts are on the front door, and sticky tape criss-crosses all the ground-floor windows – to stop the glass shattering if bricks are thrown.’
Harold Wilson, well aware of the populist potential of Powell, instructed Labour politicians simply to avoid all reference to him, in the hope that race would not become an issue in the campaign. But there was one man who was prepared to break the embargo, and who ensured front-page headlines both for himself and, more especially, for his target: ‘Amazing attack on Enoch,’ screamed the Sun; ‘The Enoch peril,’ warned the Daily Mirror, while the Daily Telegraph clarified the source of the outrage: ‘”Belsen flag” jibe by Benn at Powell.’
‘The most evil feature of Powell’s new Conservatism is the hatred it is stirring up,’ Tony Benn said in a speech that received saturation coverage. ‘It has started with an attack on Asians and blacks. But when hate is released it quickly gets out of control. Already Powell has spoken against the Irish. Anti-Semitism is waiting to be exploited as Mosley exploited it before. Every single religious or racial minority can be made the scapegoat for every problem we face.’ Invoking Oswald Mosley was bad enough, but Benn went further with a particularly personal attack that he regretted almost immediately: ‘The flag hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered over Dachau and Belsen.’
The severity of the charge, linking a former cabinet minister to the Holocaust, was without parallel in British politics and it ‘changed the whole emphasis of the Labour campaign’. Actual supporters of Powell were thin on the ground in the media, save in the self-proclaimed reactionary world of the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple column (which claimed that the metaphorical flag was ‘beginning to look, from some angles, uncannily like the Union Jack’), but the condemnation of Benn was close to universal: a ‘grotesque exaggeration’ said Sir Keith Joseph, ‘savage and senseless’ said the Mirror, ‘silly and extravagant’ said Sun columnist Jon Akass.
Powell himself had the most authoritative response of all: ‘In 1939,’ he replied, with seething dignity, ‘I voluntarily returned from Australia to this country to serve as a private soldier against Germany and Nazism…’