While the Left mourns the death of Paul Foot – undoubtedly an excellent journalist and stalwart of working-class struggle – we should not let these attributes eclipse his unique contribution to the anti-racist fight.
Many people are probably unaware that it was he who pinpointed the centrality and impact of racism in two key spheres – that of politics and that of the media. So much of what now passes for common-sense in anti-racist thinking and indeed methodological argument was in fact pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul Foot.
His book, Immigration and race in British Politics, published in 1965 in the wake of the Smethwick election (when the ‘If you want a Nigger neighbour, vote Labour’ slogan was used by Peter Griffiths), was a landmark. No academic tome, no giving the benefit of the doubt, no ‘fear of newcomers’ nonsense for him. This was a committed treatise which pointed out the ways in which both Labour and Conservatives had consistently played the race card. ‘Politics’, he wrote, ‘can drive the knife home or remove its menace’. He drew the links between immigration, the racialisation of political discourse and the creation of popular racism.
In The Rise of Enoch Powell, published just months after the infamous Rivers of Blood speech, Paul Foot revealed both the dangers of rabble rousing on a racism platform and the opportunism and dishonesty of the politician who chose to do so. That such points would not have to be made today, because they have passed into common political currency, attests to this critical, painstaking research and lively writing from a lone International Socialist journalist in the 1960s. No one since has bettered, let alone replicated, his committed journalism on racism.
And indeed no one has done more to expose the role of journalists and the media in general in the construction of racism. It was Paul Foot in 1976 who transformed the TV programme ‘What the papers say’ into a lesson on how ‘Race hate and race violence does not rise or fall according to the numbers of immigrants coming into Britain but the extent to which people’s prejudices are inflamed and made respectable by politicians and newspapers’. He traced in a number of programmes how the press and politicians colluded in racism: the one to sell papers, the other to curry favour. The result was populist race hatred which was immediately felt by Black Britons in terms of racial attacks on the ground.
Paul was unique because of his commitment, integrity and tenacious adherence to revolutionary socialism. And it was precisely his understanding of the nature of struggle and of power that gave his anti-racism its special edge. We still use his perspectives to frame our research and writings into racism today.
But we also remember Paul with much affection and gratitude. Never has the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) library rung with so much laughter as on those days when he was in researching his books. And in the early 1970s when the IRR had thrown off its old guard of absentee landlords and was being transformed into a servicing station ‘for Black people on their way to liberation’ it was Paul who was asked to join one of the new steering committees.