Few politicians have been so admired and yet so maligned at the same time, or been so popular and yet so despised, but then Enoch Powell said those things that could not be said and it would prove ruinous of both ambition and his career.
It has often been remarked that he was the most brilliant politician of his generation and a truly great parliamentarian but he never scaled the heights of the political greasy pole that was expected of him, and it is for one moment in a career spanning fifty years that he is best remembered today – a speech given in an anonymous Birmingham hotel on a chilly April night in 1968 on a subject taboo then and even more so today – race and immigration.
It was in effect an act of self-immolation and the subsequent vilification of the speech and its author remains unabated to this day.
John Enoch Powell was born in Stechford near Birmingham on 16 June 1912, the son of Albert Powell, a primary school teacher, and Eliza, the daughter of a Liverpool policeman.
The Powell family was firmly rooted then in the lower middle-class at a time when such things mattered and the young Enoch soon became acutely aware of his status and where it placed him on the social ladder; he therefore resolved to be decidedly bourgeois, expecting, demanding, behaving and talking as such, though his voice with its distinct Brummie accent, carefully modulated though it was, revealed his origins soon enough.
He attended school in Birmingham where he was found to be an exemplary student even obtaining an almost unprecedented 100% pass mark in an English exam and his academic achievements were such that he gained admission to Trinity College Cambridge to study classics at a time when social status not merit was the requisite qualification for doing so.
Little distracted by the accompanying delights of university life, Powell took to the rigours and self-imposed discipline of a classical education like a fish to water poring over ancient manuscripts and translating Latin texts into English, Greek, and even Welsh whilst during those brief moments of relaxation he composed verse often dedicated to the young ladies he admired only from a distance and who would never read it.
A driven man not lacking in ambition in 1937, aged 25, he was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University in Australia, a remarkable achievement for someone of such tender years but a great disappointment to Enoch personally for he had wanted to beat the German philosopher Nietzsche’s record of becoming a professor at just 24.
In a similar vein he began to learn Urdu in expectation of one day being appointed Viceroy of India, again he was to be disappointed.
Australia was a long way from home but he nonetheless observed the war clouds looming over Europe with trepidation believing that British foreign policy and its failure to resist the demands of Nazi Germany was not only humiliating but could only end in catastrophe.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to England determined to do his part in wiping clean the dishonour done to his country by the appeasers, in particular those within the Conservative Party.
In October 1939, he enlisted as a private soldier in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment but was commissioned the following year and his educational background soon saw him transferred to Military Intelligence, a non-combat role perfectly suited to his talents but one that was also a source of deep frustration.
After serving with distinction in the North Africa campaign in 1943 he was transferred to the Far East where began a life-long love for the Indian sub-Continent, or at least the Raj.
Powell’s immense contribution to Military Intelligence was to be acknowledged in his rapid rise through the ranks from Private to Brigadier, the youngest in the British Army, but even this was to be a disappointment.
He had expected to end the war as a full General at the very least.
In the 1945 General Election, like the majority of soon to be de-mobbed servicemen he voted for the Labour Party even though it was not his natural inclination to do so but he shared with many the collective guilt that he had survived the war and wished to punish those he believed were responsible for failing to prevent it.
His true political affiliation would soon emerge but even so it would not be the last time he would advocate the socialist alternative on a point of issue.
In 1950 he was elected to be the Member of Parliament for the Constituency of Wolverhampton South West and he very soon became one of the rising stars of the party but despite appearing brilliant in every way he still had to endure the snobbery of his colleagues who if not his intellectual equal certainly considered themselves his social superior.
He was excluded from the inner-circle and his refusal on occasions to tow the party lie and a general prickliness of character soon earned him the reputation as a maverick and a man who could not entirely be trusted.
Although he was an avowed Imperialist he could not perceive of the Empires continued existence in whatever form once its Jewel in the Crown India had been lost. As such, he could not reconcile himself to the notion of the Commonwealth, a pale imitation of Empire with all the trappings but none of the substance.
He also early acknowledged that without its Empire Britain had ceased to be a world power and he feared American domination of world markets believing it to be the greatest single threat to British independence, a freedom that would be undermined further by entry into the European Economic Community.
An admirer of British democracy the House of Commons was like manna from heaven to Enoch Powell and his knowledge of its history and understanding of parliamentary procedure impressed everyone but less so his continued criticism of the Conservative Government particularly its policies with regards to the Mau Mau Insurrection in Kenya.
Indeed, a speech he gave on the subject in the Commons on 27 July 1959, Denis Healey, the future Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Foreign Secretary was to describe as the finest he ever heard.
A dedicated deflationist (a policy he was prepared to resign over) his economics foreshadowed the monetarism that was to be adopted by the Government of Margaret Thatcher who was to remain an admirer.
Yet, except for brief periods as a Junior Transport Minister and as Health Secretary he never attained High Office.
When in 1965, against advice, he ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party he received a derisory 15 votes and was eliminated on the first ballot.
It appeared that his career had stalled.
On 20 April 1968, he addressed party workers at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham on the issue of the Labour Governments proposed Race Relations Act.*
He argued that all citizens should be equal before the law and that to elevate the immigrant and their descendants to a unique and privileged position by the passage of anti-discrimination laws would not only undermine this but could be used against the indigenous population and that employers, for example, would hesitate to apply the same standards of discipline and competence required of the native born worker.
He also argued that whilst thousands of immigrants wanted to integrate there were many who did not and had a vested interest in fostering racial and religious prejudice with a view to domination over their fellow immigrants.
Powell believed that Britain was in danger of being swamped and much of his speech was devoted to a letter he had received from an elderly constituent whom he said must remain anonymous.
She had refused to let lodgings to immigrants and had suffered intimidation as a result:
“She is afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excretia pushed through her letterbox. When she goes to the shops she is followed by children, charming wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but the one word they know is Racialist.”
He feared that Britain would undergo racial conflict similar to that which had blighted the United States, violence which had seen the forces of law and order confronted on the streets and cities set ablaze.
Quoting from Virgil’s, The Aenid:
“As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with blood.”
He had intended to quote the original Latin but had had a last moment change of heart. It was to give the speech its name.
”We must be mad, quite literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the descended immigrant population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping upon its own funeral pyre.”
He did not believe that it was the role of Government to facilitate the integration of immigrants thereby making such a move an attractive proposition to those seeking a better life elsewhere, and that to do so was simply storing up problems for the future.
The resolution to the dilemma of assimilation and fairness as regards the resident immigration population lay in placing curbs on all future immigration and the adoption of a scheme for voluntary repatriation.
Even though Powell’s language had been deliberately provocative it caused little stir in the auditorium itself and only one man who complained at the time had to be removed, but he knew that once reported it would kick up a storm.
But the scale of revulsion and opprobrium which did indeed result took even him by surprise.
The political elite and the liberal media professed outrage at the speech accusing Powell of being a racist who was hiding behind clever rhetoric, he was shunned by most of his senior colleagues, threatened with prosecution for inciting racial hatred, and retribution was swift – the day after he delivered the speech the Conservative Party Leader Edward Heath sacked him from his Shadow Cabinet.
But the response in his support was to prove even more vehement as demonstrators took to the streets and workers went on strike at Smithfield Market, Tilbury Docks, and many other places of employment the length and breadth of the country.
Thousands of dockworkers marched on Parliament demanding Powell’s reinstatement to the Shadow Cabinet jeering at and jostling both MP’s and Peers as they tried to enter the building.
But there were counter demonstrations also as people rallied in their condemnation, and feelings were running high.
Over the next few weeks Powell’s Constituency Office received more than 130,000 letters all but 4 of which expressed support for his stance on immigration whilst opinion polls recorded a 74% approval rating.
But this was to be the high-water mark of Enoch Powell’s political career for ostracised within his own party and demonised by the opinion formers there was no path forward. He was in effect a political pariah who with the passage of time would only find himself increasingly marginalised.
But for the time being he was the most trusted and popular politician in Britain who could gain working class votes for the Conservative Party where others could not, but if he could win elections for his party he could also lose them.
In February 1974, having resigned his seat and supportive of the Labour Party leader Harold Wilson’s intention to hold a Referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the E.E.C, and no doubt harbouring thoughts of vengeance against Edward Heath and others within his own party who had been so quick to abandon him, he urged people to vote Labour in the forthcoming election.
In one of the closest ever General Election results the Conservative Government despite polling more votes lost by 5 seats. Was Enoch Powell’s endorsement of the Labour Party the deciding factor, certainly both he and Heath thought so, and it is a belief that appears to be borne out by the figures with the swing to Labour in the West Midlands where Powell was most prominent being as high as 16% whilst nationally it was a little over 1%.
Learning of the Governments defeat Powell sang te deums in celebration but his days as a Conservative politician were over.
As if writing his own obituary he remarked – all political careers end in failure – but his still had time to run.
Following his departure from the Conservatives he joined the Ulster Unionist Party becoming the Member of Parliament for South Down his entry into Northern Ireland politics deemed fitting by some for a man on the wrong side of history determined to fight the battles of the past.
He was to remain a presence in Parliament, no less forceful no less respected but his time on the national stage had passed, and as his sonorous voice with its gentle Brummie lilt faded fast he would become quite literally the silent backbencher.
His legacy remains, however.
In a series entitled Great Speeches published in The Guardian newspaper its Editorial Team felt obliged to explain why Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech had been omitted. They went onto explain how they felt it inappropriate because it had been essentially negative in its influence and had contributed nothing to the development of modern society.
The reference of course was to the development of multi-cultural society which is itself a pseudonym for multi-ethnic diversity and should not be confused with views held in common, cross-cultural values, or shared experience.
As such, it has been seen as an intolerant and racially motivated diatribe as witnessed by the howls of indignation, waves of subjective horror, expressions of deep regret, and endless anguished hand-wringing which is indeed ironic at a time when the open discussion of such matters is frowned upon and in some cases even criminalised.
Later to the question from a journalist – are you a Racialist? Powell responded:
”What I would take Racialist to mean is a person who believes in the inherent inferiority of one race of mankind to another, and who speaks and acts in that belief. So the answer to that question is, no.”
Enoch Powell retired from active political life after losing his South Down seat in the 1987 General Election and was to spend much of his remaining life delighting in the company of his grandchildren, translating Latin texts, and commenting on the Gospels, though politics was never far from his thoughts nor the nib of his pen.
He died on 8 February 1998, aged 85, with perhaps the concluding lines to the Rivers of Blood a fitting eulogy:
“All that I know is that to see and not to speak, would be a great betrayal.”
*To read the full text of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood please visit our Fact File.