In Memoriam: Enoch Powell

This Thursday, February 8th, 2018, will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Enoch Powell, a prominent British statesmen, scholar, and poet. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 85, after a long and storied career in politics, military service, and academia. His later years were embroiled in controversy as he emerged as one of the most strident anti-immigration politicians of his day. To this day, he remains a deeply divisive figure, seen by some as the ideological forefather of the contemporary Brexit movement and as virulent racist by others. Nevertheless, the significance of his life and ideas to today’s debates in the United Kingdom, America, and Europe is unquestionable.

By all accounts of his early life, the young Powell demonstrated rare academic and intellectual prowess. He was born the only child of a middle-class family in Birmingham, England in 1912, and was an avid reader from a very early age. He studied the Classics in secondary school and earned a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. He excelled in his further study of Latin and Greek at Cambridge and simultaneously, he took a course in Urdu at another university. Powell had aspired from an early age to one day serve as the Viceroy of British India, and correspondingly believed that he required a mastery of Indian languages to do so.

Powell graduated from university with a double first, which for those unfamiliar with the Cambridge system of degree classification is quite a rare achievement. He stayed at Trinity College as a fellow for some time but was soon appointed Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney. He was 25 at the time, narrowly missing his target of 24, the age at which his hero Friedrich Nietzsche became a professor. While teaching in Australia in the late 1930s, he was astonished by the inaction of the British government towards the expansionism of Nazi Germany. When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, he immediately returned home to enlist in the armed services.

Powell’s ascent through the ranks of the British military during over the course of the war was nothing short of meteoric. He was one of two soldiers in the whole of the war to rise from private to brigadier. Though to his great disappointment, he never saw combat, he served the British war effort in several capacities, primarily in military intelligence. As distinguished as his military service was, his record is not without its blemishes. He was once arrested as a suspected German spy for singing the Nazi anthem “Horst-Wessel-Lied.” Powell was not particularly well-liked by his fellow officers; the famed British commando Orde Wingate once threatened to “beat [Powell’s] brains in.”

Still, Powell had a marked positive impact on Allied military intelligence by the end of the war. He was one of the youngest brigadiers in the British service and was offered several critical postwar offices, which he declined. Shortly after the end of his military career, he entered politics after the imminence of Indian independence made his dream of becoming Viceroy of India an impossibility. He was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Wolverhampton South West in the 1950 United Kingdom general election. He would serve this constituency as a Conservative until 1974.

Powell entered the Prime Minister’s cabinet as Minister of Health in 1960 and served in this capacity until 1963. Before that, he had served dutifully as Junior Housing Minister and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Major policy decisions did not define his time as Minister of Health. He stood in the first Conservative Party leadership election in 1965 but came in third place, with future Prime Minister Edward Heath emerging victorious. Powell was appointed by Heath to be Shadow Secretary of State for Defense, as the Conservatives were opposition at this time. It would not be long, however, before Powell rose to lasting national prominence.

Powell’s life and legacy came to be defined by his remarks at a Conservative Party gathering in Birmingham on April 20th, 1968. His speech, known after that as the “Rivers of Blood speech,” strongly condemned mass immigration, especially from the British Commonwealth. He infamously proclaimed, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” He was fiercely denounced by figures from the British left and right, as many of his fellow leading Conservatives turned against him. Though he had only warned against the dangers posed by the unchecked influx of immigrants, he was labeled a racist by his opponents. Some of his Conservative allies stood by him, and others thought it would only worsen the matter to dismiss Powell from his role in the Shadow Cabinet. Regardless, Heath sacked Powell as Shadow Secretary of State for Defense the day after his speech.

Powell’s dismissal and the whole affair were massively controversial. Opinion polling done at the time revealed that the majority of the British population supported the sentiments expressed in the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell developed a large public following who rallied behind him and protested against his treatment by Heath and the Conservative Party leadership. In fact, many historians attribute the surprising Conservative victory in the 1970 general election to Powell’s wild popularity. His continued alienation from the heart of the Conservative Party politics after the 1970 election troubled Powell. Just five days before the February 1974 general election, he publicly left the Conservatives and resigned from Parliament. The Conservatives lost their majority and Heath’s premiership was over.

Powell returned to Commons just a few months later following the October 1974 general election. He was now an MP of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), representing the constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland. He supported the Labour Party position in opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Union’s immediate predecessor, and campaigned for the “No” vote in the 1975 EEC membership referendum. The “Yes” vote triumphed soundly and the United Kingdom joined the EEC despite Powell’s vocal opposition. Powell’s last years in politics were spent on the fringes of public discourse, remaining well-known but not very well-regarded. He lost his seat in the 1987 general election, ending his nearly 47-year tenure in Parliament.

Out of office, Powell advocated for British self-determination and independence from Europe, mainly through his support for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher had come out against European integration in the last years of her historic premiership and earned the support of possibly Britain’s most controversial elder statesman. He was not able to make a difference in the 1990 Conservative leadership election by throwing his weight behind Thatcher, who did not win the contest outright and was persuaded to resign. In 1992, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but remained active in media and on the periphery of politics in his final years. He died in the hospital after a series of falls complicated by his condition.

Upon his death, then Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labour Party said, “However controversial his views, he was one of the great figures of 20th-century British politics, gifted with a brilliant mind. However much we disagreed with many of his views, there was no doubting the strength of his convictions or their sincerity, or his tenacity in pursuing them, regardless of his political self-interest.”

In many ways, Enoch Powell was a tragic figure. Though a man of exceptional intellect and a courageous spirit, he was never able to attain real power in the British government of his day. Powell showed remarkable prescience, accurately warning the United Kingdom of the danger of both European integration and uncontrolled immigration. He identified the cultural shift occurring in the United Kingdom due to the migrant influx and the risks it inherently poses to western civilization. Due to his political alienation, he was unable to effect change to thwart the threats he perceived to the United Kingdom.

Powell was undoubtedly a complicated and polarizing figure. Popular interpretations of his remarks and actions have left him with a monstrous legacy amongst many circles in the United Kingdom to this day. His political ideology, termed Powellism and rooted in traditionalist conservatism and libertarianism, lives on through contemporary supporters. He remains an oft-invoked figure of racist villainy or defiant British nationalism for the Left and the Right respectively. It is true that many of his words were intended to be inflammatory, dramatic, and provocative. He was an agitator, spurring his supporters and the general British population to come out against open door immigration. However, the significance of what he recognized and believed cannot be overlooked and neither can his years of committed service to his constituents and the United Kingdom as a whole.

At present, there is debate over whether a commemorative blue plaque for Enoch Powell should or should not be installed in Wolverhampton, his first constituency. A wide majority of the 14,000 respondents in an Express & Star poll believe that it should. When considering Powell’s accomplishments and foresight, it is not difficult to agree with the majority opinion.

  • EFQ

    And why is that bad? There is no logical reason to assume that all aspects of Afro-culture are undesirable.

    • piper60

      UNLESS,OF COURSE, YIU PREFERTHERESULTS of western culture to the likelyonesofab importedakternative!

  • Mr B J Mann

    It should be made clear that:

    a) He never mentioned “Rivers of Blood”, as with so many damming myths it was made up by his enemies.

    He was referring to a Classical allusion (which would have been understood by most of the less qualified but better read and educated population of the time) of an ill omen when the Tiber in full flood had the APPEARANCE of foaming with blood due to the suspension of disturbed red sediment.

    b) It was clear from his actions, from refusing to stay at an establishment when he realised an Indian colleague who had joined him there for a drink wouldn’t have been allowed to stay there if he’d wanted to, to attacking his own government over its treatment of Kenyans that he was anything but a racist.

    While he was a patriot and even a nationalist he didn’t think that race or colour prevented someone being British.

    c) As a further insight into his character it should be noted that as a University lecturer he was entitled to sit out the war in Sydney, but not only chose to return, but to claim he was Australian so that he would be enlisted immediately rather than having to wait to be called up.

    He was also entitled to enter Sandhurst for officer training but chose to start at the bottom as a squaddie.