Enoch Powell was, in my opinion, clearly the smartest and ablest politician in his generation, certainly one of the top ten parliamentarians in the twentieth century, possibly even in the top five of all time. He was also a stunning failure on a scale which is every bit as big as his success, his appeal and his intellect.
Of Enoch Powell, Michael Foot said: “The Tory Kingdom would sooner or later have been his to command, for he had all the shining qualities which the others lacked. Heath would never had outmanoeuvred him; Thatcher would never have stepped into the vacant shoes. It was a tragedy for Enoch, and a tragedy for the rest of us too.”
The tragedy can be summed up in three words Rivers of Blood. One speech, given in 1968, which saw his dismissal from the Conservative party’s shadow cabinet by Edward Heath. It ended his chance of becoming Prime Minister. It also ensured that Britain developed the problems which we are seeing today. The tragedy was in allowing racists, or racialists as they were known then, to support his calls for curbs on immigration. He played the race card and ensured that he would never again be seen as a potential Prime Minister, he also ensured that the cause he believed in would be tarred with the foul taint of racism and bigotry for decades to come. Because of Enoch Powell and the stink he caused back in 1968 nobody has had the courage to talk about this subject openly and so he has ensured that he will be remembered as the prophet of a doom that came to pass rather than the saviour of the nation he loved.
What’s the difference between a racist and a racialist? One young Tory (who is probably a middle-aged Tory now) told me that Tories preferred to use the word racialist as an insult because it sounds like socialist, whereas those on the left prefer racist because it sounds like fascist. Regardless, the term racialist is now seen as being old fashioned.
Powell’s speech in 1968 warned of the dangers of immigration and how the dependants of immigrants who were at that time coming into the country would be the fuel for an increasing population of people from immigrant stock in the future.
“We must be mad, 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 immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
you cannot fail to be impressed with his oratory even if you have been conditioned to detest what he is saying. The way his voice shifts up an octave when he says literally mad is classic oratory at its finest. Hitler himself could not have done better, and I mean that without any irony.
His great mistake was not to repudiate or at least deprecate racist sentiments as he was doing it. He made no apparent effort to distance himself from the overtly racist sentiments that had been communicated to him as a constituency MP for Wolverhampton, a town which had a rapidly growing population of West Indian immigrants. Many people have erroneously believed that Enoch Powell himself was warning that “In this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” These were not Enoch Powell’s own words, he was quoting from a letter written by a constituent, but his great mistake was in not making this clear and in not distancing himself from these attitudes and prejudices. He was absolutely right, there was a very real problem, immigrants were making the indigenous community hostile, they were straining their tolerance to and beyond breaking point. The immigrants were not the problem, the problem was, and is, the way people who feel under pressure from in-comers respond by bringing out the worst aspects of human nature. The tragedy of rapid immigration and population growth within groups seen to be different is the way good people are turned bad. I think Yoda had it right. Fear leads to hatred which leads to the dark side.
The rivers of blood that Powell was predicting were to be caused by tensions which escalate into racial hatred and intolerance and culminating in race riots and perhaps if not checked even ethnic cleansing. He did not make any reference at all to Islam, those who say, in ignorance, “Enoch was right!” and suggest that he was anticipating the events of 7/7 are way off the mark. Enoch Powell’s vision of a nightmare future for Britain was a mirror of American race riots of the 1960s and before. Enoch Powell respected Muslims. The problems we have today are caused by Muslims sincerely believing that they are superior to us, that their religion and culture is better than ours and we are decadent and sinful as is our freedom and democracy. Search in vain for any quotation from Enoch Powell which warned of the dangers of Islam or of the arrogance of Muslims, you will not find one.
Was Enoch Powell Racist?
When asked by David Frost was he a racialist this is what he said:
It depends on how you define the word “racialist.” If you mean being conscious of the differences between men and nations, and from that, races, then we are all racialists. However, if you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another, then the answer is emphatically “No.”
You have got to admire a man who can speak sentences like that off the cuff – most politicians these days couldn’t even write sentences as coherent as that never mind compose them on the fly during an interview and speak them pitch-perfect.
It is not enough not to be a racist you must also make very clear that you do not welcome racists supporting or following you. By not declaring his unease or concern about the openly hostile, racist and nasty attitudes of many who supported him he sealed his fate. Why was it so hard for him to say that racism and racial hatred were wrong? Or that intolerance was a nasty vice and not a noble sentiment? That would have been enough. He might not have escaped his sacking but he could have stayed in the Conservative party, he could have remained within the pale, and he would have stood an excellent chance of being its next leader instead of Margaret Thatcher.
It is a perfectly reasonable position to take to wish to limit immigration to levels which will not be problematic and will not be likely to cause or exacerbate tensions that already exist in a society. It is also perfectly reasonable to declare that immigration has already exceeded prudent levels. Such a position does not require anybody to be racist or to condone racism it merely requires people to acknowledge that racial tension is something which is best avoided and it has been known to exist in British society. This is not scaremongering it is prudent statesmanship. This indeed is the belief of many black and Asian people already in Britain today, enough is enough, if these levels are exceeded it will be difficult to prevent racist sentiments spreading out from the hardcore of dyed-in-the-wool racists to infect the wider community. Nobody benefits from heightened racial tension, with the possible exception of emergency glaziers.
If Enoch Powell had declared his revulsion towards racism and intolerance rather than seeming to suggest it was just one of those things, hey ho, he could well have become the greatest Prime Minister Britain ever had. Instead, he allowed himself to be portrayed as a racist and a bigot and he became the enemy of everybody who deplored racism, which included the vast majority of the establishment, media and political classes of Britain.
People are not larger scale versions of the people who follow them. Being idolized by knuckle-walking bigots does not make you a bigot any more than a legion of teenage-girl fans make some boyband star straight.
I believe his own words, I do not think that Enoch Powell hated black people or saw them as inferior in any way. Perhaps Powell was a victim of that classic syndrome of being a man of the people: these are my people, I am their leader, they have put their trust in me, I must follow them!
But, then again, Enoch Powell was an honest man. An honest man cannot be a democrat and detest the people. That is why few politicians are honest men and few honest men are politicians. Perhaps to Enoch Powell it was wrong to suggest that the people’s feelings were wrong. He saw that inside most people were racist to some degree, in the way that Christians see that people are all sinners. How could it be right to despise the feelings of your people if your job was to represent and lead them? If the people are incurable if mildly racist what is wrong with their leaders representing them? Nothing. No amount of preaching and beseeching by politicians or churchmen could or would ever change the nature of people’s genuine feelings. Decades-worth of berating people for being racist has not eliminated so-called racist or xenophobic feelings, just as centuries-worth of berating hasn’t eliminated jealousy, avarice, gluttony, drunkenness or lust.
Enoch Powell died in 1998, many years AFTER the foundation of the British National Party. If he had believed in their cause and the integrity and competence of their leadership he would have joined the party. He did not. Enoch Powell was not a racist nor a simple crude populist nationalist, least of all was he some kind of second rate NeoNazi. He was a gentleman and a Tory, he never left the Conservative Party, they left him. As Michael Foot said that was a tragedy for Enoch, and a tragedy for the rest of us too.