Enoch Powell (1912-1998) was a British politician most famous for his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech warning about the dangers of mass immigration into the UK. Enoch Powell was both a controversial and popular figure with strong opinions on many contemporary political issues.
Short Bio Enoch Powell
Enoch Powell was born in Stechford, Birmingham on 16 June 1912. His family were of Welsh descent, with his great-grandfather being a coal miner.
From an early age, he was an exceptional student, excelling in the study of the classics and languages. By the end of his life, he had mastered 12 languages. In 1930, he went to Cambridge University to study at Trinity College. Powell graduated with a double starred first in Latin and Greek. His academic excellence secured him a professorship of Greek at Sydney University aged just 25.
At university, Powell displayed little interest in politics, in fact, his greatest ambition was to become the Viceroy of India and he took up the study of Urdu to further this ambition.
In the late 1930s, Powell became increasingly exacerbated with the policy of appeasement pursued by Chamberlain and the government of the day. He was convinced a war with Hitler’s Germany was both inevitable and necessary. On the outbreak of war, Powell returned to England and enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. During the war, Powell worked as a staff officer working in Cairo. He was involved in planning the counter-offensive against Rommel’s Africa Corps and the Battle of El Alamein. During the war, Powell received a promotion to Brigadier, one of the quickest promotions in the army. However, he later expressed regret at his backroom duties and later said ‘I should like to have been killed in the war’.
Enoch Powell voted for the Labour Party in 1945, to register his protest against the appeasement of the Conservatives in 1938. However, by 1950 he had joined the Conservative party and been elected as a Conservative member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West in the 1950 general election.
“Of course I am very proud of being a Tory. Yes, in my head and in my heart I regard myself as a Tory. As I have said, I was born that way; I believe it is congenital. I am unable to change it. That is how I see the world..”
– Enoch Powell
Enoch Powell was a conviction politician who was independently minded. Primarily he was a conservative and staunch defender of the constitution and British interests as he saw them. In his early years he was a staunch defender of the British Empire, but, after Indian Independence in 1947, he argued Britain should no longer maintain an Empire but give it up as it was no longer in a position to maintain it. For example, he opposed the British attempts to regain the Suez canal in 1956.
Enoch Powell exemplified a type of British nationalism. He was suspicious of both European integration and also the subservient relationship (as he perceived Britain’s attitude) to the United States. This attitude made him critical of Britain’s nuclear policy and it was one issue which divided him from Mrs Thatcher. As shadow Secretary for Defence in 1965, he outlined a foreign policy which cast aside outdated imperial obligations and also looked to greater alliances with European nations rather than America. To the chagrin of America, Powell wanted to remove Britain from east of Suez – i.e. have nothing to do with South East Asia – at a time when America was fighting the Vietnam war. Powell later said his stance helped prevent the UK government sending a token British force to fight in Vietnam. When asked about this he replied:
‘The greatest service I have performed for my country, if that is so.”
For all his various maverick beliefs, and stances, Powell was catapulted into the public limelight for his iconic Rivers of Blood Speech made in Birmingham on 20 April 1968. He warned the audience of the consequences of mass immigration from the former Commonwealth. In particular, he was opposed to the 1968 Race Relations Act which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of race in areas of British life such as housing – which was a controversial area
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”
– Enoch Powell, 1968 Speech in Wolverhampton
The strongly rhetorical language was perceived as racist and inflammatory, but it captured a nerve in popular public opinion about fears over the level of mass immigration into the UK. It was as if Powell had articulated a view many people shared but had not been expressed by an establishment figure.
Ever since, that day, there has been controversy over whether Powell was racist or not. His speech certainly heightened racial tensions, though his grim forebodings proved largely misplaced (with exceptions such as Brixton riots in the early 1980s).
Edward Heath sacked Powell from his Shadow Cabinet the day after the speech and he never again held a senior political post. However, the speech did make him arguably the most popular politician in the UK. It is widely accepted that Powell helped the Conservatives to unexpectedly win the 1970 General election.
Powell always protested that he wasn’t a racialist. He argued he was merely expressing the reality of the situation for his constituents. He was certainly a conviction politician who spoke his mind. In defence of Powell, it could be pointed out other situations where he defended the equality of people regardless of race. For example, in 1959, he made a passionate speech in the House of Commons against the pejorative labelling of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya.
Powell noted that some MPs had described the eleven Mau Mau’s as “sub-human” Powell responded by saying:
“In general, I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgement on a fellow human being and to say, ‘Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow’.”
On some issues, Powell was liberal in sentiment. He voted against the death penalty and supported homosexual law reform. In 1969, he was asked by David Frost if he considered himself a racialist. Powell replied:
“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 emphatical “No.”
On economics, Powell was an early supporter of ‘monetarist’ free market economics. He favoured large tax cuts, voted against increases in ‘inflationary’ spending increases and argued for privatisation of the post office and other nationalised industries 20 years before they were privatised under Mrs Thatcher. He was a supporter of Milton Friedman.
In 1974, Powell left the Conservative party for its decision to take the UK into the EEC. Powell became one of the leading anti-Europeans from the Conservative side. Up until then most opposition to the EEC had come from the left of the Labour party worried about the free market bias of the EEC.
To many people’s surprise, Powell returned to Parliament as an Ulster Unionist candidate in 1974. He was committed to the idea of Ulster remaining part of the UK, though he didn’t join the Orange order and often criticised the more extreme version of Ulster unionism presented by Ian Paisley. As an Ulster Unionist, Powell continued in his criticism of American foreign policy. In 1984, he claimed the CIA had ordered the murder of Earl Mountbatten of Burma to stop Neave’s policy of integration for Northern Ireland.
Powell lost his seat in 1987, but, didn’t accept a peerage in the House of Lords because he had opposed the Life Peerages Act in 1958.
After retiring from politics Powell began a work in studying the Gospel of John, he died in 1998, aged 85 from Parkinson’s disease.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Enoch Powell Biography“, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 11th Feb 2012. Last updated 7 Jan 2020.
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Enoch at 100
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