Few British politicians have been so admired yet at the same time so maligned in the public discourse than Enoch Powell. He had said those things that could not be said, and it ruined his career. 
He has often been talked about as one of the most brilliant politicians of his generation, yet his career never hit the heights expected of it and if his influence still lives on at all it is for one moment in a career spanning almost fifty years, a speech delivered in an anonymous Birmingham hotel on a chilly April night in 1968, on a subject that even today remains largely taboo - Immigration. It was a speech for which he has been vilified ever since. 
In a series of Great Speeches published in the Guardian Newspaper the Editorial Team felt obliged to explain why his so-called Rivers of Blood Speech had been omitted. They went on to say that it was because it was essentially negative and had contributed nothing to the development of modern society. It was in reality a case of moral cowardice on the part of a social elite that believes it has the right to determine what others should or should not know about. 
Even so, the Rivers of Blood Speech has been perceived as intolerant and to have incited racial hatred ever since. But is this an accurate portrayal and is this the true tenet of the speech? More than a decade after its author’s death we will look again at the life of a remarkable man and at his infamous speech. 
John Enoch Powell was born on 16 June 1912, in Stechford near Birmingham, the son of Albert Powell, a primary school headmaster and his wife Eliza, the daughter of a Liverpool policeman. The Powell family were then firmly rooted in the lower-middle classes at a time when such things mattered. The young Enoch was very much aware of his roots and of where it placed him on the social ladder. He was better than some and would behave and talk accordingly, though he never quite lost his Brummie accent. 
He attended King Edward's School in Birmingham where he became an exemplary student, even achieving a 100% pass mark in an English exam. His entry into Trinity College Cambridge to study classics was quite an achievement at a time when class rather than ability was the requisite qualification for doing so. He took to academic life like a fish to water, poring over ancient manuscripts and translating academic works into English, Welsh, and Greek. In 1937, at the age of just 25, he was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University in Australia. Always a driven man this disappointed him, he had wanted to beat the German philosopher Nietzsche's record of becoming a professor at 24. In a similar vein he studied Urdu in the expectation that he would one day be made Viceroy of India, again he was to be disappointed. 
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to Britain determined to wipe clean the dishonour he felt the appeasers, particularly those within the Conservative Party, had brought upon the country. In October 1939, he enlisted as a private soldier in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of Brigadier-General, the youngest in the British Army. 
In the 1945 General Election, like most returning servicemen he voted Labour, and like many others who had served during the conflict, he felt guilt at his own survival. He once stated that he wished he'd been killed during the war. It was this sense of guilt and a desire on his part to punish those within the Conservative Party he saw as appeasers that drove him to support the socialist alternative. His political affiliations were soon to change, however. 
In 1950, he was elected the Conservative Member of Parliament for the constituency of Wolverhampton South-West and very soon became one of the rising stars of the Party. Despite being seen as brilliant in every way he still had to endure the snobbery of those within the Party who considered themselves his social superior, and he never really became a part of the inner circle. Indeed, not only was he an outsider but an outsider who often found it difficult to tow the Party line. He was to acquire the reputation of a maverick and someone who could not be entirely trusted. 
Although an Imperialist he gave up on the idea of Empire after India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, secured its independence in 1948, and acknowledged that with its passing Britain was no longer a world power. As such, he was never able to reconcile himself to the idea of the Commonwealth, a pale imitation of Empire that maintained its trappings but lacked its substance. 
He also continued to criticise the Conservative Government opposing its policies regarding the Mau Mau Insurrection in Kenya and the speech he gave in the House of Commons on 27 July 1959, on the subject, Denis Healey, the future Deputy Labour Party leader and Foreign Secretary, described as the best parliamentary speech he ever heard. 
He was also ferociously anti-American believing it to be the country that posed the greatest threat to British independence and opposed British entry into the European Economic Community. 
He was an avid deflationist, and it was a policy he was willing to resign from the Tory Frontbench over. Indeed, his economics foreshadowed the monetarism that was later to be adopted by the Government of Margaret Thatcher. He had many admirers, but they were all the wrong ones and so except for brief periods as Junior Transport Minister and as Health Secretary, he never attained High Office. In 1965, he ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party but received only 15 votes. It appeared as if his career had stalled. 
On 20 April 1968, he addressed Party workers at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham. His speech was intended as a response to the Labour Government's proposed Race Relations Act. It was to go down in history as the Rivers of Blood Speech. It is not my intention to give a verbatim account of the speech or to deconstruct its every word but merely to provide an assessment of it and to discuss its impact on the country and its author. 
Powell insisted that all citizens should be equal before the law but this does not mean that the immigrant and his descendants be elevated into a special and privileged class. He argued that the passing of anti-discrimination laws, or indeed positive discrimination would be used against the indigenous population. "They found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant workers 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 that some had a vested interest in fostering racial and religious difference 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 rent out lodgings to immigrants and had suffered intimidation as a result. Powell quoted from the letter and said, "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 that had seen cities across America set ablaze: "As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with blood." 
He was quoting from Virgil's The Aenid and had originally intended to phrase it in the Latin. He went on, "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 Government's role to facilitate the integration of immigrants thereby by making such a move an attractive proposition for those seeking a better life elsewhere. To do so was merely storing up problems for the future. His answer to the dilemma of assimilation and fairness regarding the immigrant population was to place curbs on future immigration and adopt a plan for voluntary repatriation. 
Even though, Powell's language had at times been harsh and his subject matter provocative his speech had caused little stir in the auditorium and only one man had complained at the time, but Powell knew that it would kick up a storm. The intensity of the furore, however, seemed to take even him by surprise. 
The Political Elite professed outrage at his remarks across the spectrum of politics, though the truth was that many within his own party shared his view. He was accused of being a coward who was hiding his true feelings behind clever rhetoric, he was threatened with prosecution for incitement to racial hatred, and many of his senior colleagues refused to work alongside him any longer and threatened to resign from the party. The following day, Edward Heath, the leader of the Conservative Party, sacked him from the Shadow Cabinet. 
But the views of the political establishment and the media did not reflect those of the British public. They were equally outraged but not at the speech, but at Powell's treatment. Workers went on strike at Smithfield Market, at Tilbury Docks, and in factories the length and breadth of the country in support of Powell. More than a thousand dockworkers marched on Parliament demanding Powell's reinstatement to the Shadow Cabinet and MP's and Peers were jeered at and jostled as they tried to enter the building. 
Over the next few weeks Powell's Constituency Office was to receive over 130,000 letters in support of his stance on immigration and only 4 that were against. In opinion polls 74% supported his view that restrictions should be placed on immigration. This was to be the high-water mark of Powell's political career, never had he been so popular, but it was also to herald his downfall. Ostracised within his own party he had become in effect a political pariah, and over the coming years he was to find himself increasingly marginalised. 
In 1974, aware that the Labour Party intended, if elected, to hold a referendum regarding Britain's continued membership of the E.E.C he urged people to vote for them. His career within the Conservative Party was over. Soon after he resigned famously saying "All political careers end in failure." 
Enoch Powell went on to become a Member of Parliament for the Ulster Unionist Party but his days as a big political player were over. With that powerful sonorous voice of his with its gentle Brummie lilt fading fast, he quite literally became a silent backbencher. 
Many years before and not long after he had given his by now infamous speech, he had given a newspaper interview and had responded thus to the question - Are you a Racialist? "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." It didn't really matter what he said, no one was any longer listening. 
Enoch Powell retired from Parliament in 1987 and spent the remaining years of his life delighting in the company of his grandchildren and translating Latin texts. He died on 8 February 1998, aged, 85. 
All those years before he had wound up his Rivers of Blood Speech with the words, "All that I know is that to see and not to speak, would be a great betrayal." Perhaps, it is no less a betrayal not to listen but merely condemn. 
Tagged as: Modern, Politics
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