Enoch Powell's Centennial: A Complex, Frustrating And Fascinating Man
This Saturday, June 16, will mark what would have been the 100th birthday of John Enoch Powell, one of the most fascinating, influential and controversial British politicians of the 20th century.
Largely unknown to Americans, Powell became a symbol of the anti-immigration movement that swelled in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s.
Although Powell had a very long, distinguished and varied career as a politician and academic, it was his strident opposition to Commonwealth immigration that he is probably best remembered for -- and largely what still makes his name anathema in contemporary British political life.
The very peak of Powell's career likely occurred in April 1968, when as a Tory MP he delivered his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech in Birmingham in which he warned that unchecked immigration of non-whites into Britain would lead to violence in the streets and social collapse.
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Powell, perhaps unwittingly, provided a dignified voice to the otherwise vulgar and shrill voices of anti-immigration, as espoused by the extreme right-wing National Front party of the 1970s and 1980s and its successor, the British National Party, today.
With immigration (illegal and otherwise) being such a contentious subject in Western Europe, the U.S. and Australia, Powell's supporters would say he was prescient, whereas his detractors would simply denounce him as an outdated racist.
Powell died in 1998 at the age of 85, having never achieved his dream of becoming Britain's prime minister.
But there was much more to Powell. He was a classically trained poet and historian, that is, the kind of pure intellectual that rarely emerges in politics (on either side of the Atlantic).
International Business Times spoke with Dr. Victoria Honeyman, lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds in England. to discuss the phenomenon of Enoch Powell.
IBTIMES: Some have speculated that if Powell had not allied himself with the strident anti-immigration movement, he might have become prime minister at one point. Do you agree with this view?
HONEYMAN: I don't think so. Enoch Powell was, like other politicians such as Keith Joseph [a famous Conservative politician from the 1960s and 1970s], an intellectual in the true sense of the word. He would follow the logic of an intellectual argument to its conclusion, regardless of how unpalatable that conclusion was, and then present it and often expect others to appreciate his process.
Politicians need many skills, including excellent presentation skills, which Powell lacked. That didn't make him a bad politician, but I think it is unlikely he would have ever been prime minister.
IBTIMES: Can Powell be blamed for indirectly helping to form the National Front?
HONEYMAN: It could be argued that Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech contributed to the debate which the National Front built their limited support on, but I think it is a bit too simplistic to suggest that Powell indirectly created the National Front.
That was not his intention, and there is no evidence to suggest it was so.
IBTIMES: Powell was a very erudite intellectual -- but his anti-immigration stance attracted a lot of blue-collar workers and thugs. Do you think he was embarrassed by this? Or do you think he regarded himself as the "voice" of ordinary middle-class Britons?
HONEYMAN: Powell, while an excellent politician in some ways, was an intellectual at heart. His main aim was to follow the argument to its logical conclusion. While I have not read that Powell was embarrassed by the thugs he attracted, I doubt that he was upset that he attracted blue-collar workers. He would assume they understood his argument reasonably well. If others were attracted to it, then that was an unfortunate outcome of his logic.
IBTIMES: Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech from 1968 is what he will be most known for. Did that speech destroy his political career? Or did he make him even more popular and powerful?
HONEYMAN: Yes, the speech did destroy his political career, although I doubt that Powell thought that the speech would have the impact that it did. In terms of the public, Powell became more popular than he had ever been, but without his party's support that left him in a no man's land.
IBTIMES: Edward Heath [who defeated Powell to become head of the Conservative Party in 1965 and became prime minister in 1970] fired Powell for that speech and he reportedly was aghast at Powell's views. Before that speech, how did Heath and Powell get along?
HONEYMAN: I have not read anything on this, but I don't believe it was close. It certainly wasn't after his 'Rivers of Blood' speech.
IBTIMES: The Conservatives won the 1970 general election. Can Powell be credited with helping that victory?
HONEYMAN: While Powell had been sacked from the Shadow Cabinet in 1968, Powell's supporters argued that he helped the Conservatives win the 1970 election. While not a member of the Shadow Cabinet, Powell's argument, which had attracted many supporters, might well have helped to build the Conservative vote.
This was then undone supposedly when Powell advised his supporters in February 1974 to vote Labour, reducing the Conservative vote and eventually leading Labour to form the government following the election. There is no evidence to support this view, and it is based on supposition, although some academics claim to have done empirical research to support this view.
IBTIMES: As you just mentioned, in the 1974 general election, the Tory Powell endorsed Labour, which won. Why did Powell turn his back on the Conservative Party at that point?
HONEYMAN: Powell had essentially been disowned by the Conservative Party. He objected to Britain being taken into the European Economic Community and he disliked Heath's economic U-turn, so argued that he could not support the party manifesto.
IBTIMES: In late 1974, Powell became an MP for Ulster, and remained there off and on until his death in 1998. Why did he move onto Northern Ireland? Did he at that point give up his crusade against immigration?
HONEYMAN: Powell was very interested in Northern Ireland, having visited fairly frequently, and he supported the Unionist cause. He believed that he couldn't continue to support the Conservatives, and he turned down the National Front when they asked him to stand, so the Ulster Unionists was his only option. Powell focused on numerous issues as an MP in Northern Ireland, but when immigration came up, he continued to support his views as espoused in 1968.
IBTIMES: In 1979, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher complained about the "swamp" of foreign immigration, thereby taking the cause away from the extremists. Did Thatcher consult with Powell at all? Did they have any kind of relationship whatsoever?
HONEYMAN: Thatcher and Powell don't seem to have liked each other very much. There is no evidence that Thatcher and Powell consulted each other at all, and Powell was very dismissive of Thatcher's succession as Conservative leader in 1975 and her general election victory in 1979, apparently because he didn't believe she had the strength of personality to carry through her policies.
IBTIMES: Let's go back to earlier in his career, before his fall. Powell reportedly loved India and Indian culture and even learned to speak, read, and write Hindi and Urdu. Thus, was his antipathy to Commonwealth immigration more of a political ploy rather than a personal dislike of Indians and Pakistanis?
HONEYMAN: Powell is usually viewed as being a racist, but that is too simplistic. Powell was interested in what he saw as being best for Britain. That transcended individual needs and rights, whoever those rights might belong to.
Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech argued that if Britain allowed immigration to continued unfettered, leading to societal and economic problems in Britain due to a lack of employment and a rise in poverty, then that would lead to riots and perhaps even racial war. Were there to be adequate employment, or a need in Britain for immigration from the Commonwealth, then the equation would change and the danger would be avoided.
Despite his image, there is really no evidence that Powell hated people from India and Pakistan, simply that he did not want immigration from India and Pakistan to cause problems in Britain due to its volume. While it is easy to label him a racist, if you view his argument as an intellectual argument, he simply delivered what he considered the reasoned conclusion to it. It was not a reflection on Indian and Pakistani people, only a comment on what immigration from these countries might do to Britain. Powell's views developed and during the 1970s and early 1980s his views appear to have become [even] more racist, but they don't appear to have necessarily started off that way.
IBTIMES: Powell was apparently appalled by the British treatment of Kenyans during the Mau Mau rebellion in the late 1950s and delivered a stirring speech in Parliament about it. How do you reconcile this with his very racist pronouncements against black people?
HONEYMAN: Again, Powell was not against black people per se at this time. These people were facing persecution in their own country, which Powell deeply objected to. He believed that individual rights should be measured against a 'civilized' (i.e. British) standard, rather than allowing 'local' standards to rule, something which many of his parliamentary colleagues argued for.
IBTIMES: As health minister in the early 1960s didn't Powell endorse the filling up of National Health Service jobs with Commonwealth immigrants? Thus, did he at one time encourage such immigration?
HONEYMAN: Yes, he did. It was in Britain's interest, otherwise the NHS would have collapsed. Again, Powell was interested in what was in Britain's interest.
IBTIMES: Powell supposedly was very wary of the Americans for much of his life. What was behind this? Did he fear that the U.S. global influence was too strong and would reduce Britain's power?
HONEYMAN: Powell believed that the U.S.' view of itself was rather overrated. He vigorously objected to U.S. interference in Northern Ireland, where he believed they encouraged the IRA and continued violence, and generally believed that the U.S. had too much influence across the world and interfered in issues which they shouldn't.
It seems probable that Powell objected to the U.S. becoming involved in issues which would have previously been under the oversight of Britain, and thus, the undermining of its Empire status.
IBTIMES: When race riots broke out in the U.K. in 1980 and 1981, did Powell stay quiet on the sidelines (in Ulster) or did he exploit these disturbances to promote his original viewpoint about non-white immigration?
HONEYMAN: Powell gave a speech which attempted to fan the flames. In the years following 1968, Powell's views had tended to become more overtly racist rather than being based in logic, as could be argued in 1968. He argued that black members of the community were alienated because they were "alien."
IBTIMES: Is Powell a complete pariah among the Conservatives today? That is, would David Cameron be pilloried if he said anything favorable about Powell?
HONEYMAN: Powell is still so heavily associated with the interpretation of his "Rivers of Blood" speech that any politician would have to be extremely careful to associate with his views on anything else. Unfortunately, while some of his views on other issues were well thought out and interesting, they have been tarred by association.
IBTIMES: Does today's British National Party revere Powell, or is he too far in the distant past to be of any relevance to them?
HONEYMAN: I am sure that [BNP chief] Nick Griffin reveres Powell. While Griffin would almost certainly rely on the interpretation of the "Rivers of Blood" speech rather than seeing the nuances in it, it would almost certainly fit in well with the BNP's views.
IBTIMES: What do you think is the real legacy of Enoch Powell?
HONEYMAN: It is a bit of a shame really, as Powell had such potential. He was a true intellectual and could have utilized that intellect to really make a difference and achieve great things in British politics. Unfortunately his entire work has become tarred with the brush of racism, which is largely justified, if a little bit of a blunt analysis.
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