Elegy for a Contrarian

Elegy for a Contrarian

Mini Teaser: The life and times of Enoch Powell, a brilliant and blunt British politician.

by Author(s): Scott McConnell

After Enoch Powell's death in February, at the age of eighty--five,
he received the kind of broad-based acclaim from the British
establishment never offered during the key battles of his lifetime,
and denied him most particularly during the pivotal half dozen years
after 1968, when he was expelled from the Tory leadership only to
emerge as Britain's foremost "nationalist" politician. Thirty years
later Paul Johnson wrote that save for Churchill and Margaret
Thatcher, Powell would be the most remembered British political
figure of the century. He probably has no equal in capacity to
provoke argument. Barely two months after his death, the BBC's
Channel Four put on the screen "The Trial of Enoch Powell"-a
disparaging program whose very production nonetheless signaled the
extent of Powell's pull on the public imagination.

Since he held no office higher than a minor ministry in an
unremarkable Harold Macmillan cabinet, such appreciation was
testament, certainly, to the extraordinary influence Powell
accumulated entirely through the spoken and written expression of his
ideas. But it was also an acknowledgment, more tacit than openly
stated, that the issues for which Powell stood and fought-ones
revolving around Britain's sovereignty and identity-remain as
unsettled, vital, and potentially explosive as ever.

He was brilliant, a rare intellectual in politics. A scholarship boy
from Birmingham who won all the classics prizes at Cambridge, Powell
was named to a full professorship at the University of Sydney at the
unprecedented age of twenty--five. During the war, which he spent
mainly in North Africa and India doing intelligence work, he rose
from the rank of private to brigadier general, the only soldier to
make such a progression. Out of the army he entered politics as a
Conservative and in 1950 won a seat in Wolverhampton, a largely
lower--middle class city in the industrial midlands, not far from his
birthplace. In Parliament he soon made his mark as his party's most
forceful advocate of free markets, always ready to heap pointed
derision on economic planning and escalating levels of public
spending: a position quite at odds with the bipartisan Tory/Labour
consensus-the so--called Butskellism-of the 1950s and 1960s.

Powell's character was unusual for a politician. He was very much a
loner, and had more than his share of quirkiness. He also possessed
unmatched powers of concentration and a will to pursue matters to
their ends. (His work in 1949 on a research brief on House of Lords
reform, for example, culminated in his co--authorship, eighteen years
later, of a massive scholarly tome, The House of Lords in the Middle
Ages.) Though deeply patriotic, Powell was never a conservative
jingoist, and early in his career became one of Parliament's voices
of conscience against British mistreatment of prisoners suspected of
terrorism during Kenya's Mau Mau uprising.

With his great talents, Powell progressed rapidly upward through his
party's ranks, and his principled resignation as a junior minister in
1958 over a matter of budget policy did him little harm. By the
beginning of 1968, he was firmly established in the small circle of
Tory leaders, the defense spokesman in Edward Heath's shadow cabinet.
Had he stayed on course and played the game in orthodox fashion, it
is quite likely that the party would have turned to him rather than
the little--known Margaret Thatcher after Heath's defeat in 1974. But
orthodoxy was not his forte.

A single Powell speech, delivered before eighty-five members of a
Birmingham Conservative club on a Saturday afternoon in April 1968,
changed everything. In taking up the question of "colored
immigration", Powell plunged into an issue that most politicians were
careful to ignore. Evasiveness had begun as early as 1948, after the
Labour Party's British Nationality Act gave 800 million former
subjects of the dissolving empire (renamed the "New Commonwealth")
the right of residence in the United Kingdom. When a steamer with 492
West Indians arrived that summer, it began to dawn on some British
politicians that reduced transportation costs had opened up entirely
new vistas of migration. As the flow picked up speed through the
1950s, a handful of Tory ministers grumbled and tried to prod the
government to action. Churchill said measures would be taken when
popular opinion was sufficiently aroused-which meant that nothing
would be done while the immigrant totals were relatively small.

In 1953 a Civil Service report was commissioned, drafted (with a
bluntness about perceived racial and cultural differences
unimaginable in the present day), and circulated in the Cabinet, but
it underestimated the future immigrant flow, and cautioned against
any restriction that might "antagonize liberal opinion." The
Conservative governments of the 1950s, committed to what has been
described as a "Peace at any Price" policy of accommodation toward
the trade unions, remained allergic to strong stands in nearly all
policy realms, and immigration in those years was limited by nothing
more than the expense of travel from the former colonies. By the
mid--1950s, the burgeoning civil rights movements in the United
States and South Africa had begun to loom over race--related
discussions in Britain-one more reason for hesitation. The annual New
Commonwealth immigrant flow surpassed 50,000, then 100,000, and was
approaching 200,000 by 1962, when the Tories finally pushed through a
significant modification against Labour Party opposition, giving
entry rights only to immigrants with specific job offers or needed
skills, together with their dependents.

The new law still allowed a considerable influx, mainly from the West
Indies and the Indian subcontinent. By 1968 total postwar immigration
numbered roughly 1.25 million, and was concentrated in a few urban
districts (including Powell's). They were little noticed in the rest
of the country. Still, by the mid--1960s, back benchers representing
affected areas were beginning to complain. They got no support from
party leaders: immigration was still not felt to be a pressing
national issue, a perception that would now be undone by a single

Powell began that speech quietly enough:

"The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against
preventable evils. . . . [But] people are disposed to mistake
predicting troubles for causing troubles and even desiring troubles.
. . . The discussion of future grave but with effort now avoidable
evils is the most necessary occupation for the politician."

Then Powell proceeded to launch a bomb. He started by relating a
conversation with a constituent who voiced the stark (and quite
unrealistic) racial fear that in a generation "the black man will
have the whip hand over the white man."

"How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble by
repeating such a conversation?" Powell asked.

The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a
decent ordinary fellow Englishman who in broad daylight in my own
town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that this country will not
be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right
to shrug my shoulders and think about something else.

He then went on to numbers. Both then and subsequently, Powell
insisted that Britain could assimilate immigrants from any race or
creed, provided their levels were manageable. But at then current
rates of entry, by 1988 there would be 3.5 million New Commonwealth
immigrants and they would be concentrated in several urban areas.
Powell then read from a letter sent by relatives of an elderly
English landlady tormented by immigrant toughs in a Birmingham
neighborhood that had undergone a rapid demographic transformation,
and noted that the Race Relations Act pushed by the Labour government
of the day would give the new peoples tools to "organize and
consolidate their members, agitate and campaign against their fellow

To see Britain take in 50,000 immigrant dependents annually, he
maintained, "is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up
its own funeral pyre." Then, in a passage that was to become perhaps
the most controversial uttered by any politician in the second half
of the twentieth century, he concluded,

"As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman I seem
to see 'the river Tiber foaming with much blood.' The tragic and
intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side
of the Atlantic, which there is interwoven with the history and
existence of the States itself, is coming here by our own volition
and our neglect. . . . All I know is that to see and not to speak
would be the great betrayal."

Powell's Birmingham audience was not in the least shocked. But the
national press, with an advance copy of the text, recognized that
such words from a figure of Powell's eminence were political
dynamite. By the next day, a Sunday, reports of the "rivers of blood"
speech ran on every front page and led every television news
bulletin. That evening, Heath consulted with Tory leaders and then
curtly dismissed Powell from the shadow cabinet. On Monday an
editorial in the Times denounced "An Evil Speech" and most other
papers followed suit.

Then something remarkable happened: While the political and
journalistic elite were closing ranks against Powell, a great section
of the people rallied to him. By Tuesday he had received 45,000
letters from every part of Great Britain. The overwhelming majority
lauded Powell (generally in temperate and non-racist language); many
swore that he was the only politician in Britain willing to tell the
truth. Every immigration officer at Heathrow signed a petition
backing Powell. On Tuesday, thousands of dock workers rallied outside
Parliament in his support, and national opinion polls began to record
landslide margins (between 67 and 82 percent) favoring him.

Essay Types: Essay