Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell - review

A false prophet.

Enoch Powell at a meeting in London. Photo: Getty Images

Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell

Edited by Lord Howard of Rising

Biteback, 304pp, £25

Tony Benn once told me that he had put forward a Commons motion requiring the repeal in one fell swoop of every single item of legis­lation passed by Margaret Thatcher’s governments between 1979 and 1990. But, he continued, even if such a motion had been passed, which it was not, it would have made little difference. For Thatcher’s influence came not from her legislation but from her teaching; Benn added, sadly, that the left’s problem was that, since the days of Aneurin Bevan, that was precisely what it had lacked: a teacher.

Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right. Indeed, she was one of his pupils. This commemorative volume – Powell was born 100 years ago this June – comprising essays jux­taposed with speeches, seeks to evaluate his influence, an influence that derived not from office (in a parliamentary career of 37 years, he was in the cabinet for just 15 months) but from his role as a teacher. But what did he teach?

Powell’s early speeches had little impact. Lucubrations on such matters as the Royal Titles Bill and the money supply had little resonance outside parliament; they did not even receive much of a welcome in the Conservative Party, always suspicious of intellectuals. “Put that book away,” Charles Hill, a Conservative minister, told the newly elected Julian Critchley in 1959, when he saw him reading in the Commons smoking room. “Advancement in this party depends upon alcoholic stupidity.”

In April 1968, Powell made the notorious speech in which he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” in consequence of excessive immigration. We were, he said, “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. He cited a constituent who told him: “In 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”; repeating a standard trope of the far right, he referred to an elderly widow terrorised by immigrants and by “wide-grinning piccaninnies” who could not speak English.

His solution was mass repatriation of non-white people. The speech led to racial violence in the Midlands but it made Powell a hero,
particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgivable.

Defenders of Powell say that his prediction of the size of the non-white population, which he persisted in calling “immigrant”, was more accurate than that of his critics. But his predictions of ethnic conflict – indeed, of civil war – have proved spectacularly wrong.

Powell spoke of the “sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected”. The elderly widow terrorised by immigrants was convinced that, if Roy Jenkins’s Race Relations Bill creating the offence of racial discrimination in employment and housing were passed, “She will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder.”

Another stock fable of the far right is a supposed conspiracy of liberals or the “race relations industry” to suppress discussion of immigration. “Almost since that time [April 1968],” declares Iain Duncan Smith, in a foreword to Enoch at 100, “any attempt to enter the debate in a rational and measured way has been met with the allegation of racism.”

But the liberal conspiracy has not been very successful. In January 1978, Thatcher spoke of her fears of the country being “swamped” by those from another culture, while even supposedly liberal Conservatives have not hesitated to raise the alarm when the party is in trouble. Just before the 1992 election, with the Conservatives seemingly facing defeat, Douglas Hurd told an audience at Stevenage that the tide of bogus migrants was “one of the most serious problems” facing Europe in the next decade. This was translated by the Sun into the following headline: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of mass immigration”. Three days before the election, Kenneth Baker declared that Labour would “open the floodgates to a wave of immigration” and that Labour’s “open-door policy . . . would ignite a revival of fascism in Britain”.

In September 1995, Andrew Lansley, a former director of the Conservative research department, reported: “Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992, and again in the 1994 Euro elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt.”

In Northern Ireland, too, Powell was a malign influence, condemning the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 as a step towards ceding Northern Ireland to the Republic and therefore treasonable. He urged the Unionists to reject power-sharing, a notion that he ridiculed but that seems at last to have brought peace to that troubled province.

Powell was one of the 20th century’s false prophets. In due course, no doubt he will receive an objective assessment. Enoch at 100 provides the material for that assessment.

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London