What if . . . Enoch Powell had had a cold

Over Easter 1968 the MP for Wolverhampton South-West, Enoch Powell, went down with a heavy cold. He had been planning to deliver a speech to a Tory group in his native Birmingham. He had even prepared a text for the press. But at the last minute his wife, Pamela, persuaded him that, with such a high temperature, he would be better off staying at home.

The speech was never delivered. Powell's biographer, Simon Heffer, suggests that he was planning a major address attacking immigration - but as the text is now lost, we will never know.

Powell returned from the Easter break a new man, and though he never shed his suspicion of the Tory leader Ted Heath's policies, he was the first to offer his congratulations after Heath's landslide victory two years later. As defence secretary, Powell played a key role in the military crackdown in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. However, as the economy ran aground he became an increasingly outspoken champion of the new free-market theories. It was to shut him up that Heath offered Powell the position that made his name -
the Home Office.

Powell's stint as home secretary made him the darling of the Guardian. Just months after he had taken the job, Idi Amin of Uganda announced that he was kicking out tens of thousands of Asian residents, many of whom had British passports. Despite the outcry from the Tory grass roots, Powell felt he had no choice but to offer them sanctuary. Britain would be “mad, literally mad" to abandon them to Amin's whim, he said - and then he coined the emotive phrase for which we will always remember him: "Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

While some saw Powell's rhetoric as exaggerated, it did the trick. A few right-wing critics, such as one little-known former minister, Margaret Thatcher, called him a traitor, but by evoking the terrible fate that might await the Ugandan Asians, he secured public support for their admission to Britain. Even today, his name is murmured with respect in places such as the Belgrave Road, Leicester, where sari shops often display pictures of his brooding features and there is still a pub called the Enoch.

The rest, naturally, is history. Powell took over as Tory leader and prime minister in 1975. He presided over the controversial reforms of the 1980s, severing the special relationship, taking Britain out of Europe, scrapping the National Health Service and creating the leanest, meanest state in the western world.

Some still hate him for it. But then there are those who will never forget him - thousands of Asian refugees and their descendants, whose eyes still cloud with tears of gratitude whenever they remember his Rivers of Blood speech.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven