The Mired Legacy of Enoch Powell | David Harrop
“I hope those who shouted “Fascist” and “Nazi” are aware that before they were born, I was fighting against Fascism and Nazism.”Enoch Powell, in Heffer, Simon‘s book Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell
Perhaps the greatest polemicist of 20th century British politics, the legacy of John Enoch Powell has been twisted and warped by misrepresentation, misinterpretation and misunderstanding. This Classical Scholar stood accused of inflaming racial hatred in Britain in 1968 on the one hand, and was lauded for his moral condemnation of the 1959 Hola Massacre of 11 Mau Mau prisoners on the other. This was a man applauded by politicians as diverse as Dennis Healey and Margaret Thatcher. Powell’s service in the Second World War is sadly overlooked by his later political career- he was one of only two men to be promoted from the rank of Private to Brigadier during the war and was the youngest serving Brigadier in the British Army by its end.
Such a dichotomous reception was inevitably reflected by a dichotomous character: he would vote Labour in 1945 yet be elected as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950; he would enter the Second World War with ambitions to become Viceroy of India, but leave the army as an ardent anti-imperialist; and as a student he would be influenced by Nietzsche yet found his faith in later life. Such a complex character does not deserve the blanket condemnation of ‘Racist’ to disavow his life’s work; in fact, he consistently demonstrated throughout his military and political careers that he was not the racialist others would later claim him to be.
Powell was 20 years ahead of his time regarding economic theory. As Financial Secretary to the Treasury he delved into cutting edge, liberal economic theory- influenced by Freidman and von Hayek – and thus emerged the deflationary (or monetarist) policy. In 1958 he, and chancellor of the exchequer Peter Thorneycroft, resigned from Macmillan’s government in opposition to increases in expenditure. It would be through the 1960s when Powell would propose policies such as the privatisation of the Post Office and the Telecoms network, and 20 years later Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would make it government policy.
Yet Powell’s free market beliefs were met with scorn, the same scorn he himself had for the consensus Butskellist economic policy of the day, at a time when the British economy began to stagnate and fall behind her European and American counterparts. Therefore, Powell’s ideas were seen as a radical break with bipartisanship, something the country would not embrace until the election of Thatcher after the Winter of Discontent in 1979. Hereafter, Powell’s economic doctrine was side-lined and has largely been forgotten- it is Thatcher, Lawson and Howe who take the credit for Britain’s economic successes of the 1980s when they enacted policies long ago promulgated by Powell, who was by that time an MP for the Ulster Union Party, having split with the Conservatives over the European Question.
This popular amnesia is largely due to the tainting of Powell’s legacy by the infamous Rivers of Blood speech he made in 1968, which overshadows his entire career and countermands his non-racial beliefs. It is evident that, regarding economic policy, Powell was not only ahead of his time, but was also perhaps a visionary, predicting policy twenty years before it would be enacted, and be a forerunner of the great reforming Chancellors Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe.
Another great point of contention regarding Enoch Powell’s legacy is that of his ardent Euroscepticism, which grew to national prominence during the 1970s. When a member of his audience at an election rally shouted “Judas”, Powell someone poetically retorted “Judas was paid sir, Judas was paid, I am making a sacrifice.” This exchange came after Powell, an incumbent Conservative MP, told his audience to vote Labour five days before 1974’s February election. Before the election, Powell had made several speeches about the European Economic Community in Lyon (where he spoke French), in Frankfurt (where he spoke German) and Turin (in Italian) and made his arguments again the EEC on the grounds of sovereignty and control- strikingly similar to the arguments made by the Leave campaigns in 2016.
Powell’s departure from the Conservative party was felt nationally, and he has been attributed with giving Labour their plurality of seats. The evidence for this is attested to by Gallup pollsters who claim that in 1970 Powell attracted up to 2.5 million voters to the Conservatives, and the swing to Labour in 1974 is said to be made up of many of those 2.5 million. For instance, the biggest swing to Labour in the election was in Powell’s own seat of Wolverhampton South-West, demonstrating his massive popularity and influence with the voters, even after his Rivers of Blood speech. In the 1975 referendum on the EEC, Powell advocated for a united front of Eurosceptics against the well-funded Yes campaign led by the Great Offices of State- Callaghan, Healey and Jenkins, as well as Tory leader Thatcher.
Powell worked alongside his socialist comrades Tony Benn and Barbara Castle, but failed to raise the funds that the Yes campaign could- gaining only 33% of the vote. Nonetheless, the arguments made by Powell on parliamentary and economic sovereignty would be copied by Farage, Cummings and Johnson in 2016 and would bring victory. Again, Powell’s ideas were ahead of his time, and his words on Europe would prove nigh on prophetic- “After the referendum, continued British membership [of the EEC] will depend upon the continuing assent of Parliament… that all roads in politics lead back to the battle of Britain’s national existence… which is a battle that will be fought through to the bitter end, however long it lasts.”
Finally, we turn to Powell’s most polemical and contentious beliefs- those on race relations and immigration. The key note of this controversy is a speech made by Powell in 1968 to a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham; the speech pertained to the Labour Government’s new Race Relations Bill, and Powell’s opposition was based upon the provision that an individual could not refuse to sell goods or property to a person due to their race- thus infringing upon the seller’s freedom. Whilst Powell’s speech did not attack one racial group, he did, however, refer to “wide-grinning picaninies” when quoting a letter of grievance which has succumbed to appropriate criticism as a racial slur.
But this gets to the heart of the debate- was Enoch Powell a racist? The evidence of the Rivers of Blood speech does not necessarily prove this: he talks about immigration statistics and gives his own views on immigration policy; “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad as a nation, to permit the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents…” But he largely quotes letters he has received from constituents that refer to specific racial incidents.
Furthermore, context is required. Before the epochal 1968 speech, Powell had not demonstrated the extra-ordinary racism that his critics say was laced within his speech. For instance, when serving in the Indian Army, he boycotted the Byculla Club due to them not allowing his companion, an Indian General, to sit with whites, also, as an MP in Wolverhampton he is said to have had Sunday dinner with a West Indian family that he had become friendly with. Thus, he was evidently not a prejudicial racist- or else why would he have defended the Mau Mau during the Hola Massacre?
Nonetheless the implications of his speech did inflame the racial tension he had warned against; evidence from the time notes an uptake in casual hostility to racial minorities. Yet as the reverberations of the inflammatory speech were felt across the nation, Powell’s popularity surged, even after his dismissal from the shadow cabinet in the days following the speech. Tory politician Michael Heseltine stated that in the aftermath of the speech, if Enoch Powell had stood for leadership of the Conservative party he would have won “by a landslide” and if he had stood to be Prime Minister he would have won by a “national landslide” Powell can be attributed as one of the first populists who spoke to the average man, a latter day Joe Chamberlain. But the political assassination of Powell by Heath, the Times, the BBC, the Guardian and others meant that he would never hold high office after 1968, he would become a political exile on the backbenchers, sitting with the Irish Unionists, making Parliamentary speeches on inflation and the Falklands. Immigration would become a taboo subject that would be pushed into the long grass, not to be rediscovered until the rise of UKIP and the Vote Leave campaigns successes.
Therefore, the re-evaluation of perhaps one of the most popular politicians of his day is much needed. But with the prevailing wind in the mainstream media this seems unlikely. The Guardian Newspaper’s headline “I was relieved when Enoch Powell Died” perpetuates the misrepresentation of Powell’s legacy by demonising him as a hate figure akin to Hitler, or at the very least Nick Griffin of the BNP. But this defence has consistently proven that Powell’s inherent contradictions and dichotomous character makes a black and white evaluation of the man an historical abomination. Enoch Powell deserves the legacy he sacrificed his career to forge, of supporting freedom and morality. For should his legacy not be his views on the Mau Mau, on African self-determination, and on monetarism?