– Virgil, Aeneid VI LXXXVI-LXXXVII
Today LibertyGibbert marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Enoch Powell, British scholar, poet, soldier, linguist, politician and polymath. How prescient were his views, and the extent to which he was a man ahead of his time—or an artefact of an Empire past—is the question we’ll be addressing.
Whether you loved him or hated him, there was no denying the sheer presence and influence of the man. As one of the twentieth century’s great over-achievers, throughout his long life he probably garnered more enemies than friends, though few of the former dared to challenge him directly. He is credited with the rise and fall of British governments, and the speech for which he is most remembered reverberates eerily from the headlines of today’s newspapers.
If you’re too young to be familiar with Powell, go read the Wiki article on him to see the breadth of his life and works. The son of a primary school teacher, Powell was born to modest means, yet rose through the ranks of academia to study classics at Cambridge, from which he graduated with an extremely rare double-starred first (in Greek and Latin). Moving to Australia, he was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University at the age of 25 (narrowly missing the record of his idol Friedrich Nietzsche, who gained the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel at just 24), where his students included future Australian PM Gough Whitlam. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, he resigned his post and enlisted in the British Army as an Australian. As a private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and working in a kitchen, he gained the attention of a visiting Brigadier, to whose question Private Powell responded with a Greek proverb. Being sent to officer training school and then drafted into Intelligence, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming one of only two men who entered WWII as a private, and ended it as a General Officer, as well as having being awarded an OBE in 1943 for his military service, in particular his rôle in planning the second Battle of El Alamein.
Following the war, Powell joined the Conservative Party, winning the Commons seat of Wolverhampton South-West in the 1950 election. A romantic imperialist as well as an absolutist, and having previously harboured ambitions of becoming Viceroy of India, he was devastated by Britain’s granting of independence in 1947, and subsequently moved for Britain to abandon her colonial ties entirely, believing half an empire was worse than none.
Denouncing on the floor of Commons the actions of British prison guards in the Hola Massacre in Kenya in 1959 (keen observers of which would have included the father of the current U.S. President), Powell made clear his view that, under a legitimate imperial arrangement, treatment of indigenous populations any differently to that of white British was unacceptable and beyond the pale. Yet it was the speech he gave in Birmingham on 20 April 1968, known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, that forever defined Powell in the minds of most. The popularly-ascribed title stems from his allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid which I have quoted above,
War, horrible war,
And Tiber foaming with much blood.
What Powell actually said, referring to the unprecedented immigration to Britain of citizens from other Commonwealth nations (predominantly non-white), was
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”
You can read the full text of the speech here. Not all the speech was filmed, but here are some excerpts:
The day following the speech, Powell was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Opposition Leader Ted Heath. Accusations of racism followed Powell for the rest of his career, obscuring his genuine achievements in other areas, his championing of a free market, sound currency, his unstinting opposition to European integration, and his significant academic achievements.
Was he a racist? A trite question really; no man of his intellectual powers could hold so unsupportable a doctrine for any length of time. When asked directly by David Frost, a year after the “Rivers of Blood” speech, he was unequivocal:
It depends on how you define the word “racialist”. If you mean being conscious of the differences between men and nations, and from that, races, then we are all racialists. However, if you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another, then the answer is emphatically “No.”
I believe he certainly was not. I do think, however, that he made the grave error of projecting his own intelligence and erudition onto his audience—something he clearly did not understand that a public figure simply can not do—and thus gave reckless disregard to the reactions his words—taken literally, without knowledge of the allusions behind them—might provoke in the broader community. Today, Powell is used as a rallying figure for the Far Right of British politics, such as the British National Party and their ilk, who hand out T-shirts proclaiming Enoch Was Right, clearly without understanding what Enoch Powell ever meant.
I could go on at length about Powell’s many forays; his move from the Conservative Party to the Ulster Unionists; his anti-Americanism, born of his association with American officers during the war, and which persisted to the end of his life; his lasting popularity in the British public; his ideological opposition to the build-up of nuclear arsenals. There is a website devoted to his philosophy, which is a good resource of his many eloquent speeches.
His political views, while unmistakeably Libertarian, were also highly imperialist, and to that extent contradictory. There is much to praise, and probably quite a bit to condemn. But on this, the occasion of the centenary of his birth, it is at least worthwhile to take a retrospective of his life, and see what lessons it holds for us today. One final Powell quote from the “Rivers of Blood” speech, while addressed specifically to the topic of immigration, has applicability well beyond:
The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature. One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing. Hence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future. Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: ‘if only’, they love to think, ‘if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen’. Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical. At all events, the discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician. Those who knowingly shirk it, deserve, and not infrequently receive, the curses of those who come after.
John Enoch Powell 16-6-1912–8-2-1998