A Mixed Legacy

Bella, horrida bella,
et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno.

– 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

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24 Responses to A Mixed Legacy

  1. Kitler says:

    I am barely old enough to remember Enoch and I do remember him on the news a lot, this was in the 70’s when the TV stations were first trying to brain wash people into multiculturalism and how we are all the same blah blah blah, which apparently now thanks to science been proven to be incorrect.

  2. meltemian says:

    He was indeed a great man, if only we had orators like him in parliament now. Unfortunately nowadays politics is full of mealy-mouthed, self-interested career politicians who toe the party line and are apparently incapable of logical thought or standing against the status quo.
    Sacked by Ted Heath? Now let’s have a vote on who was the better man………
    Heath or Powell?? Not a hard choice is it?

  3. Who was the better man at what meltemian?….Playing the organ?

  4. izen says:

    The Michael Foot of the Conservative party….

  5. Luton Ian says:

    or was Ted the Ernst Röhm?

  6. Amanda says:

    I don’t know enough about the man, but those I highly respect highly respect him.

    The photo: I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with a fullish upper lip and a thinnish lower one. Usually it’s the other way around. You might ask why I am looking at his lips. I have always been fascinated by lips and voices. I notice both, especially.

  7. izen says:

    @-Luton Ian says:
    or was Ted the Ernst Röhm?

    Then Maggie = Adolf ?!

    Wasn’t there at least some doubt about Ted’s proclivities? There were none about Röhm – Oz

  8. Kitler says:

    Ted Heath was a very saucy sailor, I think the real truth was he was asexual and not at all interested in sex or indeed lurking in mens bathrooms.

    Uh-huh. That’s what I thought. Politician’s bedroom preferences are a matter of legitimate public interest only when they expose their principal to blackmail. There was a time when homosexuality fell into that category, but no longer. Perhaps asexuality would qualify today? 😆

    It’s different in a totalitarian society, where dictators and their flunkies (like Röhm) don’t give a damn what the public think of them. Witness Mao. Anyone who says anything won’t be around long enough to say it again – Oz

  9. Amanda says:

    Oz: Mind you, it could be said that even *having* a bedroom leaves one open to the possibility of blackmail. Anything private that can be made public is vulnerable, especially in the electronic age.

  10. Amanda says:

    Kitler: I think that ‘not at all interested in sex’ is a very rare phenomenon. Rightly or wrongly, since the survival of our (and any) species depends on our being strongly motivated by sex, we tend to take a great interest in us, willy-nilly. (In my case, nilly.) What is much more common, I believe (from such evidence as I have) is ‘not interested enough in sex to do anything about it or change one’s ways or bridge the gap between my island and your island’. Many people are content to wave. It is not that they are not sexual beings, in the broadest sense of the term. It is that, as one asexuals’/ celibates’ website once put it, ‘I like you very much, but I don’t want to get into any pump pork-action with you’. The physical is foreign, and indeed, infra dig. It is viewed through a long telescope lens. It is amputated and put it in a glass jar where it is looked at as a strange curiosity. There is arguably much to recommend such a dispassionate view, especially when allied with warmth and compassion in the person possessing it. Primitives like me have even joined in such aloofness. For a number of years.

  11. Amanda says:

    I think I must have meant ‘it’ rather than ‘us’. Who knows? I’m on my further glass of South American Merlot.

  12. Kitler says:

    Heath apparently just had no interest in such things and the secret service had him fully vetted, he was just more focused on politics, music and yachting. He apparently had one love in his life but she got tired of waiting for him.
    I’m with Casanova on the subject of sex, without love it really is quite gross and messy. However as I have gotten older I’d rather read a good book than have a good….

  13. Luton Ian says:

    I have a female friend who was a keen sailor, she was a guest on Morning Cloud several times, and said that Ted blanked any and all females, but the yacht was always well crewed with very attractive young men. I don’t care one way or another what a politician’s preferences are for bed time company, male, female, ovine, vinyl or paper. Though it must be said that excessive numbers do indicate a high time preference and a low valuation of individuals.

    Agreed, though, as I said above, there can be circumstances when it becomes a matter of legitimate public interest. Blackmail, or the possibility of it, is one example. I’ll give you another – a true story:

    The Australian Democrats were the centrist “third force” in Australian federal politics between 1977 and 2007, at times holding the balance of power in the Senate. In 1990, a Queensland teacher-turned-activist, Cheryl Kernot, gained election to the Senate on the Democrats ticket, and immediately began a campaign of destabilization against the Democrats’ parliamentary leader, Janet Powell, in favour of the uncharismatic John Coulter; he being a mere way-station to Kernot’s own taking over following the 1993 election.

    As leader, she angered many of the party faithful by pushing an agenda of central control of policy and other party decisions, bypassing or ignoring the wishes of state and local branches. She was, however, in a position to get away with it; at this point, leading the parliamentary political party which held the balance of power in the Upper House, she was regarded by many as being the most powerful politician in the nation, after PM Paul Keating himself.

    Which explains the stunned disbelief among her Democrat followers as well as the broader electorate when, in 1997 she resigned, in quick succession, her leadership of the Democrats, her Senate seat and her membership of the Australian Democrats entirely; worse, she announced she was joining the Australian Labor Party and sought (successfully,as it transpired) Labor pre-selection in the Lower House Queensland seat of Dickson, in suburban Brisbane. Being elected in 1998, she was even being spoken of in some quarters as a potential future Labor Prime Minister.

    It was not to be, however. After a very public unravelling before the media, she was viewed by most commentators and the public as being a prima donna, unable to cope with the far more real pressure which comes with being a part of a major party and government. Being dumped by the voters of Dickson at the 2001 election, she lashed out in all directions in the press, blaming lack of support from the ALP, a media campaign against her, blaming, in fact, everyone, except the face she saw each morning in the mirror.

    Many looked for an explanation of Kernot’s defection when, in 2002, she published her memoirs, “Speaking for Myself”. However, they were doomed to disappointment. No rationale for her decision was given, even though this is probably the reason most people bought the book. This glaring omission was the last straw for the dean of the parliamentary press gallery, Laurie Oakes, who felt compelled to reveal publicly what he and many other Canberra journalists had long known; that, for years, Kernot had been having an affair with Labor’s (married) former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans. Though Kernot refused to comment, Evans confirmed the relationship, and that he had been a primary instigator of Kernot’s defection.

    How would Queensland’s electors have reacted at the 1996 election had they known the parliamentary leader of the Australian Democrats – whose unofficial slogan (courtesy of crusty Democrats founder, Don Chipp) was “Keeping the Bastards Honest” – was, in fact, sleeping with one of the biggest bastards of all? A married bastard, at that? And was secretly planning to become one of those bastards herself? I strongly suspect – no, I know – that, had Queensland voters known, Kernot would never have been returned to the Senate.

    So there’s one case in which a politician’s bedroom antics were a matter of legitimate public concern. The Profumo Affair was another. The nature of one’s preferences is irrelevant (if confined to consenting adults). The identity of those preferences may not be – Oz

  14. Amanda says:

    Looking back a few decades: I think that Jack Kennedy’s behaviour was repulsive from two standpoints, in the light of what Oz is saying. Firstly, he was using women as Special of the Day, and that shows a disgusting lack of virtue. (He was also indiscreet and grossly vulgar, bragging to the British Prime Minister about what ‘ass’ he fancied having each day — need I say more?) The fact that there were women willing to be so used is not the point: Kennedy’s virtue or lack thereof is unmoderated by that, and many of those women might have regretted their actions, especially if they were married at the time. Secondly, any one of those women might have been a spy, or might have blackmailed him later. But as so often with Democrats, women-users are excused by Leftists as they would not be if the pol were a Republican.

    Jack Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover had so much dirt on each other that they ensured neither would ever be forced out of office on account of it – Oz

  15. Amanda says:

    Kitler: I do a lot of reading, but rarely find a book quite that good. On the other hand, what do *I* know??? : )

  16. izen says:

    There is another centenary this week for someone who lived a much shorter life than Powell or Heath. His influence is certainly greater than most politicians. His subject was a particular problem identified by David Hilbert in the epistemology of pure mathematics. His work was reportedly belittled by Wittgenstein as just abstract theory. Mathematical philosophy, of no use unlike applied maths in engineering.
    In WWII it was applied, with significant results.
    Its present applications have not diminished its significance.

    Alan Turing. 1912-1954

    His suicide was clearly connected with social attitudes to sexual behavior.

    Well spotted Izen, and quite agree – Oz

    Hyperboloids of wondrous Light
    Rolling for aye through Space and Time
    Harbour those Waves which somehow Might
    Play out God’s holy pantomime.

  17. Amanda says:

    Oz: I find it odd that people would persecute someone for a predilection that he/she clearly would not have chosen, could it be otherwise — precisely because of the risk of persecution. Who wouldn’t be heterosexual if it were not possible and that way blend, with the promise of a quiet life, into the crowd?

    Gay marriage – coming soon to a blog near you – Oz

  18. Amanda says:

    if it WERE possible, I meant.

  19. Amanda says:

    The Turing lines: don’t understand them. Personally, for anguished private ‘amateur’ verse, I prefer Donald Crowhurst.

  20. Kitler says:

    amanda as for books I’m a hyper visual thinker which means when I read a book I get to see the movie long before it comes out. I can imagine a 12 dimensional magma phase melt in my head it’s tricky but it helps to plug in time as a factor. I also have the super power of extremely acute hearing which means I can hear faulty electronics and other stuff that would make lassie proud.

  21. izen says:

    @- Amanda says:
    “The Turing lines: don’t understand them.”

    I will try a rough explanation….

    “Hyperboloids of wondrous Light
    Rolling for aye through Space and Time”

    This refers to the concept in Einstein relativity that any event has a cone of causality extending into the future that expands at light-speed from the point of origin. At any instant it is an expanding sphere, but in time/space terms it describes a conical volume, or hyperboloid because as this intersects with other causal light-cones or planes the line of intersection is a hyperbola or other curve.

    “Harbour those Waves which somehow Might
    Play out God’s holy pantomime.”

    Bit more obscure, ambiguous. But given the context as an epitaph and Turing’s atheism combined with a mystical belief/hope in the persistence of some spirit or soul of a person it is probably a reference to the idea that the totality of our actions and thoughts in life have material effects which propagate to infinity for eternity as those hyperboloids. So the script of our lives is written in the cones of causality that fill space/time.

  22. Amanda says:

    Good lord, Izen. I’m no wiser, but appreciate your explanation of that which I don’t understand. : )
    Curious that ‘might’ is given a capital.

  23. Amanda says:

    Kitler: I take it we should call you Wonder Cat, then? Or the Bionic Kitler? No wonder you made it to Deputy God Emperor.

    It all started one starry night – Oz:

  24. Amanda says:

    Oz: That is a HORRIBLE (theme) song. But I like the actor, Robert Culp. He was terrific as the baddie — well, murderer — in two Columbo episodes. Dead now. Happens to the best of us!

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