Enoch Powell

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Enoch Powell

John Enoch Powell MBE (16 June 1912 – 8 February 1998) was a British politician, linguist, writer, academic, soldier and poet. He was a Conservative Party Member of Parliament (MP) between 1950 and February 1974, and an Ulster Unionist MP between October 1974 and 1987. Controversial throughout his career, his tenure in senior office was brief. He held strong and distinctive views on issues such as race, national identity, immigration, monetary policy, and firmly opposed the United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union.

Early Years

Powell was born in Stechford, Birmingham, England, and raised there, the only child of Albert Enoch Powell (1872–1956), elementary school headmaster, and his wife, Ellen Mary (1886–1953; daughter of Henry Breese, a Liverpool policeman, and his wife Eliza), who had given up her own teaching career after marrying. The Powells were of Welsh descent, though by the time of Enoch's birth had lived in the Black Country for four generations, working first as miners and then in the iron trade.

In 1918 Powell and his parents moved to the King's Norton area of Birmingham. From King Edward's School, Birmingham Powell became a student of classics, specifically Latin and Greek (which would later influence his Rivers of Blood speech), and was one of the few pupils in the school's history to attain 100% in an end-of-year English examination. He completed his education at Trinity College, Cambridge (1930-1933), where he fell under the influence both of the poet A. E. Housman, then Professor of Latin at Cambridge, and of the writings of the German philosopher Nietzsche. He took no part in politics at university. After achieving a double first in Latin and Greek, he stayed on at Trinity College as a Fellow, spending much of his time studying ancient manuscripts in Rome and producing academic works in Greek and Welsh.

As well as his education at Cambridge, Powell took a course in Urdu at the School of Oriental Studies (now the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), because he felt that his long-cherished ambition, of becoming Viceroy of India, would be unattainable without knowledge of an Indian language.

In 1937 he was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University aged 25 (failing in his aim of beating Nietzsche's record of becoming a professor at 24). Amongst his pupils was the future Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam. He revised Stuart-Jones's edition of Thucydides' Historiae for the Oxford University Press in 1938. His most lasting contribution to classical scholarship was his Lexicon to Herodotus (1938).

On arrival in Sydney he stunned the vice-chancellor by informing him that war would soon break out in Europe, and that when it did he would be heading home to enlist in the army. During his time there as a professor, he grew increasingly angry at the appeasement of Germany and what he saw as a betrayal of British national interests.reference required

War Years

During World War II, Powell enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, almost a month after returning home. Powell enlisted in the ranks as an Australian. In later years he recorded his promotion from private to lance-corporal in his "Who's Who" entry, on other occasions describing it as a greater promotion than entering the Cabinet. He was trained for a commission after, whilst working in a kitchen, answering the question of an inspecting officer with a Greek proverb. In October 1941 Powell was posted to Cairo. He was soon made a Major. He helped mastermind the attack on Rommels supply lines. Powell was made a Lieutenant-Colonel in August 1942. In August 1943 he was posted to Delhi. Though he served in Africa with the Desert Rats, Powell never actually saw combat, serving for most of his military career as a staff officer. It was in Algiers that the seed of Powell's dislike of the United States was planted. After talking with some senior American officials, he became convinced that one of America's main war aims was to destroy the British Empire. Writing home on February 16, 1943, Powell said: "I see growing on the horizon the greater peril than Germany or Japan ever were...our terrible enemy, America...".

Powell's conviction of the anti-Britishness of the Americans continued during the war. Powell cut out and retained all his life an article from the Statesman newspaper of the November 13, 1943, in which the American Clare Boothe Luce said in a speech that Indian independence would mean that the "USA will really have won the greatest war in the world for democracy".

He desperately wanted to go to the Far East to help the fight against Japan because "the war in Europe is won now, and I want to see the Union Flag back in Singapore" before, Powell thought, the Americans beat Britain to it.

Powell began the war as the youngest Professor in the Commonwealth; he ended it as the youngest Brigadier in the British army, the only man in the entire war to go from Private to Brigadier. Powell felt guilty for having survived when many of those he had met during his journey through the ranks had not. When once asked how he would like to be remembered, he at first answered "Others will remember me as they will remember me", but when pressed he replied "I should like to have been killed in the war".

Conservative Party

Though he voted for the Labour Party in their 1945 landslide victory, because, it is said, he wanted to punish the Conservative party for the Munich agreement, after the war he joined the Conservatives and worked for the Conservative Research Department under R.A. Butler, where his colleagues included Iain Macleod and Reginald Maudling, all three from the Liberal branch of the party. After unsuccessfully contesting the Labour Party's ultra-safe seat of Normanton at a by-election in 1947 (when the Labour majority was 62%), he was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Wolverhampton South West in the 1950 general election.

Powell's ambition to be Governor-General of India crumbled in February 1947, when Prime Minister Attlee announced that Indian independence was imminent. Powell was so shocked by the change of policy that he spent the whole night after it was announced walking the streets of London, trying to take it in. He came to terms with it by becoming fiercely anti-imperialist, believing that once India had gone the whole empire should follow it. This logical absolutism explained his (much later) indifference to the Suez crisis, his contempt for the Commonwealth, and his urging that Britain should scrap any remaining pretence that she was a world power.

On January 2, 1952 he married Margaret Pamela Wilson (28 January, 1926 - November 2017), a former colleague from Conservative Central Office, who provided him with the settled and happy family life essential to his political career. They had two daughters. Enoch Powell was so committed to Pamela that he composed a poem for her on every wedding anniversary and gave her a rose for each year of their marriage.[1]

Powell was a member of the Suez Group of MPs who were against the removal of British troops from the Suez Canal because such a move would demonstrate, Powell argued, that Britain could no longer maintain a position there and that any claim to the Suez Canal would therefore be illogical. However after the troops had left in 1954 and the Egyptians nationalized the Canal in 1956, Powell opposed the British attempts to retake the Canal because he thought the British no longer had the resources to be a world power.

In December 1955 he was made a junior Housing Minister and later became Financial Secretary to the Treasury but in January 1958 he resigned, along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Peter Thorneycroft and his Treasury colleague Nigel Birch, in protest at government plans for increased expenditure; he was a staunch deflationist, or in modern terms a monetarist, and a believer in market forces. (Powell was also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.) The by-product of this expenditure was the printing of extra money to pay for it all, which Powell believed (and is now widely accepted) to be a major cause of inflation, and in effect a form of taxation, as the holders of money find their money is worth less. Inflation rose to 2.5% - a high figure for the era, especially in peacetime.

Powell returned to government in July 1960 when he was appointed Minister for Health, albeit outside the Cabinet, but this changed in 1962. In this post he was responsible for promoting an ambitious ten-year programme of general hospital building and for beginning the run-down of the huge psychiatric institutions. In his famous 1961 "Water Tower" speech, he said:

"There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside - the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defences which we have to storm"

The speech catalysed a debate that was one of several strands leading to the Care in the Community initiative of the 1980s.

Later, he oversaw the employment of a large number of Commonwealth immigrants by the understaffed National Health Service. Prior to this, many non-white immigrants who held full rights of citizenship in Britain were obliged to take the jobs that no one else wanted (eg. street cleansing, night-shift assembly production lines), often paid considerably less than their white counterparts.

Along with Iain Macleod, Powell refused to serve in the Cabinet following the appointment of Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister. This refusal was not based on antipathy to Home personally but was in protest against what Macleod and Powell saw as Macmillan's underhand manipulation of colleagues during the process of choosing a new leader. Following the Conservatives' defeat in the 1964 general election, he agreed to return to the front bench as Transport spokesman. In 1965 he stood in the first-ever party leadership election, but came a distant third to Edward Heath, who appointed him Shadow Secretary of State for Defence.

In a controversial speech on May 26, 1967, Powell criticised Britain's post-war world role:

"In our imagination the vanishing last vestiges ... of Britain's once vast Indian Empire have transformed themselves into a peacekeeping role on which the sun never sets. Under God's good providence and in partnership with the United States, we keep the peace of the world and rush hither and thither containing Communism, putting out brush fires and coping with subversion. It is difficult to describe, without using terms derived from psychiatry, a notion having so few points of contact with reality"

'Rivers of Blood' speech

Powell was noted for his oratorical skills, and for being a maverick who cared little about what harm he did to his party - or himself. On Saturday April 20, 1968 he made a controversial speech in Birmingham, in which he warned his audience of what he believed would be the consequences of continued unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain. Because of its allusion to Virgil saying that the Tiber would foam with blood, Powell's warning was christened the "Rivers of Blood speech" by the press, and the name stuck.

The central political issue addressed by the speech was not immigration as such, however. It was instead the introduction by the Labour Government of anti-discrimination legislation which would prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race in certain areas of British life, particularly housing. Powell found this legislation offensive and immoral.

One feature of his speech was the extensive quotation of a letter he had received detailing the experiences of one of his constituents in Wolverhampton. The writer described the fate of an elderly woman who was supposedly the last white person living in her street. She had repeatedly refused applications from non-whites requiring rooms-to-let, which resulted in her being called a racist outside her home and receiving excreta through her letterbox. Despite combing the electoral register and other sources, the editor of the local newspaper Clem Jones (a close friend of Powell's, who broke off relations with him over the controversy) and his journalists failed to identify the woman. Powell refused to name her because he felt he had to respect her confidentiality, even to the point of withdrawing from a libel action against a national newspaper. After Powell's death Kenneth Nock, a Wolverhampton solicitor, wrote to the Express and Star in April 1998 to claim that his firm had acted for the woman in question and to confirm that she existed but that he could not name her due to rules concerning client confidentiality. In January 2007 the BBC Radio Four programme Document, followed by the Daily Mail, identified the lady as Druscilla Cotterill, who died in 1978. The speech was delivered while the 1968 Race Relations Bill (later Act) was making its way through Parliament, which was to make racial discrimination in housing illegal.

Three days after the speech, as the Race Relations Bill was being debated in the House of Commons 1,000 dockers marched on Westminster protesting Powell's "victimisation," and the next day 400 meat porters from Smithfield market handed in a ninety-two page petition in support of Powell.

Some suspected that Powell was set up - TV cameras were not known to turn up at meetings of the West Midlands branch of the Conservative Political Centre, and some believe that Heath wanted Powell to take the blame for his party taking a tougher line on immigration later that year. Conversely, Powell had issued an advance copy of his speech to the media and their appearance at the speech may have been due to the fact that they realized the content was explosive.

Senior figures in the Conservative Party, such as Lord Baker, have disclosed that Powell told them that he regretted giving the speech, for it ended his political career.

Heath sacked Powell from his Shadow Cabinet the day after the speech and Powell never held another senior political post. Powell received almost 120,000 (predominantly positive) letters and a Gallup poll at the end of April showed that 74% of those asked agreed with what Powell had said in his speech. The Sunday Times received a libel writ from Powell for branding his speeches "racialist", but also gained a court order for disclosure of the letters he had received to demonstrate the validity of their defence. Powell dropped the libel action as a consequence of the court order.


In the Autumn of 1992 Powell was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's disease. He fought the affliction with his customary resolution, despite mounting incapacity. In 1994 he published the St. Mathew's Gospel. During the final years of his life he managed occasional pieces of journalism and co-operated in a BBC documentary about his life in 1995. When Labour won the 1997 General Election Powell told his wife that the electorate had voted to break up the United Kingdom. Powell began, but did not complete, work on a study of the Gospel of John. It was unfinished at the time of his death, aged 85, at 4:30am on 8 February 1998 at the King Edward VII Hospital for Officers in London.

Dressed in his brigadier's uniform, Enoch Powell was buried in his regiment's plot in Warwick Cemetery, Warwickshire, ten days later, after a family requiem at Westminster Abbey and a public service at St Margaret's, Westminster. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.


Whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England will be occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated. For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country.
—Excerpts from Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, which was delivered to a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on April 20, 1968

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