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Hero or Villain? Enoch Powell

Enoch_Powell_Allan_Warren“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

These are the words of Enoch Powell from his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech made on 20th April 1968 at the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre. Made in recognition of the growing opposition towards the Labour government and their attempts to combat race discrimination through the 1968 Race Relations Bill, the result was a passage that many, on all sides of the immigration debate, cite through its’ powerful and controversial messages surrounding race and immigration.
Born in Stechford, Birmingham on the 16th June 1912, Powell studied Classics at Cambridge from 1930-1933, then working in Sydney as curator of the Nicholson Museum, before returning to Britain in 1939 to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. However, Powell never experienced combat, which plagued him with guilt to the day he died. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he stated ‘having been killed in the war’.
Joining the Conservative Party after the war, Powell worked for the Conservative Research Department and was finally elected as MP for Wolverhampton South West in the 1950 General Election. In this period, Powell’s opposition to immigration began to grow. He was shocked at the decline of Britain’s imperial grasp across the Empire following the proclamation of the Indian Independence Act of 1947, which saw British India divided into the two independent dominions of India and Pakistan.
It was under Edward Heath’s appointment of Powell as his Shadow Secretary of State for Defence following the 1967 General Election where Powell’s stance on immigration became clear to see. Although welcoming Commonwealth immigrants a few years earlier, in 1967 he spoke of his opposition to the immigration of Kenyan refugees, after the African leader Jomo Kenyatta’s discriminatory policies led to the flight of thousands of Kenyans from the country.
Around the similar time, Harold Wilson’s Labour government began to draft what would become the 1968 Race Relations Act, a set of amendments to the 1965 Race Relations Act, whereby it was made illegal to discriminate in public places on the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins, with the 1968 act focussing specifically on housing, employment, and public services. It was through the influx of West Indian immigrants into Britain following the Commonwealth Act in 1962 and the tightening of the laws surrounding discrimination that led Powell to talk at great length in opposition to the changing nature of Britain’s stance and attitude towards immigration, and prompted him to give his now infamous speech known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech.
Powell’s speech drew on the expressive opinions of his constituents regarding immigration, with claims that one man told him that “In this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. Other constituent’s tales include an elderly widow who was shocked to not be able to turn black lodgers away when renting rooms of her house out. These statements further pushed Powell into condemning the governments toughening of race discrimination laws, and stated in his speech that although “many thousands” of immigrants wanted to integrate, he contended that the majority did not, and that some had vested interests in fostering racial and religious differences “with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest of the population”.
Reaction to the speech came thick and fast, with Heath sacking Powell from his Shadow Cabinet, and The Sunday Times branding the speech as ‘racialist’ and ‘evil’. However by the end of the month Powell had received over 120,000 predominantly positive letters and a Gallup poll showed a 74% of support for the speech.
Powell was turned into a national public figure, gaining vast levels of support across the country, even influencing a number of succeeding high profile MPs and Prime Ministers like Nigel Farage, who tried to get Powell to support UKIP and stand for them in the 1990s, and Margaret Thatcher, who stated that Powell had “made a valid argument, if in sometimes regrettable terms.”
With the current migrant crisis sweeping Europe and the world, we are seeing the effect that migration has, with regards to the significant improvement of people’s lives, as well as political opinion. Therefore this begs the question, Enoch Powell – Hero or Villain? You’ll have to decide for yourselves, we here at The Historian couldn’t possibly comment…