Powell: Portentious or Polarising

Enoch Powell, of course, was an esteemed scholar. He was the most brilliant classical scholar of his generation at Cambridge, becoming the youngest professor in the British Empire, the youngest Brigadier in the Army, and the youngest Cabinet Minister. This was by no means an ignorant man prone to voicing spuriously equipped beliefs.  Before we vilify Powell based upon our own comparisons and corroborations, let us first acknowledge that the primary victim of the dubbed ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech has, in fact, been Powell himself.

By Alexandra Phillips l April 19, 2017


LONDON-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.”

Those throughout history who have latterly been deemed portentous or who break taboos or whose ideologies are maybe considered retrospectively anachronistic are often vilified, marginalised and chastised by their contemporaries.

Politics has been increasingly, and by necessity, dominated by the unspoken recognition of the established taboo. Ask most politicians, and their voters, why certain opinions are held, why certain topics are off-limits, and what you will be served is often a thrown together buffet of platitudes or repeated maxims that bear little or no pertinence to the supposed justification they purport to represent.

When UKIP’s Nigel Farage first drew the connection between Euroscepticism and immigration, the outcry was marked. Discussing the free movement of peoples from around Europe subject to open door migration policy was itself deemed racist, despite it essentially being an immigration policy that very clearly discriminated in favour of countries that are majority caucasian.

If it was mooted that there should be free movement for the UK’s former colonies, I often wondered quite what the public reaction would be. After all it was the British who invaded their territories and drew their borders, leaving lingual and judicial fingerprints across their lands. There should arguably now be a duty of care from Britain whose own prosperity was largely built off the backs of their former colonies’ pillaged resources, as well as indelible cultural ties that should make commerce far easier. Yet, the proposal that Nigeria or Kenya, as two of Africa’s major economic powerhouses and as English speaking Commonwealth countries, should have free access to live and work in the UK, exists only in political fantasy. Arguments made against such a proposal would no doubt encompass economic parity, and would also likely highlight instances of corruption, human rights abuses and the prevalence of organised crime that their respective societies must fight hard to conquer.

Yet, when the same arguments were made against the accession countries of Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU’s Schengen Acquis, it was widely attacked as prejudicial typecasting of a nation.

What separates the two is the fact that the former exists largely within the sphere of the politically unthinkable. The latter, no doubt once pertaining to the same unlikely fantasy, was over the period of three decades thrust into political reality.

A time when open borders were unthinkable

When the author of the opening quote made that statement, the idea of the European Union’s Free Movement of People would have been absurd. And, yet, in many respects his voice has become regarded as the genesis of debate over that very subject.

The quote with which I opened the article comes from British politician Enoch Powell’s 20 April 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, about to mark its 49th anniversary. Almost half a century ago the immigration of which he spoke was running in the tens of thousands. Today, its hundreds of thousands.

In Powell’s time, the questions of immigration and Europe were distinct. The immigration that worried him was from the Commonwealth. It is likely that a key aspect of the fear people held during this particular period towards inward migration was in part xenophobic. As a largely unprecedented event, it was the fear of ‘the other’ and most importantly, in what quantities, that understandably took root in people’s minds, underscored by the questionable viability of merging idiosyncratic juxtaposed cultures.

Such a migratory influx into the UK did not exist in people’s living memories. History, therefore, offered a few, alarming examples of what the direct result of a crude mixing of cultures could lead to. Powell knew this himself. As an Indophile and fluent Urdu speaker, Powell’s own experience of the British empire taught him that frivolous artificial constructions of the peoples of a nation could lead to civil unrest, even conflict. Yet, due to the connection between Britain and the Commonwealth as the result of certain values imposed upon those cultures by the British themselves, the religious and cultural gulf many feared between indigenous Britain and the new arrivals had already in part been bridged via colonialism. Furthermore, and rather ironically, as a direct result of the very immigration Powell warned us against – whose predicted race wars never really transpired – many of us are able to dissolve any distinction between skin colour and cultural antithesis within the increasingly multiethnic makeup of the UK. With so many third and fourth generation Brits, on almost every street in the country, high flying sports stars, celebrated pop stars, politicians and actors, coming from diverse backgrounds often tethered to the first major flow of migrants in the post-war era, the immigration argument has transcended beyond absolute attachment to ethnicity. In this respect, Powell was arguably wrong. The social breakdown of Britain arguably did not occur, nor did it lead to outbreaks of mass unrest as he inferred.

That is not to say that the UK has traversed great social change without any disquiet. Prejudice is without doubt alive and well, as is increasingly the ghettoisation of cultural blocks particularly in mass urban conurbations. But this has yet to lead to any broadly palpable sense of conflict or combat.

The consequential Enoch Powell

Powell, of course, was an esteemed scholar. He was the most brilliant classical scholar of his generation at Cambridge, becoming the youngest professor in the British Empire, the youngest Brigadier in the Army, and the youngest Cabinet Minister. This was by no means an ignorant man prone to voicing spuriously equipped beliefs. Yet, one thing one gets from reading or listening to Powell is something that goes beyond the political and is anchored within the philosophical, an arena within which there can be no truths and where thought must not be bound by cultural norms. His, often deconstructive, epistemic approach to political philosophy was bound by deep seated beliefs that he not only held, but was happy to develop and discuss, beyond taboo. In this case, fundamentally that humans are a pack animal.

If man is a societal animal and by nature hardwired to be tribal, the question therein lies, whether like Powell says, raising this as a reality and predicating and therefore in some way preventing problems that may arise from instead ignoring this fact, is surely a pragmatic and prudent approach. Brushing uncomfortable truths under the carpet does little to tackle societal issues.

And, yet, perhaps Powell was wrong. Perhaps flagging such an inconvenient truth, rather than giving rise to the potential of being equipped to tackle its negative consequences, instead validates and augments it. Perhaps granting the ills of man some basis in truth beyond perception, only serves to justify behaviours that societies should otherwise learn to transcend.

It is clear in the fact that multiracial Britain is largely at ease with itself, particularly recounted within the most diverse conurbations, that society does learn to adapt and accept internal changes. Britain, like most other developed democracies within the world, has irreversibly altered over centuries to become what it is today. Yet, wars were fought and blood did flow between rival groups battling it out to be the majority stakeholders in the community.

To return to a basis of ethical philosophy, perhaps rather like Aristotle’s Eudemian principle of the ‘Golden Mean’, something in the middle when addressing concerns over immigration is probably the best approach. Efforts to ignore the issues that may arise from mass immigration, that go too far in the other direction and refuse to admit man’s fallibilities in order to close down any dialogue that questions multiculturalism, have instead permitted practices that do not adhere to our national cultural morality. Even those who purport to base their ethical utterances upon the erroneous premise of cultural relativism, fail to acknowledge that for multiculturalism and monoculturalism to both have a place in society, society itself cannot exist as a meaningful construct. If the very purpose of a society is to be an operational structure that cares for all within it, there is by nature a limited scope for divergent applications of right and wrong.

Yet, countries change. Populations change. Cultures change. The question is where the processes of this change must invite fragility and conflict as a result of the human condition.

It is within this question that we can find a basis by which to judge Powell’s aptitude. Is Britain weaker, harmed, distorted and divided as a result of the ethnic and cultural change that has taken place, particularly in more recent decades, which arguably Powell was not even anticipating?

Post-war Britain

In 1950s Britain, a country still developing its economy in the post-war years, it was the basic requirement for more workers to rebuild the country that necessitated migratory invitation. Today, the economic question comes up again. Accommodating workers means also accommodating their needs, and this is the double-edged sword that troubles people who are already experiencing stretched public services. Yet, what is so interesting is how the dialogue has changed. Today, a vast majority of people would accept the maxim of ‘take out if you have put in’. In Powell’s day, people were being purposefully shipped over to become contributors to the economy. The narrative lines have changed today perhaps as a direct result of the very immigration Powell feared.

Most often the youngest countries are the most frayed. Human collectives that haven’t had the opportunity to bed themselves in and shed the distrust that is often the product of the very struggles that led to the creation of combined communities, often still identify and suffer from internal divisions. When the West took a marker pen to Africa and drew up various borders in Powell’s time half a century ago, the sudden compaction of different tribes and ethnic groups into new societies still provokes turmoil today. Yet, the UK has been established for a long time. It is less prone to fracture. It is a mature democracy that is robust enough to adapt to certain stress tests. The recent referendum on Scottish independence is testament to that. Here you have one group in a bid for self-governance unpicking the stitches that formed a Kingdom five centuries before. Yet, no blood was shed. No terror attacks. No great upheaval after the first failed attempt. The same is true of the EU referendum.

What unites the two is the concept of nationalism that Powell also saw as important to prevent social fall out. Yet, despite surface appearances, in no instance was a real sense of nationalism at risk in either vote. In Scotland, the desire was for greater independence, not fighting against less. In the EU referendum, where devolution to autonomy has now been catalysed, once again the primary direction of travel was towards greater independence, versus a status quo that had developed rather unobserved, over the course of decades. Neither threatened an immediate retrograde leap that would impinge upon current levels of perceived sovereignty.

In this respect, it could be argued that sudden moves that threaten the perceived national construct of a society are, in fact, the most dangerous of all. Recognisable attacks on freedoms, or established norms, invite the fiercest reprisals. But equally, the gradual erosion of nationalism must also bear negative consequences, albeit not as extreme or immediate if meted out over a period of decades. It is this that Powell seems to recognise the most. It is not necessarily the overall level of change, but the rate of that change that may imperil the subject of that change. If nationalism is the functioning model of a human society, based ultimately upon the sharing of resources, then it stands to reason that there is a numerical and temporal limitation on how far a model of democracy can be stretched based upon the means to sate all within it.

The uncertain future of immigration

There is no doubt that Powell’s warnings are founded in a very real, and vital, understanding of what shapes society and a prudent assessment of its vulnerability. And, yet, thus far, Powell has not been vindicated. There have been no rivers of blood (certainly not in the literal sense). His precedents in history upon which we may assume he based his concerns were not reflective enough of modern Britain to make sound predictions. Does this make him a racist monster? No.

What Powell was faced with was by and large within the realm of experiment. Britain could not have known, nor predicted, the effects of immigration in the tens of thousands half a century ago, just as Britain cannot predict now what the effects of immigration, in even greater numbers, will be on the country moving forward. The Roman Empire could not have predicted its downfall, indigenous peoples in Australasia could not have predicted that they would be made a minority culture via the occupation of people from the other side of the world, the Ashantis of West Africa could not have predicted becoming part of a nation state with tribes they had traditionally fought against. Frankly, anybody who tells you that there will be absolutely no effect from the immigration we see today is lying, based upon the sheer fact that history tells us that even the most keen anthropologists and sociologists cannot know.

Even if there are those who argue that Powell has in time been proven wrong, often fail to acknowledge that circumstances consequently evolve and he may yet be vindicated. Powell was without doubt brilliant and the victim of the school of thought which dictates that predicting trouble is in some way causal. Powell was also, however, talking about the immigration of the Sixties and Seventies, not the modern global human tides spreading as a result of the aeronautical revolution and digitisation creating a more conjoined transnational community. In many respects, Powell has been proven wrong, not in what he foresaw, but as a result of the sheer potency of his reference.

Lost as a result of the scapegoating of Powell and the willful misapplication of a crude semantics by his opponents, was recognition of Powell’s incredible economic ability. His greatest political insights are now forever eclipsed by a speech that has gone down in history under a moniker never even referenced in its content.

Powell predicted that excessive state borrowing would bring economic decline, long before Milton Friedman; the man later credited as the free-market champion who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for demonstrating the connection between expansion in the supply of money and higher inflation. Supporters of Powell would point towards his often lone voice on matters such as the European Economic Area, later to become the EU, his views on a continent having a single currency, his comprehension of, and approach to, fiscal management, his views on reforms of the second chamber in Parliament and on the gradual fragmentation of communities as a direct result of the non-integration of immigrants, and state confidently that he was correct. They would also say that almost twenty years after his death, and half a century since he sat in the Cabinet, his often unspoken and unrecognised influence on politics is not only pervasive, but continues to find increasing relevance.

Before we vilify Enoch Powell based upon our own comparisons and corroborations, let us first acknowledge that the primary victim of the dubbed ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech has, in fact, been Powell himself.

Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She is a political advisor and communications consultant in London. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.