I feel if Enoch Powell hadn’t given the speech on that fateful day, British politics could well have unravelled in a dramatically different way. We may not have joined the Common Market and remained an independent self-governing nation, carrying on a tradition of being an exemplar to the English-speaking world. That said, Powell still goes down as one of the finest intellects British politics has ever seen. Yet, his depth of vision and ineffable wisdom were sacrificed at the altar of a shortsighted desire to hit the front pages.
By Nigel Farage l April 23, 2018
LONDON-It is 50 years since what was arguably the most explosive speech in British Post War politics.
A speech that would go down in history under the misappropriated ‘Rivers of Blood’ epithet, a line that actually did not appear in the oration itself other than through reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, but would become shorthand for the sense of foreboding Powell felt compelled to voice.
Enoch Powell himself predicted, before heading to the Birmingham location where he would deliver it, that his speech would go up like a rocket.
Three months prior, at a different public meeting in Walsall, Powell had given a similar speech on immigration that hadn’t taken off. It is clear that this time, his intent was to grab the headlines.
He certainly succeeded.
Today, even half a century after its delivery, the speech remains alive in public consciousness and widely referenced and debated among the commentariat and synonymous with a politician now largely eclipsed by a single, pivotal decision to send shockwaves through society to shine a spotlight on the issue of immigration.
I am a huge admirer of Powell, a confession itself that has become shrouded by the taboo generated by that one speech. I admire him for his economic policy; Powell being a monetarist in the 1950s long before either Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher knew what that even was.
On the question of joining the Common Market, I find I can listen to Powell’s speeches with equal measure of wonder and admiration. The arguments he elucidated 45 years ago and the basic principles that he espoused are just as strong now as they were then. His remarkable accuracy of predicting what the Common Market project would eventually become are almost spooky in their accuracy.
Here is a man who in all other areas of his political career exhibited incredible insight and pragmatism. A true flair in understanding the mechanics of governance and with crystal clear acuity, the fall out of political decision making.
Yet, all of this has been lost. Eclipsed by a judgment call that delivered a fall out from which Powell himself, and even the rational discussion of immigration, would never recover. A speech that became the one time it could be asserted that the reach of Powell’s portentousness had fallen drastically short. He was not wrong about the deliberate potency of the words he chose and the reverberations they would have, and indeed continue to have, in British politics. But arguably, Powell did not factor his own standing in the equation of his calculated risk. The man who would have been Prime Minister became the primary victim of his own decision on that fateful day, that has subsequently enshrined the perception of Powell as the political poster boy for xenophobia, at the cost of otherwise political brilliance.
In his later years, I got to know Powell, and spoke with him on several occasions.
Indeed, I chauffeured him to and from his last ever public meeting, in Newbury 1992, picking him up from his home to convey him to the event, and then home again.
In some ways, it is reasonable to assert that Powell the man was a bit of a misfit. As with a great many people of such advanced academic magnitude, his intellect was both his greatest attribute and most intraversible obstacle; becoming a barrier to otherwise normal human relations.
The litany of this one individual’s achievements is remarkable.
Powell was the youngest ever professor of Greek in British Empire at the tender age of 25. Aside from incontrovertible academic prowess, Powell was also a highly commended private soldier in the British Army at the start of the Second World War. Powell was a prodigy in every sense of the word.
Nothing of his intellect diminished with age. His uncanny ability to remember even trivial factoids and casual minutiae added to the incredible breadth of knowledge possessed by the indisputable polymath.
He would remember the names of people he had met 20, 30 or 40 years earlier, leaving them stunned. On one late night television show in the 1970s, hosted by British broadcasting veteran Michael Parkinson, he said he had never met his intellectual equal, an indication perhaps of a social myopia that sealed the fate of his legacy.
For while Powell’s IQ and intelligence was meteorically high, on that fateful April 20th in Spring, 1968, his judgment was calamitously poor.
I would be the first to labour the point that it is vitally important to discuss immigration through the critical prism of social integration, an issue that always has been, and will continue to be, at the epicentre of politics the world over in an increasingly interconnected planet. But the use of incendiary language, with phrases such as ‘a match to gunpowder,’ frankly gave cause for widespread offense that would ultimately undermine the objective of the speech; pushing underground reasoned debate through the catalysing of immigration as a taboo topic.
However, one could argue that the speech attracted as many as it detracted. After Powell was sacked for his speech by Ted Heath, dockers marched on Parliament bearing banners emblazoned with ‘don’t mock good old Enoch.’
It is important to be alive to the contemporaneous context of Powell’s speech, particularly language that as a result of evolving semantics has become hard for us to judge in accordance with twenty first century standards. The use of a word like negro today causes great offense, carrying connotations that are presently considered extremely offensive. Yet, it was a term in common usage fifty years ago, and to most considered quite normal. Yet, other terms cannot be simply argued away. Describing the children of immigrants as ‘grinning pickaninnies’ was as deeply offensive at the time as it would be today.
However, in his speech, Powell may have raised issues that led to Margaret Thatcher subsequently tightening immigration in the 1980s. Yet, by making this speech, Powell not only brought about the sharp demise of his own political career but became forevermore a critical outcast, something that those who nonetheless acknowledge his political sagacity in other arenas may well deem a tragedy.
Powell would likely have succeeded Heath as Prime Minister in the late 1970s. Arguably, the only reason Britain annointed its first female Prime Minister was as a direct consequence of Powell having blown himself up with his own proverbial rocket.
I find it shortsighted to lazily ascribe him the reputation of a racist in the singular sense of the word. This was a man who possessed an incredibly deep knowledge and love of India, as well as many diverse countries and cultures around the world. Indeed, Powell would broadcast regularly in Urdu on the BBC World Service, an aptitude and admiration for other cultures that was entirely unprecedented and has not been seen to the same degree among any eminent British politicians since.
Throughout my entire life I have been asked by people, was Enoch right?
Was he revealing an unaddressed but unavoidable truth about whether people of different ethnic origins could ever truly integrate together? His fears thankfully have been proven woefully unfounded. Yet, there do exist divisions that have emerged in British society between different communities, but the boundaries are inscribed culturally across religious, rather than racial, divides.
Whole areas of certain towns and cities have become dominated by detached monocultures.
Indeed, Trevor Phillips, the former Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Head of Commission for Racial Equality, a man whose career was at the helm of uniting communities and promoting equality through the eradication of discrimination, has latterly called on the rejection of multiculturalism on the grounds of it legitimising separateness between people rather than asserting ‘a core of Britishness’ to develop true integration and unity. In this, we should not be so fast to dismiss the concerns Powell was perhaps trying to expound.
However, the use of classical analogy, at odds with the general appreciations of his intended audience, was readily and willfully misquoted as the ‘Rivers of blood’ speech, a term that would dog him until his dying day.
I feel if he hadn’t given the speech on that fateful day, British politics could well have unravelled in a dramatically different way. We may not have joined the Common Market and remained an independent self-governing nation, carrying on a tradition of being an exemplar to the English-speaking world. That said, Powell still goes down as one of the finest intellects British politics has ever seen.
Yet, his depth of vision and ineffable wisdom were sacrificed at the altar of a shortsighted desire to hit the front pages.
Nigel Farage was the leader of the UK Independence Party and the most influential politician behind Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Following over a decade of campaigning, he became one of the most recognised politicians in Europe and is synonymous with the Leave campaign. He currently serves as a Member of the European Parliament and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.