It is 50 years since his notorious “rivers of blood” speech. Yet, in the intervening decades, Powell’s ideas have entered the political mainstream to take revenge on a complacent establishment.
By Michael Kenny & Nick Pearce
This essay first appeared in the New Statesman
Enoch Powell wrote that “all political lives end in failure… because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”. This pithy, realist judgement has often been applied to his own career. Fifty years ago, on 20 April 1968 at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel, he delivered the incendiary “Rivers of Blood” speech on immigration, with its apocalyptic warnings of violent civil strife. The speech would cast him into the political wilderness. His reputation, once burnished by a fiercely bright intellect and powerful oratorical style, never recovered.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, however, and it appears that Powell has gained his. The major themes of his later career – withdrawal from the European Union, hostility to immigration, an insistence on the indivisibility of sovereignty, and rejection of devolution and power-sharing in Northern Ireland – are all now central to British politics. The United Kingdom is negotiating to leave the EU. The Conservative Party is committed to “taking back control” of the sovereignty that Powell argued it should never have given up. There is even talk among some Brexiteers of abandoning the Good Friday Agreement. Arguments of impeccably Powellite pedigree have entered the bloodstream of British politics.
How is it that Powell, for so long a political pariah, has proved to be an enduring influence upon the thinking of so many later politicians? This question is all the more pertinent given that Britain has moved in directions he would have disliked intensely, becoming a largely successful multicultural and more socially liberal society, and devolving significant powers to the different nations of the UK. One of the answers to this puzzle lies in the unresolved nature of the European question in British politics from the 1970s until the Brexit vote. Another lies in Powell’s own thinking and his preoccupation with questions – of sovereignty, nationhood and citizens – that have, since his death, opened up the major schisms running through our political life.
Powell began his career in academe. A brilliant classicist, he became a professor at the University of Sydney aged 25. His academic life was cut short, however, by the outbreak of the Second World War and he returned home to enlist in the British army. In 1943 he was posted to India, where he learned Urdu and nurtured ambitions to become viceroy. His outlook at this time was broadly conventional for a Conservative, not least in his support for empire. But from an early stage he was sceptical of the burgeoning power of the United States, which he perceived as antithetical to the survival of Britain’s empire.
Powell embarked upon a political career after the war, serving in the Conservative Research Department before becoming MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950. He became a junior minister for housing, and then financial secretary, resigning with his Treasury colleagues over Harold Macmillan’s failure to cut public spending in 1958. He was a monetarist who collaborated routinely with the Institute of Economic Affairs long before Margaret Thatcher brought their ideas into mainstream public policy.
During these postwar years he changed his mind radically on the thorny question of how Britain should respond to its diminution as an imperial power. India’s struggle for independence shook his worldview to its core. Increasingly convinced that Britain was no longer capable of operating as a hegemonic power in the world, and that it was delusional and damaging to believe that it could, he began to turn against empire.
The root source of his revisionism was his deep commitment to the idea that what defined Britain (or England as he usually called it) was the tradition of indivisible sovereignty – the Crown exercising its authority through parliament – which was embedded in the state’s unique history and governing institutions. And this precious gift was, he came to believe, imperilled increasingly by the inability of Britain’s rulers to see that the empire was becoming a source of weakness, not ballast, for the British state. One of his most important and impressive speeches in parliament was devoted to the murderous brutality meted out by British soldiers in 1959 against Mau Mau prisoners at the Hola camp in Kenya. Powell was a lone voice on this occasion, arguing that the chain of responsibility for this episode stretched to the Colonial Office. He offered a powerful, moral case for the equal treatment of all subjects of British rule.
Yet from the late 1940s onwards there were indications that he was, bit by bit, turning away from the assumption that empire underwrote British power. And, during the 1960s, Powell started to gravitate towards positions that set him against the leadership of his own party, and indeed the entire political establishment. An important spark for his deepening sense that a new course needed to be set in British politics was frustration at the hold that the imperial delusion still exerted. The country’s rulers were
suffering from a profound “post-imperial neurosis”, as a once great nation was in danger of overreaching itself while simultaneously seeking refuge under the American nuclear umbrella.
Powell viewed the Commonwealth association that had emerged from the wreckage of empire with deep suspicion. This was little more than a “farce” or “sham”, a meaningless confederation in which countries exhibited no allegiance to each other, and over which Britain lacked any actual authority. Instead, it was to a neglected English heritage that Powell urged the Conservatives to return. In speech after speech he supplied a poetic vision of a nation that needed to be reborn, freed from the baggage of empire.
The English needed to look back over the compass of their own history to rediscover who they were and determine a new national mission. Appreciating England’s cultural and religious heritage, and understanding the unique achievement of a system of government based upon parliamentary sovereignty, were the keys to this enterprise. Englishness grew out of an ancient heritage and bequeathed a set of cultural habits and common practices, and was interwoven with the governing institutions and parliamentary tradition that Britain had forged. Only those steeped in the customs and ethnicity that had borne the nation through its life could be members of a national community, a stipulation that ruled out the possibility that people from different racial backgrounds could live together under the same national banner.
This was the intellectual underpinning for Powell’s anti-immigration arguments in the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and the racism they legitimated. His fixed and overtly ethnic characterisation of the nation was exposed subsequently by the development of forms of patriotism and national solidarity that have unified people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in Britain. On the question of how modern forms of nationhood work, he has been shown to be profoundly wrong.
But other aspects of his thinking have proved to be more prescient and pertinent than his critics have allowed, however uncomfortable it may be to acknowledge their influence – especially his recognition of the depth and importance of distinctly English traditions of culture and thought. This insight was discarded by mainstream politicians, along with his racist views on ethnicity and nationality. As a result, a widely felt sense of English patriotism became an object of scorn in the public culture. English political identity was left for Powell’s political heirs to claim, most notably by Nigel Farage during Ukip’s rise to prominence in the 2000s.
Certainly his lyrical, and sometimes spiritual, evocations of Englishness read now like the artefacts of a different time, and reflect an intellectual culture that has all but disappeared. But amid the classical allusions and pastoral sentimentalism – a combination that undoubtedly reflected the influence of one of his teachers at Cambridge, poet and classicist AE Housman – lay an acute grasp of the senses of loss and dispossession that were increasingly hallmarks of England’s social culture.
In the speech he delivered on St George’s Day 1961, he celebrated the enduring mystery of England and its unnoticed, but very real, presence at the heart of the British system of governance and law. The English after empire, he went on, were returning home, just like the Athenians coming back to their city to find that it had been sacked and burned. Albion was, metaphorically, smouldering and damaged, with the conditions for its integrity challenged and its cultural heritage facing mortal threat.
Powell, it should be said, was not alone in urging Britain to think anew about its place and responsibilities in the world in these years, but he was alone in mainstream politics in thinking in this particular way. He emerged as an unlikely scourge of the mythologies to which the British elite had clung since 1945. Freed from the delusions of “Greater Britain”, he argued, the UK should limit its military ambitions to its proximate neighbourhood and operate more independently of American power.
But it was not his high-minded rendition of the English lineage that began to gain traction among the wider public. Instead, it was his objection to the small, but growing, numbers of immigrants entering Britain from the countries of the Commonwealth. Powell sensed a political opportunity and was happy to interweave the kinds of vernacular racism deemed illegitimate in public discourse into his predominantly highbrow speeches. By the 1970s the name “Enoch” became synonymous with street-level racism, as his views gave credence to deep wells of anti-immigrant prejudice.
Having begun the 1960s seemingly content with his own party’s position of supporting relatively low levels of immigration to Britain, by its end he was outspokenly opposed, and depicted the effects of immigration into the UK in increasingly apocalyptic terms. He repeatedly expressed scepticism about the anticipated numbers of new immigrants, arguing consistently that official figures underestimated the total numbers of likely arrivals, and questioned government policy towards family dependents. From 1965, he began to call – with some ambiguity – for consideration to be given to programmes of voluntary repatriation. The sores of this history have reopened recently, as some members of the “Windrush” generation of Commonwealth citizens that arrived as children in the UK after World War Two have faced deportation at the hands of the British state, to considerable public disgust.
Powell exploded into public consciousness following the “Rivers of Blood” speech. In this heavily trailed intervention he told the dramatic – and probably fictional – story of an elderly woman taunted by immigrants, and claimed that public order would break down if mass immigration into Britain was not stopped. His colleagues were furious at his deliberate failure to consult them in advance, and by the inflammatory language he used. In response, the Tory leader Edward Heath sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet. And, ironically, he may well have helped the Conservatives to victory in the election of 1970, as the party hardened its immigration policy following Powell’s intervention.
Instantly he became a political outlaw, but he was now also the occupant of a powerful pulpit beyond the confines of party politics. Powell subsequently broadened his critique of government policy, first on immigration and then on the question of Europe, into a more expansive attack on the political establishment as a whole. And he readily adopted the stance of the reviled outsider, ready to speak uncomfortable truths, and masochistic in his relish for the opprobrium heaped upon him. In these ways Powell played the role of Britain’s first postwar proto-populist leader, willing and able to promote the defence of the national homeland against the indifference and machinations of the elites.
Melancholy, loss and decline melded powerfully with notions of redemption, emancipation and renewal in Powell’s speeches during this period. In political terms, the brand of parliamentary populism that he developed created a model that would be explored at a later point and in different ways, first by Margaret Thatcher and, subsequently, by some of the leading proponents for Brexit. Certainly, Thatcher’s politically powerful combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism owed something to Powellite thinking.
But in some respects Powell’s populism was, like him, one of a kind, and was beset by a distinctive set of internal contradictions. He remained deeply committed to the ideal of parliamentary sovereignty and looked with disapproval upon forms of extra-parliamentary mobilisation and anti-parliamentary rhetoric. He famously told a deputation of meat porters who marched in support of his stance on immigration to go home and write to their MPs. And for a while he was uncomfortable with the call to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the Common Market, fearful for what it meant for the sacred doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.
Europe became the focus of Powell’s second public crusade. Having been initially in favour of the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community, on the grounds that a European customs union would promote the cause of free trade, he came to denounce such an entity, convinced that it would necessitate forms of political and legal co-ordination that would invariably compromise the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. He first publicly criticised entry to the EEC in 1969 and, during the accession negotiations conducted by the Heath government over the summer of 1971, made a series of speeches that warned of the threat the community posed to British sovereignty.
While his hostility to European membership confirmed his stance outside the political mainstream, this was not such a lonely field to plough, as he joined forces with other leading sceptical figures, often – like Tony Benn – from the political left, in campaigning during the European referendum of 1975 (although Benn avoided sharing platforms with him). But it was not until the much later debates on the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency that his views gained traction among Conservatives.
Many of the notes he struck during these years of opposition would be repeated by a later generation of sceptics, especially his mockery of Brussels “bureaucrats” and denunciation of what he saw as vested interests at work lobbying for the European cause, for instance the CBI.
With extraordinary prescience Powell expressed the belief – shared by almost none of his political contemporaries – that Europe would one day become the site upon which a wider sense of popular resentment would coalesce. In a speech in the early 1970s he argued that, “Every common policy, or attempted common policy, of the Community will encounter a political resentment in Britain… These resentments will intertwine themselves with all the raw issues of British politics: inflation, unemployment, balance of payments, the regions, even immigration, even Northern Ireland.”
Powell left the Conservative Party over the European question in 1974, and was returned to parliament in October that year as the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. This surprising move presaged the third “front” in Powell’s rearguard defence of British sovereignty. His unfailing belief that Northern Ireland needed to be reintegrated into the UK put him at odds with most of his Unionist colleagues. But Powell was insistent that the people of Ulster needed to be protected not only from paramilitary violence but also from the unwillingness of the rulers of their own state to recognise the priority of the principles of nationality and indivisible sovereignty. What for most politicians looked like a “law and order” question was in his mind a conflict that dramatised wider issues of sovereignty and citizenship affecting the whole of the UK. In the 1980s, he bitterly denounced the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher.
Through these different public campaigns Powell became Britain’s best known political heretic, firmly established in the public eye as the politician ready to speak out on issues where British sovereignty and national identity were at stake. Despite appearing to be on the losing side on all of them, over the long run his thinking gained more adherents. Above all, he helped keep alive the contention – which recurred with a vengeance in the run-up to Brexit – that British accession to the Common Market was an act of betrayal by a cadre of establishment politicians who had lost faith in the historical lineage and unique cultural tradition of England. On the eve of the referendum in 1975, he predicted that if the people of Britain voted in favour of membership, they would one day “rise up and say: ‘we were deceived, we were taken for a ride, we will have no part of it”’.
Powell’s rejection of the Churchillian vision of “Global Britain”, which shaped the thinking of much of the political establishment in the middle years of the last century, earned him the tag of “little Englander” among his political opponents, and post-colonial nationalist among later academic interpreters. Yet in key respects both of these epithets are misplaced, since his relationship with empire was more complicated and intimate than they suggest. Powell’s deep immersion in classical sources led him to view national history in cyclical rather than linear terms. The return to the English homeland which he urged upon Britain’s rulers was of a piece with the previous era of expansion and civilisational leadership, not a simple negation of it. But, where once England had the capacity and opportunity to lead the world, now it needed to return to the habits and policies which had put it on the road to greatness in the first place.
For Powell, the hangover of empire obscured the need for a realistic and proportionate understanding of Britain’s influence and place in the world. The UK was a medium-sized power with a successful economy, which needed to put aside delusions about its ability to shape events in far-flung places and focus instead upon its own regional position. In order to rescue the English from their rulers’ weaknesses of mind, it was time for the English idea to be replanted on home soil. And so Powell invoked an older – largely Edwardian – idea of an elegiac and pastoral Englishness (here too exhibiting the influence of Housman), but inflected it with the claim that this heritage was being overlooked by the moral and political guardians of the state.
Enoch Powell’s radical Tory vision is rightly seen as the first indication of a turning of the tide against lingering dreams of Greater Britain. It also reflected the hierarchies associated with imperial thinking. And, despite the exile from mainstream politics that he endured, some of the ideas that underpinned his views on immigration, Europe and the unitary state have, if anything, gained in power and influence as the decades have passed.
“Take back control” was not a slogan that Powell used, but it touched on exactly the same concerns about sovereignty and nationhood, and Britain’s place in the world, that were the major themes of his later political life. Despite his marginalisation from party politics and Britain’s embrace of social liberalism, the European sore has ensured Powell’s enduring impact in political terms – on some Labour voters, aspects of Conservative political thinking and the populist nationalism advanced by Nigel Farage and Ukip. The question now is whether the UK after Brexit will finally get over, or fall further upon, Powell’s troubling legacy.
Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce are authors of “Shadows of Empire: the Anglosphere in British Politics” (Polity)