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Enoch Powell

John Enoch Powell (June 16 1912 - February 8 1998) was a controversial British politician, the controversy mainly stemming (with some irony) from a speech he made on immigration in 1968.

Even before his death, Powell had long been treated as an icon by the far right and a demon figure by the extreme left. The irony is he was no friend of either, and his death was mourned in particular by that other great maverick of post War British politics, Tony Benn, whom Powell had aided to renounce his peerage and so remain an elected MP. For someone who had mourned the loss of the British Empire (particularly India), Powell was often a lone voice, insisting that the British had no right to remain in Rhodesia and demanding that Ian Smith's regime be removed.

Powell was born and raised in Birmingham. His formidable intelligence was apparent early on. From King Edward's School in Birmingham he completing his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University aged 25. During WW II, Powell enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and also fought in Africa with the "Desert Rats". By the end of the war, he was the youngest brigadier in the British army, having started off as a Private. He felt guilty at the end of the war for having survived when many of those he'd met during his journey through the ranks had not.

After the war, he joined the Conservative party and worked for the Conservative Research Department. He was elected as MP for Wolverhampton South-West in 1950. He worked in Housing and then as Secretary to the Treasury but in 1958, Powell resigned along with Peter Thorneycroft and Nigel Birch in protest at the government's plans for increased expenditure; he was a staunch monetarist and believer in market forces.

Powell's only major cabinet post was as Minister for Health, in which he encouraged a large number of Commonwealth immigrants into the understaffed National Health Service. Prior to this, many non-white immigrants were often 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. Powell was vehemently opposed by the Trade Union movement (who feared that immigrants were being used by capitalists to keep wages low by artificially increasing competition for jobs), but there is no doubt that in easing coloured immigrants into what was considered a prestigious form of career, he boosted the confidence of the immigrant population and helped lay the foundations of a future immigrant-descended permanent Afro-Caribbean and Asian middle class in Britain.

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. In April 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.

With appalling timing, Powell only realised later that of all the days he could have made a speech that some regarded as racist, it was on the anniversary of Hitler's birth - during a period of Britain's history when it was known that various notorious neo-Nazis such as Colin Jordan and John Tyndall (the latter a future leader of the National Front and founder of the British National Party) held birthday parties in the Nazi leader's honour.

Edward Heath sacked Powell from his Shadow Cabinet and Powell never held another senior political post. However, Powell gained considerable support from the public, receiving over 100,000 letters, and there is little doubt that it was his own popularity that led to the Tories' surprise General Election win in 1970.

More to the point, some suspected that Powell was set up - TV cameras were not known to turn up at Conservative branch AGMs before, and some believe that Heath wanted Powell to take the rap for his party taking a tougher line on immigration later that year. The Conservatives had discovered in nationwide studies in the wake of the notorious General Election result in Birmingham Smethwick in 1964 (where Peter Griffiths took the safe seat of Labour's pending Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon-Walker) that a hard line on immigration would win them up to twenty Labour seats, but it took their defeat in 1966 (in the snap General Election called by Harold Wilson to take advantage of the jublilation over England's World Cup win) to push the Tories into deciding to "play the race card".

In February 1974 Powell quit the Conservative Party, mainly because of its intention to join the European Common Market, & advised the electorate to vote Labour (who promised to keep Britain out of the EEC, a promise that was later to be broken by the party in government). Powell's Euroscepticism was fuelled by a belief that the Cold War was a sham because the Soviet Union was not intent on invading the West - so dependent was the USSR on receiving US and European grain surpluses for next to nothing - and so he did not see the need to maintain the Western Alliance as other Conservatives did. He was also immensely suspicious of American foreign policy after what he deemed to be the American betrayal of British interests during the Suez Crisis.

In a sudden general election later in 1974, Powell returned to parliament as a Ulster Unionist MP for Down South. He was a strong believer in the United Kingdom, and he believed that it would only survive if the Unionists strived to integrate fully with the United Kingdom by abandoning the devolved rule that Northern Ireland had recently enjoyed. He refused point blank to join the Orange Order (who largely controlled the UUP after their split from the Conservative Party) - the first Ulster Unionist MP never to be a member(and to date only one of two, the other being the former RUC member Ken McGinnis), and he was an outspoken opponent of the more extremist Unionism espoused by the Reverend Ian Paisley and his supporters.

Though he was on supposedly good terms with Margaret Thatcher (she claimed her own monetarist policies stemmed from Powell's, to which he remarked drily, "A pity she did not understand them!"), he came into conflict with her in 1985 because of her support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, resigning his seat and then regaining it at the ensuing by-election. Powell lost his seat in 1987, mainly due to demographic changes resulting in there being many more Catholics in his seat of South Down than before.

Despite his earlier atheism Powell became a devout Anglican later in life and was a warden of Westminster Abbey where he was buried. He spent much of his later life trying to prove with close textual reading, that Christ had not been crucified but hanged.

Powell appeared in the 2002 List of "100 Great Britons" (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public). The BBC History Magazine commented: "Powell's career was a total failure and with luck he will be forgotten".

His speeches and TV interviews throughout his political life displayed a suspicion towards "The Establishment" in general, and by the 1980s there was a regular expectation that he would make some sort of speech or act in a way designed to upset the government of the day and ensure he would not be offered a Life Peerage (and thus transferred to the House Of Lords) which he had no intention of accepting so long as Edward Heath sat in the Commons.

Powell himself dubbed his career a failure, but like Tony Benn his legacy as one of the last of the old-style politicians that put conscience and duty to his constituents before loyalty to his party or the sake of his career looks set to endure in an age where slick presentation and draconian controls over political party members is set to remain the norm.


The world is full of evil men engaged in doing evil things. That does not make us policemen to round them up nor judges to find them guilty and to sentence them. What is so special about the ruler of Iraq that we suddenly discover that we are to be his jailers and his judges? 1990

Britain's fondness for America has turned this country into something horribly resembling a satellite of the United States. 1983

A party is not the private property of its leader. 1973

Independence, the freedom of a self-governing nation, is in my estimation the highest political good, for which any disadvantage, if need be, and any sacrifice are a cheap price. 1973

Often when I am kneeling down in church, I think to myself how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost, for the gift of capitalism. 1968

Toryism is about enjoyment. 1966