A spectre haunts British politics, his controversial views still resounding on right and left.
Like Tory Brexiteers, he weaponised racism and xenophobia, opposed guarantees of human rights, rejected constraints on the “free market”, and lionised “sovereignty”. Like Jeremy Corbyn, he opposed foreign military intervention, Britain’s nuclear arsenal, alliance with an imperial America, and British membership of a European Union.
And like many on both sides of Britain’s frenzied political divide, he was obsessive about immigration. “The age of Brexit,” wrote the former New Labour spin doctor John McTernan in 2017, “is the age of [Enoch] Powell.”
Given how little time he spent in cabinet, and how at odds he was with government policy, it is perhaps surprising that Powell’s views have become ascendant so long after his death. Queen’s University Belfast historian Paul Corthorn wisely offers not another biography of Powell’s unconventional career, but a study of his ideas, focusing on a rigorous examination of his decades of speeches.
“A practising politician works through speeches,” Powell held, discussing the “business of the moment, offering judgements and interpretations of changing events and issues.” (One shudders to imagine Powell on Twitter.)
One speech above all has defined Powell’s career and legacy, his apocalyptic 1968 attack on the Race Relations Act in Birmingham. “Discrimination and deprivation,” he claimed, afflict not “the immigrant population”, but the “native-born”.
The "Rivers of Blood" speech caused a sensation, and ended Powell's frontline parliamentary career as he was sacked by Ted Heath
He told stories of “ordinary” white working people who had written him with their concerns, who felt they were becoming “a persecuted minority” in their own country, their hospitals and schools overrun by foreigners, their communities becoming dangerous places of “noise and confusion” where people could not speak English, all due to a “total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history”.
“Coloured immigration,” Powell argued, was going to destroy Britain. “It is,” Powell said, “like watching a nation busy heaping its own funeral pyre.”
“As I look ahead,” he concluded, “I am filled with forboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
The “Rivers of Blood” speech caused a sensation, and ended Powell’s frontline parliamentary career as he was sacked by Ted Heath for the radical racism both major political parties claimed to reject.
Hostility to immigration was eventually to become a dominant force in British politics, and Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have often echoed Powell’s words. Corthorn shows that he continued to wield what Margaret Thatcher described as “influence without power” through his ideas on a number of other key facets of policy, not least Thatcherism itself, of which he was an important early advocate.
Corthorn persuasively argues that Powell’s diverse, shifting, and often contradictory positions can be understood as attempts to grapple with the perceived “decline” of the British nation. A brigadier general in military intelligence during the second World War, Powell initially thought Britain should reconquer India after independence, but he rapidly came to realise that the empire’s “disintegration” was “inevitable”. Indeed as early as 1957 he argued that the Tory party needed to be “cured of the British Empire”, a “vanished” past now turned into a “sham” Commonwealth. He located a new British nationhood at home in “the mother country”: an independent, self-governing “white nation”.
That racist separation of Britishness (or at times Englishness) from the “foreigners” of the Commonwealth came alongside a “realist” outlook on foreign policy that saw intervention beyond a narrow “national interest” as dangerous folly. “The world will become a mad house,” Powell said, if countries intervened in others because they didn’t like what has happening in them internally: “by intervening in what is no concern of ours, we are doing evil, not good.”
Powell strongly believed that he United States had turned Britain into a “satellite” and a “lackey” in a desire for global domination; Russia, he provocatively argued, was a more natural ally, having long “been the ultimate guarantee of the survival of Britain as an independent nation”, from 1812 to 1942. From Vietnam to Kuwait to Yugoslavia, he opposed most Western military interventions, such views often ironically creating common cause with the hard left, a point he noted in his support for British nuclear disarmament (an issue he lamented had been left to the “weirdy wing of the Labour Party”).
Like many on the left, Powell came to see the EEC as the end of British independence, “living death, the abandonment of all prospect of national rebirth”. He saw the issue as above party politics, arguing that Europe would divide the nation on class and cultural grounds and that only by capturing opposition to Europe could the Conservative Party survive. Powell broke with the Tories in 1974, supporting Labour’s call for a referendum on Europe, and he continued to back Eurosceptic candidates of any hue in future elections.
With Northern Ireland aflame, Powell quickly reinvented himself as a champion of Ulster unionism, which he lauded as “a living protest against the prevalent self-abasement of the British nation”. Corthorn emphasises how Powell’s machinations in the North were often “disingenuous”, and that what they really animated were his wider concerns about nationalism and sovereignty. Indeed unionist leaders remained wary of his opposition to devolution throughout his 13 years as MP for South Down.
Right up to his death just before the Good Friday Agreement, Powell continued to advocate the full integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom, arguing that any “Home Rule” inherently undermined the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament and the union itself. He called Ian Paisley’s DUP “Protestant Sinn Féin” for supporting such devolution.
Corthorn’s rigour is impressive, and with such a controversial figure he is perhaps wise to stick to a “detached, impartial perspective”. But with Powell’s views – and his toxic brand of nationalism and racism – ascendant, there could have been a deeper assessment of how his ideas have continued to poison the wells of British politics long after his death. By tracing their history, however, Corthorn has offered a valuable guide to a figure who looms over Brexit Britain.
Dr Christopher Kissane is an associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London