“All political lives, unless they are cut off midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”
Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain, 1977
There is something of Lord Randolph Churchill in the tragedy of Enoch Powell. Winston’s father, like Powell, was a highly skilled politician, popular in the country and would almost certainly have become prime minister had his front-bench career not been suddenly cut short through a singularly catastrophic error of judgement.
Churchill surprised everyone, not least his prime minister Lord Salisbury, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons he tendered his notice of resignation in December 1886. This was interpreted as a feign to strengthen his hand in the Cabinet over his opponents but, unfortunately for Churchill, his resignation was accepted and he thereafter faded into obscurity, madness and death at the age of 45.
Powell, by contrast, shone like the sun from the political wilderness for another 30 years after his own fatal error – the so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech against the Race Relations Bill in April 1968. While I don’t wish to dwell too long on this, the speech and its effects were loaded with ironies. Firstly, despite his later dismissal as Shadow Defence Secretary by Edward Heath, Conservative Central Office had actually supported the speech beforehand because Tory MPs were being whipped to vote against the bill three days later on the basis it would – as Powell argued – do more harm to race relations than good.
Secondly, it at once catapulted Powell to fame as the most popular politician in the country, while at the same time destroying his political career. Were the head of government directly elected in the United Kingdom as in the United States, the country would have been Powell’s; he received 120,000 letters of support, dockers marched in his name, and a Gallup poll found 74 per cent of people agreed with the content of his speech. It is, perhaps, one of those instances where lefties feel relieved the country is not quite as democratic as they would have us believe they wish it to be.
Powell was without a doubt the most intelligent and gifted politician of his generation and his subsequent departure from frontline politics, as well as the subsequent closure of the debate on immigration, were a tragedy for the country. However, perhaps the greatest tragedy was the damage done to the reputation of a man who like life itself was intricate and multi-faceted, yet became grotesquely caricatured by supporters and opponents alike around a single issue based on a single speech.
Many would be surprised to know, for example, just how ‘liberal’ this self-confessed High Tory was – not least the racists, nationalists and reactionaries who tarnish his name. Indeed, many of these same people would no doubt castigate Powell’s voting record as that of a ‘left-liberal’ were they given the opportunity to examine it blindly, and would be horrified to discover they stemmed from the deeply-held beliefs of their messiah.
Apart from Powell’s masterful advocacy of the free market and globalisation – anathema to nationalists – this principled politician, who refused a life peerage because he voted against their introduction in 1958, voted for many of Labour’s liberal social reforms in the 1960s, such as relaxed abortion laws, no-fault divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the repeal of the death penalty and against corporal punishment in schools. Not the actions of a traditional right-wing firebrand, still less a so-called ‘far right nationalist.’
It is also worth noting the gulf between the opinions of rank-and-file Labourites (and lefties generally) and the ‘Old Labour’ MPs who actually knew Powell. In 1990, Denis Healey said the greatest parliamentary speech he ever heard was Powell’s scathing attack on his own government in 1959 following the Hola Massacre in which 11 Kenyan prisoners of the Mau Mau rebellion were beaten to death by colonial guards. Healey said the speech had the “moral passion and rhetorical force of Demosthenes.”
Michael Foot, Labour leader 1979-83 and one of the most left wing men to sit in the House of Commons, said it was a tragedy for Powell “and a tragedy for the rest of us too” that he never became leader of the Conservative Party. Foot’s contemporary Tony Benn, also a passionately radical socialist, frequently expressed his great respect for Powell despite their political differences and was one of the few Labour representatives at his funeral in 1998.
The great irony is immigration was one of the precious few things Powell was not right about. In 1977, he was still predicting “civil war” on the projection that a third of London and Birmingham would be “coloured” by the end of the century. Yet 15 years into the 21st century, with almost 40 per cent of London and more than 40 per cent of Birmingham now non-white, this prediction has yet to be realised. Whatever else the rights and wrongs of mass immigration, Powell’s primary justification for his position – that immigration would harm the immigrant as much as the native through a repeat of the communal violence he saw in pre-independence India – was incorrect.
But it would be sheer folly for us to judge a great man of honesty and integrity, who contributed so much to the political and academic life of this country, solely on one of the few mistakes he ever made.
Paul is the Conservatives for Liberty Creative Director. Follow him on Twitter: @Whiggery
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty