Enoch Powell’s Centennial: A Complex, Frustrating And Fascinating Man
This Saturday, June 16, will mark what would have been the 100th birthday of John Enoch Powell, one of the most fascinating, influential and controversial British politicians of the 20th century.
Largely unknown to Americans, Powell became a symbol of the anti-immigration movement that swelled in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s.
Although Powell had a very long, distinguished and varied career as a politician and academic, it was his strident opposition to Commonwealth immigration that he is probably best remembered for — and largely what still makes his name anathema in contemporary British political life.
The very peak of Powell’s career likely occurred in April 1968, when as a Tory MP he delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham in which he warned that unchecked immigration of non-whites into Britain would lead to violence in the streets and social collapse.
Powell, perhaps unwittingly, provided a dignified voice to the otherwise vulgar and shrill voices of anti-immigration, as espoused by the extreme right-wing National Front party of the 1970s and 1980s and its successor, the British National Party, today.
With immigration (illegal and otherwise) being such a contentious subject in Western Europe, the U.S. and Australia, Powell’s supporters would say he was prescient, whereas his detractors would simply denounce him as an outdated racist.
Powell died in 1998 at the age of 85, having never achieved his dream of becoming Britain’s prime minister.
But there was much more to Powell. He was a classically trained poet and historian, that is, the kind of pure intellectual that rarely emerges in politics (on either side of the Atlantic).
International Business Times spoke with Dr. Victoria Honeyman, lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds in England. to discuss the phenomenon of Enoch Powell.
IBTIMES: Some have speculated that if Powell had not allied himself with the strident anti-immigration movement, he might have become prime minister at one point. Do you agree with this view?
HONEYMAN: I don’t think so. Enoch Powell was, like other politicians such as Keith Joseph [a famous Conservative politician from the 1960s and 1970s], an intellectual in the true sense of the word. He would follow the logic of an intellectual argument to its conclusion, regardless of how unpalatable that conclusion was, and then present it and often expect others to appreciate his process.
Politicians need many skills, including excellent presentation skills, which Powell lacked. That didn’t make him a bad politician, but I think it is unlikely he would have ever been prime minister.
IBTIMES: Can Powell be blamed for indirectly helping to form the National Front?
HONEYMAN: It could be argued that Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech contributed to the debate which the National Front built their limited support on, but I think it is a bit too simplistic to suggest that Powell indirectly created the National Front.