Essay: ‘All political careers end in failure’ – the legacy of Enoch Powell

My assumption is that it must have been quite an election.  I can only assume, as I had not even been conceived, let alone born, then, but the contest around the UK had far-reaching implications for both Britain and Ireland.  Polling exactly forty years ago today – barely eight months after the previous general election – resulted in Harold Wilson and the Labour Party being re-elected (though only just), and Tory leader Ted Heath’s political career being effectively over.  Heath would be succeeded by Margaret Thatcher, whose subsequent premiership would not only have an impact on developments in Northern Ireland but also lead to a transformation of the Labour Party that would turn the UK effectively into a one-ideology state.

In Northern Ireland, two October ’74 results in particular stood out.  Crowning a political career of almost comical mishaps came Ulster Unionist leader Harry West’s ejection as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone – scarcely eight months after he had been first elected.  The victor, independent republican Frank Maguire, would hold the seat until his sudden death in 1981.  The ensuing by-election would be contested and won by H-Block prisoner Bobby Sands (again, at West’s expense) – a contest that would transform the political fortunes of Sinn Fein, and set them on a path leading to their coronation as the biggest nationalist party twenty years later.

Enoch Powell (1912-1998), UUP MP for South Down 1974-87, pictured here in Channel 4's "After Dark" (1987)

Enoch Powell (1912-1998), UUP MP for South Down 1974-87, pictured here in Channel 4’s “After Dark” (1987)

But back to October ’74, and before Nationalists could finish cheering (and giggling) over Maguire’s victory over West, the news came through of the resurrection of Enoch Powell’s career – as the new UUP Member for South Down.  Powell had actually been recruited to the UUP by Harry West – which further underlines any honest assessment of the latter’s political acumen.  Then again, the former Member for South West Wolverhampton could himself boast something of an accident-prone political career.

Probably no other British politician has been so excoriated, misunderstood, and mythologised, as John Enoch Powell.  He is one of those figures on whom it is almost forbidden to have a mixed opinion – you are allowed only to admire or to despise him.  I know this from personal experience: a couple of years ago, to mark the centenary of his birth, I offered to submit a piece on him for the Morning Star.  They initially agreed, but when I sent them my copy they then refused, saying that it was “too easy on him” – merely because in what was a highly critical article I had dared to mention what I considered to be his sole positive legacy: as Harold Macmillan’s Minister of Health, in December 1961 he had made the contraceptive Pill available on the NHS (It’s worth stopping for a few seconds to take in the irony: Enoch Powell, arguably the most reactionary Tory MP since the war, kick-started the Sexual Revolution.).

It is, of course, not for having licensed the Pill that Powell is best remembered.  A certain speech that he made to Tory Party activists at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel on 20 April 1968 attracted more headlines, and has continued to do so to this day.

In what would become known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, Powell warned that the rate of immigration from Commonwealth countries (not, significantly, immigration from, say, the United States or Western Europe) was such that the country’s housing and public services were being put under excessive strain – a strain that he predicted would lead to 1940s India-style communal riots unless the government drastically reduced immigration levels and arranged for voluntary repatriation of current immigrants.

While it is not racist to express concern over immigration (as the then Conservative leader Michael Howard helpfully reminded us during the 2005 general election campaign), the subject is such a sensitive one that it is crucial to get the tone and context right when it is being discussed, and Powell clearly failed in this regard.  There are ways of dealing with alarm and concern, and to use terms like “wide-grinning piccaninnies” and phrases like ‘In 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ are (and were) the wrong way.  In the case of the second quotation, Powell rather pathetically said that he was quoting one of his constituents.

While many of his admirers – then and now – would point to Powell’s patriotism and empathy with the British people as his motives for sounding off so dramatically over immigration, an alternative and more likely motive can be discerned in an interview he gave to the Sunday Times‘s Nicholas Tomalin in 1968, in which he baldly stated:

I deliberately include at least one startling assertion in every speech in order to attract enough attention to give me a power base with the Conservative Party.  Provided I keep this going, Ted Heath can never sack me from the Shadow Cabinet.

As if to underline the Basic Truth, Universally Acknowledged of British politics – that it is perfectly possible to be simultaneously very intelligent and very stupid (qv Margaret Thatcher, David Mellor, Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband et al) – Ted Heath did sack Powell from the Shadow Cabinet, just  a day after the Midland Hotel speech.  Despite Powell’s receiving tens of thousands of letters praising his speech, and supportive protests from dockers in meat porters in London (who apparently missed the irony of backing a man who also believed in a proto-monetarist economic policy that would have cost most of them their jobs), his prospects of ever becoming party leader (and potentially Prime Minister) were over.  Immigrant families, however, were the first to feel the speech’s physical consequences, as there was an upsurge in racist attacks around the country.

Scarcely a year goes by without some public figure desperately seeking attention proclaiming ‘Enoch Was Right!’ but it is certainly curious how few of Powell’s admirers tend not to mention his other Big Ideas.  He also thought that the UK should not only abandon its “special relationship” with the United States but also form a military alliance with the Soviet Union – an idea that not even the most left-wing Labour MPs ever seriously entertained.  He also favoured unilateral nuclear disarmament – a cause that even that darling of the left Aneurin Bevan had abandoned towards the end of his life.  Fair enough, politicians’ opinions do not always follow the party line, but one would have thought these other causes might make his right-wing fans think again about how seriously to take him.

In any case, it was not his attitude to immigration that resulted in Enoch Powell’s self-imposed exile to Northern Ireland.  Dead set against the Heath government’s decision to take the country into what was then called the Common Market, Powell left the Tories on the eve of the first 1974 election, and urged the electorate to vote Labour – since Wilson had promised a referendum on whether the country should stay in.  Reacting to cries of “Judas”, he retorted:

Judas was paid – I am making a sacrifice!

As the newly elected Member for South Down, Powell could claim a success in being a leading light in the negotiations that resulted in Northern Ireland sending more MPs to Westminster.  Following these talks with a vulnerable Labour government, Northern Ireland’s representation rose from 12 to 17 MPs, with the proportion of Northern Irish MPs in Westminster going from 1.9 per cent to a dizzying 2.7 per cent.

Otherwise, Powell’s story was one of resuming a career of lost causes, as he championed Northern Ireland’s complete Integration into the British political system – so that the Tories, Labour and the Liberals could organize and campaign there.  Despite his obvious rhetorical talents, Powell could not persuade the rest of the UUP with him, although Jim Molyneaux, West’s successor as party leader, was quietly sympathetic to the idea.  The objective of Powell’s fellow UUP MPs was: Back to Pre-1972 Stormont Or Bust, although West and Bill Craig would later advocate a power-sharing deal with Nationalists.  Today, among Northern Ireland’s political community only Bob McCartney QC flies the flag for Integration, and his career now consists of occasional guest appearances at TUV conferences – although Jim Allister’s party, while opposed to the current Stormont set-up, is also against Integration.

Enoch Powell died in February 1998, but his complicated legacy remains.  It is one of a community encouraged by politicians and their media lackeys to think of immigration as always being a burden to the country – even though the doomsayers have been repeatedly confounded over the generations as immigrants have been absorbed without too much difficulty.  It is one of working people down on their luck being encouraged to blame immigrants for their problems – rather than things like stingy employers, the ravages of neo-liberal economics, and repeated failures by governments to address the problems in housing and the Health Service, which are experienced by everyone.

As for Northern Ireland, forty years after Powell returned to Westminster to represent one of its constituencies it is still in the Union, but only just – and is not only governed in a way diametrically opposite to his dream of total Integration, but is also represented by nobody who honestly believes in the idea.

In addition to being in politics, Powell was also an acclaimed academic, scholar and writer, with one of his works being a biography of the Liberal-turned Unionist Tory Joseph Chamberlain – and a fellow Brummie.  Commenting on Chamberlain’s failure to reach the top job, he wrote:

All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.

The book came out in 1977, and one suspects that the writer was not thinking only about his hero.

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  • Michael Henry

    English loving Racists political careers might end in failure but thats their own big mouths fault- Some Sinn Fein political careers ended when the Brits shot them dead-

  • mickfealty

    Yes Mickey, but this guy’s legacy is not quite that easy. One of the few of his time to whom the reading of ancient Chadalian scripts came relatively easy.

    Not that that I think he’s above criticism, but when in NI separate development is written into the NI settlement, aren’t we starting one down on Powell in the racist stakes?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Some Sinn Fein political careers ended when the Brits shot them dead-”

    How awful, Sinn Fein would never stoop so low. *COUGH!* “EDGAR GRAHAM!” *COUGH!*

  • barnshee

    Recognition for “Powell gets it right” (some 40 odd years later)

    I remember Maguire as famously turning up at Westminster to “abstain in person”

    in the vote which banished Labour for 18 years He tried to sell his vote to Labour and was politely told to fuck off

  • Gary Thompson


  • terence patrick hewett

    As a young man (pre-thatcher era) I spent a months’ wages on seeing Enoch Powell lecture on economics. He had the ability to turn his flat west midlands accent into a mesmerisingly powerful rhetorical device. Quite simply the best speaker I have ever heard.

  • Michael Henry

    Mick- I enjoyed reading Dans piece- and it was my first time knowing about Enoch’s history in World War Two- but he did not want countries / people leaving his Empire- it’s that mind-set that causes wars- England want to war with the Nazis for invading Poland – and they were right- but England had invaded most of the planet before 1939 and Enoch was proud of this- he only seen wrong in others-

  • Tacapall

    Is that your own opinion Am Ghobsmacht or do you have actual evidence that any member or members of Sinn Fein was or were involved in his murder ?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Really Tac?

    We’re actually going to go down this route of the IRA and SF being completely different creatures ‘back in the day’?

    Well, each to their own though I for one am treating them as two limbs of the same beast.

    I am struck by the notion that the organisation(s?) that I speak of were very prone to ‘blurring the lines’ when it came to choosing ‘viable targets’ of the ‘forces of occupation’ (ranging from military to target, to relations of a military target to passers-by passing by a military target to ‘utterly military target’ to “I can’t believe it’s not military target….”) yet when I apply the same criteria to tarring various parties with the same brush I am promptly reminded of the reality of the demarcation in place.

    I’ll bear that in mind Tac.

  • Tacapall

    The fact is AG there were lots of men and women who went through the IRA ranks but were never members of Sinn Fein and regardless what you believe they are two separate organisations. Some IRA members were indeed in both but the majority of Sinn Fein members were never in the IRA. I cant remember anyone ever being charged with being a member of Sinn Fein nor do I remember anyone ever being charged with carrying out any act of violence on behalf of Sinn Fein, that’s not my opinion that’s fact but like I said if you have any factual evidence to back up your tarring everyone with the one brush theory then put your fingers to the keyboard and lets see it.

  • Mister_Joe

    Carefully chosen words, Tac, and I congratulate you. Now, were Gerry Adams and Martin McG and some others high up in SF also members of the IRA, even senior commanders? Please don’t be shy. I fully accept that many members of SF were not members of the IRA, and I always challenge those Unionists who often try to imply so, here on Slugger as well in other places.

  • PeterOHanrahanrahan

    What I would have given to see him in action in the Commons; subduing hundreds of half-drunk MPs with that same rhetorical flair must have been quite a sight.

  • Tacapall

    Joe of course your right I would not deny that fact but having dual membership is not whats being insinuated by AG its his belief that Sinn Fein as a party/group/organisation actively targeted other politicians for execution, that is simply not true. That is his own personal opinion not based on any factual evidence other than assumption and ignorance. There is an abundance of evidence out there that RUC officers also had dual membership of the UVF so following AGs logic does that mean the RUC and UVF were one and the same, that any murders carried out in the UVFs name were actually carried out on behalf of the RUC.

  • Mister_Joe

    Agree, Tac. I do not believe that SF targetted others for murder.

  • Michael Henry

    The vast majority of dissidents were never in the IRA- as their worst attempts at war can prove to everyone except the PSNI ( who are looking for more funds ) and reporters ( who are trying to sell their writings about dissidents when most people want to see sport yarns )-

  • Tacapall

    Let me guess Michael, obviously you weren’t around when the provisional IRA were classed as dissidents. So would official IRA members be classed as being in the IRA in your eyes ? As for reporters trying to sell their writings, remember An Phoblacht /Republican News or is that not the same.

    By the way did I hit a raw nerve ?

  • Michael Henry

    No- have to say that I don’t remember the Provos being called Dissidents-( you still living in your own wee world )-

    You could not hit number 1 never mind a raw nerve-

  • Tacapall
  • Brian Walker

    Enoch Powell with whom I had quite a few dealings, made two distinctive contributions to Northern Ireland. He was uncompromisingly against
    any flirtation with violence and equally against devolution. For those reasons
    there was mutual loathing between him and Paisley who was more than a little afraid of him. Quite a few within his own party felt the lash of Brigadier Powell’s tongue, notably his own constituency chairman Colonel Brush who founded a shadowy group called Down Orange Welfare. .
    Powell had a flinty integrity. He believed that Unionists had only to behave lawfully to win politically and the guarantee of the Union was their membership of
    Parliament. Having helped Labour into office in 1974 over his opposition to the Conservative entry Into the EEC, he exploited the Labour minority to
    increase the number of NI seats from 12 to 18 to the considerable benefit at
    least at first, of the Unionist cause. He swung Jim Molyneaux towards the Unionists leader’s own instincts in favour of integration with GB during the mid to late 70s at a time when this was in synch with the political inertia of the time and through the doomed Assembly of the early 80s, only to encounter the shock of Unionist “ betrayal “ of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 which gave Dublin its first official “say” on our affairs. For that, Powell fiercely denounced his protege Thatcher. The Agreement marked the effective end of his real influence with Unionism although it took almost a decade to replace his line.

    He was an active MP and prided himself in his knowledge of its history and culture as well as its practical concerns. He waged a strange campaign for the rights of the fishermen of Annalong and Ardglass against the Isle of Man.

    An enthusiastic carpenter, he built his own kitchen table for his cottage in Loughbrickland. Never one to play safe, in one of his last speeches on the eve of electoral defeat in south Down, he chose as the main topic a condemnation of capital punishment.

    He was admired by Michel Foot with whom I heard him debate
    in agreement from opposite directions an elected House of Lords. In modern terms he can be regarded as a racist although an Urdu-speaking racist who had a romantic affinity with south Asian cultures. The “rivers of blood “ speech I believe was a typically perverse attempt to win attention and a reaction to what he always regarded as the hypocrisies of political discourse. He would have made savagely ironic comments today about the main parties’ evasions over immigration.

    Thwarted in his dream to become Viceroy of India, he became an English nationalist and was almost unhinged in his paranoid suspicions of both the EEC and the American alliance. His most through and admiring biography is by the right wing traditionalist Simon Heffer. The Conservative politician
    Iain Maceod warned people to be “ careful to jump off the train of Enoch’s
    logic before it hits the buffers”.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    “so following AGs logic does that mean the RUC and UVF were one and the same”

    The RUC was not the political wing of the UVF.

    They were not joined at the hip.

    The RUC even on occasion arrested members of the UVF.

    Perhaps the UVF even targeted RUC officers sometimes (no time to scroll through CAIN).

    The chief constable did not represent the UVF at various peace talks.

    ” but having dual membership is not whats being insinuated by AG its his belief that Sinn Fein as a party/group/organisation actively targeted other politicians for execution, that is simply not true”

    You can not claim that it is “simply not true” any more than I can prove that it is, we are both convinced of our opinions; you and your belief that SF had nothing to do with the murder department and me with my belief that the ‘political department’ was not entirely blameless and was certainly capable of ‘painting’ a target.

    (FYI, I didn’t say ‘actively targeted’, that’s a different lark altogether from a “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” scenario which is more along the lines of what I am implying).

    I could be wrong; perhaps if GA, GK and M McG sent a memo to the ‘boys in the basement’ with a reason why someone posed a threat and should be ‘dealt with’ there was the chance that them downstairs would always tell them to wind their necks in and leave the sanguine side of the business to them in the know.

    Now, would you bet that this was the case?

    Is it your belief that they (SF) had no influence or control over who was ‘going underground’ should they feel strongly on the matter one way or the other?

    “That is his own personal opinion not based on any factual evidence other than assumption and ignorance”

    It is an opinion and is hardly based on ignorance. My opinion is that they were very much in a Siamese twin relationship and operated as different parts of the same body.

    What’s being insinuated by moi is such was the relationship that one twin had the wherewithal and capacity to influence the other twin to take out ‘targets’ (military or otherwise) if the former twin could cobble together a ‘valid’ enough reason and was suitably motivated.

    I’m sure some sort of legal chicanery could indeed exonerate this of the twin from the scenario of being caught red handed (with other twin, natch) with a bloody hatchet, a warm cadaver, CCTV footage of the murder and a note (in their handwriting) with the words “the b*stard had it coming…” scribbled on it.

    No doubt you’d be satisfied with this outcome but you’ll have to forgive me for not being convinced that the other twin wasn’t in some way complicit in the murder (and spare me your Ally McBeale knowledge).

    So yes, you’re right that they were ‘technically separate’ but there’s the blurring of the lines and then there’s this.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Mister J

    Tac was clever with his words there.

    From your point of view though, IF a noted, capable and competent threat to SF was to be coincidentally murdered by the Provos back in the day in all honesty would your reaction have been be one of shock or surprise?

    I’ll hold my hands up and say that although I’d be horrified at another murder I certainly wouldn’t have been surprised.

  • Tacapall

    AG the difference between us is what you believe and what I know, myself being a republican all my life living in West Belfast. I asked you to produce any evidence of your assumptions and instead all you did was write a rather long assembly of words not containing any facts but simply once again snippets of your own imagination.

    “Some Sinn Fein political careers ended when the Brits shot them dead- How awful, Sinn Fein would never stoop so low. *COUGH!* “EDGAR GRAHAM!” *COUGH!*

    Once again if you have any evidence of the above then feel free to post it.

  • Mister_Joe

    I’m not too far from you on this. Despite the murkiness caused by dual membership by some people, I just can’t believe that SF as a political party, would have ordered murder. I know I stand open to the accusation of naivete but that’s the way it is.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Fair enough Mr J, each to their own.

    BTW, I re-read my post and apologies if it sounded ‘catty’, it was not meant to be so. I should have used a smiley. 🙂

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    You know fine and well that I don’t have the evidence to back that up; that is an easy get-out-of-jail-free-card in debating terms hence it’s over use by people like Unionist Press Centre (or Don’t Drink Bleach or whatever his name is now…).

    I also don’t have any evidence that Gerry Adams was in the IRA nor do I have any evidence that cars with Southern registrations which are burnt-out/vandalised in/near loyalist areas are targeted purely for being southern cars nor can I prove that some rural Orangemen conspire together to stop land from being sold to Catholics but I doubt if many people would see such assertions as those of the tinfoil hat wearing brigade.

    And once again, feel free to answer this question;

    “Is it your belief that they (SF) had no influence or control over who was ‘going underground*’ should they feel strongly on the matter one way or the other?”

    *As in targeted/murdered/killed/eliminated/dealt-with

  • Tacapall

    AG Sinn Fein as a political party had as much influence enticing other republicans to commit acts of violence as British government ministers like Douglas Hurd had of enticing loyalists to commit acts of violence.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    As much as I am damned by the fact that the onus to provide evidence s on me on this one I’m afraid I can’t agree.

    I can’t believe that in 1983 if SF viewed someone as a threat that there was no mechanism or machination in place that would allow for their pleads of “who will rid me of this turbulent unionist?” to coincidentally come to pass.

    And if they couldn’t then does that state of affairs not make a mockery of Danny Morrison’s question:

    “Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”
    Danny Morrison, Sinn Fein Conference, October 1981

    If SF are the ballot box then who’s the armalite?

    A completely separate organisation that SF have no influence over?

    How does that work without some sort of agreement on targets and/or code of conduct (using the term loosely you understand)?
    You have the advantage here given your republican background, this could be one of those speeches that never happened or has had the context ripped out of it.

    I’m curious either way.