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.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.