All political lives end in failure

Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech happened 50 years ago this month.

Two boys are sitting in a living room watching television. One boy is playing with a knife, making notches on his chair. He holds the knife like a child with a rattle. The other boy has both his hands resting on his chair’s arms.

“You know that Enoch Powell? That leader,” he says. The other boy is digging his knife into the right arm of his chair.

“He knew straight away, he went over to Africa, and all that right…” He’s interrupted by the boy with the knife. The knife is now sticking out of his chair’s arm at a 90-degree angle.

“Is this what happened?” he says. Both boys have strong Cockney accents.

“Yeah, and he knew it was a slum. He knew it was a slum. And he come back here and said. “They’re not civilised and all that.” The conversation descends into more grievous territory.

“He knew straight away. He was going, “No, don’t want them here. Fucking, they’re going to ruin the gaff.” And he was right. They fucking have ruined it.”

A smile descends across the boy with the knife’s face. “I want to write him a letter. Enoch Powell mate, you are the greatest. You are the Don of Dons.”

The boys are two of the suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder case. The main speaker is Luke Knight, who was only 16 at the time of Stephen’s death. The boy with the knife is the ominous gang leader Neil Acourt.

Enoch Powell is a darling to Britons who share the views of Stephen Lawrence’s killers. He is the bogeyman of the immigration debate.

The debacle over many Windrush generation migrants being threatened with deportation by the Home Office has provoked widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum. That it happened in the week of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech shines a light both on the inextricable links Caribbean migrants and their descendants have with Britain, and the many difficulties they have faced.

The three-part BBC documentary series Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation explores this dichotomy. It shows the extraordinary struggle of the Lawrence family to obtain justice, the effect Stephen Lawrence’s murder has had on Britain, and the ignorance and incompetence of the Metropolitan Police, plagued by racism and corruption in their handling of the case.

The above conversation is featured in the second episode of the documentary series. The conversation, secretly taped by the police, shows just where the Lawrence killers’ politics lay. It’s not the most incendiary language they ever used, but it is reflective of what all the killers believe.

Enoch Powell is a darling to Britons who share the views of Stephen Lawrence’s killers. He is the bogeyman of the immigration debate. Any politician who calls for tougher immigration restrictions can expect to be accused of ‘Powellism’ or ‘Powellite’ rhetoric by a section of the pro-immigration crowd. And all because the classics scholar from Birmingham made one speech against immigration on April 20th, 1968. It used incendiary language. Some of the language was indeed racist.

Judge for yourself! Here, he quotes a letter from a Northumberland-based woman describing what is purportedly happening to a pensioner in Powell’s constituency of Wolverhampton:

“Eight years ago, in a respectable street in Wolverhampton a house was sold to a Negro. Now only one white (a woman old-age pensioner) lives there…She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. “Racialist,” they chant. When the new Race Relations Bill is passed, this woman is convinced she will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder.”

As Matthew Parris says in last week’s Radio 4 documentary on the Rivers of Blood speech, the speech is “laced through with evident racism, with implicit racism, with trying to use the racism of others whom he’s reporting to disguise, but not entirely to conceal his own racism.” And he’s right. Even if Powell is quoting, his endorsement of the unambiguously racist letter betrays his underlying sentiments.

Although he had a reputation for being on the Tory right, he was surprisingly liberal on some issues

Powell’s official biographer Simon Heffer says this reputation is undeserved though. On the Archive on 4 programme, he said “Powell was not making a racist speech. He was not talking about race, he was talking about numbers…Enoch sincerely believed that there was going to be great social upheaval in this country if we did not control immigration. That was what motivated him to make the speech. He wanted everybody in this country to live together, and that includes immigrants.”

So, is Powell’s reputation deserved? Do his words deserve a mass chorus of execration of the kind his words in ‘Rivers of Blood’ caused? Has Enoch Powell been unfairly labelled by that speech?

Learning about Powell’s life, I, like many others find his life to be a mix of eccentricity and enthralment. It starts from the time he was a child. Born in 1912, he was precocious and gifted (His childhood nickname was “The Professor”). In December 1929, he took the classics scholarship exam at Cambridge University. Each exam lasted three hours, but he finished them all after 90 minutes.

At Cambridge, he did nothing but work. “I literally worked from half past five in the morning until half past nine at night behind a sported oak except when I went out to lectures.” When he was once asked if he would come to tea, he replied “Thank you, but I came here to work.”

He became the youngest professor in the British Empire at the age of 25. He then served in the war rising from private to brigadier. He loved the army, although he said his greatest regret was not to be killed in the war.

After the war, he became an MP and served in numerous junior ministerial posts. He eventually became a Cabinet Minister but was only in government for 15 months. Although he had a reputation for being on the Tory right, he was surprisingly liberal on some issues. In the 1960s, he supported both homosexual law reform and the abolition of capital punishment.

But for such a famous politician, he had very few legislative accomplishments. In Vernon Bogdanor’s words, Powell was a politician who “made the weather.” “Powell’s significance came not from what he achieved in Parliament or in government, but what he stood for,” he said in his 2013 Gresham College lecture on Powell.

The romantic nationalist was surprisingly prescient in many of his beliefs. On the European Union, Powell was the most notable right-wing Eurosceptic in Britain in the 1970s. In a debate on Britain’s accession to the Common Market, the forerunner of the EU, Powell said “that it is an inherent consequence of accession to the Treaty of Rome that this House and Parliament will lose their legislative supremacy.”

Powell’s  concerns over British sovereignty explains his opposition to Britain’s membership of the Common Market. It was these same concerns over sovereignty that motivated many people to vote for Brexit in the 2016 EU Referendum. Culturally, his remark that “We define ourselves not as Europeans, but as partly in Europe, partly out” reflects the complicated feelings that most Britons feel towards the land we call “The Continent.”

Vernon Bogdanor: “Powell’s significance came not from what he achieved in Parliament or in government, but what he stood for.”

Powell’s strong belief in the United Kingdom also influenced his opposition to devolution for its constituent nations. His worry that devolution would lead to the breakup of the union could be regarded as prescient in light of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. Three years later, unionists failed to win a majority in the Northern Irish legislature for the first time in 96 years. The country’s Catholic population could become a majority in 2021, increasing the size of the nationalist bloc.

Powell was also a Thatcherite before Thatcher. He was a monetarist and called for the denationalisation of public services in the 1960s, a radical move at the time. His alternative ‘Morecambe Budget’ of 1968 called for extensive free-market policies.

In his lecture five years ago, Bogdanor says, “What unites all Powell’s thinking is the logical consequences of the end of Empire and the return to a sense of Britishness. He is the prime representative in post-war politics of British nationalism, or perhaps better to say, English nationalism.”

Powell was Britain’s first major post-war populist political figure. He was not legislatively successful, but his ideology is ever-present. His Euroscepticism was evident in Britain’s most successful single-issue group, the neo-Powellite UKIP. Brexit is happening! You can thank Enoch for that. Not as much as the free market economics policies of the last four decades though. Thank Enoch, the proto-Thatcherite!

But on immigration, his Cassandra-style foreboding did not come about. It’s because of people like Doreen Lawrence that Britain is a much better place to live than both twenty-five and fifty years ago.

Yes, Britain has major problems with integration. People still tend to live near people like them. Heck, you can blame state multiculturalism for some of the problems. But there have been no ‘Rivers of Blood.’ The apocalypse did not materialise. And Britain is better for it.