‘Listening for an Echo’

Ian Hefferman, American Renaissance, May 2001

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell was the greatest of British opponents to multi-racialism, and anyone who speaks out against it stands in his shadow. He articulated brilliantly and fearlessly the concerns of ordinary people ignored by an arrogant liberal elite, and succeeded more than any other man in calling attention to the destruction of Britain.

Powell’s career prior to becoming an MP is well known. Born in Birmingham in 1912, he was an outstanding student at King Edward VI’s High School in his home city, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read classics. He became a don at that college and then, at the age of only 25, professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, Australia. Returning to Britain and enlisting as a private soldier at the outbreak of war in 1939, he rose rapidly to the rank of Brigadier General.

After the war he turned his energies to politics and was elected Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South-west in February 1950. This was less than two years after 500 Jamaicans arrived in Tilbury on board the Empire Windrush, but for some years Powell stood aloof from the immigration debate.

Labour lost power to the Conservatives in 1951, and the Conservatives remained in office until 1964. Always a man who put beliefs before career, Powell’s first major act of political rebellion was in 1958, when he resigned as financial secretary to the Treasury in protest over the Conservative government’s plans for increased spending. At a time when Keynesian interventionism was in vogue, Powell’s belief in free markets was regarded as outmoded. Just over two decades later, Margaret Thatcher swept to power on an economic program almost identical to Powell’s.

As the 1950s wore on, non-white immigration became a significant political issue, and there was pressure from some backbench Conservatives to introduce controls. Immigration critic Cyril Osborne was a fellow Tory MP, but Powell took no part in his movement. This was still the case even after the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill and elsewhere had begun to raise serious questions about the wisdom of admitting so many non-whites. Osborne himself approached Powell after the riots and asked him to support the campaign against immigration but Powell declined.

In fact, as Minister of Health in the early 1960s, Powell actually oversaw the recruitment of non-white staff from Commonwealth countries into the National Health Service. He later explained that recruitment was in the hands of individual hospital authorities, and that there were no restrictions on Commonwealth immigration; such controls came into effect only in July 1962, two years after Powell became Minister of Health.

Still, Powell was not unconcerned about the race issue. He was a member of the Kilmuir Committee, which kept a watching brief on the need for immigration controls, and whose discussions in 1961 led to the first imposition of restrictions. During these discussions Powell favored tougher measures than those eventually adopted.

Despite the imposition of controls in 1962, immigration continued to increase, and by the next election in October 1964 it was clear the multi-racial experiment was going badly wrong. This was obvious to anyone living in the working-class districts where most immigrants settled, and where a genuine sense of resentment was beginning to develop. In Wolverhampton 10 percent of the population was already non-white, and this time Powell raised the subject in his election address. He justified the imposition of controls, and attacked Labour for having obstructed and voted against them at every opportunity. It was 1964 that saw Peter Griffiths’ surprise victory in Smethwick and the notorious “nigger” slogan (see cover story), but Powell took no part in the campaign.

Why was he silent for so long? Probably it is because the early 1960s was the last point at which one could sensibly have argued for a solution to the race problem that did not involve large-scale repatriation. If a major party had gone into the 1964 election advocating a moratorium on non-white immigration, been elected, and then carried out its promise, the race problem could perhaps have been solved-though 1959 would have been an even better time for such a campaign. It was the shift in circumstances that probably explains why Powell spoke out about race when he did. Like millions of ordinary Britons he must have initially approved of what seemed a generous policy, but became exasperated when numbers began to rise beyond reason.

He began to describe the effects of immigration in language that made a powerful impression on the public. In an article in The Daily Telegraph in 1967 he wrote of how entire areas of Wolverhampton had been “transformed by the substitution of a wholly or predominantly coloured population for the previous native inhabitants as completely as other areas were transformed by the bulldozer,” and expressed his astonishment that this event, “which altered the appearance and life of a town and had a shattering effect on the lives of many families and persons, could take place with virtually no physical manifestation of antipathy [from whites]” (something even more incredible today). These people, he said, had been “driven from their homes . . . by an invasion which the government apparently approved and their fellow citizens-elsewhere-viewed with complacency.” He said it would seem incredible to subsequent generations that nothing was done sooner to control the influx.

A year later in Walsall he made a speech in which he identified the “sense of hopelessness and helplessness which comes over persons who are trapped or imprisoned when all their efforts to attract attention and assistance bring no response.” And he spoke again of the complacency of people outside the communities which were being destroyed by this influx: “So far as most people in the British Isles are concerned, you and I [people of his part of the West Midlands] might as well be living in central Africa for all they know about our circumstances.”

One tends to think that the more vicious and infantile forms of anti-racism are a recent development, but the reactions to his speech are exactly what one might expect today. The Sunday Times pilloried Powell with an editorial called “Powell on Prejudice.” And as it would be today, the media reaction was in stark contrast to that of ordinary people. Powell received 800 letters, only two of which were opposed to what he said. Many were from Labour supporters expressing gratitude that at last someone in public life was prepared to say openly what they were thinking.

Still, it is mainly for a single speech that Powell is now remembered, one he gave to Conservatives in his native city of Birmingham in April 1968, certain passages of which have passed into popular consciousness. Upon many minds are still imprinted such phrases as:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents . . . It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.

He also spoke of “areas undergoing the total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history.”

He spoke with great prescience of the consequences of Labour’s race relations legislation that would give immigrants the means to “organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided.” In a biblical allusion, he remarked that “the kindest thing that can be said about those who propose and support [the legislation] is that they know not what they do.”

Powerful as his language was, some could argue it went too far, as when he spoke of an elderly woman, the last white on her street, whom her new neighbors were trying to drive out. She had excreta pushed through her letter box, Powell explained, and was met in the street by “charming, wide-grinning pickaninnies” who knew only one word of English: “racialist [the then-equivalent of “racist”].” According to Powell, the woman was convinced she would go to prison if the new race laws were passed. (Even at that time Powell noted that many people who wrote him were afraid to give their addresses.)

The reaction to what became known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech was predictable: vilification from the political elite and massive support from the people. Tory leader Edward Heath sacked him from the shadow cabinet, and an editorial in The Times was titled “An Evil Speech.” Even the Wolverhampton paper The Express and Star which had supported him, was heavily critical. It said Powell could have made his points more effectively if he had used more moderate language, and that it was possible to damage a case by overstatement. Of course, given what is happening today, and the timorousness of people who speak about race, one is tempted to conclude a cause can be damaged by understatement.

Opinion polls, on the other hand, showed overwhelming support for Powell and opposition to his sacking. The Express and Star received 5,000 letters supporting Powell and 300 that were critical, and only 372 of 35,000 readers who took part in a postcard poll thought Mr. Heath had been right to sack him. Powell received 100,000 letters within the space of a few days, only 800 of which were critical, and the Post Office had to use a van to deliver his mail. Mr. Heath also received a lot of mail, 99 percent of it in support of Powell, and many petitions from trade unionists. There were pro-Powell demonstrations by trade unionists in London and the West Midlands, which of course appalled Labour politicians. Powell had become an establishment pariah, and at the same time the country’s most popular politician.

Returning to the backbenches, he continued to make speeches on immigration, and to call for repatriation. At the 1968 Tory party conference he replied to those who said repatriation was not possible: “Whatever the true interests of our country call for is always possible.” He received a rapturous welcome from ordinary delegates but a rather less warm one from his political colleagues.

In a speech at Eastbourne shortly afterwards, Powell warned of the “deep and dangerous gulf” developing between ordinary people and a tiny liberal elite with a virtual monopoly on the channels of communication, who “seem determined not to know the facts and not to face realities and who will resort to any device or extremity to blind both themselves and others.” He called again for large-scale voluntary repatriation and the creation of a Ministry of Repatriation.

His influence continued to grow, and he is widely believed to have won the 1970 election for the Tories. There were particularly strong swings to the party in and around Wolverhampton and to a lesser extent in the West Midlands generally, and right across the country Powell’s stance on race is credited with winning the Tories votes that would ordinarily have gone to Labour. His appeal was particularly strong among the working-class. A stupid attack by Tony Benn, in which he described Powell’s approach as “evil,” and said “the flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered over Dachau and Belsen,” probably also contributed to the Conservative victory.

The Tory government elected in 1970 further tightened immigration controls — something for which Powell could rightly claim credit — and introduced a provision for a very limited form of voluntary repatriation (Immigration Act 1971, section 29). Powell continued to campaign for repatriation on a much larger scale.

His popularity with the general public endured and so did his influence on elections. He declined to stand for the party at the February 1974 election in protest at its prices and incomes policy and over his disagreement with membership in the European Economic Community. He is widely credited with having lost this election for the Tories, perhaps simply because Labour voters who had been attracted to the Tories in 1970 reverted to their previous allegiance when Powell did not stand. Again, particularly strong swings to Labour in the West Midlands tend to support this view. He himself thought he had influenced the results of both the 1970 and 1974 elections. As he later said of Mr. Heath, “I put him in and I took him out.”

After having left the Tories, he returned to parliament at the October 1974 election as an Ulster Unionist MP. He held this seat until 1987, and lost reelection only because of redistricting that made his constituency more Nationalist. He never abandoned the race issue. Speaking in the Commons in July 1981 after the race riots of the early Thatcher years, he placed the blame squarely on non-white immigration, and again called for repatriation. In 1987, in an interview with Nick Ross on Channel 4, he still saw the threat of an “appalling” civil war that would be essentially racial in nature.

As for Margaret Thatcher’s famously influential remark in January 1978 on “World in Action” about understanding people felt “really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by [those] with a different culture,” he said he first thought she shared his understanding of the problem and had definite plans for dealing with it. Later he concluded she had only a tendency to allow her sympathy for ordinary people to lead her into statements on which she was not prepared to act.

Powell left an incomparable legacy of speeches and commentary on race, but he also had strongly-held views on other issues, such as Europe and Ulster. Critics argued that his support of free markets was incompatible with his racial views. They argued that international capitalism inevitably leads to mass population movements because of inequalities in living standards in different countries, and that one cannot advocate both capitalism and ethnic integrity. Put differently, it is inconsistent to believe in the free movement of capital but not in the free movement of people. Needless to say, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan successfully combine capitalism with ethnic integrity.

Others have criticized Powell for his stark language, saying that for a prominent politician to speak as he did bestowed respectability on “extremists.” Others say he shut down debate about race because more moderate politicians were reluctant thereafter to raise the issue at all (though this is really a reflection on the cowardliness and careerism of our political class rather than a criticism of Powell).

A perhaps more cogent criticism is that though he provoked enormous public demonstrations of support, it was at the price of losing his ministerial status and the means to influence immigration policy at the top level. But what could he really have achieved if he had not been sacked? Would he ever have been able to persuade his colleagues to accept mass repatriation? Could Powell really have hoped to achieve more by “playing the game”?

If he had not made those provocative speeches things might have been even worse. Massive public support for Powell certainly influenced the subsequent tightening of immigration laws, and he gave people the confidence to speak out against the multi-racial experiment-at least for a time. This kind of criticism seems nothing more than the tendency when all has gone wrong to blame the few people who tried to do something about it.

At a different level, one could attack his Tory reverence for British institutions, for it is these very institutions that have failed us so miserably over recent decades. For all their dignified, age-old grandeur they have been unable to prevent the undermining of the ethnic basis of the nation. Their continued existence fosters the illusion that nothing important has really changed. They serve to encourage a sense of complacency and a kind of deep-seated smugness about our nation’s magnificent heritage. In that sense perhaps there is some good in what the otherwise egregious Blair government has done in abolishing the hereditary peers. Perhaps there is more it should do in this respect.

Powell was also an opponent of foreign aid, which I believe could be part of a repatriation scheme by helping boost economic growth in developing nations, in conjunction with the skills and capital returning immigrants would bring. Another common criticism is that Powell seemed to talk as if the problem of immigration were solely a British one. He failed to see that it was common to virtually all western nations. It is important to be able to see a problem in its wider context and to learn from people in other countries.

Finally, there is the view that he gave the Conservatives an undeserved reputation for being tough on immigration, which Margaret Thatcher exploited with her famous “swamped” comment. This is relative, of course. The Conservatives have never been willing to take the tough decisions necessary to bring the multi-racial experiment to an end, but in comparison with Labour, their reputation is not unjustified.

What remains above all is Powell’s inspiring character: his willingness to speak the truth regardless of personal consequences, his courage in the face of vilification, his disdain for conventional wisdom about race, his imperviousness to ostracism, his refusal to compromise, and his ability to articulate the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people who were otherwise neglected. He once described himself as “listening for an echo,” by which he meant that hearing an echo of what he said confirmed that he was reflecting people’s feelings.

What of his predictions of bloodshed? It has not come on the scale he predicted, but there is always the potential for cataclysm. Powell once said of the race problem that “the fuse is burning, but the fuse is shorter than had been supposed.” In fact, the fuse is longer than had been supposed, not shorter. And it is still quietly burning.

Topics: , , , , , , ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.