Arch-racist or misunderstood visionary?
😐 😐 😐
The controversy surrounding Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech happened when I was a child, but its impact was still reverberating by the time I was an active union member in the late seventies and eighties and it continues to be used by the extreme right as a form of justification today. To the left (of whom I was and still am one) he was defined entirely by that speech; the arch-racist, reviled by those who believed in equality and integration; a man who used language that even in those less politically correct days was seen as shocking and inflammatory. I hoped this book would fill out my knowledge of the man and his beliefs enough to enable me to see if the left had done him an injustice.
This book sets out to re-evaluate Powell’s whole career of which the speech was only a part, albeit a seismic one. The editor, Lord Howard of Rising, says in the preface that the book is not intended to be a hagiography but rather to look at the relevance of Powell’s views to the politics of today across a range of issues. It is presented as a series of essays on different subjects written by a variety of authors.
The real problem with the book is that, despite the editor’s stated intention, it is in fact largely hagiographical. The contributors in the main comprise of some pretty right-wing politicians and journalists, most of whom are clearly inclined to see Powell as a misunderstood visionary. In fact, more than one of the contributors says in terms that Powell was frequently misinterpreted because we, the public, were fundamentally too stupid and/or ill educated to understand his intellectual analyses. For example, Roger Scruton in the section The Language of Enoch Powell says ‘…when alluding to the Cumaean Sybil in Book VI of the Aeneid, he imagined that his hearers would remember their Virgil, see the moral of the story and move on. In fact, those who garbled the quotation and imagined that Powell had referred to ‘rivers of blood’ promptly set out to destroy the man who had dared to allude to their own hidden fears. As Powell was to discover, rhetoric and allusion are dangerous, and never more dangerous than in the minds of those who do not understand them…’.
The overall lack of balance is unfortunate since there is much of interest in the book. Powell’s stand against Britain’s entry to the Common Market, his analysis of nationhood and the role of Parliament, his involvement in the Unionist politics of Ireland and his espousal of monetarism before Thatcherism are all well described and enhanced by substantial quotes from his speeches, some of which are also given in their entirety. But the obvious bias of most of the contributors means that there is a serious lack of critical analysis in most of the sections. Surprisingly, I found that the most balanced section was the one on ‘Immigration’, contributed by Tom Bower. He attempts to understand why a man who was obviously highly intelligent and considered to be a skilled orator should have failed to see that his speech would be political suicide and would, in the eyes of many, have the effect of closing down the possibility of rational debate on the subject of race and immigration for several decades.
Ultimately, I feel this book is a re-statement of Powell’s views rather than a re-evaluation and, as such, I’m not sure of its value. However, despite the fact that I disagree fundamentally with pretty much everything Powell stood for, the book at least convinced me that he was a thoughtful, intelligent man, albeit a cold and intellectually arrogant one. And on many of the issues that he involved himself in during his career, his views are similar to those expressed by those on the right and even far right today, so to that extent the aim of proving his relevance for a modern audience could be said to have been achieved. But would he be shocked or pleased to know that his best-remembered speech is still being used half a century later to bolster the arguments of racist groups at home and abroad (as a youtube search will demonstrate)? After reading this book, I feel no closer to knowing the answer to that question.