‘I was born a Tory,’ Enoch Powell said in a speech towards the end of his life, defining 'Tory' as ‘a person who regards authority as immanent in institutions’. During the Second World War, Powell spent two years in the Middle East and North Africa Commands, stationed in Cairo as secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Unsatisfied, he wrote to his parents of his ‘determination to go East’. His chance came when the British, fearing the influence of Indian nationalism in the British Indian Army, sent a British general from Cairo to Delhi, allowing Powell to follow. He served as an officer in Delhi from 1943 to 1946, and ‘fell hopelessly and helplessly in love with India’. On his return to England he immediately joined the Conservative Party and resolved to become viceroy of India, studying Urdu at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to further his chances. The significance of these early experiences of war and empire is the focus of Camilla Schofield's recent study, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain.

He took the news of India’s independence on 15 August 1947 badly, walking the streets of London all night. ‘One’s world,’ he wrote, ‘had been altered.’ An acquaintance in the Civil Service leaked him confidential reports of partition violence in Punjab; another acquaintance, the commander of the Calcutta sub-area, wrote to him about the unfolding situation there. Partition, and Powell’s Indian experience as a whole, structured his ideas about communalism, dissent, violence and anarchy. The loss of India for Powell meant that the bonds of hierarchy, military authority and allegiance to the Crown in the colonies – the tissue of his experience of empire – were lost irretrievably. Later, after Suez, he was asked by a colleague what Britain’s next move ought to be. ‘It’s over,’ he replied.

To have loved empire and lost it – this was the personal experience of Enoch Powell. The year after Indian independence, the 1948 British Nationality Act declared that ‘the expression “British subject” and the expression “Commonwealth citizen” shall have the same meaning’. Between 1948 and 1962 – when the first Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed ‘to make temporary provision for controlling the immigration into the United Kingdom of Commonwealth citizens’ – there was a period of unrestricted immigration to Britain from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

Powell had called the 1948 Act ‘that most evil statute’. His concern with the ‘colour problem’ in the late 1960s was not novel but old and intimate. When he made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech on 20 April 1968, he was the shadow defence secretary. The speech was elemental in its imagery of the whip, the pyre and foaming blood. Against protocol, Powell did not disclose the speech to the shadow cabinet in advance. Edward Heath fired him immediately. In the next five days, Powell received 30,000 letters of support from the public, including many Labour voters. ‘I never saw a coloured person at Dunkirk,’ one wrote, ‘and now they want to come here and run our little Island what was peaceful and now it is full of MONGREL’S.’ There were strikes and marches in support of Powell, and 38 immigration officers at Heathrow Airport signed a public letter backing his speech. On 28 April, Wade Crooks, a black British man from Wolverhampton, was attacked by a group shouting: ‘Powell, Powell!’ They punched him and slashed his face with a razor blade. ‘I have been here since 1955,’ Crooks told the press, ‘and nothing like this has happened before. I am shattered.’

Powell’s Birmingham speech followed the arrival of 24,000 South Asian British citizens from Kenya between July 1967 and February 1968, an episode referred to at the time as ‘the Kenyan Asian crisis’. Kenyan South Asians – more than 176,000 people – had not automatically been granted Kenyan citizenship on independence in 1963 but were given a two-year deadline to apply. The Indian High Commission in Nairobi discouraged them from applying for Indian citizenship. The majority chose to retain their status as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. In 1967, the Kenyan Immigration Act cancelled their permanent resident certificates and introduced work permits. Facing majoritarian polices in Kenya and stirred by indications of impending immigration legislation in London, Kenyan South Asians left for the UK in their thousands. The story of the ‘Kenyan Asian crisis’ is but one episode in the discriminatory history of Commonwealth immigration, an ongoing sequence of policies whose current impact Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has this week belatedly conceded to be ‘appalling’, but which seem nonetheless set to continue.

Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed emergency legislation in February 1968 to restrict further arrivals of South Asians from Kenya, depriving thousands of the right of entry despite their British passports. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act (or ‘the White Passport Act’, as one Punjabi commentator called it at the time) was whipped through all parliamentary stages in three days. Powell’s speech in Birmingham two months later cannot be held accountable for the legislation. But speaking in Deal in October 1967, he had decried the arrival of Kenyan South Asians ‘at a rate of 50 or 60 per day at London airport alone’, and in Walsall on 9 February 1968 he had attacked Kenyan South Asians’ ‘absolute right of entry’. A few months later, on 16 November 1968, speaking in Eastbourne, he articulated his position most succinctly: ‘The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.’

He visited America for the first time in October 1967, soon after the Detroit riots, and subsequently monitored Black Power activism and further violence in Chicago following the murder of Martin Luther King, two weeks before his Birmingham speech. For Powell, Americans had fallen prey to the Indian ‘curse’ of ‘communal agitation’, and in his 1968 speech he urged people in Britain not to succumb to the same fate. His focus in Birmingham was not only Commonwealth immigration but also the 1968 Race Relations Act then being considered in Parliament. For Powell, non-discrimination on racial grounds (international legal consensus around which would lead, a year later, to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) was a fateful surrender to communalism, and would inevitably provoke further anarchy and chaos.

Powell was not a singular voice on immigration. The former Commonwealth secretary and Conservative MP Duncan Sandys was just as influential as a populist anti-immigration campaigner in the 1960s. And the declassified minutes of a Cabinet meeting on 15 February 1968 reveal the attorney general’s rationalisation for the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act: ‘If we were to pass legislation depriving citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies of the right to enter this country … we might justify our decision on the grounds, among others, that the people concerned did not in any real sense belong to this country.’ Powell’s rhetoric may seem exceptional, but his racial sensibility was ordinary.