Enoch Powell’s Altered World

Ian Sanjay Patel

‘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.


  • 21 April 2018 at 5:15am
    Joe Morison says:
    I remember when he was on Desert Island Discs, Sue Lawley asked him his greatest regret. His answer, that he hadn't been killed in the war. I'm with Donne, any man's death diminishes me, but perhaps it would have been best for all of us if his wish had been granted.

  • 23 April 2018 at 7:05pm
    Yagana says:
    As a native Urdu speaker I can't say I find Enoch Powell particularly objectionable compared with, say, most of those indulging in "virtue signaling" by black-painting (no pun intended) the "Old Fighter" (Alter Kämpfer). There's a long history of folks finding the "openly" chauvinistic crowd less annoying than those who think they're better than their less conflicted compatriots.

    Martin Luther King who was shot dead 50 years ago this month put it this way in a letter written from an Alabama jail:

    First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    Malcolm X minced even fewer words:

    Seems like there was greater understanding of these matters 2 generation ago:

    • 25 April 2018 at 7:16am
      Joe Morison says: @ Yagana
      I find your position bizarre. MLK's comment is nothing to do with finding people objectionable: I'm sure he found the Ku Klux Klanner or White Citizen Counciler overwhelmingly more repulsive than white moderates. His comment was about the politics of moving forward with his agenda, not how loathsome the individuals concerned were.

  • 23 April 2018 at 8:52pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Then there's Nelson Mandela's fabulously simple " .... the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."

    I listened to the whole of Enoch's "Desert Island Discs" today because I thought I remembered him crying and that it was the most poignant part of the interview. But he didn't. What was touching was the fragility of his sentimentality. It seemed that if there were to appear a crack in his picture of traditional, British, Protestant society, the whole of western civilisation would cave in.

    It was in Anthony Clare's "In the Psychiatrist's Chair" that he cried when talking about his mother from whom he learned his classical Greek when he was knee-high, or so I thought, but I couldn't find that, either, in fact I can't find any evidence of him being on that show. I'm sure he cried somewhere, though, because the sadness of his vision is so sad.

    • 23 April 2018 at 10:02pm
      James says: @ Simon Wood
      He begins to cry at about 16 mins while talking about meeting his wife in Michael Cockerell's documentary here .

    • 24 April 2018 at 11:52am
      Simon Wood says: @ James
      Thank you. That is grim. The poetry is grim ("blent"). His South African accent is grim. My mother could do a brilliant Smethwick accent. [Starts crying.] She used it to scare me.

    • 24 April 2018 at 9:33pm
      James says: @ Simon Wood
      Having rewatched it, it was actually his first love that he was breaking down into tears over, not his wife. He clearly was a very romantic and emotional individual, a trait that influenced his political views.

  • 25 April 2018 at 9:32am says:
    Yet, as we later learn, he failed to recognise his wife when she came to meet him at the House of Commons shortly after their three-week honeymoon. Last of the great romantics?

    • 4 May 2018 at 8:18am
      Ally says: @
      Having failed to recognise friends, colleagues and yes even my spouse when encountered outside expected context, I would not like that awkwardness to be associated with the limitations of a Powellite worldview.

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