Powell, Enoch (1912–1998)

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POWELL, ENOCH (1912–1998)


British politician and writer.

Enoch Powell was born in Stechford, Birmingham, to two teachers, Albert Enoch Powell and Ellen Mary Breese. His upbringing was lower middle class, disciplined, and dominated by scholarly pursuits. At seventeen, Powell won the highest award in the country for classical study, a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. Always the bookish loner, Powell excelled there under the influence of the poet and classicist A. E. Housman. Upon graduation, in recognition for the brilliance of his dissertation on Thucydides, he was named a fellow of Trinity College. There he remained until 1937, publishing the first of what came to be four collections of poetry in that year. At twenty-five, Powell accepted a chair of Greek at the University of Sydney in Australia, thereby becoming the youngest professor in the Commonwealth. While there, he gained a reputation for his aggressive atheism, misogyny, and strict textual criticism.

In 1939 Powell returned to England to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Over the next seven years, Powell rose from private to brigadier in the British army, working in intelligence in North Africa and India. It was in the army that he became, he said later in life, "deeply bound up with India." At the war's end, Powell decided that the best way to save the British Raj was in the House of Commons. Entering politics was the first step, he imagined, toward his ambition to become the viceroy of India.

The day Powell landed off a transport plane from India in 1946, he telephoned the Conservative Central Office. There began his dramatic forty-one-year career in politics. Powell took the seat of member of Parliament (MP) for Wolverhampton South West in 1950, a position he held until 1974. He embraced Anglicanism and, through that, developed a thoroughgoing belief in good and evil, the saved and the unsaved, which later became a crucial component of his vision of the British nation. In these early years of his political career, he joined the One Nation Group, writing pamphlets and books in support of free-market forces over state planning, such as One Nation (1950) and Change Is Our Ally (1954). Later, as the British Empire collapsed before him, he spoke out in public and in Parliament against the Commonwealth as a "gigantic farce," a product of Britain's inability to see beyond the now inappropriate "myth" of empire.

In 1958 Powell resigned from his position as financial secretary to the treasury when Harold Macmillan failed to endorse a monetarist agenda to contain inflation. Macmillan, despite this disagreement, appointed Powell minister of health. There he promoted an ambitious ten-year program to modernize the National Health Service. However, after just three years in office, Powell would again leave the government in opposition to the appointment in 1963 of a lord, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, to the leadership of the Conservative Party. Two years later he served as shadow minister of defense under Edward Heath, only to be dismissed after his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968 against "New Commonwealth" immigration and the Race Relations Bill of that year. More controversy was to follow in 1974, when Powell declined to seek reelection in Wolverhampton in opposition to the Conservative Party's pro-Europe stance, instead advising his supporters to vote Labour. He returned to Parliament, but never again as a Conservative Party member. Instead, that same year, he became an Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, where he remained until his defeat in the general election of 1987.

Enoch Powell remains one of the most controversial political figures in twentieth-century British history. To his supporters, Powell's troublesome career in politics reveals a man who put principles before loyalty to his party. To many, Powell was the "high priest of High Toryism." To most, he is remembered still for his outspoken, racist opposition to nonwhite immigration into Britain in the late 1960s. Nonetheless, his career may be read as a product of a crucial postwar transformation in the Conservative Party. His uncompromising monetarism and faith in the free market worked against the postwar political consensus and were clear antecedents to the direction of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. His Euroskepticism, support for Ulster, and attacks on immigration were representative of a Conservative vision of the post-imperial nation. Britain, Powell insisted, had to wake up to the "morning after the imperial night before." At the same time, he believed that only history legitimated national sovereignty and social order. If Britain, therefore, did not reclaim its stable and historical nationhood as a white, Christian island in the North Atlantic, Enoch Powell could see nothing but racial violence and national disintegration.

See alsoImmigration and Internal Migration; Racism; United Kingdom.


Primary Sources

Powell, J. Enoch. Freedom and Reality. Edited by John Wood. London, 1969. A useful work on Powell's political philosophies regarding myth, statesmanship, and the nation.

——. A Nation or No Nation?: Six Years in British Politics. Edited by Richard Ritchie. London, 1978. Powell discusses national sovereignty and Britain's entry into the European Community.

——. Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell. Edited by Rex Collins. London, 1991. A well-chosen collection of Powell's important broadcasts, speeches, and articles.

Secondary Sources

Heffer, Simon. Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell. London, 1998. A thorough (thousand-plus-page) and sympathetic account of Powell's public and private life.

Shepherd, Robert. Enoch Powell. London, 1997. A nonpartisan biography of Powell.

Milla Schofield

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Powell, Enoch (1912–1998)

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