3rd October 2011

My Political Hero: Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell was vilifed for his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – but Oliver Johnstone believes he is the greatest British Prime Minister we never had

As is customary at this time of year, the party faithful are herded into conference halls up and down the country for the ritual standing ovations, over-rehearsed puns and stage-managed spontaneity that typify the British political party conference season. Today’s politician is more of a caricature of the party he or she stands for or the leader they support rather than a character in their own right, with independence of mind and principles of genuine conviction.

Here our minds turn to publicity-seeking Labour MP Chuka Umunna, the supposed ‘British Obama’, or Tory MP Louise Mensch, the undisputed queen of the career-driven yet utterly uninspiring and puppet-like intake of MPs from the 2010 general election. And to top it all off, we have the unrelentingly and sickeningly spineless Liberal Democrats.

It is in this climate of pessimism and cynicism that one appreciates the figures that have truly stood out in British politics for believing in something greater than personal success or popularity. No one fits this description better than Enoch Powell.

Initially, the notion that anyone could even defend Powell, let alone advocate him as their political hero, might seem bizarre or even abhorrent. We should not condemn those that are abhorred; many years of the media and the liberal political elite reinforcing this message have hindered a sensible and reasoned approach to understanding Enoch Powell and any concept of Powellism. Here we must first break down the misgivings and flawed interpretations of Powell, and then shed light on the real Enoch Powell and the great British statesman that he was.

Powell was a man of conviction and, like all men of conviction, struggled to stay silent when he saw problems or issues that needed tackling. The motivation behind Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is not precisely known, with Powell rarely discussing the topics of immigration prior to April 1968. Whilst it must be said the tone of speech and the arguably emotive language was misguided on Powell’s part, it is important to remember that much of the supposedly ‘racial’ elements of the speech were in fact quotes from a conversation the MP for Wolverhampton South West had with a constituent.

Powell never displayed any tendencies towards racism or racially discriminatory beliefs at any point in his life; indeed his conceptions of nationalism and patriotism were civic, rather than racial. In a letter to a local newspaper he emphatically declared, “I have and always will set my face like flint against making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on the grounds of his origins.”

Enoch Powell paid a heavy price for his honesty and for wanting to repeat his constituents’ concerns. Rejected from the political mainstream and sacked as Shadow Defence Secretary, Powell remained defiant and won support from all sides for his lack of desire for personal gain.

Powell’s memory is best served by remembering that there was more to him than his utterances on 20th April 1968. Powell staunchly championed civic nationalism and was one of the first advocates of the free-market neo-liberal reforms that revolutionised Britain in the 1980s. He became a vocal and early supporter of gay rights and resolutely opposed nuclear weapons and the death penalty.

So why should we regard Powell as a hero and not as a villain? Quite simply, he was the greatest British Prime Minister who never was. Powell was a man who believed in humanity and not discrimination, who believed in freedom not state control but most importantly, believed in British national pride from a civic perspective not a racial one.

He sacrificed his political as well as his personal life in a tragic manner in order to stand up for his principles and conviction – the qualities of a true British statesman.

Oliver Johnstone

Oliver Johnstone

Political Editor at The Mancunion 2011-12

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