Depending on where one is in the world, and on one’s political-cultural-historical baggage, this spring provides a selection of anniversaries to delight, or provoke, the intellect. America has marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., with that of Robert Kennedy to come. In France, it is fifty years since les événements, and the conscious attempt by student radicals to bring down Charles de Gaulle. In what used to be the Soviet bloc, it is fifty years since the Prague Spring. And in Britain, it is fifty years since the so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech: the moment when Enoch Powell, a member of the Conservative shadow cabinet, said the supposedly unsayable in telling an audience of his party’s activists at a small meeting in a Birmingham hotel that the level of immigration from the Commonwealth was too high to be sustained without serious social consequences, and had to be arrested.

The effects of Powell’s speech have been discussed ever since.

The effects of Powell’s speech have been discussed ever since, and did not require a special anniversary to bring them back into play. Powell was approaching his fifty-sixth birthday at the time. A grammar school boy from Birmingham, he won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1930, where he became one of the most celebrated classicists in living memory: his speciality was textual criticism, and he was not, therefore, a man who could ever be accused of not having weighed his words before deploying them. He went straight to a fellowship at his college, Trinity, but was seized by a further ambition: to become a professor at an earlier age than his then–intellectual hero, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche won, just. But by the age of twenty-five, Powell was Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney. He returned to England in 1939 to enlist in the Army as a private soldier, and by 1944 he was a brigadier on the general staff—the youngest in the Army.

On demobilization, he decided that he had a yearning for politics; he worked from 1946 for the Conservative Research Department and from 1950 sat for the urban Midlands constituency of Wolverhampton South West, a few miles from Birmingham. He was a Housing and Treasury minister in the Eden and Macmillan governments, resigning from the latter post over Macmillan’s undisciplined view of public spending. Macmillan feared Powell’s superior intellect and his rigidly puritanical, or ascetic, approach to life, but he could not ignore his talent, and brought him back as health minister in 1960. Powell refused to serve Alec Douglas-Home, Macmillan’s successor, on the grounds that he had wanted a different leader—R. A. “Rab” Butler. After the Tory defeat in 1964 he served first Douglas-Home (having proved his point with his previous refusal), and then Edward Heath, in the shadow cabinet, and was Heath’s defense spokesman. Differences were apparent by 1968: over defense policy (Powell wanted to withdraw from east of the Suez and was against British participation in Vietnam); economic policy (Powell, as a monetarist, was entirely opposed to Heath’s placebo of a prices-and-incomes policy); reform of the House of Lords; and, as it turned out, immigration.

Powell was first alerted to problems of mass immigration when sitting on a departmental committee as a housing minister in 1956. He noted, even then, that colleagues were afraid to talk about the effects of immigration in case they were branded racists. Powell saw, even then, that there was no defense against such an accusation, which by the very fact of its being made established the accuser as the one holding the moral high ground and the accused as morally defective. Two years later, when London’s Notting Hill area—a favored destination of immigrants from the West Indies—exploded in riots, Powell noted the brutal treatment by some MPs (usually those who wished to curry favor with the leadership) of older colleagues who raised the problem of potential racial tensions. A Tory candidate at the 1964 election who made race an issue in the West Midlands seat of Smethwick won, but was treated as a pariah after his election. Powell knew that if he raised the subject there would be no such thing as “treading carefully”: for the very fact of raising it, however much care he took, he would be vilified.

Yet, as he said in the speech, delivered in the Midland Hotel in Birmingham at lunchtime on Saturday, April 20, 1968, he felt compelled to talk about immigration because of pressure from constituents who felt their lives were being wrecked by it, and who had never been consulted. “Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that the country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else.” Powell felt he was a tribune of the people—his people, the ones who returned him to parliament in Wolverhampton South West. In the years I knew him as a friend and, latterly, as the man he had asked to write his authorized biography, I discerned that he was unimpressed by colleagues who, for reasons of the quiet life or of personal ambition, chose not to pursue issues that were important to their constituents. Powell was never going to be tarred with that brush.

It was what his constituent had said to him, however, that lit the blue touchpaper: the first indication in the speech that this was going to deal with a subject that had hitherto been taboo. The man had, he said, told him: “If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country. . . . I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas.” The man then said: “In this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” This was astonishing language for any politician to utter in a public speech; for a former cabinet minister, and present shadow cabinet minister, to use it was, to many, incomprehensible.

Powell knew what he was doing. He had told a friend, the editor of the local newspaper, that he was going to make a speech that would go up “like a rocket”—but, unlike your average rocket, it would not come back to earth again. He had not consulted his shadow cabinet colleagues about his speech—which, given that he was defense spokesman, was outside his designated sphere of interest—because if he had, he would not have been allowed to make it. He would have had to resign and then deliver it. He told me repeatedly he had not imagined Heath would sack him for the speech, but Heath did—of his own volition, because he’d had enough of Powell’s intellectual freelancing even before this, but also under pressure from his chief whip, William Whitelaw, and his home affairs spokesman, Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham).

Powell also knew his story about the man in the street would appall many who heard it. Having told it, he said that “I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation? The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so.” But that was not all. He then told the story of a little old lady who was the last white resident on a street in Wolverhampton, who had unpleasant encounters with her new neighbors because she refused to let them into her house to use her telephone, and who had had excrement pushed through her letterbox.

He had begun his speech by saying that “it is the supreme function of statesmanship to provide against preventable evils,” and he compared the disaster he saw coming through unlimited immigration with the one Britain had chosen to ignore in the 1930s when Germany was re-arming under Hitler and the British government had settled on a policy of appeasement. That too was a provocative comparison. But Powell saw a disaster coming in terms of racial tensions. Not “rivers of blood”—that phrase, later seized upon by the media, does not, in fact, appear in the speech—but his translation of a line from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid: “As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding. I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ” By this stage the damage to his career was done: but his perfectly structured classical argument ended with a final defense of himself—“All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.”

Although Powell’s speciality within classical scholarship as a textual critic caused him to focus upon individual words, he was, through his study of Greek and Roman orators, schooled in classical argument—and the Birmingham Speech is a prime example of it. His exordium, or introduction, discusses the function of statesmanship, and how consideration of the future and not just the present is an essential component of it: those politicians who act otherwise “deserve . . . the curses of those who come after.”

Then there is his narratio, or evidence: his conversation with a constituent aggrieved by the level of immigration, and the absence of any public consultation about it—and, more to the point, his fears about the future and his determination to leave the country. Earlier than he might normally have done, Powell supplies a refutatio—a preemptive attack on the argument of his opponents—when he says he can hear their “chorus of execration,” but that as the man’s elected Member of Parliament he has no right to stay silent. He then resumes his narratio by giving government figures about the growth of the immigrant-descended population.

The structure and logic of the argument gave an already remarkable speech additional force.

Then comes his propositio, or main argument: that the inflow must be reduced, and maximum outflow must be encouraged. He goes into great detail about how this might be achieved—his amplificatio—but then comes to the divisio, a second, supporting argument, but one in this case possibly even more powerful than the first, about the sheer weight of numbers. This is when he talks about the harassment of an elderly woman constituent by immigrants who have moved into her road, where she is the only white resident left; and he talks of the impossibility of being able to integrate such numbers of immigrants as were then pouring into Britain into the established society and culture, because of the inevitability of their congregating in certain areas rather than spreading out across the land.

He is attacking the Labour government’s Race Relations Bill; and in his confirmatio, or what he regards as the clinching argument, he says that this measure—designed to ensure that all races and cultures live happily together in Britain—is, paradoxically, the “very pabulum” that “dangerous and divisive elements . . . need to flourish.” He has saved his most memorable, and controversial, phrase for his peroratio, in which he evokes the prospect of civil unrest: the famous “River Tiber foaming with much blood.” And Powell also understands that the argument must end with an apophthegm: a punchy conclusion that will stick in the minds of his audience—though, thanks to the way the press reported the speech, concentrating on the “Tiber” metaphor, the apophthegm (which was also another measure of self-defense for Powell) was lost: “All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.”

The structure and logic of the argument gave an already remarkable speech additional force. Whether those who heard it, or read it in the newspapers in the days after it was delivered understood why it had such an inexorable nature is impossible to say. It is, however, why it reads today as a magnificent piece of oratory, irrespective of what one thinks about its content.

The fallout from Powell’s audacity was swift. Heath sacked him. Even the Conservative press savaged him. University students tried to ban him from speaking. He became, for a time, a pariah. But he was a man of immense physical as well as moral courage, and he persisted in making his case in front of both hostile and friendly audiences. He had massive popular support, including, to the Labour Party’s embarrassment, from tens of thousands of trade unionists. He established himself as the most magnetic political speaker and most influential thinker of his day. He would become Margaret Thatcher’s John the Baptist in teaching her and Keith Joseph about the monetary theory of inflation. He would become the first Euroskeptic, arguing against British membership of what was then called the Common Market before the country had even joined. The victory of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum was depicted in part as his victory, even though he had died in 1998.

His effect on the immigration question is less clear-cut. Colleagues who sympathized with him said he made it impossible to discuss the subject for decades, because of the organized forces of the Left waiting to attack anyone who did so, however moderate their terms, as a racist. Yet race is not central to the Birmingham speech: it is about immigration. He never made a speech about race, and ridiculed suggestions he was a racist. His predictions about the likely proportion of people from the immigrant-descended population by the turn of the century were proven right. His fears about communal violence—which had broken out after he left India—were exaggerated, but it has happened sporadically since the first Islamist attacks on London in 2005. What has been undeniable, since the United Kingdom admitted E.U. nationals from former Soviet bloc countries in 2004, is that the steep rise in the population since then—getting near 5 percent—has put unbearable pressure on housing, hospitals, schools, and other public services, as Powell also predicted.

What has been apparent in the anniversary debate here is that many of those who talk about Powell did not know him and have no idea what he was really like. Some of his critics appear not even to have read the speech or, if they have, have lacked the intellectual equipment to understand it. His legend is enough for them to attack him: David Cameron, Britain’s largely unlamented former prime minister, once threw a candidate off his party’s list simply because he had said Powell was right. Such people do not know, or would rather not know, that he made, in July 1959, one of the greatest speeches ever heard in the House of Commons, expressing his outrage that black detainees in a British internment camp in Kenya had been beaten to death, and that there appeared to be one law for white people and another one for black people. It would be refreshing to think that the examination of Powell and his ideas prompted by this anniversary would provoke his critics to review the evidence, and cause a more rational appreciation to be made of him; but that may take another fifty years.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 21
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