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John Enoch Powell (June 16, 1912 – February 8, 1998), British politician, became one of the most prominent figures in British politics, although he only briefly held senior office, mainly because of his highly contentious views on immigration. He also held unorthodox views on many other subjects. Powell has long been treated as an icon by the far right and as a demonic figure by the left.
Powell was born and raised in Birmingham. His formidable intelligence was apparent early on. From King Edward's School, Birmingham he completed his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he fell under the powerful influence of A. E. Housman, and was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University aged 25. During World War II, Powell enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment , and also fought in Africa with the Desert Rats. By the end of the war, he was the youngest brigadier in the British army, having started off as a Private. He felt guilty at the end of the war for having survived when many of those he'd met during his journey through the ranks had not.
As well as his education at Cambridge, Powell took a course in Urdu at the School of Oriental Studies, now the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in a bid to further his chances of being appointed Viceroy of India.
After the war, he joined the Conservative Party and worked for the Conservative Research Department. He was elected as MP for Wolverhampton South-West in 1950. He worked in Housing and then as Secretary to the Treasury but in 1958, Powell resigned along with Peter Thorneycroft and Nigel Birch in protest at the government's plans for increased expenditure; he was a staunch monetarist and believer in market forces.
Powell's only major cabinet post was as Minister for Health, in which he was responsible for promoting an ambitious ten year programme of general hospital building and for commencing the run down of the huge psychiatric institutions. In his famous 1961 "Water Tower" speech, he said:
"There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside - the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defences which we have to storm."Middlesex University
Later, he encouraged a large number of Commonwealth immigrants into the understaffed National Health Service. Prior to this, many non-white immigrants were often obliged to take the jobs that no one else wanted (eg. street cleansing, night-shift assembly production lines), often paid considerably less than their white counterparts. Powell was vehemently opposed by the Trade Union movement (who feared that immigrants were being used by capitalists to keep wages low by artificially increasing competition for jobs), but there is no doubt that in easing non-white immigrants into what was considered a prestigious form of career, he boosted the confidence of the immigrant population and helped lay the foundations of a future immigrant-descended permanent Afro-Caribbean and Asian middle class in Britain.
Powell was noted for his oratorical skills, and for being a maverick who cared little about what harm he did to his party - or himself. On Saturday April 20th 1968 he made a controversial speech in Birmingham, in which he warned his audience of what he believed would be the consequences of continued unchecked immigration from the Commonwealth to Britain. Because of its allusion to Virgil saying that the Tiber would foam with blood, Powell's warning was christened the Rivers of Blood Speech by the press, and the name stuck. The speech was delivered while the 1968 Race Relations Bill (later Act) was making its way through parlaiment.
One feature of the speech was the extensive quotation of a letter Powell had received detailing the experiences of one of his constituents, a land-lady. She had repeatedly refused applications from non-whites requiring rooms-to-let, which resulted in her being called a racist outside her home and receiving excreta through her letterbox. Despite combing the electoral register and other sources, the editor of the local newspaper Clem Jones (a close friend of Powell's, who broke off relations with him over the controversy) and his journalists failed to indentify the woman. It is alleged that the National Front fed Powell with black propaganda, which he failed to recognize as such.
With appalling timing, Powell only realised later that of all the days he could have made a speech that some regarded as racist, it was on the anniversary of Hitler's birth - during a period of Britain's history when it was known that various notorious neo-Nazis such as Colin Jordan and John Tyndall (the latter a future leader of the National Front and founder of the British National Party) held birthday parties in the Nazi leader's honour.
Edward Heath sacked Powell from his Shadow Cabinet and Powell never held another senior political post. However, Powell gained considerable support from the public, receiving over 100,000 letters, and his popularity contributed to the Tories' surprise General Election win in 1970. Three days after the speech, 1,000 dockers and meat porters from Smithfield market, normally supporters of the Labour Party, marched on Westminister in support of Powell.
More to the point, some suspected that Powell was set up – TV cameras were not known to turn up at Conservative branch AGMs before, and some believe that Heath wanted Powell to take the rap for his party taking a tougher line on immigration later that year. Conversely, Powell had issued an advance copy of his speech to the media and their appearance at the speech may have been due to the fact that they realised the content was explosive. The Conservatives had discovered in nationwide studies in the wake of the notorious General Election result in Birmingham Smethwick in 1964 (where Peter Griffiths took the safe seat of Labour's pending Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker) that a hard line on immigration would win them up to twenty Labour seats, but it took their defeat in the 1966 general election to push the Tories into deciding to "play the race card".
An Unusual Conservative?
In February 1974 Powell quit the Conservative Party, mainly because it had taken the UK into the European Common Market, and advised the electorate to vote Labour, who promised a referendum on whether or not the UK should remain in the EEC, as the only way to save the UK's sovereignty. He repeated this line in the October 1974 General Election, and the referendum was held in 1975. However the result was a clear vote to remain in "the Common Market" (as it was called on the ballot paper).
Powell's Euroscepticism was fuelled by a belief that the Cold War was a sham because the Soviet Union was not intent on invading the West - so dependent was the USSR on receiving US and European grain surpluses for next to nothing - and so he did not see the need to maintain the Western alliance as other Conservatives did. The UK's "independent nuclear deterrent" was also viewed negatively, because it could not rationally be used it was pointless. He was also immensely suspicious of American foreign policy after what he deemed to be the American betrayal of British interests during the Suez Crisis.
Ulster Unionist Party
In a sudden general election later in 1974, Powell returned to Parliament as an Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, having rejected an offer to stand as a candidate for the National Front. He was a strong believer in the United Kingdom, and he believed that it would only survive if the Unionists strove to integrate fully with the United Kingdom by abandoning the devolved rule that Northern Ireland had recently enjoyed. He refused point blank to join the Orange Order (who largely controlled the UUP after their split from the Conservative Party) - the first Ulster Unionist MP never to be a member (and to date only one of two, the other being the former UDR member Ken Maginnis), and he was an outspoken opponent of the more extremist Unionism espoused by the Reverend Ian Paisley and his supporters.
Though he was on supposedly good terms with Margaret Thatcher (she claimed her own monetarist policies stemmed from Powell's, to which he remarked drily, "A pity she did not understand them!"), he came into conflict with her in 1985 in protest because of her support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, resigning his seat and then regaining it at the ensuing by-election. Powell lost his seat in 1987, mainly due to both demographic changes and boundary changes resulting in there being many more Catholics in his seat of South Down than before. Ironically, the boundary changes had arisen due to his own campaign for the number of MPs representing Northern Ireland to be increased to the equivalent proportion for the rest of the United Kingdom, as part of the steps towards greater integration.
His unionism did not block his capacity for independent thought; he was critical of the SAS shootings of three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988.
Despite his earlier atheism Powell became a devout Anglican later in life and became a warden of Westminster Abbey. He spent much of his later life trying to prove, with close textual reading, that Christ had not been crucified but hanged.
Powell appeared in the 2002 List of "100 Great Britons" (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public). The BBC History Magazine made the comment: "Powell's career was a total failure and with luck he will be forgotten".
Powell is mentioned in several Monty Python skits, including "Travel Agent" and "Election Special".
His speeches and TV interviews throughout his political life displayed a suspicion towards "The Establishment" in general, and by the 1980s there was a regular expectation that he would make some sort of speech or act in a way designed to upset the government of the day and ensure he would not be offered a Life Peerage (and thus transferred to the House Of Lords), which he had no intention of accepting so long as Edward Heath sat in the Commons. He had opposed the 1958 Life Peerages Act and felt it would be hypocritical to accept a life peerage himself, while no Prime Minister was ever willing to offer him a hereditary peerage. Powell had remarked that "all political careers end in failure" and did not hesitate to agree that this maxim applied to his own. Like Tony Benn (a personal friend from a different political background, whom Powell had aided to renounce his peerage and so remain an elected MP), he was seen as one of the last of the politicians to put conscience and duty to his constituents before loyalty to his party or the sake of his career.
Powell's rhetorical gifts were also employed, with success, beyond politics. He was a poet of considerable accomplishment, with four published collections to his name: First Poems; Casting Off; Dancer's End; and The Wedding Gift. His Collected Poems appeared in 1990. He translated Herodotus (The History of Herodotus) and published many other works of classical scholarship. He published a biography of Joseph Chamberlain.
He died in 1998 and is interred in Warwick cemetery Birmingham rd Warwick. His wife, Pamela, and their daughters, survived him.
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