Politician, Orator and Scholar, 1912-1998

Enoch Powell was born in Birmingham to two teachers - their only child - and was raised there. His academic prowess quickly showed, and he went to study Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whilst at University, he displayed true genius in his field. For example, in one Greek prose exam lasting 3 hours, he was asked to translate a passage into Greek. He walked out after 1 and a half hours, having produced translations in the styles of Plato and Thucydides.

After graduating, he took a post in Australia, at Sydney University as Professor of Greek at the unheard-of age of 25. He returned two years later to enlist for the War, joining the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a private. He quickly rose up the ranks, and by the end of the war, was the youngest man to have held the rank of Brigadier in the British Army - a total of around 13 promotions.

After the war, Powell joined the Conservative Party. However, it took him five years to be elected as MP for Wolverhampton South-West, a seat he held for 24 years. In 1958, Powell showed his first signs of political rebellion - he resigned from his position in the Treasury due to a dispute over monetary policy. His belief in free market forces was seen as old fashioned. 20 years later, this policy was a driving force behind Thatcher's landslide victory.

Powell's most famous action, however, was his speech of 1968 to an invited audience in Brimingham, warning of apocalyptic consequences of continued immigration to Britain. His reference to Virgil's prediction of war, saying that the Tiber would foam with blood, is one of the defining quotations of 20th Century British politics.

Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'"

Immediately after this speech, Edward Heath, erstwhile head of the Conservative Party, sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet, on the grounds that the speech was racialist. Before the general election of February 1974, Powell quit the Conservative Party because Heath intended to join the European Common Market. Instead, he joined the Ulster Unionists, and after the snap election of six months later, he was elected as MP for Down South, a seat he lost in 1992 because of a shift in political opinion in the constituency due to boundary changes. He died on the 8th of February, 1998, aged 85.

During one breakfast television interview with Anne Diamond, Powell was asked what he considered his greatest acheivement. He replied, to the bewilderment of all concerned, 'having an emendation to Vergil accepted by Housman.'

Scholar, Poet, Soldier, Statesman 1
Born 1913 Died 1998

Enoch the scholar

Born John Enoch Powell on the 10th November 1913, he was the only child of Albert Enoch Powell and Ellen Mary Breese; both his parents being teachers of Welsh origin2. He was something of a precocious child, nicknamed 'the Professor' within his family, and was reading his way thorough an encyclopedia at the age of four, whilst his mother taught him Greek when he was twelve. Enoch as he became known, thus became something of an infant prodigy, but always remained something of a loner. At school he was known as 'Scowelly Powelly' and even at university he made few friends, preferring to spend his time reading.

Educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge, he became fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek, and seemed to destined to be an academic and aspiring poet3 very much in the mould of A.E. Housman a fellow classicist with whom he was briefly acquainted at Cambridge. During his time as a student he read the New Testament in the original Greek, and decided that the "historical and internal evidence do not support the narrative" came to the conclusion that it was "not true". At which point he became a atheist, a belief that was later confirmed when he became a devotee of the philosophy of Nietzche.

At Trinity he won a long series of prizes and scholarships proving himself the most capable classical scholar of his generation, and it was perhaps no surprise that in 1937 he was appointed the professor of Greek at Sydney University at the age of only twenty-four. In 1938 he published his Lexicon to Herodotus, a dictionary of every single word appearing in the work of Herodotus, and in the following year published his own translation of The History of Herodotus.

From soldier to politician

His academic career was however destined to be a short one as, despite his affection for German philosophy and culture, Enoch was convinced that war with Germany was not only inevitable but desirable. He left Australia as soon as war was declared and joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was soon promoted to lance-corporal and then selected for officer training, later serving in North Africa and India. Like many of his contemporaries he went into the war expecting to be killed, but despite his many attempts to win a posting to the front line, his entire army career was spent in military intelligence, and he became only one of two men to make it from private to brigadeer during the course of World War II.

It was during his time in India (during which he took the time to learn Urdu) that he formed the ambition of becoming Viceroy of India. He therefore abandoned any idea of renewing his academic career and on his return to Britain he decided to enter politics. Despite the fact that he voted against Churchill in the 1945 General Election, he joined the Conservative Party in February 1946 and within two weeks was on the official candidates list. He secured a job on the Parliamentary Secretariat4 at a salary of £900 a year, and studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies to improve his knowledge of Urdu (and thus his chances of becoming Viceroy). Of course, shortly afterwards the Labour government granted independence to India, which rendered his ambition to become Viceroy unattainable. But by this time he had fallen "head over heels under the spell of the House of Commons" as he put it himself, and had decided on a political career for its own seek.

Thus Enoch began searching for a seat. Having contested and lost, the Normanton by-election in 1947, on the 17th December 1948 he was eventually adopted as candidate for Wolverhampton South West. Although this was a Labour held constituency, Enoch was confident he could win. Whilst he was waiting for the next election to come around he helped form Conservative policy on such matters as defence and Wales and largely wrote the Conservative Party's Charter for Wales published in 1949. It was also during this time that he "heard the bells of St Peter's Wolverhampton calling" and wandered into church for the first time for twenty years. As a result he abandoned aetheism and became an Anglican, and remained so for the remainder of his life.

During the 1950 General Election he fought a very professional and organised campaign and succeeded in defeating the sitting Labour MP by 691 votes. He made his maiden speech at the House of Commons on the subject of defence on the 16th March 1950, and joined the One Nation group, largely an association of nine ambitious new MPs, which included such names as Edward Heath, Reginald Maudling, Angus Maude and Ian Macleod. At the 1951 General Election he increased his majority, but perhaps more importantly on the 10th November he announced his engagement to his former secretary Pamela Wilson, whom he later married on the 2nd February 1952.

He was offered the post of under-secretary for Wales later that same year but declined it on the grounds that it would take him away from his constituency. Instead he became the chairman of the London Municipal Society5 and began dabbling in journalism, becoming the presenter of The Week in Westminster on the BBC World Service, as well as recording broadcasts in a number of foreign languages such as Urdu.

Enoch the minister

It is worth noting that Enoch Powell was at this time a firm believer in the free market, in contrast to the majority view in the Conservative Party which had adopted the concept of the mixed economy. He displayed a tendency for independent thought and a willingness to ignore the party line; abstaining over the Schuman Plan and even voting against the government over Suez in 1954. Such behaviour did not endear him to the party whips and it was to be another three years before he was offered a post in government. His opportunity finally came in December 1955 when he was appointed parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Housing under Duncan Sandys. His performance was sufficiently creditable to earn him promotion in January 1957 to the post of Financial Secretary to the Treasury under the Chancellor of Exchequer Peter Thorneycroft. His tenure of this office was notable for the first attempt to apply the discipline of monetarism to the British economy. In a now largely forgotten episode, together with Economic Secretary Nigel Birch and Thorneycroft, Powell put forward a budget that sought to control the growth in public expenditure. The refusal of the cabinet to accept this budget led to the resignation of all three on the 6th January 1958 precipitating a minor crisis in government.

Although he was now out of office, his talents were such that Macmillan could not afford to ignore him for too long. In 1959 Macmillan offered him as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Education which he refused, but in the in 1960 cabinet reshuffle he accepted the appointment as Minister for Health, initially outside the cabinet. Whilst it might seem strange to find such a convinced free marketeer as Enoch placed in charge of the National Health Service, he personally took the view that since the people clearly wanted the NHS, it was his job to provide it. As things turned out he seems to have been a competent and successful minister, being responsible for first major hospital building programme, known as the Hospital Plan6, as well as initiating a long term plan to close the old mental institutions and replace them with local treatment centres. (The first glimmerings of what later became known as care in the community.)

On Friday 13th July 1962 when Harold Macmillan announced the dramatic reshuffle known as the Night of the Long Knives, Enoch was promoted to the status of cabinet minister, but was destined to hold that rank for only a short time. The next year he objected to the machinations adopted by Macmillan to ensure that Alec Douglas-Home succeeded him as party leader and therefore refused to serve under Douglas-Home when he duly 'emerged' as Prime Minister. However after the 1964 General Election (which resulted in the election of a Labour government) he was appointed shadow transport spokesman. Powell surmising that having twice refused office, and twice resigned, a further refusal might forever damage his political career.

Powell and Powellism

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first reference to Powellism appeared in the Economist of 17th July 1965, indicating the specific brand of Conservatism advocated by Mr Enoch Powell. The basics of Powellism having been expounded in a series of three influential articles which appeared in The Times during 1964 under the byline of 'A Conservative' in which he advocated such heresies as monetarism, a floating exchange rate, promoted the denationalisation of the public sector, and opposed subsidies and incomes policies.

Whilst the Conservative Party was in opposition from 1964 onwards Enoch became even more of a polemicist, taking every opportuntity to promote his ideas and according to Robert Mackenzie was engaged in nothing less than "a massive one-man campaign to convert his party into ... an uncompromising exponent of 'free market' economics". At the time apart from Keith Joseph and the Institute for Economic Affairs, there were precious few who believed in such things, and Powell was very much a lone figure on the British political landscape. So much so that Friedrich von Hayek was moved to write that "all our hopes for England rest now on Enoch Powell".

As the standard bearer of the Conservative right, Enoch Powell put his name forward for the 1965 leadership election. However he ran a low profile campaign and received only fifteen votes; he thought of it as leaving his "visiting card", with the intention of making a more serious challenge at some later date. Edward Heath, who won the contest, appointed him as shadow defence spokesman, but Enoch was never part of Heath's inner circle and as a confirmed free marketeer found himself increasingly intellectually isolated within a party that was still committed to the consensus politics of Butskellism. However none of this bothered Powell, who continued with a wide ranging public speaking campaign, but never stuck to his portfolio, and criticised his own party's policy as much as he attacked those of the government.

On the 20th April 1968 delivered the Rivers of Blood Speech, in which he drew attention to what he saw as the threat to civil order by the unrestrained immigration of people from Britain's former colonies. Whilst the reaction of the political establishment was uniformly to condemn Powell for the speech and led to his almost immediate dismissal from the shadow cabinet, there was a groundswell of public support in his favour which transformed Enoch into a political figure of national importance. To many he thus became a hero, but to others a pariah, and it was virutally guaranteed that every future public speaking engagement would be dogged by protestors from the left seeking to shout him down.

Thanks to his increased public profile he had leading role in the General Election of 1970. At the time the Daily Telegraph published a cartoon in which featured the three party leaders petulantly demanding 'equal time with Powell'; the joke expressing the truth that he was personally granted a large amount of media coverage for his views. Subsequent research has apparently confirmed that Enoch delivered over 2.5m votes to the Conservative Party in the General Election of 1970, and thus was responsible for placing Edward Heath into Downing Street. The Conservative victory was however a personal disaster for Enoch, as defeat for the Conservatives would have given him the opportunity to challenge for the leadership of the party.

Enoch and Edward Heath

The period of Edward Heath's premiership from 1970 to 1974 was to prove to be perhaps the most crucial in Enoch Powell's career, as he became increasingly isolated disillusioned with Heath's leadership and the direction in which he was taking the party.

Enoch's major breech with the party came over the question of the Common Market, as the European Union was then known. Whilst Heath was an enthusiast for Europe, Enoch was an outspoken opponent of Britain's proposed membership on the grounds that it would involve the surrender of national sovereignity. He soon became particularly angry that Heath both reneged on his promise to allow MPs a free vote on the membership question, and his undertaking that Britain would only join with the "full hearted consent of Parliament and people". Acting once again in tandem with left-wing Labour MPs Michael Foot and Tony Benn he helped organise the Parliamentary opposition to the bill, which in the end proved unsuccessful. Enoch became particularly incensed when shortly after signing the Treaty of Rome, Heath promptly committed Britain to Economic and Monetary union by 1980 without consulting Parliament (or indeed his own cabinet).

However Powell's arguments with Heath over Europe was only one of the many issues on which Powell regarded the Prime Minister as having betrayed his manifesto commitments. Despite being elected on a platform that promised a return to free-market economics (see Selsdon Man), Heath's government performed its infamous 'U-turn' and was soon nationalising failed companies, running large public sector deficits, and falling back on that old standby of price and wage controls in an attempt to combat inflation. Enoch devoted his time to criticising the government, virtually becoming a one man opposition, and devoting his considerable intellectual talents to demonstrating the absurdities of many of Heath's policies. Hansard sadly does not record his cry of "Imbecility! Imbecility!" at the point at which he had demonstrated that Heath's chancellor Anthony Barber clearly did not even understand what inflation was, still less how to control it. Naturally Edward Heath did not appreciate such interventions or being accused of having "taken leave of his senses" and developed an intense dislike for Powell which he never lost.

Powell was not alone in his contempt for Heath's brand of Conservatism and there were various attempts by businessmen and other supporters to launch a campaign to elect Powell as party leader or even to launch an entirely new party. Although a magazine Powelight appeared until it folded in 1970, nothing much came of these ideas, largely because Enoch himself refused to be drawn into such schemes.

But his disillusionment with Heath's government continued unabated, and was behind his decision not to stand as a Conservative candidate in 1974, as Enoch felt that he could not in all honesty stand for a party whose policies were now the complete reverse of those that he had stood for in 1970. At the time many assumed that Enoch's stand was simply a prelude to a bid to supplant Heath as part leader following the election. (As Alan Clark wrote to him at the time "you will have our loyalty when the time comes".) However Powell's break with Heath was motivated by something deeper than personal ambition; it was simply a matter of urgency that Heath was booted out and replaced by someone who would re-examine the whole question of Europe. Which in the context of British party politics at the time meant supporting the Labour Party.

This was the logic that stood behind his intervention in the 1974 election when he urged people to 'vote Labour'7; since the Labour Party had promised to renegotiate membership and hold a referendum on the issue. As a consequence in February 1974 Enoch resigned from the Conservative Party; although he was later to insist that "I never left the Conservatives, they left me". His intervention was not a surprise as far as Labour was concerned, as both he and Harold Wilson had been conducting surreptitious negotiations in the lavatories of the Aye lobby for some time. It seems that Wilson and Powell carefully orchestrated the latter's remarks in order to maximise the damage to Heath's campaign, which were later regarded by many as having cost Edward Heath the election. This was certainly Powell's own belief. Challenged later on an edition of Any Questions by Norman St John-Stevas who remarked that he hadn't fought the election, Powell retorted "I did and won it!"

Enoch the Unionist

In the aftermath of the Conservative defeat Enoch received a number of offers from Conservative Associations to become their candidate as well as similar offer from the National Front which he naturally declined. However since 1970 he had developed a friendship with the Unionist politican James Molyneaux, and had earned the respect of the Unionist movement following his opposition to the Northern Ireland constitution bill in 1973.

Since the beginning of 'The Troubles' in 1969 the Unionists had become eager to find a politician who could present their case to a British audience. Believing that in Powell they had found such a man, he was offered the constituency of South Down as a replacement for the increasingly unstable Lawrence 'Willy' Orr, who had decided to stand down from Parliament. In the second General Election of 1974 found himself back in the House of Commons as the member of South Down, although his majority of only 3,765 was much narrower than expected. (Many of his constituents felt that he was only using them as a way of getting back into the House of Commons.)

The result of the second election of 1974 had given the Labour Party a wafer thin majority, which soon disappeared as a result of the inevitable by-election losses. The Labour government could only continue with the support of minority parties and even though Enoch held no official position of authority within was able to wring a number of concessions from James Callaghan (who had replaced Wilson as Prime Minister) in return for Unionist votes. Although he was instrumental in getting the government to increase the representation of Northern Ireland at Westminster, many of his fellow Unionists appear to have been disappointed with his performance. Whilst many expected him to be a second Carson, Enoch was largely unsympathetic to the cause of Unionist self-government and argued that the solution to the problem was to integrate Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom, believing that it was this very uncertainty over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland that was encouraging terrorist activity.

Having done so much to secure a Labour government in return for a reconsideration of the whole question of Europe, Enoch was granted his wish when the government announced a referendum on the issue of Britain's continued membership of the Common Market in 1975. Naturally Enoch became a leading campaigner for a 'No' vote and was bitterly disappointed when the electorate voted by a majority of 2 to 1 to continue membership.

Enoch and Margaret Thatcher

Powell did not particularly welcome the election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader, despite the prima facie similarity of their political views. This was partly because Powell did not believe a woman was capable of fulfilling the role, partly because Thatcher supported Europe, but mainly because he regarded anyone who had served under Edward Heath as tainted, and would like Heath soon buckle under pressure. When Callaghan's minority Labour administration was eventually forced to call a General election in 1979, the election of a new Conservative government with a majority of forty-three failed to give Powell any feelings of satisfaction ("Grim" was his response when he was asked what he though of Thatcher's victory.)

Of course like many people at the time Enoch simply underestimated Thatcher's determination and he later came to appreciate and praise her patience and tenacity in getting her own way. But although he was strongly supportive of her decision to retake the Falkland islands, he remained at odds over Thatcher's pro-American foreign policy and raised strong objections to the Anglo-Irish agreement.

In 1984 he introduced a Private Members bill to outlaw embryo experimentation, which was supported by the Roman Catholic church as well as the anti-abortion and pro-life movement and opposed by the scientific community. But despite achieving a majority of 172 on the second reading of the bill it was eventually talked out and failed to become law. This was almost the last significant act of Powell's political career. He had become an increasingly marginal figure in British politics as Thatcherism now overshadowed Powellism. At the General Election of 1987 boundary changes within his South Down constituency and the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party to also run a candidate which split the unionist vote, allowed Eddie McGrady of the SDLP to take the seat.

Life after Parliament

Enoch had been offered a life peerage on a number of occasions, but declined, since having opposed the Life Peerages Act 1963 he considered it would have been hypocritical to accept such an honour. He would however, have accepted an hereditary peerage, but although Margaret Thatcher would have happily have given him one, opposition from within the party dissuaded her from making such an offer. The House of Lords was therefore denied his presence, and Powell's political career came to an end with his defeat in 1987.

Although he retained his membership of the Ulster Unionist Party and regularly attended the annual party conference, he now largely devoted his time to his other careers of journalism and broadcasting. Inevitably as time wore he began to suffer from ill-health. In May 1990 he had an operation to remove a blood clot on his brain and in 1992 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. By 1995 his health had clearly deteriorated and he was hospitalised on a number of occasions as a result of falls. On the morning of 7th February 1998 he was admitted to the King Edward VII Hospital for Officers having suffered an aneurism. A few hours later he had sufficiently recovered to ask where his lunch was. On being told that he was being fed intravenously he remarked "I don't call that much of a lunch". These were his last words before he fell unconcious.

He later died at 4.30am on the 8th February 1998. After a family requiem at Westminster Abbey and a public service at St Maragret's, Westminster he was buried in his brigadier's uniform at the Warwickshire Regiment plot at Warwick parish church.

His Life

Enoch Powell was a monetarist before there was monetarism, a Thatcherite before there was Thatcherism, and a euro-sceptic before there was such a thing as euro-scepticism.

He was perhaps the most intellectually gifted British politician of the twentieth century but it was his superior, intellectual attitude which often alienated both friend and foe. His most distinctive features were his intense eyes and trademark moustache, but above all his eyes which could, on occasion, give him something of the appearance of a bug-eyed monster. Indeed he used to frighten the life out of Harold Macmillan who complained that "I can't bear those mad eyes staring at me a moment longer".

During the 1950s and 1960s he was the country's leading polemicist for free-market economics and earned the distinction of fathering his own But there was perhaps once crucial difference between Powellism and Thatcherism, was that the latter understood that sometimes you have to compromise to get what you ultimately want. Whereas Powell, having applied his ruthless logic to arrive at the 'correct' solution, was unwilling to accept anything less. In this regard, it has often been suggested that politics was a most unsuitable profession for Powell to have chosen and that his particular talents were more suited to academia than the practice of power. Indeed were it not for the intervention of the Second World War it is likely that the name of J.E. Powell would be known only to small number of classical scholars.

Oddly enough for someone who stood on the right of British politics, he disliked both America and Americans, although this did not prevent him from undertaking lucrative lecture tours to the United States. He believed (with some justification) that American foreign policy since the end of World War II had undermined the British Empire and so came to the conclusion that Russia was the natural ally for Britain. An economic conservative he was a liberal on social issues, being one of only four Conservative MPs who voted in favour of legalising homosexuality in the 1960s (Edward Heath for example voted against) and consistently voted against the death penalty (simply because of the intellectual conviction that there was no evidence that capital punishment had any deterrent effect.)

His political life came to be dominated by his 'Wolverhampton speech' of 1968 and the single issue of immigration and he was for many years the leading hate figure of the British Left and branded as a racist and a fascist. He always denied the former charge and was annoyed by the latter given his record actually fighting against real fascists. Indeed his status as the bete-noire of the Left sits somewhat incongrously next to his long and close friendship with both Tony Benn and Michael Foot.

Enoch himself was to note that "all political lives ... end in failure" since, as he explained, "that is the nature of politics and of human affairs". He would not, in all likelihood, have objected to that sentiment being applied to his own career. Although it was his ambition to lead the party, as he admitted in 1995 "The Conservative party was always too wise to be led by me". Many of the issues that were dearest to his heart, such as the maintenance of parliamentary sovereignty in opposition to the European Union, and the preservation of 'English culture' against the dilution of immigration were to end in defeat. Perhaps the the best summary of his life comes surprisingly from the mouth of Tony Blair, who said that "there was no doubting the strength of his convictions or their sincerity, or his tenacity in pursuing them, regardless of his own political self-interest".

Edward Heath, bitter to the last, could only find the time to announce "I am not making any statement."

In addition to his early works of classical scholarship Powell was also the author of a biography of Joseph Chamberlain, and wrote The House of Lords in the Middle Ages, described as a "prodigous work of scholarship", as well as a study of the gospel of St Mathew entitled The Evolution of the Gospel in which he put forward the idea that the there was an original gospel in which Jesus Christ was stoned to death rather than crucified. Amongst his many other languages he knew a smattering of Welsh (he would sometimes quote the odd Welsh proverb in Parliamentary debates much to the bedwidlerment of his opponents) and learnt enough Old Welsh to translate a manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda which he came across in a Cambridge library. (Published with Stephen Williams as Llyfr Blegyrwyd in 1942).


1 The words engaraved on the silver salver presented to Enoch Powell on his 80th birthday.
2 Albert was a fourth-generation Welsh immigrant whose family were originally from Radnorshire, gravitated towards employment in the coal mines of South Wales and from there to the West Midlands.
3 During his life he was to publish four volumes of poetry. A volume of Collected Poems being published in 1990.
4 The Parliamentary Secretariat later merged in 1948 with the Conservative Research Department.
5 The Conservative Party electoral machine for London.
6 As it happens, very few of the hospitals planned by the ten year Hospital Plan were ever built. But the responsibility for that failure lay with subsequent ministers.
7 Powell never actually used the words 'vote Labour'; but he made it perfectly clear that is what he meant.


Summarised from Like the Roman, The Life of Enoch Powell by Simon Heffer (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998)

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