IF INDIA IS rather lax about history, the West seems obsessed with it. Anniversaries have been transformed into major marketing events, with the media planning for them years in advance and proffering contemporary re-assessments of past events. In London for the Commonwealth Summit and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big event at Westminster, I encountered the commemoration of an event that had both agitated and captivated a generation.
April 20th—which, coincidentally, happened to be Hitler’s birthday— marked the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s (in) famous ‘rivers of blood’ speech to a Conservative Party gathering in his Wolverhampton constituency. BBC’s Radio 4 broadcast a programme that included an actor voicing the full version of the speech that led to the relegation of one of England’s most talented politicians to the fringes of public life. A lot of people thought that the speech should not be commemorated and not even dispassionately analysed, but simply buried. Others privately whispered that Powell had ruined his career by flagging an issue that now dominates European politics. He was prescient but also a political fool.
I happened to have met Powell at various points in the 1980s, a time he was regarded as a quaint symbol of an archaic Ulster Unionism. On one occasion we had tea together at St Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster. I had hoped to do a lengthy interview with him, but he indicated that he would rather just have a private conversation. It was certainly more rewarding. He had a way with the English language that was mesmerising and his style was reminiscent of the orators of a preceding age.
Powell was not a racist. He had a profound love for India and its civilisation. He even had a good working knowledge of Urdu, a language he studied when he was posted in India during the War. It is said that in his younger days he nurtured a fierce ambition to be Viceroy of India. According to his biographer Simon Heffer, he had even described the relationship between Britain and India as a ‘shared infatuation’—a description I find quite compelling.
What prompted such a man to make a speech that, despite its erudition and classical allusions, became a manifesto for crude racism and contributed to social tensions on the streets? The answers, paradoxically, lie in high principles.
First, as an MP representing the Midlands town of Wolverhampton that had experienced a wave of Commonwealth immigration, Powell had been confronted by constituents expressing misgivings over the most profound demographic changes in the history of the British Isles. The fears had extended to an alarm over a time when the Black man would exercise a ‘whip hand’ over the White man. These concerns were grossly political incorrect, but real at the same time. The question that Powell asked was: does he, as their elected MP, have the right to black out their views because they offended the sensibilities of others? He concluded—unlike Edmund Burke who believed that, once elected, the MP had to look beyond his immediate constituency—that he didn’t have that right.
Second, Powell was a firm believer in the nation-state and national sovereignty. Once a devotee of Empire and the obligations it involved, he soon came to the conclusion that the wider concept of the Commonwealth— on which the UK based its open door immigration policy—had now become a piece of fiction that needed to be junked. Consequently, he felt that if the British people were against opening the floodgates of non-White immigration, their views had to be respected. If that also meant encouraging voluntary repatriation, that too was fine.
The curious thing about Powell’s cold logic was that the British political establishment agreed with it. The passage of anti-immigration legislation after 1968 was swift and unrelenting. Britain, in effect, agreed with Powell that it would no longer tolerate the steady demographic transformation of the British landscape. And on this count, Powell was indeed prophetic. Where they parted company was in their attitude to the imagery employed by Powell to describe the consequences of inaction. That was seen to be inflammatory—as it certainly was.
When a brilliant man goes wrong, his errors can be catastrophic. Till the end of his life, Powell felt he had been hounded for speaking a self-evident truth. He was only partly right. He has been condemned less for what he said than how he said it. His mesmerising command of the language proved his undoing.