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Enoch Powell's Island Story

10 March 2008

Jon Bright (London, OK): Jonathan Rutherford has a fascinating article (opens pdf) in Soundings about Enoch Powell's life and philosophy, extending his story backwards and forwards from his "rivers of blood" proclamation. The following passage, describing the fallout, struck me:

The following day, Powell, who claimed to be taken completely by surprise at the turn of events, was the subject of blanket press coverage. Heath immediately sacked him from the shadow cabinet and the majority of the press and political commentators heaped opprobrium on his head. In the Monday edition of The Times , the editorial was headed, 'An Evil Speech'. The Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley accused Powell of being a new Oswald Mosley (something he later retracted in his biography of Powell). The Spectator carried an attack an Powell by Auberon Waugh, who made the perceptive comment that that had upset the political establishment more than his racial language, was his refusal to play the game; 'the prophet has not been behaving like a gentleman.'60 Powell had destroyed his chances of ever rising in the Conservative Party, but he had succeeded in establishing himself as a spokesman for 'the people'. On Monday morning, 45,000 letters arrived at his London home. Within days he had received 100,000 letters. Overwhelming in their support, they came from people of all classes. Only a small minority employed a language of racist abuse. The majority emphasised the cultural incommensurability of new Commonwealth immigrants and the threat this posed to their national identity.

Powell's unexpected capture of public mood defined the rest of his life, which would be spent agitating against 'multiculturalism' and in defence of what he perceived as a truer 'British' culture. Rutherford's article is, according to Soundings, published in protest against a nascent reinterpretation of Powell, coinciding with current debate over the latest state of multiculturalism. What I found most interesting, though, was how out of touch the "ruling classes" were - especially those of a Leftist bent - unable to really perceive or explain what force Powell had tapped into.

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