To be perfectly clear: I don’t like Enoch Powell or the politics he represented, but surely people on the left can look carefully at this piece of history and learn something from it.
It seems pretty clear that to me that the “Rivers of Blood” speech poisoned any rational or sensible debate about immigration in Britain for years and years by focussing on race, and perhaps Britain is only just coming out of this now.
In this sense, Enoch Powell was a disaster for British politics.
However, what is quite stunning about this event in British history is how much support there was for Powell’s demand for an end to immigration from the British population at large and, above all, the British working class (see Lindop 1998), as can be seen from this part of a BBC documentary about Powell:
Admittedly, the fears about immigration in this period were exaggerated, given how little actual immigration was going on in the 1960s and given how low unemployment was. Yet even the low levels of immigration provoked an intense backlash back then.
However, some evidence exists that the immigration fear was also partly a symptom of the discontent with the Labour party’s incomes policy and wage freeze from 1966–1967 (Lindop 1998: 84), which was seen as unfair.
What can be said about Enoch Powell? I think he is a warning from history. If you have an elite grossly out of touch with what the majority of people want, people like Enoch Powell will step in.
Was there anything positive about him? It’s clear that Powell – like Tony Benn – was a vocal opponent of Britain entering the EEC on democratic grounds, and you can’t really fault him for that. But that’s about it.
But it is also quite clear that Powell was a vulgar free marketeer, supporter of the Mont Pelerin Society, and proto-monetarist, who supported what, for his time, were radical laissez faire policies. Indeed, his brand of proto-monetarism seems to have inspired and prefigured Thatcherism, as Thatcher herself admitted:
I would regard this as another deeply troubling aspect of Enoch Powell: to what degree did he prepare the ground for Thatcherism and even shift some working class votes from the Labour party to the Tories?
Astonishingly, Enoch Powell even got a thumbs up from Murray Rothbard, who said this of him:
“Decades of horrific British policies have created a rigid, stratified, and cartellized economy, a set of frozen power blocs integrated with Big Government: namely, Big Business and Big Labor. Even the most cautious and gradualist of English libertarians now admit that only a radical political change can save England. Enoch Powell is the only man on the horizon who could be the sparkplug for such a change. It is true, of course, that for libertarians Enoch Powell has many deficiencies. For one thing he is an admitted High Tory who believes in the divine right of kings; for another, his immigration policy is the reverse of libertarian. But on the critical issues in these parlous times: on checking the inflationary rise in the money supply, and on scuttling the disastrous price and wage controls, Powell is by far the soundest politician in Britain. A sweep of Enoch Powell into power would hardly be ideal, but it offers the best existing hope for British freedom and survival.”This also damns Enoch Powell in my book: a race-baiting disaster of a man who destroyed any hope for serious debate on mass immigration and a crackpot free marketeer to boot.
Libertarian Forum, March 1974
Lindop, Fred. 1998. “Racism and the Working Class: Strikes in Support of Enoch Powell in 1968,” Labour History Review 66.1: 79–100.