A New Look At An Older Book:

Enoch Powell; The Enigma

Enoch Powell; A Biography, by Robert Shepherd. Hutchinson, London. 1996.
A hardback of 560 pages. ISBN: 0 09 179208 8.

Was the Man Who - According to Some - "Stood For Christian Values" - Even a Christian?

Enoch Powell (1912-1998).

E noch Powell, MBE (1912-1998) was a major British politician, a writer, a classical scholar, journalist, a one-time army brigadier and quite an impressive poet. He also understood around 10-12 languages, including Urdu and - of course - Welsh; his command of Classical Greek (a very difficult language) was outstanding. Rather an impressive tally! Nobody (even his enemies) ever doubted that he possessed a towering intellect.

Powell served as a Member of Parliament in the Conservative Party (1950-74) and was a Minister of Health (1960-63) in the days of Prime Minister Harold McMillan. He achieved fame - and some notoriety - in 1968, when he made the controversial 'Rivers of Blood' speech in opposition to mass immigration from Commonwealth nations. For this, he was promptly fired from his position as Shadow Defence Secretary (1965-68) in the shadow cabinet of Edward Heath. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that his amazing popularity following that speech helped the Conservative Party to win the 1970 General Election, and maybe cost them the February 1974 General Election at which an embittered Powell endorsed a vote for the Labour Party.

Powell returned to the House of Commons in October 1974 as the Ulster Unionist MP for the Northern Irish constituency of South Down, until he was defeated in the 1987 General Election.

Early Experiences

Before entering politics Enoch Powell had been an outstanding classical scholar, becoming a full Professor of Ancient Greek at the age of only twenty-five. He had graduated from Cambridge, but stayed on at Trinity College as a Fellow, spending much of his time studying ancient manuscripts in Rome and producing academic works in both Greek and Welsh (though born in England, Powell was Welsh in ancestry). In 1937 he was appointed Professor of Greek at Sydney University at the amazingly young age of 25.

When war broke out Powell was keen to enlist. To his credit, he joined the army during the Second World War as a mere private when he could have joined at a higher rank, believing that his abilities (which he always had superb confidence in), would see him rise through the ranks. He was proven correct! After serving in staff and intelligence positions, he reached the rank of Brigadier while still in his early thirties, and by the year 1945. This fulfilled a boast he had made in his early days in the army that he would eventually become a brigadier. The boast must have sounded dreadfully conceited and arrogant at the time, but Powell was indeed a brigadier by 1945!

Powell was also a published poet, his first works being published in 1937, and he wrote several other books on classical and political subjects.

Truth is: Powell was always an enigma to many people: very intelligent, but often overly-intense, unsmiling, with penetrating blue-green eyes, forever wearing a pencil-thin moustache, unusually white in facial complexion and rarely without his homberg-style hat. He was an old, colonial-style and Church of England-supporting academic Tory, originally heavily imperialistic in outlook but later rejecting imperialism but remaining firmly nationalistic in outlook, anti-American (he was a staunch critic of American Foreign Policy, criticising war and foreign policy in places such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran), and rarely prepared to obey the party line if he disagreed on any issue. At length, he also developed an anti-European Union stance which put him at odds with his 1970s leader Edward Heath, who plainly distrusted Powell, seeing him as a maverick and a rival. Heath, an unforgiving man, plainly made the decision to keep Powell at arm's-length wherever he could, this costing Enoch Powell the senior government office which many saw him as fully entitled to.

I recently consulted Robert Shepherd's very fine 1996 biography of Powell, and many of my comments here are based on Shepherd's keen observations of the MP. Shepherd is a fine writer, very clear and readable, generally wise in sticking to the parts of Powell's life which have the widest interest though he spends too long on Powell's later years as an Ulster Unionist. Some of that is tedious stuff.

While a serious, thoughtful, but fair book, the book does contain one or two very humorous parts, most notably the descriptions of Powell's World War II quest to drive an army lorry. The assiduous intellectual seemingly had no natural talent for driving a motor vehicle at all but he apparently drove it across a good part of north Africa without - somewhat amazingly - ever killing anybody!

'Falling in Love' Phases

For sure, Powell could be a strange man, he was a man who 'fell in love' with certain influences, cultures and ideas at various stages of his life, but would then abruptly move away from them and find something else. He fell in love with India, he fell in love with British imperialism, then he fell in love with Australia, earlier he fell in love with German language and culture, then with the Greeks and with Nietzsche, he 'fell in love' with being a World War II soldier and told several that he was quite prepared to die for his country on the battlefield. In answer to the question, "How would you like to be remembered?" put by Anne Brown in a radio interview on 13 April 1986, Powell replied, "I should like to have been killed in the war." (Simon Heffer, Like the Roman. The Life of Enoch Powell. Phoenix, 1999, p. 901).

He finally fell in love with being a Conservative Party Member of Parliament, a capacity in which he served for 24 years (he then served for a further 13 years in the Ulster Unionist Party). The earlier 'marriage' to Nietzsche turned him against the Christianity which had been part of his upbringing and, for many years, Powell considered himself an atheist. But we must return to Powell's religious life later.

Powell confessed to having no early interest in women at all in his university days, only seeking out a wife at a later stage (his longsuffering wife, Pamela, produced two daughters). Indeed, it could be said that some of his early poetry seemed to show homosexual tendencies/sensibilities. His passion for the Greeks might have been an influence here. Also, A.E. Houseman, the poet who was a homosexual, was greatly admired by Powell. Powell eagerly attended and absorbed Houseman's lectures at Cambridge in the early 1930s. Powell also supported the need for reform on the law which outlawed homosexuality.

Regarding marriage, it seems that it was only when he saw a long political life stretching ahead of him, that Enoch Powell decided to find a wife.

As Shepherd writes,

"...Although he 'saw women for the first time' after 1945, it was not until he was in his late thirties, after his selection as a Tory candidate in Wolverhampton, that he first dated a woman." (p. 87, Shepherd).

Eventually he married Pamela who became a great strength to him in his sometimes turbulent days as an MP.

The life of Powell as an MP was punctuated by regular blow-ups every few years, these often taking the form of falling out with colleagues, yet he was considered a good, sound and reliable MP for Wolverhampton. We next consider possibly the most major of these blow-ups, an event which caused shockwaves throughout British society.

The Famous 'Rivers of Blood' Speech

I well remember this speech, delivered at Birmingham, England, and the dramatic effect it seemed to have on the whole nation back in 1968. Powell railed against the large scale immigration of non-British peoples into the large British cities, warning that it would alter the character of those cities and even warning of possible race wars in the future. His warnings were proven correct regarding the altering of the character of some British cities which would soon have large mainly black areas, his warnings of race wars, however, have not been proven correct. He was widely condemned as a 'racist,' though earlier events in his life showed that he was no racist. Rather, he was concerned with what is now called 'multi-culturalism,' he did not believe that the British should - without their permission having been sought at any poll, or by any party - have a huge non-British populace thrust upon them in their major cities, and this has plainly happened. Powell was brave and bold to speak out, although his speech quickly led to him being isolated from the Tory leadership from that point forwards. But his words gave him enormous popularity among ordinary Britons who felt that, at last, somebody was being courageous enough to speak out for their own concerns.

But Powell's choice of language within that 'rivers of blood' speech does raise question marks: it was purposely emotive, indeed it was provocative, one might also say that it was inflammatory! The best explanation for this must be that if Powell had delivered a very mild sort of speech it would probably have been ignored, so he obviously decided on a high-risk strategy; the strategy both succeeded and failed; it succeeded in making him quite famous both at home and abroad, but it failed if the speaker's intention was for the speech to give him an unstoppable momentum which would carry him through to being Conservative Party leader and - eventually - Prime Minister.

In the explosive Birmingham speech, Powell quoted a letter which he claimed to have received from a woman who was very disgruntled by large scale black immigration into the UK. The quoted letter stated,

"We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiances whom they have never seen."

Powell advocated voluntary re-emigration or re-patriation by the use of "generous grants and assistance" and he claimed that some immigrants had already asked him whether such a thing was possible.
Powell described what he thought the position of the indigenous population would eventually be:

"For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country. They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated; at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker; they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted..."

Powell argued that although "many thousands" of immigrants really wanted to integrate, the majority did not, and that some had vested interests in fostering racial and religious differences "with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest of the population."

Powell also quoted the Sibyl prophesies in the epic poem Aeneid, 6, 86-7, of, "wars, terrible wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood."

"As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood." That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal."

In short, Powell looked across the Atlantic and saw some terrible racial tensions in parts of the United States (at that time) and saw no reason why such things should not also occur in the United Kingdom in the future.

This was powerfully emotive stuff and Powell used much garish imagery. In a newspaper article which he had already written, he also compared the English understanding of enemy bombing with what he saw as a new but different terror:

"Acts of an enemy, bombs from the sky, they could understand, but now, for reasons quite inexplicable, they might be driven from their homes and their property deprived of value by an invasion which the Government apparently approved..." (p326, Shepherd, although actually quoted from The Daily Telegraph, 16th February, 1967).

Immediately following the speech, many, especially on the political left, called for Powell to be fired and indeed Conservative leader Heath did fire him from the Shadow Cabinet. Margaret Thatcher, however, while thinking that the speech may have gone a little too far, was generally sympathetic and appealed to Heath (her leader at the time), not to fire him. Heath ignored her advice.

All we can now say is that, for sure, Powell was no racist: In 1959, he had given an emotional defence of the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya, despite some of their murderous acts; when they had been described in Parliament as "sub-human," Powell was visibly angered! Having lived there, he was also fond of the Indian people. These factors strongly suggest that Powell was no racist ('racialist' was the word used for such prejudice at the time).

When asked by David Frost if he was a racialist, he replied,

"It depends on how you define the word "racialist." If you mean being conscious of the differences between men and nations, and from that, races, then we are all racialists. However, if you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another, then the answer is emphatically 'No.'" (3 January, 1969, from Simon Heffer, Like the Roman. The Life of Enoch Powell. Phoenix, 1999, p. 504).

Powell - always a man with strongly patriotic British feelings - was purely concerned with the logistics and demographics of the mass immigration into already overcrowded British cities of a people of an alien culture which was underway at the time. He sounded a shrill and stark warning about a matter which others were certainly afraid to confront. He should be given full credit for this.

Another of Powell's biographers (there is no shortage of them!), Patrick Cosgrave, in his The Lives of Enoch Powell, gives us some figures and statistics for the sudden British popularity of Powell following this speech,

"...four different opinion polls, Gallup, ORC, NOP and Daily Express, all recorded overwhelming public support for him. Gallup recorded 74%, ORC 82%, NOP 67% and the Express 79%. The corresponding opinion figures against were 15%, 12%, 19% and 17%. On the question of whether Heath had been right to dismiss him, three of the same polls, in the same order, gave the figures for Heath as 20%, 18% and 25% and against him 69%, 73% and 61%. The Daily Express poll did not ask about the dismissal." (Cosgrave, The Lives of Enoch Powell, London, Pan Books. 1989 paperback, p 253).

His Form of Christianity

Powell gained a huge following from the typical 'man and woman in the street' following his 1968 speech. Moreover, his popular followers were not divided according to party lines but were men and women from a broad spectrum of life, although perhaps people who might normally have been seen as natural Labour voters were especially attracted to him. Many within the Christian community were especially keen to back Powell since - at last - here was somebody who was being brave enough to highlight a problem which - at length - would surely lead to Britain becoming a multi-cultural nation, rather than a 'Christian nation.' Of course, Powell was proven correct here and today Britain is indeed a multi-cultural society, and it is entirely correct to point out that this has happened without any mandate being received from the people of the land.

At the time it was known that Enoch Powell was a member of the Church of England and this led to many assuming that he was a practising, and possibly, Bible-believing Christian...... but was he? A few even seemed willing to look upon him as a sort of prophet! While it is not our job to stand in judgment on Enoch Powell (there is a Great One who will indeed do that with all of us), it is interesting to figure out exactly where he stood from a Christian/spiritual point of view.

As already pointed out, the strong influence of Nietzsche had turned Powell firmly - though not belligerently - atheist. Without question, this was his position for many years of his life. But he later did claim a religious experience which turned him back to God. This happened in his first years at Wolverhampton.

Powell later wrote of this,

"The bells of St Peter's were ringing for evensong and I went in. It was the first time I had been into a church for worship, to a service, for fifteen years or more. I sat down in a dark corner, just by the south door, hoping I wouldn't notice myself, because I didn't know what I was doing and I was rather ashamed of it. As I listened, the language of it all came back to me." (p 77, Shepherd).

Biographer Shepherd writes of this:

"Powell has attended church on almost every Sunday since. But characteristically, he was content neither to remain merely a regular attender, nor to become the type of Anglican for whom religion is primarily a social activity....The following Easter, Powell told himself, 'Look, you can't stay here, you either go back or you go forward.' He knew that he could not go back, 'so forward I went,' and at 6am on Easter Sunday 1950 he took communion. In Powell's view, the Christian gospel can only be a matter of private conscience and has no practical bearing on particular political decisions. But his devout belief in Christ and the resurrection as the prerequisite to salvation were to remain essential to his private being." (p 77-78, Shepherd).

This would be very nice as far as it goes but we must understand that - for Powell - Christianity was a cerebral and academic matter. He supported a form of Christianity which was a purely academic enterprise, having little bearing on ones everyday life. This is somewhat shocking to discover but, indeed, Powell more than once outlined his belief that religion should have no bearing on one's everyday life, nor on political choices and decisions. Therefore, although biographer Shepherd is quite sympathetic to his 'religious experience' of around 1950, one must feel that further questions need to be asked: Was this a 'conversion' to real, biblical Christianity? Or did he emotionally re-discover Anglicanism?

"In his view, the practical world and the religious world are two completely different worlds that lie parallel...this perception leads him to reject the idea that Christianity has any relevance to political action, social organization, business ethics, or any of the other practical choices that people have to make about the way they lead their lives." (p 499, Shepherd).

In short, Powell believed in putting ones Christian beliefs into an intellectual box, an entirely private and personal affair; for Powell, nothing within ones Christianity should ever intrude upon life's choices and decisions. The amazing thing is that Powell - a highly intelligent man - really believed this!!

As a Greek scholar, in later years he undertook to study the Gospel of Matthew more deeply, sadly his study accepted all the erroneous baggage of the liberal Bible critics. He seemed to show no interest at all in becoming closer to the Jesus of the New Testament, rather, he looked at the text as a 'higher' textual critic (which he wasn't).

So, in 1994, at the age of 82, Powell published 'The Evolution of the Gospel,' which was a textual study of Matthew. The book caused a storm (as so many of Powell's activities had done during his lifetime), Powell completely stood the text of Matthew on its head, insisting that Jesus was not executed by the Romans at all but was stoned to death by the Jews. He cut the text to pieces, apparently disbelieving much of what Matthew actually states. Even sworn biblical liberals rejected much of what Powell wrote.

Robert Shepherd sums up this storm over Powell's desecration of the Book of Matthew rather well in his book stating,

"As the scholar and critic, Gina Menzies, observed: 'Eliminate the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus' trial before Pilate, the Sermon on the Mount, the anointing of Jesus by an unnamed woman at Bethany, and you have Matthew's Gospel according to Enoch Powell. In the Spectator, the writer on religious matters, Peter Hebblethwaite, judged that Powell's book 'is much more subversive of the Christian message than anything David Jenkins, the sometime Bishop of Durham, has hinted at.' Pressed by Terry Coleman on whether he was a believing Christian, Powell replied cryptically, 'I am an obedient member of the Church of England.'" (p 500, Shepherd).

This, very sadly, seems to sum up the answer to our question as to the true nature of Enoch Powell's Christianity; he was a Church of England liberal, indeed, he was thoroughly liberal - to a degree which might surprise many. His comments about Matthew obviously caused a storm among the Ulster Unionist MPs (mostly strongly fundamentalist-leaning) whom he had been working with just a few years earlier. Also, British evangelicals - in general - who had sometimes been quite impressed by Powell, now quickly deserted him. One of the odd things about Powell is how he was so widely often considered "right-wing" when - on a whole series of issues - he was actually very, very liberal. Only on immigration did he come across as right-wing.

The willingness to attack and to undermine Scripture and the unquestionably very poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about must call into very serious question whether Powell was ever a true Christian; we simply have to face this. Superior Greek scholar or not, he plainly had no real spiritual understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

So Powell was a man of many contradictions who one really cannot pigeonhole. His understanding of Christianity was obviously deeply deficient, but - in his very last moments of life - did He finally really understand and did he repent? One hopes so.
Robin A. Brace. December 7th, 2011.