Enoch Powell (1912-1998)

Image: Sculpture (outside the building of the Austrian Parliament) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, referred to as “The Father of History”, a title conferred on him by the ancient Roman orator Cicero.

From a review by Peter Clarke of Enoch at 100: A Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell (2012), edited by Lord Howard of Rising:

“…Powell’s reputation depends to an unusual extent on his words rather than his deeds. The one precluded the other: he held government office for a relatively short time over a long political career, largely because of what he said, or the way he said it. The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968 ended his front-bench career and remains a focus of scrutiny. It was the speech at once of a politician on the stump and a classicist on the podium. Powell’s brilliance lay in his rigour as a linguist, with a passion for accuracy that exceeded even that of his mentor, A.E. Housman. Powell’s Lexicon to Herodotus, published in 1938, had exemplified these qualities. It was hailed at the time for ‘amazing industry, much thought and care and fine scholarship’; later judgments found it either an ‘astonishingly focused and accurate achievement’ or the product of a ‘sharp, clear and nit-picking mind’…”

Matthew d’Ancona wrote for The Guardian of 16 Apr 2018:

“I was the last person to interview Enoch Powell. In October 1996, only 16 months before his death, he was frail and softly spoken, though still formidably articulate. Our conversation ranged from John Major’s politics, to St John’s Gospel, to the poet AE Housman. But what most exercised him was Europe.

…In a later exchange, Powell insisted that he had never delivered a speech on “race”, only “immigration”. But this was a distinction without a difference – as was made admirably clear in Amol Rajan’s excellent Radio 4 programme on Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech.

Hearing the text reread in its entirety – broken up into sections and interspersed with critical analysis – I was forcefully struck by how bad it was. For all its artful rhetoric and sonorous phrases, it relied to an appalling extent upon dubious anecdotage, ludicrous assertions (white Britons would become “strangers in their own country”), and – most disgracefully – a leap from an argument about specific legislative proposals to a totally unsupported prophecy of bloodshed and immolation.

Yet it is idle to deny the speech’s significance at the time and in the intervening half century. History, properly practised, requires a constant readiness to remember infamy with as much clarity as progress. To shirk this task is to reduce it to a heritage industry, a gallery of approved nostalgia. The present should never be a safe space sealed off and insulated from the past.Indeed, it is precisely when our sense of history falters that populism and autocracy flourish. As David Andress argues in his recent book, Cultural Dementia, societies are most vulnerable to injustice and bigotry when they lose their “anchorage in the past … Anger, bitterness and horror coexist with fond illusion and placid self-absorption.” “

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