Bruce Anderson: Enoch Powell made the Rivers of Blood speech out of ambition, not conviction

From beyond the grave he can still embarrass Tory leaders, and impose closure on parliamentary ambitions
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For the past 39 years, "Enoch was right" has been one of the most widely-used phrases in English political discourse. If every Tory candidate had received a thousand votes whenever he heard it, the party would never have lost office. Enoch Powell is still a name to conjure with, especially in the West Midlands. From beyond the grave, he can still embarrass Tory leaders, as David Cameron is now aware – and impose closure upon parliamentary aspirations, as Nigel Hastilow discovered yesterday.

Although it was Mr Hastilow's decision to resign, the Tory leadership was irritated by his remarks, because they were a clumsy intervention in a sensitive area. Last week, David Cameron spoke about immigration. The text was carefully crafted in order to make the case for controlling numbers without either sounding racialist or raising unrealistic expectations, as Gordon Brown did recently.

Mr Brown promised British jobs for British workers, although he must know that EU law would never allow him to keep his word. The PM was guilty of dishonesty, and dumbed-down dishonesty at that. As Mr Cameron was determined not to make any pledge which he could not honour, he weighed his words on Tory scales.

Many Tory supporters would prefer the Hastilow approach and the Powellite tradition. But before evoking the shade of Enoch, Tories would be wise to examine the record more closely. They would find a great deal of evidence that the myth of Enoch as a disinterested seer and prophet with Olympian perspectives is just that: a myth.

Politicians use language to achieve political goals. So it is always worth examining their speeches in context. What, at that moment, were they trying to achieve? The legend would have it that Enoch spoke out on race because of his concern for the nation's welfare and was then persecuted by lesser figures. But Enoch Powell had been a West Midlands MP for almost 20 years. Despite observing large-scale immigration, he had said hardly anything about it.

An immigration bill had gone through Parliament, without Powell arguing that it ought to be tightened. As Minister of Health in the early 1960s, he presided over a department which was recruiting West Indian nurses. At no stage did he object. So his famous speech would have come as a complete surprise to anyone who had studied his record.

Politicians are entitled to change their minds. When they do so, they are always more persuasive if they admit what is happening and confess to earlier misjudgements. Although Enoch's vanity would never have allowed him to behave in that way, this is no reason to credit him with pure motives.

In 1965, he had run for the leadership of the Conservative party. He did as well as expected, winning 15 votes out of 298. This led most observers to conclude that he had not been serious and was merely putting down a marker. As Mr Powell was the oldest of the three candidates, the marker point was implausible. So was the lack of seriousness. Enoch was always serious. He entered the contest for one reason. He wanted to be leader.

Nor did defeat efface desire. By 1968, Enoch Powell had come to hold Ted Heath in contempt, to the extent that he seemed taken aback when Mr Heath had no problem in finding the strength to sack him. Powell had never taken much interest in political mechanics. Convinced that such a negligible figure as Heath could not long endure, he assumed that his party would shortly be looking for a new leader. Even if the tactics were unclear, " Rivers of Blood" was part of a strategy.

At the time, Mr Powell denied this. He even claimed not to see what all the fuss was about. He had made a few commonplace observations; why was everyone so excited? This was doubly dishonest. He had told the journalist Colin Welch that he was about to make a speech which would flutter the dovecots of Central Office. Moreover, Enoch Powell was a classical scholar and a published poet, in a competent, sub-Housmanic style. This man knew about words; their meaning, their power. He must have realised that the " Rivers of Blood" text was a superbly-crafted verbal hand grenade.

He miscalculated the consequences of the explosion. It blew him off the front bench, never to return, while leaving Ted Heath with a few splinter injuries. But that demonstrated Enoch's defects as a political calculator, not his lack of grasp of linguistics. His modesty about the speech's impact was the only modesty he knew how to practice; false modesty.

Rivers of Blood was just one of the bombs which Enoch Powell threw during his career, all of them directed at the Tory leadership. In January 1958, he almost destroyed the Macmillan government by inciting the Treasury team to resign, in an absurd dispute over a small amount of public expenditure. In 1963, he refused to serve under Alec Home, despite a large measure of political sympathy for the new leader. But Home was Macmillan's candidate. Still piqued by his failure to bring down Macmillan, Powell satisfied himself with sabotaging his chosen successor. The Tories only lost narrowly in 1964. Had Enoch served and persuaded his then close friend Iain Macleod to join him, the outcome might have been different.

If Enoch Powell were tried for undermining Ted Heath, any Tory jury would acquit him and award him his costs. But Tories ought to remember that as late as 1979, Enoch advised the electorate to vote for the Callaghan government and against Margaret Thatcher. Where he failed, she had succeeded. She did displace Ted Heath. He found it hard to forgive her for it.

Enoch Powell's political career was far more complex than the taxi-driver version would suggest. But there is one obvious conclusion to be drawn. Throughout the decades, Enoch was locked in his own selfishness. He was incapable of playing in a team or displaying loyalty to the captain. He was always far more of a narcissist than a politician.

There is a further point. At the time, Rivers of Blood had dockers marching in support of Enoch. But it had no effect on the levels of immigration. On the contrary; Enoch's intervention made it harder for the matter to be discussed in polite society. Many Tories who shared some of Enoch Powell's doubts were even more concerned to distance themselves from him. They did not want to be accused of racism.

By all accounts, Nigel Hastilow is a lively fellow and an able journalist. But he has had difficulties in making the transition from journalism to politics. Before 2001, he made disparaging comments about William Hague which were gleefully quoted by Tony Blair. He was probably right to resign, especially as he did so with good grace.

It is to be hoped that there will be no further blunders into the minefield. Mr Cameron is right to treat race and immigration with caution. Any Tory who wants sensible outcomes should support him.