Frank Field

Enoch Powell as a Parliamentarian

Enoch Powell as a Parliamentarian
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A new collection of essays and reminisces, called Enoch at 100, has been published to mark Enoch Powell’s centenary. In this piece, Frank Field recalls his affection and admiration for his fellow parliamentarian.  

When I joined the House in 1979, Enoch Powell was firmly established as one of the greatest political figures in the Commons. Whilst admired he was also feared and herein lay the strength of his parliamentary presence and its weakness.

As a schoolboy I was already aware of Enoch and there were three aspects of his political life that had already impressed themselves on my mind by the time I entered the House. There was first, his protest against the shenanigans that had led to Alec Douglas-Home being installed in No. 10 in place of R. A. Butler. Secondly, there was the undoubted quality of his intellect and his harnessing of this extraordinary set of abilities in the making of a most radical minister. Lastly, there was the issue which will forever be linked to Enoch, that ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. How did my impressions change once I had the opportunity to witness Enoch close up within a parliamentary system to which he devoted practically all of his working life?

First, then, his stand against the way the ‘magic circle’ (as Iain Macleod dubbed it) had moved to put Douglas-Home into No. 10 in preference to Butler. Why did this action so impress me? And why did my admiration for this action by Enoch so long ago grow once I became a Member of Parliament? Only after coming to the Commons did I become fully aware of Enoch’s courage in refusing to serve under Douglas-Home, an act whereby he effectively removed himself from office. True, the courage required to stand apart in this instance was less than it would have been had Enoch stood alone against Macmillan’s successful plot, but there was courage nevertheless in his willingness to confront the ruling political gang on his side of the House.

The outside world has some appreciation of what it means to resign in protest at the treatment of a friend or colleague. Voters can relate such an action to their own life. But a resignation in the Commons adds a further dimension to such a drama. The House has its very public side where our activities are presented for good or ill to the public. But what the public are less aware of is how the Commons has its own political culture where MPs are rated by their peers. Most Members share the honourable instinct of wishing to climb the greasy pole of political advancement. Not to make this ascent, either by not wishing to do so, or by failure before reaching senior office, separates out Members in what our House culture deems, at best, to be members of the second eleven. Enoch’s behaviour suggests that this conventional criterion for success meant little to him. 

As I came to know him, I found his eccentric attitude on this score increasingly attractive. It was impossible not to conclude that, while Enoch fought his corner as ably as any, the struggle, for him, was about achieving long-term objectives, not simply a mastery of the flotsam and jetsam of current events. Enoch, at the beginning of the Falklands War, questioned the strength of Margaret Thatcher’s character. The Prime Minister derived obvious pleasure from being referred to as ‘the Iron Lady’. How well, Enoch asked, would the Iron Lady live up to the soubriquet she so obviously relished now that the battle was joined? This challenge, we are told, rattled Downing Street. And yet once the noise of battle had subsided, Enoch wittily complimented her on her conduct. Similarly, in setting the course for enacting fundamental change in British politics, Enoch’s own principles were, to paraphrase Thatcher, not for turning.

A second side of Enoch that impressed was his sheer intellectual ability and how this played into politics. Even in the sixth form I was aware of this extraordinary MP who had become a professor of Greek at the age of twenty-five. That his chair was in Sydney rather than Oxford or Cambridge somehow added for me a greater sense of achievement. (I still had much to learn about English snobbery.)

But the high intellect that was so obviously on display early in his life, and which served Enoch exceptionally well in the military intelligence post he occupied with such obvious distinction during the war, was a double-edged weapon in the Commons. By the time I reached the Commons, anyone who sought recognition in the chamber feared Enoch. It was not a fear based simply on how Enoch would marshal his argument. Nor did that fear stem only from his ability to make an opponent’s argument appear at best lacking in logic, and at worst just plain idiotic. That was of course part of the fear factor. But this fear operated in an even more fundamental way. Even those who sought to be his allies could not always be sure upon which side Enoch would dispose his affections. This fault was not wholly Enoch’s. Anyone who cared to look at his career would see the line of his thinking and how his disparate speeches and activities combined to explain the whole man. Even so, it must be conceded that Enoch was in part responsible. For here was the downside to his fierce intelligence. 

When the good fairy stood at the foot of his cot in those far-off days in 1912, many gifts were bestowed on the young son of Albert and Ellen Powell. But that same good fairy was either struck by a spasm of absentmindedness, or had departed, before she could balance the baby’s extraordinary intellectual intelligence with the social skills and clubbiness that would have made his character overwhelmingly attractive for a party leadership role. His lack of emotional intelligence and, given his character, his inability to be other than his own man, ensured that the number of Indians wishing to follow their chief was limited, perhaps too limited, for someone who might otherwise expect to lead his party. Worse still, that intelligence often drove him into dangerous territories where the fatality rate among his friends was particularly high.

There was, however, another, much more positive side to Enoch’s intelligence, and it was how he utilised those gifts in government. My early impression, no doubt acquired from the near unanimity of political commentators, was the perceived inability of intellectuals to make much immediate impact on current policies. That conventional observation was utterly confounded by the impact of Enoch’s thinking on policies. Enoch was Minister of Health from 1960 until he resigned over what he regarded as Macmillan’s ‘sheer devilry’ in fixing the Tory leadership for Douglas-Home. Enoch’s time at Health paralleled my undergraduate years. Even then I was startled that it was he who began the first NHS building programme.

Here was the man, who happily presented himself as wrestling with angels, also having the ability to get stuck in and wrestle money from the Treasury, not just for the odd hospital rebuild, but also in getting the Treasury to sign up to a ten-year building programme. No dandified intellectual here: this was a shrewd and effective politician.

Equally important for me, as an MP, was the growing understanding of how a political intellectual could not only initiate a new debate, but also set the contours within which that debate would be conducted. Here Enoch used his position as minister to set in motion the debate on community care that has still to run its course. His starting point was the treatment of the ‘criminally ill’ as well as the much larger population housed in what are euphemistically called ‘long-stay hospitals’. Enoch was determined to seize, if not the advantage, at least the issue of how the community cared for its citizens with mental illness. He asserted that the criminally insane should never be released, but argued that there were new ways of caring for people with ment al illness and that taxpayers had to face up to the fact that this more humane approach was one that would cost more, not less, money.

Yet Enoch’s stewardship of the Ministry of Health was not without its paradoxes, which continued to fascinate me, largely because so few politicians or commentators made much of it after the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. It was Enoch, after all, who, as Health Minister, had not only sanctioned, but actively supported the NHS strategy of recruiting large numbers of immigrant workers. This brings me, inevitably, to that speech, a speech that changed the trajectory of Enoch’s life just as much as it set a course by which so much of British politics would flow.

Enoch came to this issue with a track record of which any MP would be proud. The speech he gave on the Royal Titles Bill in 1953 drew heavily on the changes that the Attlee government made in its 1948 British Nationality Act. Enoch regarded this 1953 speech as the finest he ever gave. I happen to disagree. It was, for me, his contribution against the actions of the British government over the Kenyan Hola Camp scandal that stands out for me as the pinnacle of his oratory. In that latter speech, Enoch insisted that there could not be a standard of conduct that the English maintained as right in this country, while believing a lower one could be appropriate for our conduct elsewhere. This was particularly true, he believed, in Africa, where ‘our own high standards in the acceptance of responsibilities’ was paramount.

How then to explain that ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech? I must confess, I still cannot think through clearly what Enoch thought his goal was. I had been, at the age of sixteen, a Young Conservative.

During one of the campaigns against apartheid, I organised with a fellow sixth-former, a Young Socialist, our own campaign in Chiswick to boycott South African goods. The word ‘campaign’ is, I suppose, a grandiose term for what we actually did. We printed leaflets and handed them to shoppers at the local Co-op. For this crime, committed just before Macmillan’s great ‘Winds of Change’ speech in Africa, and with it the resulting realignment of views of many Tory activists to the evils of apartheid, I was shoehorned out of the local association. Nothing so crude, you understand, as an expulsion, but an exclusion just as effective. So I came to the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech from a hostile perspective. What was Enoch up to? By citing those Roman texts he knew so well, and in particular the reference to the river Tiber foaming with blood, he must have appreciated its likely impact. If the imagery was applied with the due care Enoch always prided himself on in his use of language, we can only conclude he was describing the fate which he believed awaited his country.

What results did Enoch want from this speech? If it was to awaken the country’s political elite to the dangers of sustained largescale immigration and to debate the consequences, then it must rank as Enoch’s greatest failure. At a stroke he made the subject of immigration a no-go area for elected politicians. I only felt safe in trespassing onto this territory once the mass of immigration from eastern European countries reached our shores, when the issue was no longer one of colour.

Why was it then that I never raised ‘Rivers of Blood’ with Enoch? The simple truth is that I dared not confront Enoch on this issue as I felt that it was not only his biggest, but almost the only major political error he committed. The outcome of that speech is the stuff of which great Greek tragedies are made. Enoch’s talents had destined him for a commanding position in British politics. The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech gave him a commanding position among voters, as Enoch was expressing their fears. But his political gang, who were, under Heath, only too pleased to strip him of any leadership potential, closed ranks against him. If I am right, this great mistake over the speech must have caused Enoch huge and profound regret and I never wanted to stray uninvited into this national and personal tragedy.

It has been recalled elsewhere how important the House of Commons’ lavatories are in the pursuance of politics. It was one such chance encounter that offered Enoch the opportunity to tell Harold Wilson of his intended 1974 general election speech in which he would inform his audience of his intention to vote Labour. It was Wilson’s commitment to renegotiate the terms of our EEC membership that prompted Enoch to plan this extraordinary step. The press reported that 1,500 were in that Birmingham hall to hear Enoch make his announcement while a further 7,000 were turned away.

My encounter, and probably the basis of our friendship, took place, not in the ‘Aye’ Lobby gents’, as did his meeting with Wilson, but in another off the Library Corridor. Enoch had been giving a series of lectures at Zion College, then an outstanding library established for the use of London clergy. The lectures were being picketed by groups who billed themselves as radical Christians. I apologised to Enoch for missing the lectures, whereupon he enquired if I would be interested in reading them.

‘Of course I would,’ I replied.

‘They will be on the board within the hour,’ was his terse response.

The board in the MPs’ Lobby is a place where internal post is given. Well within the hour Enoch delivered on his word and the text of the lectures was accompanied by a beautifully handwritten note expressing interest in my response. I remember that night well. The Commons was involved in one of its intolerable all-night sittings. To me, as a new Member, the events gave me some idea, if not of hell, then of a form of purgatory not that far removed from the torment of the eternal fires. Enoch, of course, saw these parliamentary manoeuvres as a crucial part of the Commons’ attempts to control the executive. The long hours of the night and the early morning offered me the opportunity to read those lectures. They excited me, and I longed to discuss them with their author. But when I went to look for him, he was most unusually not occupying his traditional seat in the Library, nor did I catch him at any of the early morning votes, although the record showed that he’d voted. It was the following day, I believe, that our paths again crossed. He enquired of my reading. ‘You’re opening yourself up for a heresy trial,’ I replied, for this beautifully written text argued either that Jesus was stoned to death or that the key New Testament figure was John the Baptist. I cannot now remember which. Enoch laughed. ‘Could you arrange such a heresy trial, for that would ensure my safe return in South Down?’ I failed, I regret to say, to translate our laughter into action and there was no such favourable event.

One other reminiscence tells much about Enoch’s reserve and the strength of the common decencies that ran through his veins. My mother and I were walking into Westminster Abbey one Sunday morning. Coming towards the west door, but from a different angle, were Enoch and Pam, his wife. They were a little ahead and Enoch passed through into the abbey without any acknowledgement, let alone breaking those ever-so-stiff face muscles into just a hint of a smile.

I was more than a little miffed. As we were going out it proved more difficult for Enoch to avoid me. ‘Why are you ignoring us?’ I enquired. Enoch’s eyes fell on me. ‘I had no wish to embarrass you by presuming our acquaintance in front of a person to whom I had not been introduced.’

Laughter from my mother and myself greeted this extraordinary statement. ‘Enoch!’ exclaimed Pam. And with that we entered a taxi and sped towards their home in South Eaton Place. There was much merriment and some drink, wit h me becoming, as my mother commentated later, a little squiffy.

On our way home, in another taxi, my mother commented what a wonderful morning she had had. ‘Meeting Enoch and Pam?’ I asked. ‘No, you silly boy,’ she replied firmly. ‘It was going to the abbey for the Holy Mysteries, and then to encounter the mystery of Enoch and his so lovable Pam,’ she said in a stunning summary of our morning adventure. Both mysteries endure. 

This essay was taken from Enoch at 100 ed. by Greville Howard, published by Biteback at £25. To order a copy call 0207 091 1260 or visit