Enoch Powell has been in many minds this month. It’s the 50th anniversary of his famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and I took part in a BBC radio programme discussing this — and hearing the speech itself read superbly by the actor, Ian McDiarmid.
The small campaign against the very broadcasting of the speech fizzled out — not least, I think, because the ghastly text does Mr Powell no favours, and many of us who had never read it in its entirety were shocked not only by its tone but by its careless inaccuracy and faltering logic. Yet there’s been a widespread popular view that, agree or disagree with him, the man had a fine mind, a fastidious regard for facts, and courage.
I have doubted all three ever since a personal conversation with him at an awkward time for both of us.
In the Commons chamber around midnight on 25 October 1982, we had just spilled out of the voting lobbies. I remember exactly where I was standing when Mr Powell saw me, a young MP he hardly knew, and walked over. The order on which we’d just voted was to amend the 1967 Act decriminalising homosexual behaviour between consenting adults over 21. Originally applying only to England, it had been amended to include Scotland in 1980. Now we were extending the Act to Northern Ireland, where all male homosexual behaviour remained a criminal offence. A brave soul, Jeff Dudgeon, a Belfast shipping clerk, had taken the UK to the European Court of Human Rights, and won. Westminster had to comply. The order passed easily after a short debate.
Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet was content that the ECHR should take the flak for something they knew needed doing but which would enrage the Ulster Unionists.