Enoch Powell

(1912—1998) politician

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

(b. Birmingham, 15 June 1912; d. London, 8 Feb. 1998)

British; Minister of Health 1960–3 Powell's parents were teachers in Birmingham. He was educated at King Edward School, Birmingham, and Trinity College, Cambridge, was a formidable scholar and won many prizes. He became professor of Greek at Sydney University at the age of 25 in 1937. Two years later he resigned to fight in the war. In the army he rose from private to brigadier. After the war he joined the Conservative Research Department and had for colleagues Reginald Maudling and Iain Macleod. He was returned as Conservative member for Wolverhampton South-West in 1950 and held the seat until 1964.

Powell's ministerial career was hardly impressive—a year as a junior minister at the Treasury and three years as Minister of Health, only one of which was in the Cabinet. Yet he proved to be one of the most dominating figures in post-war British politics, largely because of his controversial ideas. He was ahead of his time in breaking with the post-war consensus, defending the free market, warning about race, and opposing Britain's membership of the European Community.

Many of Powell's actions did not seem at first sight calculated to advance his career. He refused office in 1952, and resigned as part of the Treasury team in 1957 when the Cabinet refused to accept the Treasury's proposals for spending cuts. He was invited to join Lord Home's Cabinet in 1963 but refused because he supported the claims of Butler. Above all, his famous speech on 20 April 1968, warning of the consequences of immigration from the New Commonwealth, effectively ended his political career. Ted Heath dismissed him as shadow spokesman on Defence. It was typical that Powell should be speaking on a subject quite outside his brief.

For at least the next two decades Powell was treated like a parliamentary leper and denied a platform in many parts of the country. Yet he was a popular figure in the country and his speech on race tapped popular feeling. It was a subject which the frontbenchers of both parties had chosen to ignore. Denied any chance of office under Heath, he broadened his differences with the leadership to cover the European Community and the U-turns which resulted in a statutory prices and incomes policy and intervention in industry.

Powell gave rise to his own ‘ism’. His speeches dealt with the major issues of relations between the individual and the state, the tensions between state sovereignty, national identity, and the European Community, and the purpose of politics. Yet, having made his reputation as an advocate of free market economics after 1968, he was for long identified with race. Powell was not a simple right-winger. He opposed capital punishment, was suspicious of the United States, rejected Britain's claim to have a world role, believed in society, and deplored the Thatcher government's utilitarian approach to higher education.

When Mr Heath called an election in February 1974 Powell dismissed it as ‘fraudulent’, on the grounds that the election had been called to defend the statutory incomes policy but this would have to be abandoned to get the striking miners back to work. He also effectively disqualified himself from the Conservative Party by calling on his supporters to vote Labour in the future. Twelve months later, after Heath had lost another election and was challenged for the party leadership by Margaret Thatcher, Powell was no longer available. In October 1974 he had been elected as an Ulster Unionist for Down, South, a seat which he held until his defeat in 1987, caused by boundary changes in the constituency. In 1985 he had resigned in protest over the Anglo-Irish Agreement and then won the seat back in the ensuing by-election.


Subjects: British History — Politics.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.