Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Enoch Powell is again the subject of controversy in Wolverhampton. It is not his fault, this time. No doubt mindful that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech, an anonymous applicant has proposed, and is willing to fund, the erection of a blue plaque in Powell’s honour in Wolverhampton. Needless to say, many people are violently opposed to the idea, and over a thousand people have signed a petition against it. But a survey conducted by the Wolverhampton Express & Star states that two thirds of its readers support the proposal.
It’s not obvious what side Powell would have been on. He’d have been gratified by the attention, as he always preferred to be talked about than ignored. But he’d also have been respectful of precedent. The Catholic Church has, in the opinion of many, mistakenly departed from past practice in sanctifying men and women too soon after their deaths. There used to be a long period of time before anyone was even considered for sainthood: this helped to ensure that no nasty surprises about their lives were discovered afterwards. Perhaps the same caution should be exercised with plaques. Powell has been dead for only 20 years. It is too early to judge his legacy. To choose this moment to erect a plaque could, therefore, be misinterpreted.
But that is not what his detractors are arguing. They don’t want Powell to have one simply because they think it is too early; they don’t want him to have one ever, because they violently dislike him and his views. This raises issues which go well beyond Powell and plaques.
There is probably no famous or respected dead politician who was not considered controversial, or endured a period of deep unpopularity, during his or her career. Churchill, for example, was accused of being a ‘warmonger’ in the 1930s. This was one of the most serious charges which could be laid against any politician of that era, and the odium it attracted was equivalent to being called a ‘racist’ today. (Incidentally, Churchill said plenty of things about India and Gandhi which today would incur the charge of ‘racism’).
And yet Churchill quite rightly has a blue plaque outside his house in Hyde Park Gate. Or, if offensive language is the charge against Powell, Aneurin Bevan once was gracious enough to describe all Conservatives as “vermin”. He and his wife, Jennie Lee, have a nice little plaque outside their former house in Chelsea. This beloved couple have one advantage – they were socialists. Controversial figures of the Left are much more likely to be honoured by the establishment than their contemporaries of the Right.
A cursory examination of anyone related to politics, and who has been awarded a blue plaque in London, will confirm this impression. Go to the English Heritage website and ‘discover the stories behind the plaques’. They include London poverty; Celebrating London’s Black History; London Pride: LGBTQ Stories; Pioneering Women – all very noble causes, no doubt, but not much there about freedom and enterprise.
So when a ‘right-wing’ politician is nominated for a plaque, it is almost bound to be controversial with ‘the left’. Tories are much more generous, and much less judgmental. The disrespectful language which greeted Margaret Thatcher’s death from figures such as Glenda Jackson was never echoed by Conservatives when heroes of the left died. Was it not the Labour MP, Laura Pidcock, who said she could never be friends of a Tory? She is the latest in a long tradition.
Powell, therefore, will always start with the odds heavily against him. Although, like Nye Bevan, he never held higher office than Minister of Health, his political influence far exceeded that of many ministers and even Prime Ministers. It is that political influence which so many people deplore – especially if they happen to be bishops in the Church of England who’d always rather talk about politics than religion. Clive Gregory, the Bishop of Wolverhampton, is at the forefront of those objecting to a plaque in Powell’s honour. He argues that this would not be a “neutral act” and “would honour Enoch Powell’s racist views.”
Anyone who knows anything about Powell knows he was not a ‘racist’. Plenty of people on the Left, including Michael Foot, have said as much. They may have thought he was unwise, and displayed poor judgment. They may have accused him of conferring a measure of respectability on racists who agreed with him. But he had an answer to that. His intention in speaking out on immigration, which at the time very few were prepared to do, was to prevent civil unrest which he thought would follow a cultural change of the kind this country has experienced, and which he believed was illegitimate without full democratic consent. His statistical forecasts have been vindicated.
His analysis of the consequences of immigration were always, he conceded, a matter of judgment. Given the cultural and religious implications of uncontrolled immigration from Islamic countries, one would have thought that a Christian Bishop might sympathise with such concerns. But nothing Powell ever said about immigrants suggested they were inferior, or should be treated differently from anyone else. He always argued that everyone was equal before the law.
So the bishop’s charge that Powell was “a racist” is a political opinion which deserves to be refuted. Where he does have a point is in saying that conferring a plaque would not be a “neutral act”. But this is where we come back to its purpose. Whether the bishop likes it or not, Powell was an academic of extraordinary distinction; a soldier who rose from Private to Brigadier in the War; and who was a Parliamentarian to be compared with the giants of this or any other generation. His speech on the Hola Camp massacre in 1959 is still regarded as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the Commons. And if this country does eventually recover its Parliamentary sovereignty by leaving the European Union, Powell will be remembered as one of the politicians who played a decisive part in bringing it about.
It may be too early to honour Powell for his achievements and, in particular, for his contribution to the preservation of Parliamentary democracy. But it is difficult to believe that in the future his name will not be added to those whom the citizens of Wolverhampton wish to honour and remember.