Enoch Powell: Was He Onto Something? by Donal Lavery


There are few figures in politics who polarise opinion as much as Enoch Powell, that’s for sure. The Professor of Classics & Ancient Greek (at one point the youngest in the Commonwealth) made many a prediction and warning, some have stood true beyond the grave – like that of Brexit.

As someone on the Left, I can’t say that I agree with an awful lot in common with the former Tory Tribune. But I do think he was impressive and a fiery orator. When the Gibraltar Three were brutally murdered unarmed, he denounced the Thatcher Government for the killings, calling for the Crown and SAS to be made accountable to parliament and people (including prosecutions). Additionally, he repeatedly voted against the death penalty; while also dubbing the anti-Catholic demagoguery of Paisley to be the greatest threat to the Union. It is one of the biggest regrets of my life that Powell and Tony Benn never faced each other at the dispatch box, for then the world would have witnessed a real clash of ideas, the sharpest democratic distinctions between Left and Right, ever. Both of those men were the greatest leaders and Prime Ministers that their respective parties and country never had. Quite simply, they said what they meant and meant what they said, and if you voted for them then you got what they said.

Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech is what we all know him for, let’s be candid about it. I think the wording of that speech was deeply flawed and inflammatory, with the added ingredient of dramatic license on a theatrical scale. His aim was to warn people that uncontrolled immigration would lead to a burgeoning surplus of labour-supply, which in turn depresses wages and devalues the living standards of ordinary working people in any country. That’s a simple Marxist analysis which the Left always argued when countering entry to the Common Market/EU. It is becoming popular again among left-wing eurosceptics, who know that an ever larger labour market is a capitalist’s wet-dream -> allowing workers to be hired and fired at will, while disciplining those in work by highlighting the potential of migrant labour and the unemployed. But the derogatory way in which he said it associated him with all sorts of unthinking, uncivilised bigots, when he was much too intelligent for that sort of bile.

As an Irishman conscious of our history, I certainly wouldn’t ridicule anyone migrating to where they can find jobs and opportunities in life. The children of “shamrock labourers” in the US became the lawyers, accountants, doctors and congressmen of future generations. They didn’t just build the sky-scrapers and housing blocks, they built the most powerful nation on Earth. All human beings deserve a place in the world in which to thrive and realise their full potential, without question.

However, Brexit and the rise of Trump have proven Powell’s prediction correct, in that a critical mass of people would rise up against wage depression in the form of unlimited immigration. It was one of the rocks upon which the Union in Europe would split. People are fearful of the pressure it has placed on hospitals, schools, employment prospects and housing. And shrewd opportunists have appealed to the lowest common denominator – playing the race card, instead of the rotten economic model we live under.

What surprised me was that both Powell and Tony Benn actually had the same view on immigration, albeit for different reasons. And both had the same view of the European Union therein. Powell, true to form, prophesied that the UK shouldn’t be stunned if a future Conservative Prime Minister comes back from Europe with a piecemeal set of agreements, like Neville Chamberlain at Munich, only to find pretty soon that the public desire no such accord with the opponents of democracy. Powell and Alan Clark both stated that they would rather the UK be ran by democratically elected socialists than by Brussels bureaucrats.

I think what Powell and Benn understood, having both fought in the war, is the importance of being able to govern oneself. When two small islands, Britain and Ireland, stood at the edge of a fascist abyss in 1941, people knew what threats to sovereignty were like. Where I agree with Powell and Benn is on this – the freedom to be an independent self-governing nation is the highest political priority and one which any price is worth paying. Irish men and women faced down the brunt of Black & Tan murder for the same burning motivation. What was true in colonial times stands to reason now – The Nation-state is the only credible protection in a dangerous world.

If giving up your domestic democracy for the sake of perceived international clout on a grander scheme of things meant much, then to follow that logic would have led Ireland and India to remain in the Empire. It would mean Canada amalgamating with the USA. It would conceive Russia and China as One Nation, all on the basis that “size denotes strength”. I don’t believe in grandiose projects of such magnitude, which often involve ditching democracy in favour of some apparent expediency. I think, that in an uncertain world, the right to chose who governs you and how you respond to world and domestic events, is the closest thing to an absolute value which we can hold dear. What Powell and Benn were right about is simple – people want to live in a national democracy, where market forces and globalisation can come under the leverage of an elected sovereign parliament; made up of men and women who rise to what the population and times demand. It’s as simple as that.

24 Responses to Enoch Powell: Was He Onto Something? by Donal Lavery

  1. Am Ghobsmacht December 27, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

    Funny thing is, he never actually said “rivers of blood”, he was trying to cash in on the sense of foreboding depicted by a ‘roman’ (Latinite?) in Virgil’s Aeneid “”As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'”

    i.e. he was using what (he thought) was a well known quote to project a sense of foreboding at things to come, not the alarmist translation that we’ve all come to accept it as.

    This is a great piece btw, thankyou Mr Lavery.

    • Colmán December 28, 2016 at 6:15 am #

      The reason that there are such poor job prospects at the moment is not because of freedom of movement but because a few rich elites control the majority of the world’s wealth. If the people who spend money, i.e. the middle and working classes had more disposable income then there would be more jobs in the services industries. In short people would have a role in society beyond the mundane. Perhaps then people would not be so uptight about immigration.

      • jessica December 28, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

        That is a dumb argument.

        It is the same rich elites who control the majority of the world’s wealth who gain most from uncontrolled freedom of labour movement.

        Immigration is essential, uncontrolled immigration is stupid and serves only one purpose.

        Why else would you allow known paedophiles, murderers, criminals and gangsters who aren’t allowed into the US, Australia and most other nations totally free movement around all of Europe?

        Why else other than political union, eventually it will require a EU wide police force, more and more control to go to Brussels and eventually a single EU nation state.

        Germany have learned this the hard way and it is only going to end one way, another war in Europe.

        The UK are wise to get out and Ireland will follow within 5 years opting instead for a better relationship with England and Scotland.

        • Colmán December 29, 2016 at 5:05 am #

          I don’t think it is a dumb argument. In fact I don’t even think it is an argument. It is just what I think.

          I would like to be free to travel and live and work where ever I liked on this earth. I’m sure that a lot of others are the same. Who are you to say that people shouldn’t be able to do this?

          • gendjinn December 29, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

            Amen brother! Several million years of precedent is not erased by 8,000 years of “civilisation”.

  2. billy December 27, 2016 at 4:22 pm #

    we need somebody like powell now to manage brexit.he was on the button with his speech when you look at the state some english towns and cities are in now.would you want the same for your grandchildren in ireland.

    • Colmán December 28, 2016 at 6:07 am #

      Correction Billy, you need someone like Powell. I don’t.

  3. Croiteir (@Croiteir) December 27, 2016 at 9:02 pm #

    Excellent writing,

  4. Dedeideoprofundis December 27, 2016 at 9:36 pm #

    The Nation-state is the only credible protection in a dangerous world.?

    I am 70 tomorrow and I dont recall any need for protection from any neighbouring state in that time but with the breakup of the EC and the rise of fascism its becoming a dangerous place.

  5. MT December 27, 2016 at 9:55 pm #

    “Excellent writing,”

    Except there’s no such word as ‘Onto’.

  6. Sherdy December 27, 2016 at 10:11 pm #

    MT: A dictionary can be very useful to stop you making a fool of yourself_
    usage: The preposition ‘onto’ written as one word (instead of on to) is recorded from the early 18th century and has been widely used ever since, but is still not wholly accepted as part of standard British English (unlike into, for example). Many style guides still advise writing it as two words, and that is the practice followed in this dictionary. However, onto is more or less the standard form in US English and in the specialized mathematics sense. Nevertheless, it is important to maintain a distinction between the preposition onto or on to and the use of the adverb on followed by the preposition to: she climbed on to (or onto) the roof but let’s go on to (not onto) the next point.

    • paddykool December 30, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

      That’s about it Sherdy.It’s never a good idea to be so pedantic about language .Allowing for the odd grammatical mistake on hastily written blogs should be a common -sense observation. In any case , language is always in flux and new words are appearing all the time . Nothing is set in stone . I’ve been known to invent new words “on the hoof” to suit my context and I simply see it as adding a new colour to the mix.Who is to judge me? That said , we all have a little of the pedant in us but i never allow mine to distract me from the content of an observation. If I did , I ‘d spend all my time tripping over all those stray apostrophes. there, their , where ,wear, were , loose, lose and all the “e’s” before “i’s” that litter many comments.

  7. M Moore December 28, 2016 at 2:57 am #

    Robots will eventually make many jobs obsolete anyway. Maybe it’s time we looked to how we’re going to live in a post automation world, something that politicians seem to be sticking their heads in the sand about.

  8. Mark December 28, 2016 at 7:48 am #


  9. Brian Patterson December 28, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Powell was to his credit one of the few British politicians who was prepared to call to account and even condemn colonial policy. He was loud in his denunciation of murder and torture by British troops in Kenya and demanded theperpetrators be called to account.(I did not know he condemned the Gibraltar killings, thank you Dónal for that information.) I felt that there was an element for “noblesse oblige” in this stance, a desire to hold for the English that most precious piece of territory, the high moral ground. Nevertheless his stand cannot be gainsaid.He also learned Urdu, showing respect for the culture of the colonised. However he deliberately inflamed and pandered to racist feelings recounting apocalyptic stories of ‘coloured’ youths posting excreta through old ladies’ letterboxes and references to “grinning piccaninies”. A mixed legacy but overall negative.

  10. Brian Patterson December 28, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Powell was to his credit one of the few British politicians who was prepared to call to account and even condemn colonial policy. He was loud in his denunciation of murder and torture by British troops in Kenya and demanded theperpetrators be called to account.(I did not know he condemned the Gibraltar killings, thank you Dónal for that information.) I felt that there was an element for “noblesse oblige” in this stance, a desire to hold for the English that most precious piece of territory, the high moral ground. Nevertheless his stand cannot be gainsaid.He also learned Urdu, showing respect for the culture of the colonised. However he deliberately inflamed and pandered to racist feelings recounting apocalyptic stories of ‘coloured’ youths posting excreta through old ladies’ letterboxes and references to “grinning piccaninies”. A mixed legacy but overall negative.

  11. Perkin Warbeck December 28, 2016 at 4:57 pm #

    Another khaki-clad master of language who soldiered in the same World War though in a different theatre as Enoch Powell, once made the following acute observation:

    -I knew a chap once, could speak nine languages, but had nothing to say in any of them.
    Spike Milligan (for it was he !) was definitely not referring to Enoch (the P is unnecessary as another P was with a different E, E for Elvis), who had oodles to say in the nine or ten or more languages he had assiduously stored in his wolverine noodle.

    Of Welsh descent, Enoch became fluent in the language of his forebearers, having found it compulsory to do so. Much the same way he judged it to be compulsory for him to be able to converse in Urdu, if he was to bring one of his earliest ambitions – to become Viceroy of India – to fruition.

    He was, you may say, an Infant Phenomenon. At the early age of three summers he had already acquired the nickname ‘The Professor’ on account of his habit of standing on a kitchen chair and describing the stuffed birds which his grandfather had shot and which were on display in is parent’s house.

    It was in a different position in the kitchen of his own house in 14, Main Street, Loughbrickland that one found him sometime in the late 70’s. One had written to enquire if he was available to shoot the breeze. By return post he replied he was, but that he would have to restrict the proposed breeze shooting session to one hour, exactly.

    Once a brigadier at the age of 35, always a brigadier.

    So, that is how one found oneself up in South Down, down on one knee, while one’s host was down on another knee, each of us poring over this inordinately vast ordnance survey map of the locality, which wasn’t in fact quite equal in size to the same locality..

    Blame it on the Brontes.

    -Their father was Patrick Prunty which is the Anglicised form of O Proinntigh, which could actually mean ‘Proinn Teach’ or Banqueting Hall.

    One was making a meal out of the Brontes, even as the breeze was being shot by host and guest over cups of Earl Grey and a plate of muffins in the kitchen of Number 14.

    That was all one’s host needed as he promptly upped and disappeared without warning but was back like a shot with rolled up map (see above) under this oxter.

    -You could well be the very chap to help me decode the topography of the townlands in my constituency.

    And so, interviewee and interviewer swopped roles and one’s inner Fluther the Philologist had a ball. Alas, the bell rang too soon: glancing at his pocket watch, the host/interviewer in crisp military tones, remarked:

    -Time up.

    Still, having mentioned (in passing) that one had made one’s border-crossing journey by train and taxi nothing would do the host but drive the guest back into Portadown (not pronounced Porty-down by either driver or driven).

    On the way one felt a little small talk of a laddish sort, might not be out of the question.
    -How do you fancy Wolves will do in the league this season, Mr. Powell?

    A blank, alas, was all one drew. Leading one to the inescapable conclusion that one was referring to the wrong Blily: Wright (most capped England player up till then) when one might have have been namechecking the B. on the Big White Horse.

    Still, this mention of Wolves did keep one’s mind from wandering and wondering if the glass in the UUP MP for South Down’s car was bullet proof.

    Thanks for that jaunt down memory lane, Donal.

  12. jessica December 29, 2016 at 9:23 am #

    What are you saying, the world should just open its borders and let anyone move and work wherever they want unchecked?

    Are you saying that you don’t want to have to save up, or educate yourself about a place, about the people who live there, to learn and respect the language and traditions of those people, just be able to show up and lay your hat wherever you want?

    Will you be helping the people there, or adding to the economic burdens they are already facing?

    Will you be paying your way or expecting social welfare support for this freedom?

    If so, who will be paying it?

    So what if a paedophile, just released from prison gets fed up with being on an offenders list and being checked, decides to up sticks and move to another part of the world with no checks, where he can live and work among more children and return to his abusive ways.

    I don’t believe in a new world order, I agree with the bible that mankind should live with respect for one another, not as a single authoritarian state.

    Unfortunately it also tells us that in the end, globalisation will win and a single world leader will emerge to betray mankind revealing who was behind it all along.

  13. Brian Patterson December 31, 2016 at 10:28 am #

    Well Jessica, the Irish did just about everything you deploreabove, often in British or US uniform. I don’the recall many of them learning Navajo, Xhosa or even (those who settled in Brussels) Flemish. (A close relative of mine is an honorable exception.) And beware of quoting the Bible in support of political beliefs. It might qualify you for membership of the DUP.

  14. jessica December 31, 2016 at 11:03 am #

    What did the Irish do that I deplore Brian?

    I am not anti immigration, I am for it. I am against the abuse of immigration to impose political union where it is not wanted by global corporates to drive down labour costs and drive up profit margins.

    The EU is discriminatory in its immigration policy, it offers no restrictions to fee paying member states but refuses to allow non paid up member states the same freedoms of movement. That is wrong.

    I want to see immigration open to all of this planet, but not uncontrolled or unchecked or allowed to become detrimental to the social welfare of any citizens.

    As for the bible, I am a firm believer in reading up on things and that we should each make our own minds up just as the bible tells us to do.

    I have a lot of sources of interest. What I would say, is there are stories in the bible that are very educational, intelligent and even prophetic and indeed some that make current global direction rather ominous.

    I watched a film called Calvary the other day. That surmised the direction the EU is taking us in although in the microcosm of one small village.

  15. Brian Patterson January 1, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

    A Jessica:” What did the Irish do that I deplore?”1 Took advantage of ‘open’ borders. 2 Often preferred to remain ‘unchecked’. ( undocumented, if you prefer. 3 Failed to respect the language and traditions of these (indigenous) people.4 Laid their (collective) hat where they felt like. 5 Added to the economic burden of the (indigenous) population. 6 Worked for lower wages hence driving down existing wage levels 7 Tolerated or turned a blind eye to sex abuse notably by clerics 8 Subverted democracy in Spain with the blessing of the hierarchy.(O’Duffy) Other more contemporary and less serious infringements include 9 In Brussels, Spain , or innumerable holiday destinations expect everyone to speak English while refusing even to say hello or thank you in the host nations’ languages. 10 Feeling under not the slightest obligation to learn, even for catering or tourist-friendly reasons, as much one word of the divers languages of the myriad tourists who add billions to the Irish economy annually. I will not even go into the military aggression of Irish mercenaries in foreign armies, or the lynching of black Americans by Irish mobs in Newry York.By no means all the Irish indulged in such practices, any more than all refugees indulge in driving trucks into innocent by standers. But we had a reputation for insubordination the and unruliness which our host countries managed to cope with over the centuries. B As for the Bible, while the New Testament Minus much of St. Paul) is a glorious, inspiring, liberating, loving and life affirming document, the Old Testament is a brutal, monstrous, racist, sadistic, self-righteous bloodfest which would leave ‘Mein Kampf’ in the half-pfennig place. Which is why it is so popular in backward xenophobic Calvinistic cultures such as the American, Irish and Dutch-South African Bible Belts. Having finished my rant Jessica, let me say how much I have enjoyed reading your, and all the other bloggers’, interesting enjoyable,thought provoking contribution on this wonderful site. Ath-bhlian faoi mhaise dhaoibh go léir agus go maire sibh an céad.

  16. jessica January 1, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    I am not against anyone taking advantage of open borders or anything for that matter and that would not be my opinion of the Irish people Brian.

    We built and protected a lot of other nations and have punched well above our weight in positive contributions to this world.

    I am however against the worlds wealth being directed into the pockets of the top 10% of the worlds wealthiest companies at the expense of health and public service investment and to the detriment of now working to remain poor classes which is what globalisation through open borders is doing and the EU is central to this global anathema.

    Sex abuse is coming out of the woodwork in many areas including media celebrities and now sports trainers, whatever next?

    But you may as well blame the Irish people for all of the worlds sins in that case.

    I am not a bible enthusiast by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t even go to mass.

    I would agree with the old testament being a brutal read from the little I have had the stomach to read of it, I guess it was more suitable for a more brutal age hence the new testament, though I wouldn’t be a great fan of that either.

    Where I see evidence of truth, I can accept it no matter the source, bible, Mein Kampf or whatever.

    Religious zealousy such as the American Bible Belts are as abhorrent to me as human depravity.

    You are too hard on our people Brian, Ireland is a shining light in an ever darkening world and we may yet have our part to play on the worlds stage.

    If Ireland is indeed a microcosm of all of the worlds ills, then are we not well placed to show the world how to fix things?

  17. Brian Patterson January 1, 2017 at 8:19 pm #

    What I am saying Jessica is that while I am proud to be Irish, I do not consider being Irish superior to being any other nationality. I recognise our greatness and our deficiencies; you asked me what the Irish did which you deplore and I answered. Yes, there are many aspects of global capitalism that I detest. But as long as we have free movement of goods and capital and an impoverished third world, we must allow the marginalised mobility to seek a better life. Like we the Irish did.

  18. jessica January 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm #

    And what I am trying to say Brian, is that you have it very wrong, both in that which you claim I deplore or if you think I somehow feel superior to people of any other nationality.

    The EU does not allow free movement of people from an impoverished third world, only from paid up members in return for giving up fiscal autonomy which will then lead to security issues caused by the uncontrolled movement of people and eventually to total political union.

    There is method to their madness but the reality is, people are being used to create very high profit margins in the top 10% to the detriment of the majority so we should not be surprised when its get nasty later.

    Playing on the Irish diaspora and allowing the marginalised mobility to seek a better life will cut no ice with me. A spade is a spade, even when it is polished up to look like a dinner spoon.

    The problem with the mistakes that we are making is that when we finally realise it may be too late.

    Ireland needs strong leadership now more than ever before.

    And you are not that proud to be Irish if you are happy to let Irish people starve on the streets with no home to accommodate global growth and help people from other nations.

    I am proud to be Irish and I would be proud to put Irish people first in our own land with no shame and no hesitation.