Enoch Powell has become one of those figures about whom the myth matters more than the reality. The basic facts are that he was a reasonably successful Conservative politician until he, apparently inadvertently, made a speech which articulated the feelings of many British people about the dangers of immigration. He became too hot to handle for the Conservatives. He was sacked and ended his career representing the unionists in Ulster. By all accounts he was a highly intelligent man with a strong sense of honour who commanded the respect and affection of those who knew him well. Whether or not he was actually a racist is almost impossible to tell. He probably didn’t know himself – but learning Urdu is hardly the typical behaviour of your average racist. But whether he was or not, his rivers of blood speech was certainly music to the ears of people who definitely were racist. And it definitely wrecked his career and left him to be remembered as a bogeyman.
How did such an apparently intelligent man make such a mess of his career?
I think the answer is down to his being let down by his background and education. He didn’t have the patrician background you might have imagined from his demeanour. His parents were school teachers. But he certainly had the education. He was a very talented linguist and an accomplished classical scholar. He didn’t just know Greek and Latin, he was sufficiently au fait with them to be able to write in different styles from different periods. He could well have become a top scholar if he had stayed on in Cambridge after graduating with all the top scores going.
And there I think is the answer to why he was such a failure. He filled his head with a load of stuff that really wasn’t worth the trouble and which gave him no really good guidance to the way the world really was. His famous speech is named after a quote from Virgil. There are people who find that kind of thing impressive. But a dozy speech is a dozy speech. A few classical quotes don’t alter its meaning.
The trouble is that no matter how clever you are, you need to focus on stuff that actually matters. In the twentieth century that meant things like science, technology and the environment. This is important in any career. but doubly so in politics where you should be aiming to see what is coming and preparing for it. Immigration has continued and while it hasn’t been problem free, we haven’t had rivers of blood. The hypothesis has been tested and found to be wrong. Powell’s judgement might not have been so bad if he had spent a bit less time on learning the tools rhetoric and a bit more on how to understand the way the world really is.
The lesson is that education is important and we need to make sure we teach children properly, and not waste the talents of people like Enoch Powell by giving them such a hopeless and inadequate introduction to the world.