Mention the name Enoch Powell to older liberals (American or British) and their immediate response will be, "You mean that racist who inspired the neo-Nazi skinheads?" Member of Parliament Powell earned such a nasty, but shamefully wrongful, niche in history because of one speech, "Rivers of Blood," which he delivered in 1968 to his constituents at the Midlands Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham, England.
MP Powell (who four years later in a poll by the Daily Express newspaper would be hailed as Britain’s most popular political figure) recalled for his hometown voters the words of Latin poet Virgil: "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ "
Turning his audience’s attention to then-contemporary events of civil rights racial violence raging in U.S. streets, Powell continued: "That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic, but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. . . . It will be of American proportions long before the end of the century."
Enoch Powell was warning his nation of the perils of inviting permanently onto its soil people of unassimilable foreign cultures. Until that moment, no one in the world had ever considered him anything less than a well-mannered, Cambridge-educated gentleman of extraordinary brilliance and accomplishment. Speaking fluent Greek by age 5, in the next 80 years of life he would conquer 11 more languages (Powell began learning Hebrew at age 70). During World War Two he entered British Army service as a private and departed as a brigadier general, having distinguished himself as a "Desert Rat" in that famously heroic North Africa-based armored division.
He returned to civilian life and eventually entered politics. Powell rivaled Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher in the British Conservative Party’s unofficial Hall of Fame–and surprisingly so, for his un-Torylike views were decidedly avant garde and liberal. He favored easier laws on abortion and divorce, advocated public health care for immigrants, and spat at the existence of God (an avowed atheist, Powell eventually turned to Christianity, and became an Anglican lay leader).
There were, however, no liberal thoughts in his mind that April 20, 1968, evening in Birmingham, when he foresaw his beloved Britain drowning in a river of its own blood. In even, erudite tones, Member of Parliament Powell told his neighbors who crowded the hall: "[T]he immigrant communities can organize to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and ill-informed have provided."
It was as if a time warp somehow had enveloped and inspired Enoch Powell at that very moment 37 years ago and placed into his hands alone this alarming front-page story from the July 13, 2005, Times:
"Four friends from northern England have changed the face of terrorism by carrying out the suicide bombings that brought carnage to London last week. It emerged last night that, for the first time in Western Europe, suicide bombers have been recruited for attacks. Security forces are coming to terms with the realisation that young Britons are prepared to die for their militant causes. [Emphasis added.]
"Three of the men lived in Leeds, and the immediate fear is that members of a terrorist cell linked to the city are planning further strikes. The mastermind behind the attacks and the bomb maker are both still thought to be at large."
Meantime, Mohammed Sidique Khan, Hasib Hussain and Shehzad Tanwar, the three young, British-born Pakistanis who blew themselves up in subways and a trademark red, double-decker London street bus, will rest in pieces, if not in peace.
The soul of Enoch Powell, on the other hand, will be heard to echo prophetically across This Sceptered Isle a bitter message for traditional British subjects: "I told you so."