History / Politics

‘Mad, literally mad’

The following is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s book Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

When Harold Wilson announced that there was to be a general election in 1970, ITV immediately responded by postponing its broadcast of ‘Amos Green Must Live’, the latest instalment of the thriller series Callan.

The episode in question starred Corin Redgrave as the eponymous Amos Green, ‘a politician who believes that coloured immigration is dangerous to Britain and must be stopped’. Smoothly persuasive, he is building a large following with his TV appearances: ‘The people in this country know what they want,’ he declares. ‘What they want is not statistics, not facts dressed up, they want action. They want themselves; no visitors, no immigrants.’

As a prospective parliamentary candidate, he finds himself under threat from a rogue member of a radical civil rights group known as Black Glove. ‘We do not as an organization believe in violence,’ insists Anna, the leader of the group (Nina Baden-Semper). ‘England is not yet America. But, one day if things don’t change and it comes to violence, to protect ourselves and our interests, we must be ready.’ One of the group’s adherents, however, believes that the time has indeed now come, and David Callan, the secret service agent portrayed by Edward Woodward, is sent in to protect Green from the would-be killer.amos-green

The reason for the programme’s ban during the campaign required little explanation in the press. The anti-immigration stance, the populist appeal, the Old Testament first name – no one could be in any doubt about the real-life model for Amos Green, nor of his significance.

In that 1970 election, it was reported, the Press Association sent one correspondent to cover Harold Wilson and one for Edward Heath; Enoch Powell, on the other hand, was assigned two journalists just for him. That was how important Powell had become, though he held no position save that of backbench MP for a Wolverhampton seat: ‘Enoch has had more effect on the country than either party,’ said Tony Benn, in admiration rather than anger, as he assessed his own position after the government’s defeat.

The idea of a Powell figure being assassinated, and the official terror at the ramifications of such an event, was not confined to Callan; a fuller exploration of the same theme came in Arthur Wise’s 1970 novel Who Killed Enoch Powell? The story starts in a small, unnamed Yorkshire town where Powell’s speech in a village hall ends in tragedy when a bomb explodes beneath the platform, killing the MP outright and sparking a sense of panic in Westminster. ‘There are millions that think he’s given them an identity,’ argues the leader of the Labour opposition. ‘And there are nearly as many who think he’s a kind of Messiah.’

As word spreads of the assassination, despite an attempted news blackout by the government, large areas of the country witness spontaneous demonstrations that rapidly degenerate into rioting and violence, and the home secretary begins to wonder who might fill this vacuum: ‘What’s been the pattern of public life these past few years?’ he asks rhetorically.

‘Student unrest – violence in every shape and form – near civil war in Ulster – this Glasgow business. The country’s sick of it. Sick of permissiveness, sick of teenage drug merchants, sick of youth-worship, sick of being “swinging”. You know what it wants? It wants a strong man – the iron fist.’who_killed_enoch_powell

That strong man turns out to be Colonel Monkton (his name conflating those of the Commonwealth generals George Monck and Henry Ireton), a controversial war hero who is called out of retirement by the prime minister to take control of the situation. Unfortunately for his political masters, he is determined also to take advantage of the confusion caused by Powell’s death by broadening the issue:

His vision did not restrict the situation to the assassination of Enoch Powell and the nationwide unrest that it had triggered off. He saw deeper causes behind it. He saw a country losing its shape and coherence, a country in desperate need of discipline. He saw mass immigration as a principal cause of that lack of coherence – “this injection of foreign bodies” as he called it.

Exploiting the racial tension, he sets about staging a military coup.

The fact that such a novel could be written, and be received so well, was testament not only to Wise’s skill as a writer, but to the very plausibility of the plot: ‘Frightening,’ said the Morning Telegraph, ‘all this could happen if EP was assassinated for real.’ The book was nominated for an Edgar Award as best novel of the year, but lost out to Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, the story of an assassination attempt on another controversial right-wing leader; it wasn’t the last time that Powell and General de Gaulle were to be linked.

The object of all this attention was perhaps the most extraordinary figure in post-war British politics. Dressed with severe correctness at all times, and in his trademark Homburg hat, Enoch Powell already looked in the mid-1960s like a throwback to an earlier era, evoking a formality that was slightly at odds with his educated Black Country accent; his most famous photo opportunity saw him in topcoat and hat bouncing on a pogo stick, an Edwardian bank clerk adrift in swinging London.

As long ago as 1955, the Spectator journalist Henry Fairlie had correctly identified him as ‘old-fashioned’ and pinned down his eccentric political style: ‘He simply believes in Order and Authority and is always prepared to offer a half-brilliant, half-mad, intellectual defence of them.’

Even so, he was clearly one of the future Tory stars who emerged during the long period of Conservative rule in the ’50s, and despite resigning as a treasury minister in 1958 over the issue of increased public expenditure, he returned to the government, serving in the cabinet as health secretary in 1962–63.

In the party’s leadership election of 1965 he unexpectedly stood as the standard-bearer of the right, and though he attracted a mere fifteen backers (Heath beat Reginald Maudling by 150 votes to 133), his support did include the likes of Nicholas Ridley and John Biffen, later to become cabinet ministers under Margaret Thatcher. His reward was the defence portfolio in the shadow cabinet, appropriately enough for a man who had enlisted as a private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1939 and had risen to become the youngest brigadier in the British Army by the end of the war.artwork-enoch-powell

This mostly steady advance through the party ranks was halted sensationally one Saturday lunchtime in April 1968, when he delivered the ‘rivers of blood’ speech that transformed him, literally overnight, into the most controversial politician in the country.

The speech was not his first venture into the charged area of immigration, but it raised the stakes massively, representing a complete break from the established consensus on the subject. His essential argument was, he insisted, ‘the official policy of the Conservative Party’ – a reduction in the rate of future immigration and the encouragement of those immigrants already in Britain to return to their countries of origin – but the language he used was far removed from anything that the Tory leadership could possibly countenance.

In particular, he cited a white constituent’s comment that ‘In this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,’ and he quoted in full a letter that claimed to recount the experience of another constituent of his, an elderly white woman terrorized by her black neighbours:

Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. “Racialist,” they chant.

To these comments, reported by Powell without qualification or attribution, he added his own gift of oratory, derived in part from his status as a leading classical scholar. The speech was studded with phrases that would reverberate for years to come: ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad,’ he exclaimed, in wide-eyed, disbelieving wonder. ‘It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.’

And he saved the best for last: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’ In fact, he didn’t quite say that, since his quote from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid was delivered in its original Latin (and thus passed over the heads of most of the local Tories gathered in Birmingham to hear him), but he helpfully translated the phrase in his press hand-outs to ensure maximum coverage in the media, and an adaptation of the phrase became the shorthand way to refer to Powell’s position: he was widely understood to have predicted ‘rivers of blood’ flowing through Britain’s streets as a result of racial conflict.

extracted from Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s



3 thoughts on “‘Mad, literally mad’

  1. Oh, blimey! This takes me back. The local Boy Scouts would chant “Enoch! I knock! Everybody, knock-knock!” My father, whose only education was a national service commission in the RAF and a correspondence course in management accountancy, became very excited about the prospect of Powell somehow becoming Prime Minister. When I tried to work these themes into a lyric with my songwriting buddy Mark Woods-Hill there was actually a line, “The devil’s the jackal of the day and you hope Lord Lucan is having a nice holiday…” Not one of my best.


  2. I’ll leave people to research the ‘plots’ against Harold Wilson in 1968 and 1974 by themselves. The fear of a military coup in the UK at the time of the publication of Arthur Wise’s novel was not due to racial tensions in the UK or to cultural differences between the generations. It was due to accusations that Wilson was a Soviet agent and due to the level of industrial unrest. The violence in Northern Ireland exacerbated feelings that the security of the UK was threatened and that the response of the Government was inadequate.

    It is probable that people in MI5 smeared Wilson and sought to influence election results. Were there also conspiracies to overthrow an elected government? It is difficult to prove that the ‘plots’ went beyond right-wingers complaining that the country was going to the dogs. Perhaps the most alarming evidence is the claim by Marcia Williams (a senior aide and close friend of Wilson) that Wilson’s government was not pre-warned of a British Army operation to seize Heathrow Airport, subsequently described as a training exercise to prepare the armed forces to counter IRA terrorism.

    The international context is also important. In May 1968, President de Gaulle fled France for a few hours to assure himself that he had the support of the French military in the face of a left-wing revolution. This followed weeks of industrial strikes and student protests. As ‘The Day of the Jackal’ describes, de Gaulle also faced the threat of a right-wing coup from military figures opposed to his policy of giving Algeria its independence. In France the political upheaval lasted for weeks; in Italy for years. From 1968 until the early 1980s, Italy witnessed ‘The Strategy of Tension’, in which the CIA and right-wing elements in Italian politics and military used and encouraged and at times staged ‘left-wing’ terrorist incidents in order to stop the Communists from being elected and to keep the electorate in a state of readiness for the removal of civil liberties and the installation of an unelected government.

    Powell has largely been proved wrong. A far greater number of non-white immigrants now live peacefully in the UK than were resident in 1968. No racist political party looking for popular support would ask for British Indians to be ‘repatriated’; their contribution is too great for the suggestion to be taken seriously. The problems that do exist are ones that Powell did not envisage: groups with a strong religious identity that overrides their respect for the law and support for the civil liberties of others; violence between young, black men (as opposed to violence directed at other racial groups); continuing deaths of young, black men while in custody or being taken into custody by the police. Alarmingly, these issues have become taboo subjects that cannot be discussed.

    Under even less scrutiny are the lies being prepared by the intelligence services and told by politicians and the mainstream media to an electorate ever sceptical of military operations abroad. Those politicians, who ask for evidence before coming to conclusions and who ask what will be the consequences of further military actions in the Middle East, are smeared as Russian stooges. To the amazement of propagandists in the media, more than three-quarters of the British public are capable of remembering the lies told before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and refuse to support the bombing of Syria. The bombing has to be scheduled to occur before the House of Commons sits again so that permisison for it cannot be denied by our democratic representatives. Corbyn is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Wilson withheld British troops from involvement in the Vietnam War. However, he never questioned US policy as Corbyn does on the issue of Israel and Palestine. Not only would a Corbyn government stand aside from involvement in air strikes in the Middle East; it would question the alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel and the purpose of NATO. The British economy, dependent on ever-rising asset prices and rising debt, is precarious. The welfare state is already over-extended. If a financial crisis did not bring Corbyn to power, it would follow his election victory. A collapse of corporate investment and the use of QE to finance spending pledges would create economic chaos. Rising violent crime would be easy to manipulate to justify putting the Army on the streets of mainland Britain, as almost happened in 2011. The chance of a coup being staged in the UK may be unthinkable. It is not however as unlikely as people assume.


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