Sunday, 1 November 2009

Griffin v Powell

In 1987, I made the headlines of the BBC1 9 o'clock news. The occassion was a speaking visit to the Bristol University Student Union by the famed right winger, Enoch Powell which ended in a near riot as students united from all parts of the country to demonstrate against him.

I wasn't a demonstrator. In fact, the only reason I had gone to the Student Union that day was to play table football. When I got to the Union, at around 1pm, the main entrances had been blocked off so, frustrated and confused, I tried to get into the Union through a little known side door. However, the police intervened and escorted me back to the front of the Union.

By this time, the main entrances were becoming increasingly packed with venomous students who were literally baying for Powell's blood. Soon there were so many students, I was swept into the Union and pushed to the edge of the main staircase. For a few more minutes nothing much more happened as the Union became increasingly more noisy and crowded.

Then, suddenly, the whole atmosphere became very much noiser. I've heard 110,000 fans screaming at the Nou Camp stadium, in Barcelona, but that was nothing compared to the decibel level I now encountered. True, a large number of students were screeching and whistling at the top of their vocal range. However, there was something else that's more difficult to describe. Every single student seemed to project the most intense hatred possible and it appeared to massively magnify the sound. In short, it was terrifying.

Then, in the middle of it all, twenty, maybe thirty police officers forced a path open and Enoch Powell appeared in the centre of the pandemonium. Even though he was in his mid seventies, Powell walked fairly quickly and mounted the staircase. I'll never forget his face, it was a picture of absolute, steely determination. For me, it was very hard to reconcile. How on earth could this man be so convinced that he was correct when, without the strong police presence, the masses would have literally torn him to shreds and probably eaten him too, for good measure?

Later that evening, I watched the BBC coverage with my friends. The BBC commentator advised the audience that minutes before Mr Powell turned up, there had been a concerted effort by students to break into the side entrance of the Union to sabotage the talk. The footage then panned to a close up of my bemused face as I was led away by the police.

In fact, this wasn't my first encounter with Enoch Powell, it wasn't even my second. I had already seen him speak twice at my school, University College School, in 1982 and 1984. For the first visit, there was a huge amount of excitement about the forthcoming speaker and I did my homework.

Brigadier Enoch Powell MBE (1912-1998) was born in Stechford, Birmingham. Before turning to politics, he was an academic, linguist, soldier and poet. He became a Conservative MP between 1950 and 1974 and an Ulster Unionist MP between 1974 and 1987. He was controversial throughout much of his career and his tenure in senior office was brief. He had strong, distinctive views on monetary policy, national identity, immigration and United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community which later became the European Union. He was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet for his controversial and widely remembered 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech in opposition to mass Commonwealth immigration to Britain.

Although I immediately found Powell's views on immigration to be very offensive, I was fascinated by how incredibly clever he was. Whilst at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in one Greek prose examination lasting three hours, he was asked to translate a passage into Greek. Powell walked out after one and a half hours, having produced translations in the styles of Plato and Thucydides. For his efforts, he was awarded a double starred first in Latin and Greek and then become a Professor of Greek at Sydney University, aged only 25.

Watching Enoch Powell speak for the first time was an extraordinary experience. I was only 15 and it became seared in my memory. Powell was famed for his oratorical brilliance and I was hypnotised by him. He spoke without notes, never pausing once and seemed to possess endless knowledge and intelligence. I have subsequently seen many famous politicians and statesmen speak and - apart from Margaret Thatcher - there really was no one in his league.

Interestingly, when he gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, it caused very little reaction among his audience. It was only after the speech was publicised and scrutinised, that it caused such intense outrage. I'm sure the reason was that Powell mesmerised his audience in the same way that he held me as a teenager.

Powell spoke again a couple of years later at my school in a debate with the then headmaster, Giles Slaughter. I thought Mr Slaughter was very brave to take on Enoch Powell and indeed he did credibly well but Powell was once again as brilliant as he was two years ago.

The angry scenes I encountered outside the Bristol University Union in 1987 were repeated a couple of weeks ago outside the BBC Television studio in White City at the notorious Question Time featuring Nick Griffin. Indeed, during the Question Time itself, Jack Straw referred several times to Enoch Powell and the "Rivers of Blood" speech.

To my mind, there are one or two interesting comparisons between Griffin and Powell. Nick Griffin holds shameful and disgusting views but he is also a clever man. He went to Downing College, Cambridge University but - unlike Powell - only succeeded in obtaining a Lower Second in Law. Whilst a student, his affiliation with the National Front was revealed during a Cambridge Union debate and his photograph was published in a student newspaper. Undeterred he later founded the Young National Front Student Organisation.

Both Powell and Griffin were strongly rumoured to have had homosexual encounters. According to John Evans, Chaplain of Trinity and Extra Preacher to the Queen, instructions were left with him to reveal after Powell's death that at least one of the romantic affairs of his life had been homosexual. However, Powell's biographer, Simon Heffner, disputed this and argued that this did not mean Powell was homosexual but rather that he had not yet met any girls.

Meanwhile, Griffin, at the age of 16, was reported to have stayed at the home of National Front organiser, Ian Webster. Webster was openly gay and in a four page leaflet written in 1999 claimed to have had a homosexual relationship with Griffin, then the BNP's publicity director. Griffin has denied any such relationship.

However, there are many more contrasts than comparisons. Powell could have obtained real power had he not so spectacularly blown his chances in 1968 and then left the Conservative Party in 1974. Indeed, he might well have won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, instead of Mrs Thatcher. As mentioned, he was an exceptionally clever man and it is a shame that his peculiar views led his career down a darker path.

Meanwhile, as Question Time demonstrated, Griffin is a fairly poor public speaker, a bore and a bigot of the worst sort. His views are significantly more extreme than Powell's ever were, despite his farcical attempts to make the BNP more respectable. For example, Powell was never a Holocaust denier. Indeed, at the age of 70, he learnt Hebrew, his 12th and final language.

Griffin will never remotely attain Powell's achievements. Powell was a prolific writer and an accomplished poet. He had many talents beyond politics and even appeared in the BBC's 2002 100 Greatest Britons of all Time (voted for by the public).

Griffin - for his part - will, hopefully, one day be consigned to the dustbin of anonymity. The sooner, the better, frankly.

1 comment:

Jeremy Jacobs said...

Enoch Powell could have been a brilliant Prime Minister.