John Enoch Powell was born on 6 June 1912 in Birmingham, the only son of teachers. After a grammar school education, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study classics. He was shy, reclusive and scholarly.
He applied himself to his Greek often for 18 hours a day, scarcely leaving his room. His insatiable curiosity drove him to other languages – he tried to learn one a year – and eventually numbered Welsh, Russian and Urdu among them.
At the age of 26, he was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Sydney (Australia) before returning to Britain at the outbreak of World War II. He joined up and became the army’s youngest brigadier at 32.
After the war, he went into politics and was elected a Conservative legislator in 1950. He was promoted rapidly and became financial secretary to the Treasury, but he resigned in 1958 along with other key Treasury ministers because the Cabinet refused to reduce public spending.
In 1960 he was appointed Minister of Housing and after the Conservatives’ 1964 election defeat, Powell took on Edward Heath in the battle for the party leadership but lost.
Heath appointed him defence spokesman, but his controversial views on immigration increasingly led him into conflict with the party leadership.
With a gaunt stare and high-pitched voice, Powell was a firebrand orator of rare analytical powers, loved and loathed in equal measure.
His “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 in which he urged Britain to stop the flow of immigrants from its former colonies and described the country as “heaping up its own funeral pyre” provoked public outcry and finally led Heath to remove him.
It effectively ended his chances of ever attaining high office even though Powell was considered among the most brilliant minds of his day.
In 1974, he urged Conservative voters to support the Labour party in the general election, because it opposed membership of the European Community. Later that year he resigned from the Conservatives and stood as a member of the staunchly pro-British Ulster Unionist Party for a Northern Ireland seat.
He lost his parliamentary seat in 1987, saying he would commit more time to cultural pursuits and in a 1996 interview, the ageing nationalist reflected that his ideas had finally become common currency.
Enoch Powell died on Sunday 8 February 1998 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.