A century after his birth, the self-described ‘Tory anarchist’ John Enoch Powell is still capable of arousing devotion or detestation.
After his death in 1998, a major memorial service was held in the Parliamentary church of St. Margaret’s, Westminster (beside the Abbey), attended by many well-known public figures come to see the last great Conservative controversialist safely across the Styx. A small, ragged honour guard of sorts who could not get into or would not go into St. Margaret’s materialized mysteriously in nearby streets bearing flags and home-made signs bearing trite but touching tributes such as ‘Enoch—the greatest Prime Minister we never had’, ‘Enoch was right!’ and ‘You spoke for England!’, before dispersing again with a sigh, heading home to suburbs through streets that had become as foreign as their prophet had always predicted. After observing the service and meeting some of these drifting dreamers, the Independent’s Paul Vallely commented half-gleefully that he was seeing ‘the old order in its ancient dignity’.
Others on the left, including several Anglican bishops, struck a nastier note by trying to ensure the devout Anglican’s body would not be allowed to rest overnight in the Abbey on the night before the service (they failed), while an Independent journalist with the novelistic name of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown gloated that she ‘had raised a glass of wine’ to celebrate the death of the Tory tyrannosaurus. Mrs. Alibhai-Brown seems refreshingly unselfconscious about the possibility of being thought monomaniacal, because she has returned to the theme on innumerable occasions since, including condemning the book under review. But then Powell haunts many people’s imaginations, not least the contributors to this volume. With the notable exceptions of Churchill and Thatcher, few other Tories have become part of political folklore.
Powell was the kind of man who would have made his mark in any profession, but who would also have found it difficult to rise to the top in any profession. Everyone knows the superlatives of his career — distinguished classicist, accomplished linguist, youngest Greek professor in the Empire, youngest brigadier in the army (who had risen from private rank), the greatest orator of his generation (who could always pack out the chamber of the House of Commons), a basilisk-eyed, stony-voiced prophet more intellectually and morally qualified to be leader of his great party than almost anyone who ever actually occupied those posts.
But yoked to these great gifts were a stiff public persona, a lack of practicality, what Iain MacLeod famously called ‘an excess of logic’, and an unworldly mysticism about the nation, Parliament, and the people that sometimes led to major miscalculations. Even in the far-off world of 1968 he seemed anachronistic to many, a throwback to the lush Edwardian sensibilities of A. E. Housman or Rupert Brooke. ‘The greatest Prime Minister we never had’ would probably never have made it to all the way to Downing Street even if he had never made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech of April 1968. The only time he stood for leadership of the party (1965) he won an ignominious fifteen votes from his fellow MPs, and retired embarrassed from the race that would be won by — of all the disastrous choices — Ted Heath. Powell had given his colleagues credit for too much foresight and taste; similarly, he deluded himself that the British people would never be gulled into voting for membership of the EEC, so obviously subversive of everything the war generation had suffered to preserve. Someone so principled was always likely to be disappointed, and it was a creeping consciousness of his inability to arrest evil that gave rise to his famous remark about all political careers ending in failure.
But it is easy to cavil from a chronological distance, and the contributors to this excellent collection of essays contend that, in fact, he made a notable and lasting difference in many different fields. Well-known writers examine his views on Europe, the constitution, economics, the nation-state, immigration, defence and foreign policy, energy and the environment, and Ulster. These are interspersed with biographical notes, reflections on his oratory and his classical studies, an interview with his widow, some of his poems, and several of his most famous speeches, which read as lucidly today as they did when delivered. The Tory tradition has few important ideologues to its name, and it is an acknowledgment of Powell’s rarity and continuing relevance that the government minister Iain Duncan-Smith felt able to risk the squeaky wrath of the PC pettifoggers by contributing a gracious Foreword. He relates a piquant anecdote from his own youthful career, when he was driving Powell back to London after they had both addressed a meeting in Oxford:
It was not an auspicious journey as I tried in vain to engage him in conversation and, not concentrating, missed the main turning to London. Staring straight ahead he intoned sharply “I think, young man, you will find that the road you seek is not the one you are on.”
This story conveys perfectly Powell’s frosty demeanour, the nervousness he elicited even from admirers, and his oddly precise sentence construction, while also hinting metaphorically at his role of Conservative compass destined to be driven by others.
Unlike many Eurosceptics, Powell was a Euro-rejectionist right from the start, and Lord True describes his valiant if ultimately unavailing efforts to keep the UK clear of this unnecessary entanglement, with lengthy extracts from his speeches of that time that still bear reading. Powell’s other foreign policy recommendations are now largely overlooked by a party whose instincts are Atlanticist and neoconservative, and Andrew Alexander provides a salutary reminder of Powell’s anti-Americanism. Powell felt that the USA had always sought the downfall of the Empire, and went so far as to detect the hand of the CIA in the murder of Lord Mountbatten in 1979. He also had a deep disdain for military adventurism – particularly adventurism that did not bolster the national interest and could not be backed up logistically. Powell also had a low opinion of the Commonwealth, and sought friendship with Russia as a counterbalance against Germany.
The Labour MP Frank Field pays tribute to Powell as Parliamentarian, the genius of the green-leathered chamber who had won Field’s early admiration by refusing to serve under Alex Douglas-Home because he disapproved of the way in which Douglas-Home had been appointed Prime Minister, and also because of Powell’s dazzling 1959 denunciation of his own government for attempting to cover up the murders of eleven Mau Mau insurgents at the Hola camp in Kenya. Lord Forsyth neatly summarizes Powell’s struggles to defend the primacy of the Commons against the depredations of both devolutionists and European officials, while also preserving the hereditary and patronage elements in the Lords (Powell disapproved of life peerages on principle). The present Liberal Democrat-driven attempt to ‘reform’ the Lords would have met with his obsidian opposition, Forsyth notes —
Powell would have much preferred the abolition of the House of Lords to any plans to replace it with something different.
In 1957, Powell (then Financial Secretary to the Treasury) and two colleagues resigned from the government over its refusal to rein in public spending. He was a monetarist at a time when the term scarcely existed, and always advocated cutting spending, taxes, and inflation — although never at the expense of useful social institutions. Unlike most small-government advocates, he was not a liberal individualist but a communitarian. Simon Heffer, author of the definitive biography of Powell (1998’s Like the Roman), demonstrates how right he was to stand up against Macmillan and Heath, who always sought to buy off industrial unrest — and how important Powell’s insights became to a certain M. Thatcher.
The historian Andrew Roberts elucidates the centrality of the nation-state to Powell’s worldview, and reminds us of the man’s wicked humour, for example when he was comparing Ted Heath with Cardinal Wolsey—
Cardinal Wolsey escaped the scaffold, although only narrowly. It is naturally my personal hope that Mr. Heath will do so too, and by a much more generous margin.
Roger Scruton analyzes the language used by Powell and tries to separate its sense from its ‘incantatory’ delivery. He points out that the speeches fall into two distinct types — the rigorously analytical and the suggestively invocatory. The speeches assume a basic knowledge of the classics, of the Bible, of literature, and of British history — Powell’s was probably the last generation that could make such assumptions — but he also had a rare gift for expressing intellectual or textual subtleties. But we don’t read him today because of his views on economics or healthcare, howsoever lucidly expressed. Scruton writes wistfully,
It was in his invocations of the thinking, feeling collective that Powell made his distinctive contribution . . . words can have a sacramental function, in which they create the powers that they describe . . . often Powell’s audiences felt he was speaking liturgically when he touched on the subject of England. And they were right.
Powell’s idea of the English nation as Anglican incarnation was made most explicit in his rhapsodic 1961 speech to the Royal Society of Saint George. He likens the post-imperial English to Athenians returning to their city after it has been sacked by the Persians, who find
. . . alive and flourishing in the midst of the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the symbol of their country.
Similarly Englishmen returning home after too long away could find themselves again in traces left by ethnic ancestors in hallowed places:
Backward travels our glance beyond the grenadiers and the philosophers of the eighteenth century, beyond the pikemen and the preachers of the seventeenth, back through the brash adventurous days of the first Elizabeth and the hard materialism of the Tudors, and there at last we find them, or seem to find them, in many a village church, beneath the tall tracery of a perpendicular east window and the coffered ceiling of the chantry chapel. From brass and stone, from line and effigy, their eyes look out at us, and we gaze into them, as if we would win some answer from their inscrutable silence.
No politician since has used such emotive terminology about England, something Scruton rues –
No politician today has the ability to renew through his words the enchantment that has for centuries attached us to our country, and made it so natural to us to make the sacrifices required for its survival.
No politician now would dream of using such phraseology, partly because of style, partly because of self-consciousness, and partly because of the sensitivities surrounding Powell’s even more famous oration, usually referred to as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech.
Powell’s language was undoubtedly provocative, even for 1968, when stomachs were stronger and speech freer than they are today, and this did make it more difficult for well-wishers to defend him. It has a regrettably demotic tone, yet it was not so strong as to merit his dismissal by Heath — who was seemingly genuinely disturbed by the tone of the speech, but probably also secretly pleased to have an excuse to get rid of his formidable rival. The speech has been used ever since as an excuse not to discuss immigration at all. It has become rather too easy for politicians who ought to have broached the subject decades before to say, in effect, ‘If only Enoch hadn’t said such-and-such we could have had a civilized discussion’. As Frank Field records candidly,
At a stroke he made the subject of immigration a no-go area for elected politicians. I only felt safe in trespassing onto this territory once the mass of immigration from eastern European countries reached our shores, when the issue was no longer one of colour.
What this self-exculpatory fiction overlooks is that at the time Powell spoke, successive governments had brushed aside concerns about immigration, and Conservative administrations had connived with Labour ones both in permitting immigration and passing laws curbing freedom of speech and association. Since then, of course, race has replaced sex as the principal bourgeois taboo, and the kind of people who once wrapped cloth around piano legs to stop them arousing sexually suggestive thoughts now wrap political correctness around certain concepts to stop naughty ideas about nationality.
There is a related argument, that ‘there-haven’t-been-rivers-of-blood-so-he-was-wrong’. But the evidence of all human history is that diverse societies are less happy, stable, and less peaceful than not-so-diverse ones. Mercifully, there has not been an all-out ‘race war’ in England, but there is constant low-level tension that sometimes breaks out violently. As happened tragically in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, even communities that have co-existed for centuries in the same territory can find themselves suddenly at loggerheads in the wrong circumstances. Powell set no time-limit on his predictions, and at a time when Europe’s postwar economic order and liberal consensus appear to be under existential threat it would surely be rash to rule out the possibility of such conflicts.
Even if Powell is proved to have been ultimately wrong in this prognostication, as we all must hope, it was his duty to raise the subject on behalf of his constituents, and he performed this disagreeable task as unflinchingly as his former Warwickshire Regiment comrades once fell upon the Wehrmacht. And if he was right on this as he was on so much else, his reputation for oneiric omniscience will be even more brightly burnished, and the embattled English of a century hence may still be ruing his absence.
This review first appeared in the University Bookman in October 2012, and is reproduced with permission