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Tribune of the people, prophet unfulfilled

by Sam Swerling

If it is an indisputable fact that Enoch Powell was the most intellectually gifted politician of his generation - arguably of the twentieth century - it is equally true that for many who saw him as the standard-bearer of British nationalism, his achievements in politics never matched their optimistic aspirations. Powell himself had no illusions: “all political careers end in failure” he once famously remarked with a good dose of cynicism.

Born in June 1912 and educated at King Edward VII School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge, Powell became Professor of Greek at Sydney University, Australia in 1937, but returned to England at the outbreak of war in 1939 to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a private soldier. Within the course of five years, he had risen through the ranks to become a brigadier, the youngest in the British Army.

Classical scholar, particularly renowned as an expert on the works of Herodotus, published poet, speaker of nine languages (including Welsh and Urdu), Powell’s early life marked him out as a man of unusual brilliance with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge destined for the highest honours. Yet it was only in 1950, at the age of 38, that he secured a safe seat at Wolverhampton South-West, representing that seat and later South Down, for a Parliamentary career spanning 37 years.

In his autobiography, Memoirs (Sidgwick &amp; Jackson, 1978) Reginald Maudling, whose own political career was conspicuously unmemorable, both as Home Secretary and as Edward Heath’s right- hand man during a phase of colourless, shapeless Conservative government (1970-74), wrote admiringly:

“I shared a room with Enoch Powell at the Conservative research department for two years...I do not recall meeting anyone else who had a mind with such power for acquiring knowledge. At one stage, Enoch was determined to become the expert in town and country planning. He acquired the standard textbook, and read it from page to page as an ordinary mortal would read a novel. Within a matter of weeks he had fully grasped the principles of the problem and the details of the legal situation. Within a matter of a few months, he was writing to the author of the textbook, pointing out the errors that he had made.”

Maudling’s specific tribute was echoed in more general terms a hundred times at his death. Norman Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1990-93, a man who suffered obloquy from the Conservative hierarchy for alleged disloyalty, in much the same way as Powell had been ostracised before him, described him as the “greatest politician of my lifetime”.

Part of the greatness which Lamont saw in Powell was his intellectual fearlessness, his moral courage and his impeccably high standard of political speech-making and debate. It may be argued that Powell’s unwillingness to compromise would inevitably lead to failure within a political system in which give and take are perceived as necessary preconditions for success. Powell would have argued that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between matters of detail and issues of principle. Detail can be refined, modified and improved upon; principle is immutable, and cannot be sacrificed for expediency, least of all political expediency.

Two principles informed the active period of Powell’s political thinking. First was the primacy of nationhood; the second was the role of Parliament as the protector of the nation’s democracy. An unanswered question, where Powell is concerned, is whether he ever envisaged in his earlier years in Parliament the possibility of the ‘nation’ being anything other than a composite of the peoples of the United Kingdom, as Sir Oswald Mosley had done after the war with the development of his ‘Europe a Nation’ thesis. Whereas in the 1970s and beyond, Powell’s vehemence against the Treaty of Rome and the political dimension of the Common Market was unsurpassed by any other politician, during his two-year period as a minister in Macmillan’s government (between 1957-59) and for five years thereafter he was remarkably muted on the subject. Indeed at one stage he is on record as stating that if the balance of economic advantage favoured Britain’s entry into the EEC (as it was then titled) he would not be opposed to it. The assumption must be that he cannot have supposed at that time that nationhood would be compromised.

Powell’s love of country was reflected in the value that he placed on continuity and tradition and the place therein of the armed forces and the church. Even if he had been an atheist, he would still have seen the church as a stabilising influence of permanence. Interestingly, this is a position common to many atheists or agnostics of conservative disposition.

Yet Powell was remarkably liberal, paradoxically, when it came to social reform on matters affecting personal conduct. He was always opposed to capital punishment and voted in favour of its abolition in 1965. In this regard, he had much in common with other imperial Tories of that era, such as Julian Amery and John Biggs-Davison. Although a firm believer in the institution of marriage, he supported divorce reform legislation, both in 1957 and 1973 on the Benthamite principle that the state has no vested interest in refusing to release unhappy people from their state of unhappiness. Powell also favoured the Wolfenden proposals for homosexual law reform which led to the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and probably would have supported the reduction in the age of consent to sixteen. Moreover, Powell was not opposed to abortion law reform.

What these attitudes on social reform demonstrate is that Powell’s logic told him that non- intervention, or perhaps more accurately non-interference, is a guiding principle of almost universal application. Powell believed that on matters of personal behaviour, individuals can only be answerable to their conscience. Political commentators opposed to Powell’s opinions on immigration, Europe and other issues, sacrifice objectivity for emotion when labelling him as a man of the extreme right. One characteristic, amongst others, of someone of the extreme right within the political spectrum is a reasoned belief in the value of authoritarian ideals added to a healthy suspicion of democratic practices as a mechanism for getting things done. By those criteria, Powell falls well short of the crypto-fascist status to which he has been elevated by the liberal-left.

The principle of nationhood was essentially the background to all major debates in which Powell became involved, both in Parliament and outside: immigration, Europe, Northern Ireland and defence. What marked Powell out from his contemporaries was his unrivalled mastery of detail, the impeccable quality of his research, the conviction of the rightness of his analysis, the deep respect which he commanded from millions of people and the sense in which he came to see himself as a man of destiny who had come to save the nation from treacherous policies which would inevitably lead to disaster.

Immigration is undoubtedly the subject with which Powell is most commonly associated. During the 1960s, Conservative politicians such as Cyril Osborne, Norman Pannell, Harold Gurden and Ronald Bell made frequent observations upon the dangers of foisting a multi-racial society upon an unwilling population through a wholly false interpretation of citizenship rights allegedly owed to foreign passport holders. Powell shared these concerns, but did not enter the fray until the late 1960s. His so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, made on 20th April, 1968, created a dramatic impact. It struck an emphatic chord with much of the population, but of course it was politically incorrect to utter the truth on such a sensitive issue, let alone in the graphic language that Powell used. The technocrat Heath dismissed Powell from his shadow cabinet, engendering thereby an unrelenting enmity between the two men.

On account of his deep, abiding faith in Parliamentary procedures and institutions, Powell declined to do what many were urging him to do: to build an extra-parliamentary mass movement which would propel him into the Conservative leadership on the back of popular resentment. Entreaties made to him in the summer of 1968 by a number of influential backers in the party to hold a dozen large-scale rallies throughout Britain, culminating in a million-strong rally in September, never came to fruition despite fairly advanced plans being formulated at one point. Powell never quite saw himself as a latter-day Mussolini marching on London with nationalist legions in his wake.

Powell’s aversion during this period to the notion of rallying the people in direct action against manifest political wrongheadedness rested on the quaint belief that the British people would eventually react through the ballot box against the treachery of the political class. But the truth is that an effective response can only be shown through plebiscite or referendum, constitutional mechanisms to which Powell as an avowed Parliamentarian was opposed. It can never be achieved in the ordinary way through elections, since single issues, however vital and significant in themselves, become swallowed up in other issues, many of them peripheral and transient.

History shows that Powell, and with him the majority view in the country, lost the immigration debate with the disastrous consequences which he predicted and on a far worse scale at that. We now have the phenomenon of bogus asylum seeking, which is now costing the taxpayer £2.l billion per annum, equivalent to one penny in the pound for every taxpayer. Voluntary repatriation, once part of the Conservative election manifesto, is now a forbidden subject. An anaesthetised people is now forced to ‘accept’ what is being served up to them without a murmur, while the burgeoning race relations industry is waxing ever fatter on mounting public subsidy.

Powell came to see the European Common Market as a serious threat to national identity - as serious as large-scale immigration. For him they were two sides of the same coin, neither less important than the other. Hindsight can rarely be a reflective tool when assessing crucial events, but suppose that Iain McLeod and Powell had not refused to serve in Alec Douglas-Home’s government upon Macmillan’s retirement in October 1963, but instead participated in it. The Conservatives would probably have won the 1964 election - Labour won it by a majority of four seats - Home would have stayed in office and Heath would never have become Prime Minister with the disastrous consequences on the European issue that ensued. Powell used to counter that sort of argument by emphasising that he was not blessed with any divine degree of prescience; many of his ardent supporters would claim otherwise!

From the late 1960s, Powell was adamant that, despite its name, the European Economic Community, and Britain’s participation in it, was a political and not an economic question - one which could not be obliterated by a deluge of figures and economic propositions. Estimates of Britain’s balance of payments; the differing components of Britain’s imports and exports; whether the food prices within the community would be higher than the world prices - all these might be of importance if the argument were between conflicting economic priorities, but they could not be used to detract from the essence of the debate, which was whether the ‘economic community’ would strengthen or weaken the sovereignty of people and Parliament. Powell concluded that the EEC would gravely damage parliamentary institutions and that for that reason alone it should be firmly opposed. Along with (especially) Peter Shore, Michael Foot and Tony Benn, Powell was the most formidable advocate of withdrawal from the EEC in the referendum campaign of May 1975, which produced a 2:1 majority in favour of staying in. Powell had at this time left the Conservative party and called upon people to vote Labour at the February 1974 election (at which the writer was a Conservative candidate) because it was only with Labour that Powell envisaged any prospect, however remote, of British withdrawal from the EEC, which was essential to recovery of national self-government.

Powell’s influence on the Maastricht Treaty debate with its federalising tendencies was minimal due to the onset of his final illness. Experience may have told him that ex post facto referendums, while no doubt inviting and raising optimism, are fraught with dangers of unfulfilled expectation as the process of ‘historic inevitability’ begins to assert itself. The promised referendum on the single currency with the Euro up and running could be lost for this reason, despite popular opposition to it. The people could come to conclude under a barrage of misleading propaganda that Britain’s rightful place is within EMU because there is no alternative. Yet again the hideous ‘TINA’ will have triumphed. In such circumstances, within five years, Britain will be a province of the new state, ‘Europe’, such powers of self-government as remain retained only with the permission of the new European government. That is precisely the apocalyptic vision that Powell had. One cannot assume that in such conditions he would have continued to advocate the constitutional path to bring about national recovery.

Powell’s contribution to defence debates in Parliament rested on his deduction that since Britain had liquidated its Empire and given freedom to its former colonial subjects it should stop the pretence that it had some role to play as a universal policeman. He regarded the Commonwealth as a farcical institution and the United Nations as a vehicle for American aggrandisement and sabre rattling. Powell was determined to challenge conventional strategic thinking whereby one of the justifications of European union was defence and Western solidarity. He poured scorn on NATO’s nuclear strategy and was particularly critical of government policy that British contractors providing armaments to our armed forces should share the work with firms situated on the mainland of the European continent.

Whereas Margaret Thatcher always regarded the NATO alliance as of primary importance, Powell believed it to be destructive of Britain’s self-confidence and national interest. Powell was always distrustful of American strategic policy, partly because of his unusually favourable attitude towards the Soviet Union, but also because he thought the Suez adventure of 1956 a profound mistake. The ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America was one that he regarded as placing Britain in a subservient position. On the other hand, the major defence operation involving British forces in the last twenty years, the recovery of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982, met with Powell’s total endorsement.

Powell’s attitude to Ulster was essentially one of simplicity in what is, in political terms and historically, a matter of great complexity. Ulster should be treated in relation to the United Kingdom no differently from, say, Colchester. The people of Colchester are part of the United Kingdom; so are the people of Ulster - period. That position should pertain until there was irrefutable evidence that the people of Ulster no longer wanted to remain subjects of the Crown. Powell was particularly unimpressed by the argument that Ulster deserved different treatment on account of the fact that one- third of its population felt allegiance to a foreign power. He condemned the duplicity of successive British governments in asserting the indissolubility of Ulster’s union with the UK while doing, as he argued, all in their power to undermine it.

Powell’s major policy disagreement with Margaret Thatcher was the Anglo-Irish agreement of November 1985, which gave to Ireland influence over the governance of the province. He saw that as a shocking betrayal. No doubt the Iron Lady had begun to shed her ferrous qualities. The intellectual logic of Powell’s position was unassailable; the integration of Ulster on a permanent basis into the fabric of the UK would deprive the IRA of the prospect of detaching it by force and therefore lead the IRA to abandon ‘the armed struggle’. At one point, Powell argued that cession of the province would be a more honourable outcome than the inchoate, uncertain constitutional future which Ulster had and now faces as a result of ‘the peace process’.

Enoch Powell’s contribution to the life of the nation has been immense. Enough has been written to fill an encyclopaedia. To many in the formative years of their political careers he was both prophet and inspiration. Sir Alfred Sherman, founder of the Centre for Policy Studies, and one of the Conservative Party’s most eminent political thinkers since 1945, has written elsewhere of the distinguishing role between priests and prophets. In the conservative journal, Right Now, issue no. 19, he wrote: “The prophet indicates new directions while the priest organises and implements the prophet’s visions. It is given to few enough to be either, and fewer still to be both. Enoch never quite made up his mind. His natural penchant was for the prophet. But this never worked in Britain. Here the prophet must be his own priest, turning objectives into strategy and tactics, campaigning, mobilising supporters, nationally and locally.”

Man of action in wartime of proven organisational competence, what might have been if Enoch Powell had used that dynamism to mobilise the millions who would have responded by carrying him to power at the head of a Conservative government dedicated to the implementation of nationalist principles and policies?

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