Enoch at 100

Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Articles, Progress | 0 comments

Enoch at 100

This post originally appeared at Progress Online.

Enoch at 100 is not really, as its subtitle claims, ‘a re-evaluation of the life, politics and philosophy of Enoch Powell’, more a rather belated Festschrift. It is an overwhelmingly friendly assessment of its subject. While Tom Bower in his chapter on immigration does not shy away from the necessary criticisms of ‘Rivers of Blood’, the section still argues that Powell had a point even if he ruined the respectability of the argument by the manner in which he put his case. Make no mistake, Enoch at 100 is a case for the defence.

As with all edited collections, the contributions vary in quality. The dullest chapters are those that shoehorn Powell into political arguments that have mutated beyond recognition (Europe most notably) since Powell’s death, and attempt to work out what he might have had to say about current debates. The chapters that were securely rooted in their time, such as Andrew Alexander on defence and foreign affairs, were more convincing – although it is hard to reconcile the crudity of Simon Heffer’s argument on Powellite economics with the high quality of his Powell biography. Some of the personal reminiscences were engaging (the two arguably left-of-centre contributors, Frank Field and Anne Robinson, are in this category). Michael Forsyth’s elegant chapter on the constitution quotes Powell’s wonderfully cynical description of the true function of the House of Lords, for which it is almost worth the price of admission in itself.

I wish that the book had contained a chapter about Powell’s relationship to party politics, and his attitude to the deployment of low cunning in the service of political goals. Powell was sometimes fastidious about the mucky business of politics, particularly when practised by Harold Macmillan: he called Macmillan’s address to Conservative members of parliament in 1957 that won him the prime ministership ‘devilry’, and was clearly genuinely offended at the political scheming that went on during the leadership contest of 1963. But then, a little later, he plotted with Harold Wilson, in the unsavoury surroundings of the gents’ toilets in the Aye division lobby, to maximise the damage to the Conservatives in the February 1974 general election. Powell rightly rejected the accusation that he was a traitor: ‘Judas was paid! I made a sacrifice’, but doing so makes one wonder whether he was identifying himself with another character in that drama.

Powell’s victories were often merely the prelude to painful, slow defeats. By arguing the Tory case so forcefully in 1970, he helped provide Edward Heath with the means to take Britain into Europe. By the narrowness and exclusivity of the nationalism he espoused, and the inflammatory rhetoric he used, Powell won mass support in 1968 but has permanently damaged the Conservative party with ethnic minority voters and cut it off from the changing nature of British and English nationhood. By dabbling in the dirt, against his fastidious nature, he tainted himself and his historical reputation. No matter how hard his admirers scrub, the Rivers of Blood will not wash off his hands.

There is something disturbing about the clipped, precise voice of Enoch Powell legitimising the crude racist urban legends and stereotypes that were doing the rounds in Wolverhampton in the late 1960s. Even now, it is chilling to listen to him vocalising a constituent’s fear that ‘in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ – a man as careful about words as Powell must have been aware of the archetype of the slave turned master, and the implied threat of brutal vengeance. The words on the page – quite rightly, the editor has reproduced the speech in full in Enoch at 100 – are powerful. Powell’s importance, unfortunately, is that he enabled ignorant thugs everywhere to shout ‘Enoch was right’ and make their neighbours’ lives that bit worse, and to overwrite in collective memory the more generous and noble Tory instincts of men such as Iain Macleod and Robert Carr. The first line in the Birmingham speech, ironically, was about the duties of statesmanship. Powell neglected the duty of leading, of being better than the worst instincts rather than pandering to them. So intellectual and precise a man would surely revolt against the modern political assumption that truth is less important than perception, and that if one feels something it must be right and valid, were it not that he started the rot back in 1968.

Reading Greville Howard’s collection has made me eager to dust off and re-read my copies of the excellent Powell biographies written by Heffer and Robert Shepherd. Powell’s life and personality are so much more interesting than his politics and philosophy. It seems obvious to me that beneath the logical persona there was a seething mass of passions and contradictions over which – like his great antagonist Heath – he kept rigid, oppressive control for fear of the consequences if he failed. Perhaps the heavy repression under which Powell laboured gave such frightening force to ‘Rivers of Blood’ when he channelled the forces of the collective id. Powell was fond of unambiguous, specific attributions of madness to political opponents (surely a projection of his own fear of mental illness), and sometimes stated that opposing propositions were not just in error, but logically, necessarily false (several contributors regrettably follow him in this).

Powell’s reason was slave to his passions, and chief among his passions was the ‘sovereign’ ‘nation-state’, even though he himself recognised that the concepts of nation and race were wholly subjective and elusive. But:

There is no such thing as semi-nationhood or semi-nationalism … Nationalism, if it is real, cannot be bought off with less than the complete article.

It is thought-provoking to read Enoch at 100 just after the Scottish referendum. Michael Forsyth is surely right that Powell’s belief in nationalism as a motive political force, and his tidy-mindedness, would have made him sympathetic to Scottish independence, even if it destroyed the Britain that he romantically, and increasingly wrongly, believed to be a nation state. But even a ‘Yes’ vote would have meant semi-nationhood at best, to Powell. Despite Powell’s own knowledge of Northern Ireland, his thinking seems to slide around between Britain, England and the United Kingdom state with its imagined tradition of untrammelled parliamentary sovereignty. The UK is not a coherent entity, and nationhood not a coherent idea, so it is hardly surprising that Powell’s attempt to build a political ideology on this foundation was unsuccessful – and in any case it was hopelessly un-English in its very tidy-mindedness.

Powell belongs to history, and – if I may indulge in a little bit of political science via ouija board myself – he is happier there, despite the efforts of some of the writers of Enoch at 100 to garland him with contemporary relevance. Of his Parliamentary Secretariat colleagues from the 1940s, I could claim equal relevance and prescience for Reggie Maudling, and probably rather more for Macleod. There is no doubt, having read Howard’s book, that he is a fascinating historical figure who deserves to be remembered for much more than one wretched rabble-rousing speech. He is one of a number of mercurial, intense but also self-contradictory political figures, along with FE Smith and Keith Joseph, who took ideas so seriously that they could exercise 180-degree policy U-turns but justify it on grounds of philosophical consistency. The sadness that tinges Powell’s historical reputation – entirely of his own making – is that speaking for those 30 minutes in Birmingham was by far the most significant thing he ever did.

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