Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain, by Paul Corthorn, Oxford University Press, xvi+233 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0198747147
If one were to trace what might be called the archaeology of Brexit, it would go back to Britain’s first entry into the Common Market and EEC, and the arguments articulated opposing that entry. The most articulate opponent was undoubtedly Enoch Powell – who not only could marshal his considerable oratorical skills for the opposition at home but also travelled through Europe addressing crowds, alternating as required between fluent German, Italian and French, to explain British reservations abroad. A book tracking the trajectory of Powell’s thought, moral orientation and political commitments, examining the formation of his opinions and weighing the sincerity with which they were held, might then appear timely.
But when it comes to Enoch Powell, what is really left to be said? He has always exerted considerable, and understandable, fascination, and has been well-served by biographers. Simon Heffer’s Like the Roman (1998) is definitive, produced with Powell’s full co-operation. It follows Patrick Cosgrave’s The Lives of Enoch Powell (1989) and Robert Shepherd’s Enoch Powell: A Biography (1996). Considerably earlier came the journalist TE. Utley’s Enoch Powell: The Man and his Thinking (1968); Paul Foot’s critical study The Rise of Enoch Powell: An Examination of Enoch Powell’s Attitude to Immigration and Race (1969); Roy Lewis’s Enoch Powell: Principle in Politics (1970); and Andrew Roth’s Enoch Powell: Tory Tribune (1970). The clustering of this last quartet in such a short period of time would surprise no one who is the least familiar with Powell. As is well known, he was sacked from Edward Heath’s Conservative shadow cabinet in 1968, a day after his speech on the subject of Commonwealth immigration into Britain. The speech, delivered in Birmingham on April 20th, by its invocation of the sibyl’s prophecy from the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid (“Like the Roman, I see the Tiber foaming with much blood”), became the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech (Powell would later claim that one of only two small amendments he would have made in retrospect would be to put the quotation in its original Latin in the disseminated text of the speech). The address would be the defining moment of his career and would dominate his political legacy. It would make him the most talked-about politician in parliament: easily the most controversial, certainly the most commonly reviled, and consistently, in polls, the most popular. For his detractors, it made Powell the spokesperson for, in period parlance, “racialism”, and placed him outside the pale of decent politics and ideas. It also ensured his immediate accession to public prominence, as the rush of books that followed well testifies.
The resonance of that speech also occasioned the collection Immigration and Enoch Powell (1970), edited by Tom Stacey, which assembled Powell’s relevant speeches with commentary by various contributors. 1977 brought two more volumes, Douglas Schoen’s Enoch Powell and the Powellites, in part a political biography and study of the beliefs held by those who followed Powell’s lead in economic and political matters beyond immigration, and Humphry Berkeley’s The Odyssey of Enoch, which was subtitled “A Political Memoir”. Powell was the subject of a BBC film portrait, Odd Man Out, in 1995, three years before his death.
Nor have recent journalism, scholarship and even art neglected Powell. His influence and legacy have been subject to frequent revaluation, contextualisation and critique, latterly with anniversaries in mind. In 2018, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its delivery, the “Rivers of Blood” speech was read in its entirety on BBC Radio – only a partial recording was made of the original – by the actor Ian McDiarmid, who had honed his imitation of Powell’s distinctive cadences, portraying him in Chris Hannan’s play What Shadows, which debuted in Powell’s Birmingham in 2016. (The production of What Shadows displaced the play Enoch, written by Tom Cottle and Tom Miller, which made it to London readthroughs and covers some of the same ground, but remains unproduced.) The Speech, a 2017 novel by Andrew Smith, covers ten days in Birmingham before and after Powell’s speech, varying its perspective among a cast of characters that includes Powell himself. (A 1970 novel, Who Killed Enoch Powell? by Arthur Wise, imagines Powell killed by a bomb while on a speaking tour, triggering a series of events leading to establishment of a police state in Britain – sufficient indication, perhaps, that people quickly intimated that the stakes in Powell’s rhetoric were fundamental, and concerned first principles.) Camilla Schofield’s Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (2015) situated Powell within a broader political context of postwar imperial decline and tensions caused by rising immigration, while Shirin Hirsch’s In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, locality and resistance (2018) examined the impact of Powell’s speech and popularity and the opposition both generated. A volume of essays, The Lives and Afterlives of Enoch Powell: The Undying Political Animal (2019), edited by Olivier Esteves and Stéphane Porion, looks particularly at Powell’s influence on the immigration debate and how it galvanised the far right in Britain (it belongs to a “Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right” series). A celebratory volume, Enoch at 100 (2012), edited by Powell’s former private secretary Lord Howard (formerly Greville Howard MP) and released to mark the centenary of Powell’s birth, spanned the range of his activities, assessing Powell’s competence and contributions not only as a politician and parliamentarian but as a classicist (his first professional incarnation), an orator and a poet. All this for a politician who never led a party: the scale of the material alone indicates how remarkable a character and fascinating a subject Powell was, and hints at why he still, like some indomitable ogre, stalks the landscape of British politics.
Corthorn tallies the majority of these treatments of Powell in his introduction or conclusion, acknowledging that myriad furrows have been ploughed before him, and he draws from many throughout; and now, adding to this rather crowded field, he has for his part composed a “thematic” study of Powell’s politics and beliefs, described as an “intellectual biography”. Each of its five main sections treats of a theme which preoccupied Powell and defined his political outlook: International Relations; Economics; Immigration; Europe; and Northern Ireland. The approach is not itself new. Something approximate has already been done in the Enoch at 100 volume, with chapters by Nicholas True on European union, Simon Heffer on economics and the role of the state, Andrew Roberts on the nation state, Andrew Alexander on foreign policy and international relations, Tom Bower on immigration and Alistair Cooke on Powell and Ulster. Powell’s collected writings and speeches, published as Reflections of a Statesman (1991), similarly are ordered not chronologically but in themed groups that variously illustrate aspects of his private or public character: “Powell the man”, “Powell the Parliamentarian”, “Powell the Politician”.
Corthorn distinguishes his study from those of his predecessors by the attempt to isolate the dominant and unifying theme of Powell’s words and his deeds, which recurs in his career like the motif in a musical composition: that is – something gestured toward already by Schofield – the decline of British influence in the world, and of her military, economic and diplomatic power. The shifting cadence of that decline – protracted and painful, but accelerated after the Second World War and confirmed by events such as Indian independence and the Suez crisis – meant that Powell’s positions, committed as he was to realism in his view of international relations, had, over time, to shift in turn.
That realism is the starting point of Corthorn’s consideration of Powell’s view of international relations. As a technical term in the discipline of international relations, “realism” is the belief that states are rational actors in an anarchic system –that is one without a higher authority to which to appeal – which act solely in their own interests to maintain the most favourable balance of power. Security is paramount, and moral considerations wholly secondary, if even admitted to be relevant: there are no “good” and “bad” states. Subscribing wholeheartedly to this view, Powell was accordingly scornful of international institutions or “humanitarian” intervention, and considered the “ability and willingness” of the British people to defend the nation militarily as the acid test of nationhood.
The nation was the fundamental, orienting unit of Powell’s political thought; but as Corthorn shows, the significance of the term shifted over time. Powell initially felt that the British “nation” encompassed the empire; as this began to fragment, and he accepted its loss as inevitable, he restricted the term, first urging that the Conservative Party “find its patriotism in England”, before expanding the meaning of “nation” to the United Kingdom. Powell dismissed the Commonwealth as a remnant of empire that drew Britain into relations of trade and patronage that no longer served her interests; once the territories constituting and the means to defend an historical empire were accepted as lost, he was voluble in his advocacy that it be relinquished entirely.
One of Powell’s most idiosyncratic and consistent positions concerned nuclear weapons. He always harboured doubts about the real likelihood of their employment, and queried the wisdom of investment in a nuclear deterrent at the expense of conventional forces. He argued repeatedly for the rebalance of this investment and the expansion of the conventional army, until in 1983, against his own party’s and the general military consensus, he urged Britain’s unilateral nuclear disarmament.
These reservations about the efficacy and economics of the nuclear deterrent at the height of the Cold War were probably influenced by Powell’s hostility to the greatest nuclear power. Britain’s postwar decline reflected and was arguably accelerated by the rise to hegemony of the United States. Powell had a lifelong, implacable distrust and dislike of America and Americans; he believed the breakup of the British empire to be a strategic goal of the United States, as he believed the US supported for strategic reasons a united Ireland. On this score his view of course appeared contrary, and most obviously out of kilter with Thatcher’s established relationship with Reagan. Powell was especially scathing about the alleged “special relationship”, and Thatcher’s and Reagan’s posturing as cold warriors. The narrative of a Soviet behemoth bent on the conquest of the world, or even Western Europe, by the spread of revolutionary communism, Powell regarded as arrant fancy. Those promulgating it, most prominently Reagan and Thatcher, had simply bought into, and successfully resold, a myth of their own invention. He balked at the vision of Britain relegated to a lackey of the US, its representatives slinking obediently about “like whipped curs”. One gloriously-phrased broadside, in a piece for the Daily Express, left his judgement in no doubt: “We are under no necessity to participate in the American nightmare of a Soviet monster barely held at bay in all quarters of the globe by an inconceivable nuclear armament and by political intervention everywhere from Poland to Cambodia. It is the Americans who need us in order to act out their crazy scenario … We simply do not need to go chasing up and down after the vagaries of the next ignoramus to become President of the United States.”
Corthorn shows that Powell’s peculiar view of Britain’s national interest and natural alliances pushed him eventually to entertain alliance with the Soviet Union, a remarkable fact for a man who just as firmly as Hayek held socialism to be “the road to serfdom” and who once stated: “Often when I am kneeling down in church, I think to myself how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost, for the gift of capitalism”. (Writing of Powell’s views as he flew home to Britain on the outbreak of World War Two with a just-purchased Russian dictionary in hand, Heffer states: “He was no lover of the Soviet system, and recognised the familiar ‘smell of dictatorship’ emanating from Moscow.”) Powell once startled Thatcher by scotching her assertion that Britain’s military force would be available for the promotion of its “values” – rather it would be for the promotion of its interests and security, and not for “values”: even if Britain were communist, Powell insisted, he would fight for it, not against it, and therefore talk of values was illusory next to the realities and obligations of nationhood.
The loss of empire which forced Powell’s revaluation of the concept of British nationhood was exemplified for him by the loss of India, control of which he had held key to Britain’s protection of other territories in the Middle East and Oceania. India’s independence, strangely, took Powell by surprise, and it was a blow he felt personally, partly because it foreclosed the possibility of his fulfilling the ambition he had formed of becoming viceroy.
It is worth recording on this subject a fairly intriguing collision, for the insight granted into the intensity of Powell’s presence as well as into how the loss of India lingered. One man who was left profoundly impressed after his encounter with Powell was Elias Canetti. Powell’s is one of the more interesting portraits among those recorded in Canetti’s 2003 London memoirs later translated as Party in the Blitz. After being afforded the opportunity to study Powell in the anthropological manner he does so many Englishmen and women, Canetti judges: “I don’t know that I have ever encountered anyone quite so antithetical to everything I stand for.” Still, his admiration for the man is obvious, and seems almost instinctual. In Canetti, we read that Powell learned in Dante what true partisanship meant; far from sitting on the other side in a parliament, sporadically complaining one’s way to a generous pension: “In Dante’s day, people were burned at the stake. When the other side came to power, you had to leave the city, and not come back as long as you lived. Hatred of the enemy burned.” Apart from Dante, Powell spoke passionately of Nietzsche, who, Canetti concluded – correctly, as it happens – was “a very evident model for him”. He also reported that Powell had read an English translation of Canetti’s strange, remarkable opus Crowds and Power “with the professional interest of a man ambitious for power”. Canetti in the London memoir finally recalled how, walking out with Powell, he questioned him on the cession of India. Powell, momentarily unguarded, paused, turned, and striking his breast, declared: “It hurts in here.”
The recollection is undated, but it can be deduced that their encounter was close to the end of 1962. One may read in Canetti’s journalised reflections and musings, published as The Human Province, in one of the last entries from that year, ruminations on an unnamed figure. The object is obvious: “An English professor of classics, twenty-five years old, like Nietzsche, but in Australia, studies German in order to read Nietzsche, learns him by heart. Back in England, he elevates himself to fox-hunting. From Dante, whom he recites in Italian, he learns how greatly parties ought to hate one another. He has been elected to Parliament and is as hard-working as a German, which surprises his colleagues. What will become of all this?”
What became of it was Powell’s rise to ever greater prominence in and influence on the national discourse, particularly in the realms of economics and immigration. It is in the former that his success in shaping the long-term direction of policy has been most indisputable. Powell anticipated, articulated and argued passionately for what would become the orthodoxies of neoliberal economics long before they were embraced by Western governments. The real cornerstone of “Powellism”, when the word first came into use, was a monetarist approach to economics and advocacy of the unfettered operation of the free market as inherently superior to state planning in delivering innovation and social improvement. Powell long advocated for the UK’s move to a floating exchange rate, and welcomed the pound’s move to such as a victory for freedom and good sense. He unquestionably laid the foundation for the Thatcher government’s reform of the British economy along neoliberal lines.
Corthorn notes that Powell’s thinking on the wider economy and free trade with other nations was “initially hampered by his lingering commitment to the Empire”, leading him to advocate for preferential trading terms with empire countries and envisaging a protective role for Britain, fostering the economies of her dependants. “As Powell began to argue that the Empire’s collapse was unavoidable, these commitments were quietly dropped”, and denationalisation at home, to address inefficient public provision of services, and tariff-free trade abroad, became mainstays of his economic thinking.
The account reports the interesting vicissitudes of Powell’s relationship with the doyens of free market economics and the political “classical liberalism” it supported, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The former would state in 1965, a remark subsequently relayed to Powell: “All our hopes for England rest now on Enoch Powell” (Murray Rothbard was in the 1970s of the same mind). A letter from Friedman to The Times in 1973, defending Powell from criticism within his own party, prompted Powell to rejoice that “the master himself should come to my defence”. These relationships would sour somewhat in time, however, partly as Powell became frustrated with his counterparts’ easier, because academic, radicalism, separated as it was from practical experience. On the awarding of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Friedman, Powell remarked dismissively that “[Peter] Thorneycroft and myself … got there a long time before he did”; when in 1980 he left the Mont Pelerin Society, the affiliation of free-market champions and thinkers grouped around Hayek, he cited in private correspondence “its tendency to resolve itself into a Hayek Adulation Society, with a minor niche for Friedman”.
Powell’s economic thinking was on most points in step with neoliberal principles, and pamphlets such as Change is our ally (1954) and The Welfare State (1961), written as part of the One Nation group, argued for expansion and support of private enterprise, the retrenchment of the welfare state and a programme of denationalisation. Even here, however, the paramount consideration of the nation governed his thinking, exemplified in his commitment to the National Health Service. He refused – to their chagrin – to go along with other Tory free-marketeers in insisting that privatisation of healthcare would improve its delivery, instead claiming state provision was “completely, triumphantly justified on the simple ground that a civilised, compassionate nation can do no other”. This placed him at odds with his One Nation colleagues, who were exasperated by the stance. Though Powell’s ceaseless advocacy for the virtues of free enterprise, opposition to state subsidy of industry and praise of the market’s potential to render unto all according to their deserts did more to entrench neoliberal economic thought in Britain than any other force, he ultimately held firmly to the line that provision of healthcare was an area that had to fall within the state’s legitimate remit. This was quite in keeping with his self-described “congenital” Toryism, by the lights of which the market must serve, and yield to the supervening interests of, those institutions of national life which define a nation’s character. This applied most immediately and incontrovertibly to the defence of the realm, but Powell also cautioned against the marketisation and privatisation of education, damning as “barbarism” attempts “to evaluate the contents of higher education in terms of economic performance” or the view that “an education is (and ought to be) calculated to furnish earning power after graduation”. This was perhaps not so surprising from a man who reflected on his own education: “I count myself extremely fortunate to have received a classical education, even to the extent of regarding those not so fortunate as scarcely to be recognised as educated at all”. He pressed, as to the relevance of that education even in the modern industrialised and globalised world: “A classical scholar is equipped with the pre-digestion of a great range of human experience, political and also non-political, so that amongst non-classicists he is rather like a man who knows the times-table, compared with people who don’t know it and who, when they want to multiply eight by nine have to work it out for the first time. The classical scholar already knows that eight times nine are seventy-two because that’s in the Antigone, as it were.”
Though personal choice was fundamental in Powell’s vision of Conservatism, the surpassing interest of the nation tempered and conditioned all other commitments, even where economic liberalism was necessary to combat the decline into which socialised programmes of service provision had tilted Britain. In a contribution to a volume of essays in honour of Ludwig von Mises, Powell would remind his readers that as long as there was such a thing as an economic policy, this implied a nation which was the subject of that policy, and that this meant that, as that policy had in some way to preserve that nation and help it prosper in its historical place, “politics comes before economics”. This, indeed, was true Toryism; Powell and Angus Maude had written pointedly in the introduction to their Change is our ally pamphlet: “To the Tory the nation is not primarily an economic entity. It may place political and social ends above economic ones, and for their sake may justifiably on occasion seek to prevent change or divert it”. As Corthorn sums it up: “When forced to choose between his competing commitments to neo-liberalism and the British nation, Powell chose the nation.”
The nation, in Powell’s view, particularly as the British nation’s meaning contracted from encompassing empire to denoting the United Kingdom, had an irreducible ethnic dimension. This conviction, coupled with his obsession with national decline, perhaps made his becoming preoccupied with the immigration question somewhat inevitable. As mentioned, this became the defining issue of his career, the topic with which he was most and continues today to be identified, and which conditions representations of Powell in popular culture. The novelist Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay for My Beautiful Launderette includes a short scene where an irate British man shouts to an immigrant family the warning: “I’m with Enoch.” Nothing so definitely places Christie Hennessy’s song “Don’t Forget Your Shovel” among Irish workers on English building sites as the lines: “Enoch give us a job diggin’ our way to Annascaul / And when we’re finished diggin’ there they’ll close the hole and all”. “I was 14 in 1968 and one of the horrors of my teenage years was Enoch Powell,” Kureishi would later write in a recollection of the time and of Powell’s impact on the climate for immigrants. “For a mixed-race kid, this stiff ex-colonial zealot – with his obscene, grand guignol talk of whips, blood, excreta, urination and wide-eyed piccaninnies – was a monstrous, scary bogeyman. I remember his name being whispered by my uncles for fear I would overhear.”
On this defining topic Corthorn is unequivocal about the racial basis of Powell’s view of nationhood. It should be noted that it is not difficult to defend Powell against accusations of crude “racialism” of the supremacist kind. He refused to stay at the Byculla Club in Poona, when stationed there in 1944, because an Indian counterpart was refused entry. Powell regarded as one of his two greatest parliamentary moments (along with defeat of the 1953 Royal Titles Bill) his justifiably famous speech of July 22nd, 1959 on the subject of the scandal at Hola Camp in Kenya – where guards had beaten protesting Mau Mau detainees who refused to work for or follow the orders of colonial authorities, resulting in the deaths of eleven and serious injury to many more. Against the statement that the dead were “the lowest of the low”, he cautioned: “It is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgment on a fellow human being and to say, ‘Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow’”. It made him the most prominent person to subject the British authorities in Kenya to public rebuke. Powell stated quite unequivocally, when David Frost questioned whether the term “racist” could be applied to him: “… if you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another, then the answer is emphatically, No.”
An almost identical but subtly different formula was offered in an interview with the Birmingham Post: “What I would take racialist to mean is a person who believes in the inherent superiority of one race of mankind to another, and who acts and speaks in that belief. So the answer to the question of whether I am a racialist is ‘No’.” On this definition, one might well believe in the inferiority of a particular race, but refrain from acting or speaking on that basis, and plausibly deny the charge of racism. As much as he can be defended against the charge, it is equally not difficult to understand how it attached itself to Powell.
Powell’s turning increased attention to the immigration question was rooted in what he perceived to be the fearful consequences it augured for the stability of the nation. It would lead to division within parliament and the erosion of democracy; he became preoccupied with “the manner in which immigration could undermine democracy”. In an article published ten years after the Birmingham speech, Powell “had suggested that ‘the presence of coloured MPs’ could ‘become incompatible with the functioning of the British parliament’”. As late as 1993, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the speech, expanding on the issue of the geographical concentration of some minority immigrant communities, he would claim that: “It is here that the compatibility of such an ethnic minority with the functioning of parliamentary democracy comes into question”, further asserting that to guarantee “the valid acceptance of a majority decision” which is the essence of the democratic process, “the political homogeneity of the electorate is crucial”.
Powell in 1968 was in fact speaking at a time when reform of regulations governing Commonwealth immigration was under way. His stance was in certain respects not very distant from policy in Conservative manifestos, which sponsored a (probably unworkable) policy of facilitating voluntary repatriation of immigrants and their dependants. Powell had helped draft the policy, and supported repatriation; but it was widely predicted that there would be no great take-up of this assistance. Tellingly perhaps, when Powell spoke independently on the issue there was frequent confusion among interlocutors and commentators over whether his position envisioned compulsory or voluntary repatriation – and Powell did little to dispel misunderstanding by sometimes insisting his interlocutors define what constituted compulsion. In 1966, when beginning to make predictions about future levels of immigration, Powell called the matter “a visible menace”, which Corthorn notes as “an indication that colour was the issue”. In a 1970 speech he inveighed against the steady rise of what would now be called political correctness: “It is even heresy to assert the plain fact that the English are a white nation.” Holding the homogeneity of the electorate to be a precondition of orderly and co-operative government, Powell could not but see the introduction of an “alien wedge” as a threat to the body politic, and tolerance of it as promising, or even constituting already a symptom of, decline. The explicitly racial basis of nationality for Powell was made manifest when in Corthorn’s words he “provocatively stated” that: “The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman … in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still”.
It was, perhaps, precisely the provocative nature of such statements that led some to suspect Powell of being calculated in his choice of topic, and even less than sincere in his opinions. “The charge of opportunism emerged as the scale of popular support for Powell became clear.” The idea that Powell was appealing directly to the masses, bypassing his party and talking over the head of parliament, riled some of his colleagues; their frustration and even affront must have been sharpened by Powell’s often-avowed reverence for procedure and hierarchy, and attachment to both parliament and party. Paul Foot’s account of Powell’s rise to prominence in particular – an account which to its author’s surprise secured Powell’s generous co-operation – charged that Powell’s position smacked of opportunism. Foot, scouring historical utterances of Powell’s on the subject and detecting, like Corthorn, something less than absolute consistency over time, had written: “Between 1948 and 1964, in short, Powell turned full circle on the issue of the open door for Commonwealth immigrants. The change corresponded at least to some extent with the development and change of his attitude towards imperialism.”
There was, however, more than opportunism at play. Powell had visited the United States for the first time in late 1967 and been “further unsettled by the racial tensions that had underpinned riots in Detroit and Chicago earlier in the year”. Using the United States as an example, he projected that substantial immigration would “entail upon Britain the evils of a deeply divided nation and society”. From 1970, he “made a determined effort to shape the debate over immigration, relating concerns over ‘race’ to fears of wider disorder”. Voluntary repatriation was promoted as the means to prevent a “major racial problem”, as Powell averred: “physical and violent conflict must sooner or later supervene where an indigenous population sees no end to the progressive occupation of its heartland by aliens with whom they do not identify themselves and who do not identify themselves with them”. After the rioting in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, Powell, ignoring the official explanation of events, urged that they presaged “civil conflict of awesome scale and intensity”. There was behind his admonitions, clearly, an animating conviction that alien elements are not – it would seem, in principle and in perpetuity – in large numbers assimilable, and that the larger the number admitted, the more the incentive to assimilation wanes.
It was noted at the time of its delivery that Powell had in his speech been uncharacteristically inexact: it was not in fact the Roman (the author Virgil presumably, or perhaps the central figure of Aeneas, who is of course Trojan but founds Rome in the epic), but the Cumaean sibyl in the underworld, who foresaw “the Tiber foaming with much blood”. Powell however was no doubt aware of the further resonance of the allusion for the subject of his speech. “Wars, dread wars I see,” warns the sibyl, prophesying that “the cause of all this Trojan woe is again a foreign marriage, an alien bride” (pointing to Aeneas’s second wife, Lavinia, and a union that will bring strife as did that of Paris and Helen). It was perhaps instinct that drew Powell to this portentous forecast of what follows from the intermingling of people of irreconcilably different mindset, but it is certain that in evoking the Tiber he envisioned the Thames. Unchecked Commonwealth immigration could only for Powell mean the imperilling of the British nation, a guarantee of unrest and disunity and – scarcely less controversial an idea then than it would be now – the inviting of decline.
Powell’s opposition to Britain’s immigration policy was primarily directed at Commonwealth immigration; but he would come also to oppose the foundational principle of freedom of movement within the European Community. On the subject of Europe, Corthorn gives us a very good account of the shifting and gradual hardening of Powell’s thinking. It is interesting to know that Powell had not originally opposed Britain’s accession; he had in fact supported it on economic grounds. This stance in part proceeded from his conviction that the decline and breakup of the empire was a fait accompli; he not only envisaged Europe as the most logical point of reorientation of British trade and economic policy, but believed that a military grouping aimed at common defence was in Britain’s interest.
In March 1969, Powell “dramatically changed his position”, and, judges Corthorn, “disingenuously tried to gloss over his earlier record”. It is likely that, privately, his confidence in closer European alignment as the best course for Britain had over time been eroded. He could not have been accused of harbouring little-Englander suspicions of the continent. He described himself (in an address in Lyon in 1971) as “passionately Francophile”; he holidayed annually in France, posing the question to a Sunday Times magazine profile in 1986: “Why should one go anywhere but France?” Before the rise of Nazism and German rearmament, political developments which he early perceived would lead inexorably to war between Britain and Germany, he had avowedly considered Germany – as no doubt had many a classicist – his “spiritual homeland”. The focus of his growing reservation and eventual outright opposition to alignment with Europe was the prospect of the diminution of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. He was particularly opposed to mooted monetary union, which he believed unworkable except as a prelude to political union: “a single currency means a single government”. By the time negotiations for entry were at an advanced stage in 1971, Powell “was now clear that concerns over the loss of sovereignty overrode economic considerations in importance”.
Powell initially opposed the idea of a referendum on membership of the European Community, believing such a mechanism to be at odds with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty; his wavering on this point as the debate on membership continued, which included, while still resistant to a referendum, claiming that government had not the moral right to negotiate entry without the signalled consent of the people, exposed “the tensions in his thought between parliamentary and popular sovereignty”. He began to frame entry into a common Europe now as against Britain’s economic interests, asserting that freedom of trade did not involve, “in fact is an alternative to”, freedom of movement and settlement within the community of member states, and that external European Economic Community tariffs restricted Britain’s ability to trade freely with the world at large.
Contrary to a narrative sometimes now presented, Corthorn shows that the central issue of sovereignty was widely discussed prior to the 1975 referendum; it simply “did not find an echo among the concerns of voters”. Powell would eventually claim that the desire for membership of a European community of nations was rooted in Britain’s decline and loss of self-confidence. The election of British members of a European Parliament by the same electorate which voted for Westminster would mean that Britain was no longer a nation; and membership of the community would seal a “moral collapse” associated with the “mood of dejection” that had overtaken Britain since the war. In essence, any cession of sovereignty to external or supranational authority, even voluntarily and with full involvement in defining those authorities’ scope and powers, represented for Powell diminution of the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, and so of the British nation as a whole. Demonstrating his enduring opposition to Europe, his enthusiasm for Thatcher’s famous Bruges address of September 20th, 1988 – which Powell saw as signalling that Britain would support a “Europe of nations” while resisting centralisation of authority – would bring him the closest he had been back to the Conservative Party since his leaving it and becoming Unionist MP for Down South in 1974.
Being presented with a portion of the population of the United Kingdom whose attachment to the Crown-in-Parliament was ambivalent at best was one of the chief difficulties of Powell’s position after his election in Down South. His position in Northern Ireland was sometimes an awkward one. He was of the conviction that full integration with Westminster was in the wider United Kingdom’s, and therefore Northern Ireland’s, best interests, and even proposed expansion of Westminster party politics into the North. This put him decidedly at odds with the prevailing unionist opinion, which favoured devolution. While Powell had argued that Ulster Unionists “could not put conditions on their obedience to the Crown-in-Parliament”, the “conditional and monarchical nature of Ulster loyalty” was made abundantly clear to him: it was to the Crown, and not the Crown-in-Parliament, that Ulster was loyal. In fact, Ulster Unionism was suspicious of the commitment of Westminster to Northern Ireland. The requirement to represent a constituency which favoured devolution further fed Powell’s vacillating position on the ultimate supremacy of parliamentary against popular sovereignty.
Powell’s non-obligatory or non-opportunistic commitment to Ulster Unionism was framed in terms of British decline. His admiration for it derived from its offering “a living protest against the prevalent self-abasement of the British nation”. Any indication that Britain might give up its claim to Northern Ireland, or invite consideration from Dublin on its government, Powell resisted as another sign of the collapse of British self-confidence. His resistance sharpened in the face of negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. During Prime Minister’s Questions on the day before Thatcher signed the agreement, Powell enquired: “Does the right hon. Lady understand – if she does not yet understand she soon will – that the penalty for treachery is to fall into public contempt?” Powell was at odds with the majority here, and had indeed begun indulging rather farfetched conspiracy theories regarding Northern Ireland, asserting that the British government was ceding ground to Dublin at the bidding of and under pressure from the United States – an idea which appeared founded more in his perennial suspicions of American intentions regarding Britain than in any hard evidence. Perhaps the most important questions regarding Northern Ireland’s status resolved themselves into the issue of who could ever have the authority to sever it from the union. Ulster Unionist suspicions of Westminster were based on the perception that it might conceivably give up Northern Ireland at some future date if empowered to do so. Powell was adamant that only the people of Northern Ireland could ever make the decision to cede from the union – as he insisted that Scotland and Wales similarly could so cede from the United Kingdom if that was the will of their populations – and the continued desire of its majority to identify as British, and as loyal subjects of the Crown (and conditionally of the Crown-in-Parliament), led him, perhaps a touch wishfully, to imagine the defence of Unionism tied up with broader resistance to British decline.
It was of course Powell himself who, in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, coined the expression which has passed into common paraphrase as “All political careers end in failure.” Corthorn refrains from judging Powell’s career in the round a success or failure, as he refrains generally from moral judgement, even when identifying a position or assertion of Powell’s as disingenuous. There is not a lot that is very new here; but the thematic survey of the career serves a valuable function, particularly in exhibiting how Powell’s thinking changed on particular issues, sometimes gradually, at other times quickly, sometimes by a shade, and sometimes in a true reversal. The question of the sincerity with which his convictions were held is a pertinent one. While Powell was undoubtedly a man of firm principle, and was in his own words possessed of “a savage reliance on the workings of my own intellect, which renders me impervious to intellectual isolation”, there was more artifice, more deliberation in and conscious cultivation of his public persona than one might suspect. There could even be a studied, performative savour to his positions as there could to his oratory. Certain of his passions and commitments appeared fundamentally ornamental, for example foxhunting or the Christian faith (regarding the latter, Powell’s real commitment was probably to the Church of England as an institution of national life; he almost certainly did not believe in the resurrection of the body or survival of the soul after death).
Powell exerts such enduring fascination in large part for the range of his accomplishments prior to and outside of politics, which indeed are formidable. His precocity as a classicist has been amply recorded; he entered Cambridge as an undergraduate with a more advanced ability in Greek than many of his lecturers, and became an outstanding textual critic, focusing in the main on the historians Thucydides and Herodotus. (His most lasting contribution to classical scholarship was his Lexicon to Herodotus; so assiduously had he studied the text and manuscripts that he claimed that, were all copies of Herodotus to disappear, he could have reconstructed the text from memory.) He was appointed to a professorship at the University of Sydney in 1937 at the age of twenty-five, the youngest professor in the Commonwealth. Shortly after arrival in Sydney, he informed the university authorities that he did not expect to remain long, as war between Britain and Nazi Germany was likely and he would enlist. Initially declined by recruiting stations on his return to England, he had himself certified as Australian on the strength of the professorship in Sydney and enlisted as a private, was in his own words “obscenely promoted” (largely due to a the insistence of Field Marshall Auchinleck that the Army Reorganising Committee in India contain a non-professional officer from the army intelligence; a superior recommended Powell, then a major), and ended the war as the youngest brigadier general in the army.
As well as several books of his speeches, he continued to produce original works as an MP, including (with Keith Wallis) a dense and scholarly study of the other chamber, The House of Lords in the Middle Ages (1968), and the biography of Chamberlain in 1977. Having been Minister for Health (his only ministerial post) from 1960 to 1963, he condensed his reflections on the position into the short book A New Look at Medicine and Politics (1966), which as recently as 2017 Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, called “the best book ever written on the politics of the NHS”.
His works on religious matters show the same independence of spirit and judgement, and are always informed by the expertise as a textual critic which he brought to bear on the Bible (especially the Greek of the New Testament, but he also acquired Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament). Two short collections comprising public addresses and contributions to newspapers and journals, No Easy Answers (1973) and Wrestling with the Angel (1977), are stimulating and frequently provocative, even a touch mischievous. His final published work, completed in retirement, was a translation of and commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, notable for its original and extraordinarily controversial arguments. Powell claimed to discern beneath textual accretions the record of a “theological struggle” under the gospel’s layers; the underlying book was likely a “Gospel of Peter”, later balanced and diluted by additional material from anti-Petrine, “Judaising” influences. It contended that the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount was a later insertion, that references to John the Baptist were manifestly interpolations, and most infamously that the entire crucifixion narrative was an addition, the earliest text ending with the trial of Jesus, after which in the original he would according to custom have been stoned to death.
Separated from this broader context, with the focus trained firmly on the political, the effect of the condensing by theme is undeniable: on many points, the impression is left of Powell as rather strident and tiresome. A contrarian spirit is pronounced; “I hate inevitabilities,” Powell once told David Frost a propos of his political attitudes, and it is remarkable how often, as Corthorn shows, Powell’s pivots and revisions pitted him against consensus within the Conservative Party or across party lines. One might feel Powell short-changed by the acts of telescoping involved in thematic presentation of his career, but it is not a weakness of the book. One notices that there is frequently an element of the hysterical in his rhetoric, from his warnings of the rise of “the enemy within”, typified in a well-known speech with that title from 1970, redolent of the contemporary anxieties and absurdities of General Sir Walter Walker, to his quick characterisation of government intervention as in principle fascistic, going so far as to identify fixed exchange rates as an instrument of tyranny. A quip of Ian Mcleod’s has often since been quoted in profiles of Powell, capturing as it does something of the remorseless nature of his thought: “You always had to get off the train of Enoch’s logic before it hit the buffers”. Corthorn’s submission that British decline was the animating preoccupation of Powell’s political career is certainly supportable by the evidence. His recording of the developments and shifts in his subject’s thinking is valuable in filling out any portrait of the man and the politician, and the book is judicious in its presentation of Powell’s virtues, while affording glimpses enough too of the train of his logic occasionally derailed in the face of events.
Paul O’Mahoney lives and works in Dublin.