Enoch Powell still speaks to us today

Charles Moore reviews "Enoch at 100", edited by Greville Howard

Enoch Powell was, until the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the most famous politician in Britain. This was because of his “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968, in which he warned of the effects of mass immigration. No single speech since the war has caused greater controversy.

At the time, Enoch (as with Boris today, friend and foe alike referred to him by his unusual Christian name) was a polariser. He had fervent supporters and violent – sometimes literally violent – opponents. Luckily, this no longer applies. Powell died in 1998. He would have been 100 this year. The 21st century can consider him in the perspective of history.

But why should one bother? What is there to learn from a politician who, in career terms, failed, never rising higher than being minister of health?

This book, friendly to Enoch, but critical too, provides excellent answers. The speech of Powell’s which it quotes most frequently is one in which he himself addressed the question. “At the end of a lifetime in politics,” he said, “when a man looks back, he discovers that the things he most opposed have come to pass and that nearly all the objects he set out with are not merely not accomplished, but seem to belong to a different world from the one he lives in.” Yet it turns out that failure has its uses. It can make people see more clearly than success.

Enoch had a powerful mind and remarkable gifts of expression. He could think boldly about a huge range of subjects, and then argue about them with intellectual force and high emotion. The editor of this book, Greville Howard, rightly mixes essays about Enoch with whole speeches by the man himself. The reader picks up his strangely compelling tone of voice – the odd combination of eccentric professor and mass orator, of almost archaic obscurity and devastating clarity.

Here you can learn not only Powell’s thoughts on his main subjects – immigration, Europe, Northern Ireland – but also his groundbreaking ideas about what causes inflation, his bold approach to energy policy, his hostility (deranged by conspiracy theory) to the United States, his skills and deficiencies as a textual critic of ancient Greek and of the Bible, his wisdom on reforming the House of Lords (don’t!), and even the poems which he wrote each year for his beloved wife Pam, who is still alive. (Frank Field, in a touching essay, refers to “the mystery of Enoch and his so lovable Pam”. The greatest pleasure in this book is the first ever interview with Pam. She displays all the warm common sense without which her otherwise lonely husband would surely have gone off the rails.)

People used to complain about Powell’s “remorseless logic”. It is true that he had the donnish fault of believing he could conclusively prove something which had not occurred to others. But I would say that his greater fault, and yet his great virtue also, was his romanticism. His first passionate devotion was to the British Empire, especially in India, where he served during the war. After the loss of India, love spurned drove him towards a view of Britain so post-imperial that it had no room for foreign alliances and global reach at all.

He rejected the United Nations, nuclear deterrence, the “special relationship”, international human rights and, of course, the European Union. His attitude to the British constitution was rather like that of a jealous Muslim father who locks his daughter indoors whenever she so much as looks at a young man from the wrong tribe. For example, I remember him arguing, in 1982, that the realm of England could not contain the Pope of Rome, who, for the first time in history, was about to visit. Needless to say, Pope John Paul II came, and went, and the nation survived.

But Powell’s passion was a virtue as well, because political leaders should be able to feel and to dramatise the history that makes a nation what it is. In an amusing essay here, Anne Robinson recalls her formidable mother, and her firm belief that Enoch was speaking for England.

His commitment to the British nation state, and above all to the Parliament which embodied it, made him pay relentless attention to the visceral issues which lay behind the questions of the day. “Enoch was right”, taxi drivers always used to say 25 years ago. They meant, right about the dangers of mass immigration. Some of them were racists, but I don’t think most were. They had a pride in the identity of their nation and a fear when they felt it threatened. Powell spoke to these feelings, and although his language was inflammatory, he was right to raise the subject. In a well-balanced, often critical essay in this book, Tom Bower goes through the whole “Rivers of Blood” legacy. He points out that Powell’s prediction of the scale of the problem turned out to be more accurate than that of his critics.

The first words of the “Rivers of Blood” speech are: “The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.” Powell tried sincerely to do this. He did it most systematically on the question of Europe. If you read his speeches of the Seventies, some of which appear in this book, you will concede that his account of what “going into Europe” meant has turned out to be factually correct (even if, unlike Powell, you support what has happened). Nowadays, people often say, in reference to the EU or the euro, that “no one ever told us this”. Powell did: it was just that not enough people were in the mood to listen. If you read this book, you will get in the mood. You will find the passions of 40 years ago strangely relevant to the problems we now confront.


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