Enoch Powell was defeated. He condemned Edward Heath for being
the first prime minister in 300 years who entertained, let alone executed, the intention of depriving Parliament of its sole right to make the laws and impose the taxes of this country.
But Heath was victorious: in 1972 he led the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community, and in 1975 the British people ratified this decision by a majority of two to one in a referendum.
Powell thought this was a disaster. As he put it in 1976, with characteristic lack of understatement: ‘It is the nation that is dying, it is dying politically — or rather, perhaps, it is committing suicide politically — and the mark of death upon it is that it has lost the will to live.’
Great novelists exaggerate or caricature reality with the aim of being more truthful, and so did Powell. He used his brilliant intellect to push political arguments to an extreme. With grim and inexorable logic, he gazed into the future and identified the horrendous consequences which would flow from what seemed to many ordinary, pragmatic Englishmen like quite modest surrenders of the right to run our own affairs. Powell was not a man to die in the last ditch: for him the only honourable course was to die in the first ditch, regardless of whether the rest of us were prepared to share it with him, though he advanced with ferocious clarity the arguments which showed us why we should.
As Powell himself put it: ‘The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.’ That was the opening sentence of his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, delivered in Birmingham on 20 April 1968, surely the most famous (or to many people infamous) speech by a British politician in the second half of the 20th century. It is reprinted in this volume, along with seven other of Powell’s speeches, a few of his poems, about a dozen essays by divers hands on aspects of his political thought, and a completely charming interview with his widow, Pam.
The essays are well worth reading, but Powell’s own contributions trump them. Anyone who wishes to understand our tradition of parliamentary government, and the value of fighting your corner even when you know you will not be able to put your views into practice, should read this book. I particularly enjoyed Powell’s ‘Morecambe Budget’, delivered on 11 October 1968, the day before Heath’s party conference speech in Blackpool, and making with ebullient intellectual self-confidence the case for deep cuts in income tax: Thatcherism well before Thatcher.
In ‘Rivers of Blood’, Powell quoted one of his Wolverhampton constituents who said: ‘In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.’ Powell suggested that allowing the annual immigration of 50,000 dependents was ‘like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’, and he also referred to an elderly lady, who could not afterwards be found, who ‘finds excreta pushed through her letterbox’ and ‘is convinced she will go to prison’ when the Race Relations Bill is passed. The future filled Powell with foreboding: ‘Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’
Some of this was tasteless, and some of it was wrong. Heath sacked him from the shadow Cabinet. Powell’s greatest error stemmed from his dismissal of the claim that many immigrants would become integrated — would, in fact, become British — as ‘a ludicrous misconception’. Britishness was a messier and more elastic concept than he allowed. He had helped to deny the Conservatives a rich source of new recruits among immigrants who believed in family, religion, hard work, private enterprise and the monarchy.
But Powell was right to have the argument. As Nick True says of him in one of the essays in this volume:
He had a respect for working-class opinion and an ability to popularise with which he thought to sustain the old alliance between the Conservative party and a mass of patriotic, self-reliant voters, in a way that social condescension, the elitist liberalism of ‘superior people’ or modernising managerialism never would or could.
Heath’s determination to join the European Community soon drove Powell out of the Conservative party altogether. But who now reads Heath? While the horde of eager office-seekers fades from memory, Powell remains, like an Old Testament prophet, admonishing us from beyond the grave with the moral authority of a man who foreswore the fleshpots.