September 15, 2020

Since its delivery to a packed room in Birmingham in 1968, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech has overshadowed his reputation. Destined to become the most divisive and controversial politician in modern British history, Powell was steadily marginalised, ending his political career in a form of internal exile as the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. Yet beyond the apocalyptic stance on immigration with which his name will forever be associated, a new book, Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain, by the historian Paul Corthorn, aims to reassess Powell as a constitutional and foreign policy thinker of startling relevance to today.

Powell’s political obsessions, on the nature of British sovereignty and the urgency of its preservation against threats from strategic rivals abroad and Celtic nationalisms at home — as well as his twisting stance on Britain’s relationship with Europe‚ have not diminished in political importance since the 1970s: instead they have become the central concern of British politics.

“Throughout his political career,” Corthorn notes, “Powell grappled with what is arguably still the central issue in British foreign policy: the precise nature of the UK’s role in the world.” Yet, as a result of what Corthorn characterises as “a deeply polarized, and politicized, historiography”, Powell’s potential contribution to today’s debate has been minimised, a failing his excellent new book seeks to rectify, recentring Powell’s turbulent career as “part of a long-running and wide-ranging public debate over the ‘decline’ of the British nation”.  

Powell’s brilliance was never disputed even by his political enemies. Born to Warwickshire schoolteacher parents, the grandson of a Welsh ironworker, the fees for Powell’s education at Birmingham’s King Edward’s School and then Trinity College, Cambridge were covered by the clutch of scholarships he won for his intellectual precocity. In his first year at Cambridge, he won all the Classics prizes then open to undergraduates, a feat never equalled before or since.

Appointed as Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney in his twenties, he found himself the youngest professor in the entire British Empire; joining the army as a private in 1939, he finished the war as one of its youngest brigadiers. A posting as a staff officer to India led him to fall in love with the country, and to dream of becoming its Viceroy, to which end he added Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi to the dozen languages he spoke, eight of them fluently.  

India’s independence therefore came as a shattering blow to Powell. Walking London’s streets alone the night Britain’s relinquishment was announced, struggling to come to terms with the significance of the moment for his beloved country and the Empire, Powell himself became one of India’s troubled Midnight’s Children.

The loss of India and Britain’s consequent diminished place in the world became the central pole of Powell’s worldview; the bloodshed of Partition fuelled his later fears both of mass immigration and of civil war in Northern Ireland, convincing him that “communalism and democracy, as the experience of India demonstrates, are incompatible”. His entire political career after 1947 would be devoted to defining, with an obsessive clarity not far from madness, the nature of British sovereignty in this new post-imperial world.

“Poor, poor Enoch,” the Conservative politician Iain Macleod observed of Powell in a cruel assessment which contains a great deal of truth, “driven mad by the remorselessness of his own logic.” Powell’s intellectual brilliance, the sheer, penetrating clarity of his mind drove him to a kind of extremist absolutism in the conclusions he reached. A visionary seer rather than a politician, he saw the essential nature of power relationships clearly — perhaps too clearly for his own good — with results most dramatically visible in his grasp of International Relations.

A foreign policy realist, obsessed with maintaining the balance of power upon which Britain’s place in the world depended, his conclusions drifted far beyond political reality. Few would argue as Powell did just after the fall of Singapore in 1942, while Britain struggled to preserve its Asian empire from the Japanese onslaught, that to maintain strategic independence from America “it was in the British interest to preserve its naval strength through means ‘not short even of alliance with Japan,’” otherwise “‘the British Empire would only exist on American sufferance.’”

But then, Powell’s intense loathing of “our terrible enemy” the United States was one of the few constants of his political career. His early realisation that America’s rise to global dominance would mean Britain’s total strategic subordination, shrouded from public view by the comforting fiction of equal partnership, was entirely correct, yet then as now was not a popular view within British conservatism.

There is something of de Gaulle in Powell’s distaste for the new superpower, and the urgency of his desire to maintain Britain’s independence from it. By the time of the Vietnam War, Corthorn notes, Powell “argued that Britain had ‘lost the ability to distinguish between an ally and a satellite, or between a friend and a lackey,’” lamenting that “the Soviet Union could hardly have expected more favourable comment from its satrapies in Eastern Europe.”

Indeed, for Powell there was little to choose between the two, and “no reason to believe that the British constitution will be threatened more by the socialist dictatorship than by the democracy of the United States”. Corthorn observes that “working on the basis that Britain had to be able to fight a war, if necessary, against the United States, Powell’s balance-of-power thinking led him to argue that Britain needed allies to ‘counter-balance the material superiority of the United States.’”

Praising de Gaulle for pulling France out of NATO, Powell foreshadowed the French strongman’s modern heir Macron in eyeing Russia as the counterweight to preserve his own nation’s strategic autonomy, asserting that “historically the existence of Russia has been the ultimate guarantee of the survival of Britain as an independent nation… When in the last decades of the twentieth century necessity restores an understanding between Britain and Russia, the entente will not be cordiale; but entente it will still be…” As Corthorn notes laconically, at the height of the Cold War, “Powell’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was a radical one to make.

Powell’s High Tory British nationalism, focused on defending Britain’s place in the world as a sovereign power rather than an American client state, put him at odds with the Conservative Party mainstream. By the early 1980s, at the height of the political romance between Thatcher and Reagan, Powell exulted that America’s lukewarm support in the Falklands War had “ushered in a “great liberation… when… the scales fell from the eyes of the British public and they beheld the United States not in the fairytale disguise sustained so sedulously since 1942 but as that nation really is.” At the end of the decade, Corthorn notes, “Powell’s stance towards Russia was increasingly favourable.”

By 1992, “Powell had developed his position into a full blown critique of the ‘new world order’, a term that had gained increasing usage to describe the hegemonic position of the United States,”. Three years later, and horrified at the prospect of sending British troops to separate the warring peoples of the former Yugoslavia from each other for what he saw as America’s strategic ends, Powell “argued darkly that ‘our present malaise arises from the abject subordination to America and American purposes.’” 

Powell’s absolutist principles and relentless quest to defend British sovereignty against all rivals also shaped his evolving views on Britain’s other great conflicted relationship, that with the European Union. A fierce critic, post-Suez, of Britain’s residual imperial pretensions, Powell initially viewed the nascent European Community as a means to preserve Britain’s autonomy within a Europe of Nations, approvingly citing de Gaulle’s analogous vision.

“Powell saw membership of the European Community as a means of checking British economic and international decline,” Corthorn notes, observing that “back in 1950, Powell had himself sought to prioritise trade with the Empire, but having argued that the Empire’s break-up was inevitable and that the Commonwealth was a pretence, he now blasted the (numerically diminishing) grouping ‘which remains irreconcilably opposed to a European alignment and still worships at the deserted shrine of Commonwealth preference.’”

Arguing that Britain should not “live in the past of a world-wide empire and the dominion of the seas,” Powell insisted with growing urgency that “the party must ‘be cured of the British Empire,’” to “consider ‘what (if anything) the Commonwealth is,’” and instead “‘find its patriotism’ in England.” For Powell, Britain’s salvation — the unresolved tension between England and Britain was as much a concern for Powell as it is for us today— was now to be found across the Channel.

By the mid-1960s, Powell’s deliberations had led him to the conclusion that “Britain henceforth belongs with Western Europe”. “It is as a European power… that we shall work out a Britain in the 1970s which does not need make-believe to bolster its self-respect,” he claimed, arguing for Britain’s entry into the EC, asserting that “this is Britain’s world-wide role, no less than that of France or Germany, to be herself, genuinely and fearlessly, in the Europe and the world of the 1970s. The real isolationism and renunciation is to wrap ourselves round with illusions, such as the illusion of our ‘special relationship’ with the United States, or the illusion that the Commonwealth exists as a political force.” 

But over time, as much a result of his fierce distaste for Edward Heath as from his absolute commitment to national sovereignty, Powell evolved into a prominent critic of European integration. As Corthorn notes, by the time of the 1975 referendum, “after initially supporting the bid to join the European Community, Powell became one of the most prominent voices arguing that membership would undermine parliamentary sovereignty.”

For Powell, Britain’s sovereignty, expressed in his almost mystical devotion to the Crown-in-Parliament as the central essence of the nation’s being, came above all else. “I was born a Tory, I am a Tory, and shall die a Tory,” he vowed, “I never yet heard that it was any part of the faith of a Tory to take the institutions and liberties, the laws and customs, which his country has evolved over the centuries, and merge them with those of eight other nations into a new-made artificial state and, what is more, to do so without the willing approbation and consent of the nation.” 

Powell’s devotion to Parliament and the Crown as the repository of Britain’s national soul indicates, perhaps more clearly than anything else, the sharp distinction between his idealist political vision and the caricature of him as a rabble-rousing populist. There is something strangely akin to the modernist deconstruction of nationalism in his conception of nationhood, a paradoxic understanding that nations were as much willed constructs of popular assent, which could be made or unmade as conditions demanded, as they were the natural and immutable product of centuries of shared history.

“Nationhood is a baffling thing; for it wholly subjective,” he mused, “they are a nation who think they are a nation: there is no other definition.” Nations were then, for Powell, as much as for the later Marxist theorists of nationalism, imagined communities, a stance which informed his ambivalence over the Celtic nationalisms then only beginning to threaten the union. 

Even in his incarnation as an Ulster Unionist MP, Powell displayed no malice for Irish nationalism, at least in the Republic, while fiercely opposing its expression in the island’s six northern counties as a threat to the political sovereignty of the Protestant then-majority. “England will never again consent to live through the long and harrowing episode of the coercion of the Irish,” he declared when drawing parallels to the nascent nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, because “we have learnt, and learnt once and for all, that enforced unity is a curse, to which almost any consequence or condition is preferable.”

Consequently, in his great 1968 Prestatyn speech against devolution, speaking as “an English Midlander who has always been conscious that his forebears were Welsh” (and who spoke the Welsh language fluently), Powell observed that “if it were ever the preponderant and settled wish of either Wales or Scotland to be themselves a nation and therefore no longer to be part of this nation, that wish ought not to be resisted.”

Indeed, for Powell, the granting of devolution would in itself invalidate the union, for “if it were ever felt right and necessary for Wales or Scotland to be represented in a separate and exclusive parliamentary institution,” then “the great question would already have been answered [because] the very decision to establish such an institution would be a declaration that one nation no longer existed.” In Powell’s uncompromising, all-or-nothing view of politics, devolution “would be the watershed, the parting of the ways, the sign that a separate nation had been consciously, deliberately and once-for-all admitted to be there.”

As Corthorn notes, “Powell was adamant that the ‘nature of the House of Commons is that its sovereignty reaches into every nook and cranny of the national life’ and that there were ‘no powers which it will concede within this realm to any other authority.’” That sovereignty was the nation, for Powell. Within our home islands as much as across the Empire, defined against America or in his shifting stance on Europe, for Powell the matter of sovereignty, manifest in the sacred abstraction of the Crown-in-Parliament, was both central and absolute. 

Then seen as quixotic obsessions, Powell’s overriding concerns with Britain’s strategic autonomy, with the nation’s relationship with both Europe and the United States and with the threat to the union posed by devolution are now the central problems roiling Westminster. Viewed in his lifetime as an eccentric, Cassandra-like doomsayer, many of his most troubling predictions, of Britain’s strategic decline and of the threat to the union posed by devolution, have indeed come to pass, yet it is difficult to see that he has any political heirs in the Britain of 2020. 

A committed free marketeer in later life, when, as Corthorn notes, “Powell was the foremost populariser of neo-liberal ideas in British politics, working closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs,” his devotion to the NHS would horrify the free market thinktankers who, now as then, play such a role in shaping the Conservative Party’s politics. “When forced to choose between his competing commitments to neo-liberalism and to the British nation,” Corthorn observes, “Powell chose the nation.”

Alien, too, to the free marketeers of 2020 were Powell’s apocalyptic views on mass immigration. As the neoliberal ideologue Milton Friedman noted with horror, Powell’s “position on labour migration is quite inconsistent with free market principles,” and his ferocious opposition to the extension of British Overseas Citizenship to Hong Kong residents, which he believed would lead, eventually, to another wave of mass migration, would place him at odds with his party’s modern incarnation

As for Brexit, Powell’s eventual, fierce opposition to the European Union would please many of the Conservative Party’s Brexiteers, yet his ridiculing of the Global Britain “delusions and deceits of a vanished Empire and Commonwealth” and his total and absolute hatred of the United States would have few takers in the modern Tory party. Perhaps it is here, as a foreign policy realist, that Powell’s uncompromising vision speaks most clearly to modern concerns.

As Corthorn notes, “Powell held that only a comprehension of the realities of power, as well as a keen sense of geography, could prevent Britain’s international eclipse.” A non-interventionist of a type now rare in British conservatism, he argued against Britain’s involvement in the first Gulf War on the basis that “we as a nation have no interest in the existence or non-existence of Kuwait” and that “Saddam Hussein has a long way to go yet before his troops come storming up the beaches of Kent or Sussex.” Jubilantly, and prematurely, declaring in 1986 “the death and burial of the American Empire,” Powell would perhaps discern buried within all the gloom and decline of modern Britain some glimmer of national revival, or at very least of sovereignty, to be salvaged from the wreckage of US empire.

An imperialist who dreamed of becoming India’s Viceroy, Powell soon demanded that Britain cast off the burdens of the Commonwealth and seek its future in Europe, before rejecting Europe in turn; no doubt, observing the growing power of Scotland’s independence movement, the Unionist MP would reject the United Kingdom itself with just such a dramatic and total change of heart.

The late Sir Roger Scruton observed that the central pole of Powell’s identity was “England, as the moral core of our nationality, around which the fiction of Britain had been built,” with Powell himself affirming that England, the Crown and Parliament were inseparable, for “this continuous and continuing life of England is expressed, as by nothing else, by English kingship. English it is, for all the leeks and thistles and shamrocks… grafted onto it.” 

For all his shifting views, on Empire, on Europe and on the Union itself, it was England and the English nation at the heart of Powell’s worldview, and a romantic Little Englander lay buried deep within the swashbuckling high seas free-trader. Like Scruton, Powell did not perceive the threat unrestrained capitalism would pose to the timeless England he loved so much. As the Marxist political theorist Tom Nairn noted in 1970, Powell’s “far too overt identification with capitalism” was the “glaring weakness” in his political doctrine, for while “this may appeal to capitalists, and particularly small entrepreneurs… there is evidently a far larger area of the national soul to which it will never appeal at all.”

Yet echoing, with some ambivalence, his fellow Warwickshire visionary Tolkien, even Powell once observed “throughout the political spectrum the British have been dubious or downright condemnatory of the consequences of the industrial revolution and the capitalist market system; their ideal Britain has not been the ‘workshop of the world’; their values have been aristocratic, professional and above all rural.” 

A soothsayer rather than a politician, and a fundamentalist of sorts, perhaps the only constant in the violent twists and turns of Powell’s remorseless logic is what could be called a certain idea of England, expressed in a 1961 speech as a dreamlike vision of a timeless and unchanging nation, buried deep within it all, where “we today at the heart of a vanished Empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the Spring, England and herself”.