I am a classical scholar, and you are not

Peter Clarke

  • BuyEnoch at 100: A Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell edited by Lord Howard of Rising
    Biteback, 320 pp, £25.00, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84954 310 1

John Enoch Powell was an eminent classical scholar, as his entry in Who’s Who proclaimed: Craven Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1931; First Chancellor’s Classical Medallist; Porson Prizeman; Browne Medallist, 1932; fellow of Trinity, 1934-38; professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, 1937-39. He was 25 when he was appointed to the chair at Sydney. There was a classicist called John Powell, so it was as Enoch that he became known. Enoch at 100, we’re warned at the outset, offers a sympathetic reassessment of a prophet by his admirers. On the page facing the contents, an encomium that appeared in the Telegraph at the time of his death in 1998 is reprinted: ‘Powell will survive more surely than any other British politician of the 20th century except Winston Churchill.’ The dozen or so contributors do not rely on their own arguments to persuade us of that: nine of Powell’s speeches are also reprinted.

Powell’s reputation depends to an unusual extent on his words rather than his deeds. The one precluded the other: he held government office for a relatively short time over a long political career, largely because of what he said, or the way he said it. The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968 ended his front-bench career and remains a focus of scrutiny. It was the speech at once of a politician on the stump and a classicist on the podium. Powell’s brilliance lay in his rigour as a linguist, with a passion for accuracy that exceeded even that of his mentor, A.E. Housman. Powell’s Lexicon to Herodotus, published in 1938, had exemplified these qualities. It was hailed at the time for ‘amazing industry, much thought and care and fine scholarship’; later judgments found it either an ‘astonishingly focused and accurate achievement’ or the product of a ‘sharp, clear and nit-picking mind’.

Two questions are interlocked. Why was this brilliant career wantonly wrecked? And why is Powell still so vividly remembered and so reverently commemorated? The second requires some questioning of his admirers. Many of them venerate Powell as the prophet in the wilderness who anticipated the coming of Thatcherism, especially in his preaching of monetarism as a robust alternative to the Heathite consensus in economic policy. The story painstakingly reconstructed in Simon Heffer’s massive biography of his hero, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (1998), is summarised here: ‘The ultimate vindication, however, came with the advent of the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher in May 1979.’ Roger Scruton, by contrast, is writing in a different register in Enoch at 100 when he laments the loss of ‘philosophical acumen’ that led to the anti-socialist truths of the free market being reiterated ‘far less beautifully and with an alienating shrillness’ in the Thatcher era.

Powell’s own speeches, it soon becomes apparent, are well worth reprinting, decades after the controversies that inspired many of them. It’s the sharply chiselled presentation of his arguments that distinguishes them. To find the logic obviously faulty is rare; rather, the premises themselves sometimes seem arbitrary and contestable. And this in turn hints at a tension between the austere form in which Powell expressed himself and his emotional commitment to his convictions.

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