What makes the House of Commons more than an antechamber to government and an endless dry run of the next general election is the presence on its benches of some individuals of great character, great intellect or great oddity. Few moments have more become the House of Commons since the war than the speech of Enoch Powell in the early hours of 28 July 1959 on the scandalous deaths of Kikuyu prisoners at Hola camp in Kenya. It was delivered with precision of language, in ordered sequence and with what the present author calls ‘an incandescent emotion’. Few who were present on that occasion would ever forget it. Yet this combination of remorseless logic and volcanic emotion could at times, and at one time in particular, be directed at a target which seemed chillingly unsuited to it.
It is because of the protean nature of Powell’s gifts of intellect as well as the odd shape of his career that Patrick Cosgrave decided to write of his subject’s ‘Lives’. This is a mistake, since Powell’s life has been very much of a piece. The failure, in the conventional sense, of his political career arose from the same personal traits and gifts as the precocious success of his earlier academic and military careers. The editor and translator of Llyfr Belgywryd (the Law Book of the Welsh King Hywel the Good), the author of the Lexicon to Herodotus, of a massive history of The House of Lords in the Middle Ages, of a short life of Joseph Chamberlain, and of the major work on the reinterpretation of the New Testament on which he is presently engaged, is perceptibly the same man who attacked the Royal Titles Bill for recognising republics inside a Commonwealth that was no longer called ‘British’, who fought a sustained campaign against British membership of the European Community that became all the more intense as people declined to embrace its rationale and who set out with bleak, relentless logic the case for monetarism and the free market decades before Margaret Thatcher presented herself as what he thought was a most unsuitable candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
The attempt to supply a separate ‘Life’ for each chapter lands the author in the absurdity of dividing up Powell’s time in Northern Ireland between one chapter called ‘The Ulsterman’ (which, for all his conscientious application, Powell patently was not) and one-called ‘The Philosopher’ (which in a broad sense Powell has been, but not especially then). Having chosen an accomplished prose stylist as his subject, Cosgrave inevitably suffers from the comparison: but the book is well-written, except for one or two turgid passages of political exposition and an occasional eccentricity of usage (Powell can hardly have been overjoyed to read of South Down being ‘a simulacrum of national interest’). Curiously enough, given his background, the author is least happy in his handling of Irish matters, where his hasty summary of the Irish-American connection is seriously misleading.
Enoch Powell once observed to me, when I was the political correspondent for the Economist in the period just before Cosgrave held a similar position on the Spectator: ‘If you want a clue to my approach to politics I would advise you to read in Hansard my speech of last Wednesday when I moved an amendment to delete the word “the” and substitute the word “a”.’ This came back to mind on seeing Gough Whitlam, former Prime Minister of Australia and former pupil of Professor Enoch Powell, recollecting on television his perplexity that anyone could have been able to make Herodotus sound boring. But this is the same man, animated by the same regard for pushing textual criticism up to and over the limit, who so touched the emotions of the British public as to make him at one stage of his career the object of unrivalled loathing and adulation.
There was always something relentless about Powell: the schoolboy resolutely averting his gaze from extracurricular activity even to the point of putting aside for ever his beloved clarinet, the sixth-former exacting from his teachers the highest standards of accuracy and knowledge, the undergraduate eschewing all personal contact and hoovering up every prize within sight, the Classics professor whose teaching method was ‘not for the faint-hearted’, the intelligence officer making sense of the clues to enemy action in the Western Desert provided by Ultra intercepts, the brigadier planning a post-war Indian Army that was to have more, not fewer, white officers, and the politician with a phenomenal capacity for work who struck others in that gregarious profession as a man apart. He grew up an admirer of Nietzsche and the German intellectual tradition. He grew his moustache, so he said, ‘to convey an impression of Nietzsche’, and set himself the target, which he only just failed to reach, of becoming a professor at an even younger age than his exemplar. What with this and with his rise in the Army from private soldier to the youngest brigadier, one is bound to ask whether his decision to devote himself to politics produced any commensurate achievement. It took ten years from entry into the House for him to reach his ceiling – Minister of Health in the Macmillan Government (Macmillan, according to his biographer Alistair Horne, had the Cabinet chairs moved so that he would not have to look at Powell’s staring eyes) – and he never held office again. There was a shock of incredulity when he appeared as one of three contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1965 and only 15 members voted for him. Yet he did not despise office: fully aware of exceptional capacities, he pitched his ambittions no lower in this career than he had done in others. The puzzle, which this biographer does not really come to grips with, is to decide up to what point Powell expected to fulfil himself by ordinary political promotion and at what point he reconciled himself to a different destiny. Although he refused to serve in the Cabinet of 1963 because he objected to the way in which the Prime Minister had been chosen, he was ready to serve the same man in the Shadow Cabinet of 1964, and remained on the Opposition Front Bench until thrown off it in 1968. Did he intend that result, or was he trying to show by more and more provocative behaviour that he could get away with anything?
Powell’s outstanding gift as a rhetorician – who belongs to an age of impoverished public expression – lies in his ability to deliver himself in complete and balanced sentences and paragraphs: the product of his Classical training and of habits of reasoning from first premises. His use of metaphor springs freshly from his own erudition rather than from the pages of a dictionary. But the Birmingham speech of 20 April 1968, for which he will always be remembered and which finally placed him beyond the range of ministerial preferment, was different. It concerned coloured immigration and did not confine itself to a rational projection of the problem of numbers. The foundation was anecdotal – indeed largely built on the evidence of one anecdote, of the little old lady who ‘finds excreta pushed through her letterbox’ and is pursued by ‘charming wide-grinning piccaninnies’ chanting ‘Racist’ – and the imagery apocalyptic. Yet the whole was served up within a carapace of systematic reasoning. Politically, the offence was grave. The Shadow Minister of Defence, without the slightest reference to the Shadow Home Secretary, had thrust the race question, in the most offensive fashion, into the forefront of the political arena, calling for a massive policy of assisted repatriation since ‘like the Roman I seem to see “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.’
The issues he raised are of importance twenty years later – indeed it was to the period we have now reached that he was looking forward. If there is no river of foaming blood, Salman Rushdie is in hiding for fear of his life because of the apparent unassimilability of Muslim communities in a society which places a high value on freedom of expression. The argument that immigration is not a matter of race but of numbers can now be heard from Gerald Kaufman, among others, in connection with the citizenship rights of Chinese from Hong Kong. But by choosing this particular way in which to raise the issue, Powell diminished the area of rational discussion.
The special intensity of the race issue once he had brought it into the open made Powell the most controversial person in politics: he could pack any hall, command any headlines and at the same time be rejected as unclean by newspapers and politicians. Iain Macleod, who had in the past been close to him personally and politically, worried at the effect on him of such isolation, and dined alone with him to assess his frame of mind and, if it were feasible, to offer him some advice. The impression Powell can give of being a driven man must have been strongly in evidence that evening. ‘I left,’ Macleod told me, ‘with the terribly sad conclusion that Enoch is mad.’
Although it was poaching on colleagues’ territory that ended Powell’s career as Shadow Defence Minister, the really astonishing thing was how long the Tories had put up with him as their spokesman on a subject on which his views were even less in tune with theirs. Perhaps they were not listening to what he said. For one thing, he was viscerally anti-American. Not only was he scornfully dismissive of a British ‘world role East of Suez’, but he was sceptical of Nato’s nuclear strategy and of the concept of Britain’s independent deterrent.
After 1968, he was a political freelance, and Cosgrave makes large claims on his behalf: that he supplied the victory margin for the Tories in 1970 despite the party leader, and that he destroyed that leader, Edward Heath, in 1974, by calling for a Labour vote to be cast by all opponents of Britain joining the European Community. When there is a surprise result, as in the first case, and a marginal result, as in the second, numerous factors can be held to be ‘decisive’. Powell’s influence and his acquired skill in commanding attention had some impact in both years, but how much it is very hard to say. There is no doubt, however, that some working-class people who would not normally have voted Conservative in 1970 were impressed that a man of such obvious intellectual attainments was giving voice to opinions of which they had hitherto felt somewhat ashamed.
It was possible to be completely opposed to Powell’s position on Europe and yet to agree with him about the need for a referendum. It was a question of sovereignty, and the Treaty of Rome did make inroads on the status of Parliament, both actually and still more, through the famous ratchet effect, potentially. ‘What would be as dishonourable as foolish,’ Powell declared (in French) to an audience at Lyons, ‘would be for Britain and her people to allow the Treaty of Rome to be signed on their behalf with mental reservations.’ Heath, it turned out, while implying endorsement of the reservations, did not in fact share them; Margaret Thatcher not only did share them but was to repeat the trick all over again by signing the Single European Act with a fresh set of mental reservations. It is characteristic of the delicious inconsequentiality of British politics that Powell’s line was much the more appropriate to a Conservative outlook, with its emphasis on national loyalties and constitutional traditions, while it took most of the Labour Party until the late Eighties to come round to recognising the radical potentialities of a positive European policy.
Not that Powell himself was all that quick on the uptake. It was some time before he grasped what the Treaty of Rome meant, and he had to begin his pamphlet on ‘The Common Market: The Case Against’ on an apologetic note, with the confession that when he had been a member of the Macmillan Government he had been on balance in favour of Britain signing the Treaty of Rome because he had thought it was all about a free trade area. Even he, therefore, when he was still playing by the rules of the ministerial game, had been guilty of loose thought over such concepts as sovereignty. In the referendum campaign itself, those who (like this reviewer) joyously welcomed the break with national sovereignty and those like Powell who passionately deplored it were in a minority in arguing that this was the issue to be decided. No one who paid attention to the arguments Powell expressed then could have been in the least surprised to find that a Conservative prime minister like Margaret Thatcher, who endorses their essence and sometimes their very words but finds herself stuck with British membership, should have to fight, summit after summit, against the whole of the rest of Community Europe.
Sir Knox Cunningham, Macmillan’s former PPS and a man who does not find a place in this book, was responsible for the first public launch of Powell’s Ulster caper. At a mass, open-air meeting in the Province, Sir Knox worked up to a peroration on the theme that what the Unionists needed was another Carson, a man to lead them of national reputation and proven Parliamentary skills. Such a man, he said, was waiting in the wings if only they cared to recognise him: Enoch Powell. Some time later, without a seat, having refused to fight for Heath and Europe, Powell was presented with South Down. A Carson he was not. He had far too great a regard for the proprieties to lend himself to Carson’s open flirting with paramilitaries, or even to such lesser gestures as sulky abstention from attendance in the House. Moreover there was someone already on the spot who thought he was another Carson: the Rev. Ian Paisley. This predictably made for trouble. Cosgrave is good on what Powell thought of Paisley: ‘the most resourceful, inveterate and powerful enemy of the Union’. Meanwhile if one had depended for guidance on Ulster politics on Paisley’s organ the Protestant Telegraph, one would have concluded over a number of years that it was entirely about the unceasing struggle of all good Protestants against the malign influence of Enoch Powell. Powell was a great help to the self-effacing and well-nigh inarticulate leader of the Official Unionists, James Molyneaux, until South Down was lost to the Unionists in 1987. He was a personal advertisement for the complete integration of the Province with Britain for which he stood. He devoted much time to arguing that, since his self-exile to the margins of Ulster, the Province had become the pivot around which revolved ‘something central to the whole business of foreign policy and directly related to the pattern of Western alliances’. A great plot existed by which successive British governments had been trying to please the United States by selling out the Unionists to a South that would in exchange abandon Irish neutrality. His star exhibit was the notes taken by a research student of interviews conducted with a named civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office. Cosgrave states the evidence but does not comment. Surely, he must have found it somewhat lacking in quality.
Some of the things which Powell allowed himself to say in latter days about Mrs Thatcher and the Anglo-Irish Agreement could hardly be expected to endear him to her. But what had been widely supposed had been that until then their relations were marked by mutual respect and even a certain affection. The Thatcherite economic policies, after all, had been foreshadowed by decades of Powellite exposition. But the author makes plain that Powell never had much time for her. There was ‘that dreadful voice and those frightful hats’; there was the sheer anomaly of having a woman in the post at all.