Stick to the Latin

R.W. Johnson

  • Enoch Powell by Robert Shepherd
    Hutchinson, 564 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 09 179208 8

It’s a dependable party game: who was the MP who sat from 1950 to 1987, emerged as a strong and early opponent of hanging and supported homosexual law reform; was fiercely anti-Nato, anti-American and opposed to Britain possessing nuclear weapons; pioneered the Clean Air Act, vociferously opposed subsidies to farmers, attacked the monopoly of the big drug firms as suppliers to the NHS and was the first person to take the anti-smoking cause to the Cabinet; became a vehement critic of Empire and hugely embarrassed a Tory government by a passionate condemnation of British treatment of Africans confined in the Hola Camp in Kenya? (The MP in question was so infuriated by the racist excuse that different standards applied in Africa that he/she actually cried with vexation at the end of the speech.) As Minister of Health the same politician earned an extremely progressive reputation by attacking the mental hospitals as oppressive Victorian institutions which ought to be closed to allow more humane care within the community – and by taking the Tube or walking home after working late so as not to make the ministerial driver wait up late. This MP was a radical critic of Tory incomes policy, was the first in any party to argue for a minimum income for the old and the unemployed, argued for the nationalisation of the universities and completely free education for all students, and refused both the offer of a life peerage and, when it was proposed to him, the editorship of Private Eye. In retirement he/she wrote a learned but scandalous book on the Gospels which tried to prove that the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Sermon on the Mount were all historical fictions.

Most people – did they not already know the answer – would volunteer all sorts of left-wing Labour MPs: not one in a hundred would have guessed that the right answer was Enoch Powell. In addition, Powell is fluent in Welsh (but stunted his career by refusing the first job offered him in government, an appointment to the Welsh Office); wrote poetry in three languages; greatly regretted not having opposed the Central African Federation at its inception (as he wanted to); was to propose the privatisation of British Telecom (splitting it off from the Post Office) as early as 1964; and used to while away the longueurs of the Opposition front bench in the mid-Sixties by swapping Greek quotations with Lord Hailsham. Hailsham was no mean classical scholar but had to admit that Powell ‘never failed to beat me on my ground. He remembered the rarest of things. He had it instantly available. It was always exactly to the point.’

This fund of ironies accounts for much of Powell’s irresistible lure to biographers – judging by his bibliography, Shepherd’s is the tenth so far, which may be a record for a living politician. (Powell himself dismisses all notion of writing his memoirs – ‘like a dog returning to its own vomit’.) Shepherd has included a large proportion of the better known Powell stories, though he omits two of my favourites, the first drawn from his own very fine biography of Iain Macleod, where the young Powell (then learning to fox-hunt, and riding in full scarlet gear to the hunt and back on the Tube) is coached by his flatmate, the natural charmer Macleod, in how to behave with Tory constituency selection committees. Even at Wolverhampton South-West, where he was eventually chosen, Powell was introduced by the chairman with the remark: ‘Now I just want to say to you before the next candidate comes in, don’t be put off by appearances.’ Shepherd has also omitted any mention of Powell’s memorable turn on Desert Island Discs, where he spoke of the guilt he had felt at surviving the war, read his own poetry, wept and paid tribute to his wife and daughter. He was then asked, if he had just one wish, what it would be. ‘I wish I had died in the war,’ he replied with passion – in which case, of course, there would have been no wife or daughter.

Shepherd’s is the best and fullest biography of Powell to date and his placing of his subject within the English (not British) nationalist tradition, and in relation to the Thatcher revolution of which he was largely the progenitor, is well done. There are gaps, however: Powell’s 13 years as an Ulster Unionist MP are too lightly passed over, especially in view of his role in keeping the Wilson-Callaghan Government afloat when it lost its majority, and Shepherd is perhaps too much of a pro-European himself to give Powell his full prophetic credit. Over and over again in the early Seventies Powell argued that the ‘full-hearted consent’ of the electorate had not been obtained for the surrender of sovereignty that joining Europe implied, but only for a wishfully watered-down version, and that in consequence there was much trouble in store. But, as so often, he argued with the logical penetration of a mathematical German, a style of argument that is anathema to the intellectually lazy world of Home Counties Toryism. Hence the too-clever-by-half remarks Shepherd quotes with approbation – Powell, his critics would say, was ‘lucid to the point of incomprehensibility’, and so on.

What these critics were seldom willing to acknowledge was the degree of admiration Powell mustered from his myriad artisan and working-class supporters, for both his lucidity and his impressive command of the language. ‘The Powell image, seen in fine focus, as his audience appreciated,’ remarked the Wolverhampton Express and Star of one such speech, ‘is one of dynamic force, complete mastery of his subject and innate honesty of purpose.’ As anyone who sat through one of these performances can attest, they were remarkable – his detractors found his rhetorical power frightening, even Hitlerian. Invariably those, like Hailsham, who challenged him head on found themselves worsted. When Tony Benn attempted to affix the ‘Dachau and Belsen’ label to Powell’s speeches on immigration in 1970, Powell snatched the microphone to point out that in 1939 he had sailed all the way from Australia in order to volunteer as a private to fight Hitler. And when in 1974 he stepped down as a Tory MP to support Labour, and one Tory heckler shouted ‘Judas!’, Powell, white with passion, pointed out that ‘Judas was paid. I am making a sacrifice.’ Harold Wilson, a clever judge of such things, felt Benn had been routed by Powell in 1970 and, when the chance of gaining Powell’s support in 1974 emerged, had many private meetings with him in the toilets of the House of Commons. In the end he even adjusted his campaign schedule in order to allow maximum coverage for Powell’s speeches.

The most fascinating relationship in the book is between Powell and Macmillan. Powell loathed Macmillan for getting the better of Butler: ‘One of the most horrible things that I remember in politics was ... seeing the way in which Harold Macmillan, with all the skill of the old actor manager, succeeded in false-footing Rab. The sheer devilry of it verged upon the disgusting.’ He disliked Macmillan even more profoundly because he epitomised what Powell saw as the essentials of Whiggism: ‘cynicism, agnosticism, bread and circuses (provided that they are held at a decent distance from the ducal estate), European combinations, a readiness to try any wheeze (provided it helps to keep in power) and a contempt for principle in politics (though some of Mr Locke’s ideas might come in handy).’ Worst of all, Macmillan ‘saw politics as a game – pure Whiggery’.

Macmillan cordially detested Powell in return, referring to him as ‘the fanatic’ and ‘the fakir’, but decided that it was best to have him in the Cabinet all the same. Powell was uneasy (‘it’s like having a debate with Henry VIII – I was conscious that he had the axe down by his chair’), while Macmillan complained that ‘Powell looks at me in Cabinet like Savonarola eyeing one of the more disreputable Popes.’ Powell won. Lord Home came to the Cabinet room one day to find all the places being re-arranged. ‘The PM can’t have Enoch’s accusing eye looking at him straight across the table any more,’ he was told. So ‘poor Enoch was put way down the left where Harold couldn’t see him.’

For most people, Powell’s career came down to onething, his 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech and his subsequent notoriety as an anti-immigration campaigner. Here I must declare an interest. In 1974, a young American, Doug Schoen, came knocking at my door in Magdalen, anxious to study Powellism as a British variant of the George Wallace phenomenon in America. As a student, Schoen was already running his own polling firm, Penn and Schoen Associates, which has since blossomed into one of the most successful such outfits in the US, having just guided Clinton back from the dead. I worked closely with Schoen on his project as he re-ran and mined the relevant survey material from all the polling agencies. The results were startling beyond anything we had at first imagined. (I say ‘we’ because although it was Schoen’s diesis and Schoen’s book,[*] I was soon utterly gripped and we hacked away at the data together: my family got quite used to the notion that dinner-time conversation would involve Schoen and me working out new ways to run the findings. Even when my small son went to hospital, Schoen came along and spread out the data on the ward floor and we worked on them as the somewhat bemused little boy looked on.)

Whereas others had tried to discern a ‘Powell effect’ by looking at constituency results in the West Midlands alone, we realised that Powellism was a national movement, visible in every constituency in England, particularly in the 1970 and February 1974 elections. Powell had had no apparent effect in Scotland or Wales or on most voters under 45, but among all other categories – particularly among the older age groups (of both sexes) in the lower-middle and working classes – his effect had been enormous: Alf Garnett, it appeared, was a highly representative figure. Older, patriotic working-class voters were drawn to Powell not just because of what he said, and they felt, about race but out of a more comprehensive disillusionment with politicians of all parties and a sense that their views had no chance of being heard. These people had little in common with National Front supporters, who were disproportionately younger and male. Most Powellites were deeply offended by the NF’s flirtation with swastika politics.

The astonishing thing was the sheer size of the Powellite phenomenon, and the way other analysts had neglected it. In particular, it became clear that Powell had won the 1970 election for the Tories. It turned out that of all those who had switched their vote from one party to another in that election, 50 per cent were working-class Powellites (i.e. said that Powell was the MP who best represented their views) and that they had switched to the Tories by a better than 2:1 majority. But the same influence was there in every group. Not only had 18 per cent of Labour Powellites switched to the Tories but so had 24 per cent of Liberal Powellites, while among Tory Powellites only 1 per cent had defected to Labour. Schoen tested these data against every other variable in sight but no matter what he did, it seemed clear that, all on his own, Powell had delivered a minimum of two and a half million – and quite possibly four or five million – votes to the Tories. We then divided voters into racial liberals (those favourable to continuing immigration) and racial conservatives (who felt the opposite) and found that the Powell admirers in both groups had shifted disproportionately to the Tories. That is, even when one left racial attitudes out of account, Powellism worked as an independent force. But of course there were far more racial conservatives than liberals, and disproportionately more Powellites among them. So there was no doubting the forceful racial feeling which powered the phenomenon along.

These were not congenial results to us. Schoen was a Hubert Humphrey Democrat and I a steady Labour voter, but our own more liberal views on race were quite overcome by the immensity of what Schoen had uncovered. Not only had one man swung a whole election on his own, in a way that was not supposed to be possible in Britain’s non-presidential polity, but race had emerged, however briefly, as a factor powerful enough to shake the class basis of British politics. And, amazingly, all the accounts of the election and British electoral behaviour in general had written these factors out of the script. Heath, Jowell and Curtice in their classic 1985 study, How Britain Votes, demonstrate the unique breakdown of the class divide in 1970, but simply shake their heads in wonder at it. Schoen had given the answer eight years before.

Powell’s all-time peak, we discovered, came during the Ugandan Asian crisis of 1973. One contemporary poll, carried out for the Labour Party but, to save embarrassment, never released, showed Powell ahead of both Wilson and Heath as the popular choice for prime minister – the first time this had been achieved by someone other than a party leader. It was clear that, in an American-style political system, Powell would have won the Tory nomination and then the Presidency. The 1970 result was one of the great electoral upsets but the February 1974 result was almost equally surprising: in both cases the governing party’s large lead in the opinion polls vanished on election day. In both cases, we realised, the key was the submerged Powell factor. For further analysis left little doubt that, having handed victory to the Tories against the odds in 1970, Powell, by backing Labour, evicted them from power in 1974. While the electorate as a whole showed only a 0.9 per cent swing to Labour, there was a 4.8 per cent swing among 1970 Powellites and a 4.6 per cent swing among those who classed themselves as Powellites in 1974 – the latter group best defined by its anti-EEC attitude, the former by its attitude to immigration. We again tested these results by holding constant everything from attitudes to the miners’ strike, the EEC, race, inflation and so on, but it didn’t matter: the Powell effect remained overwhelming. Among those who had voted Tory in 1970 but who favoured Powell in 1974, no less than 35 per cent defected from the Tories in 1974. Having made Heath prime minister in 1970, Powell broke him in 1974.

Schoen and I caused something of a flutter by publishing the bulk of these results in New Society in 1976, but neither then nor when Schoen’s book was published a year later, was it possible to gain acceptance for the idea that these data had put paid both to received notions about the power of race and class in British politics and to conventional accounts of the Wilson-Heath years. What we had uncovered was, I suppose, just too unsettling, and we were immediately accused of wanting to boost Powell’s influence and thus of being Powellites ourselves. The fact that Powell had refused to have anything to do with Schoen, had even forbidden his Commons colleagues to have anything to do with him (‘that scapegrace’, as he described him to me, when I protested that Schoen’s enquiries were purely academic), did not register. It is entirely typical that several reviewers of Shepherd’s work have commented on his ‘sensational’ revelation of Powell’s impact on the 1970 and 1974 elections when in fact he has merely quoted, partially and briefly, from Schoen’s work, now almost twenty years old.

In the Fifties and Sixties there was a tacit agreement, not only between the party front benches but more broadly in what used to be called polite society, that the whole issue of coloured immigration was a nasty, racist business, better left alone. This assumption fitted almost fatally well into a political system organised from top to bottom for the politics of class, not race. The issue was only taken up by a handful of Tory MPs with established reputations as reactionary clowns – Sir Cyril Osborne, Sir Gerald Nabarro, Ronald Bell, Sir Tufton Beamish and so on. The 1962 Immigration Act cut the flow of immigrants from over 100,000 a year to around 70,000, but it took the shock of the 1964 Smethwick result to make Labour reduce that number to 50,000 a year after 1965. With that, the political class regarded its work as done, but the issue simmered on in the pubs and clubs until Powell’s speech of 20 April 1968.

It was often remarked that ‘Powell merely said what ordinary people were saying,’ but this was an obvious misconception. Ordinary people do not cite Virgil (‘the Tiber foaming with much blood’). Powell’s speech was so explosive because it signalled that at last someone within the political élite was willing to put themselves at the head of a populist cause, furiously espoused. The speech was made over a weekend: 23,000 letters arrived for Powell by the first post on Tuesday – sack after mail-sack of wild support. The next day a further 50,000 arrived and in the ten days following, a further 100,000. No politician in British history, before or since, has ever achieved a similar response.

So dramatic was the effect of the 20 April speech that Powell never overcame it; all his other speeches, causes and positions pale beside it. It made him and it undid him. As the years went by, a sort of wonder grew about him. He was, surely, the finest mind, the most compelling orator of his Parliamentary generation but he was doomed never to succeed. Partly it was because he wasn’t clubbable: as John Biffen, an admirer, noted sadly, he was ‘devastatingly self-contained’. But, far more, it was the speech that had put him beyond the pale, not only because of the allegations of racism which dogged him for ever after but because the Parliamentary élite does not lightly forgive those who summon up the genie of populism against it So did Powell come to regret that speech? ‘If I had a regret,’ he confessed, ‘it was that I didn’t quote Virgil in Latin, but then I didn’t want to appear pedantic ... I probably ought to have stuck to the Latin. That’s a good motto in life: “Stick to the Latin.” ’

Powell always denied that he was racist, though he did believe that the black and brown people then entering England could never be English in his understanding of the term, an understanding others would find intrinsically racist; and he was well aware that his words would elicit a storm of indignation in which all fine distinctions would immediately be lost. To the criticism that this was ‘irresponsible’, Powell would angrily reply that an MP had no higher duty than to take up the fears and cares of those he represented. But this, too, was somewhat disingenuous. Powell had been humiliatingly defeated in the contest for the Tory leadership in 1965, was galled by his own marginalisation and by the sight of Heath, clearly his intellectual inferior, leading the Party in directions he disapproved of. The explosion of 1968 may have been Powell’s way of demonstrating, in the manner of a naughty boy, that he was not easily to be cast aside. In the end there was a sort of apolitical, even an anti-political perversity about him. When the immigration figures finally overtook the projections he had been ridiculed for suggesting, when race-riots did indeed occur in the streets of England, he never bothered to say ‘I told you so.’ On the other hand, his conception of an English nationalism which would not tolerate a large infusion of coloured people has turned out to be quite mistaken.

Powell was entranced by a romantic dream of England. In the mid-Seventies he came to Oxford to give a talk about devolution, which was then all the rage, but which he saw as a way of diddling the Scots out of their oil. Partly because of Powell’s earlier fury against Schoen’s researches, I went along and got myself invited to dinner. Naturally, a large audience, perhaps half black and brown, came to heckle and boo their bogeyman. They were very quickly silenced as Powell wove his spell, proving that devolution was a nonsense, but adding that decolonisation had surely taught us that morally we couldn’t refuse a vote for independence from a people that wanted it. So if the Scots voted for independence, they must have it – and their oil, too. This was uncomfortably radical for his audience but Powell trounced all interpellation. Finally, someone suggested he couldn’t mean it: what if Oxford voted for independence? Would he grant that? He replied that you could reduce any argument to absurdity with an absurd example but yes, if the people wanted it, how could one refuse? And then added, cuttingly, but why talk such nonsense about Oxford? Why not use real examples: what if Bradford, Brixton or Southall, which are really different, vote for independence? The words were spat out with real venom, eyes flashing. Immigration had not previously been mentioned: in the audience heads lurched back, as if a collective slap in the face had been administered. At the end everyone filed out in silence, as if physically beaten. Over dinner, I asked him why he had done it: he had come close to getting a standing ovation and then he had deliberately thrown it all away. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I could see I had won them over, so I thought, if you want to accept me, it’s got to be the whole package, not just my views on devolution. So I showed them the cloven hoof. I don’t want any easy victories.’

[*] Enoch Powell and the Powelliters (Macmillan, 1977).