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.

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