I am a classical scholar, and you are not

Peter Clarke

  • Enoch 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.

Powell was not oblivious to this tension. One of the peculiarities of debate in the House of Commons, he claimed in a speech made in 1990 when he was no longer an MP, is that the outcome of the vote at the end of a debate is usually a foregone conclusion. So why waste time on it? His point was that any intervention was ‘addressed to those who already know how they will vote – it is not to persuade them which way to vote, but to persuade them that in their hearts they ought to know that they are wrong, or right, as the case may be.’ The implications of this comment are not restricted to the parliamentary forum and its assumptions. For it suggests that public speech is not just a formal exercise in persuasion but a more subtle to and fro between speaker and audience, whom a speech should leave knowing things – ‘in their hearts’ – they had not previously articulated for themselves.

What stands out in retrospect is the peculiar extent to which he was committed to his vision of national identity. He was deeply upset by the decision to wind up the Raj, ending the rule of the king-emperor Brigadier Powell had pledged during the war to maintain. He was working in the Conservative Research Department at the time, alongside more worldly, easy-going political aspirants, who mocked his atavistic convictions. It was one thing to oppose the Labour government when it introduced the British Nationality Act of 1948, which Powell found abhorrent because it took away allegiance to the crown as the basis of citizenship. But when Churchill’s government brought in the Royal Titles Bill of 1953, the newly elected MP for Wolverhampton also found it repugnant, because it broke up the old imperial unity by declaring the queen merely Head of the Commonwealth, a title he considered ‘a sham’. Powell’s visceral contempt for this measure simply reinforced the impression of him as a brilliant eccentric.

Promoted finally to government office, Powell first made a big political impact in 1958, when he was one of three Treasury ministers who resigned from Macmillan’s government. This was dismissed by the prime minister as one of those ‘little local difficulties’ that are liable to beset even the best-run government. In retrospect, the breach has been represented as the first challenge to the postwar Keynesian consensus, and Powell’s subsequent expositions of the issues at stake have been hailed as the beginnings of monetarism. He spoke from the back benches against racial abuses in the British Empire, giving a famous speech in 1959 denouncing the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners by the British authorities in Kenya (with little heed for his own political advancement). His return to Macmillan’s government in 1960 was a tribute to his abilities rather than a reward for subservience. As minister for health he was responsible for the NHS, that immense monument to state socialism; instead of setting out to starve the beast, he browbeat the Treasury into an expensive programme of hospital-building.

Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the NHS, liked to say that nothing was too good for the working class; Powell was showing that nothing was too good for the British nation. It wasn’t part of his doctrine to scrimp on the legitimate functions of the state as he saw them; and if a function were deemed legitimate, he made very high claims indeed. Intuition rather than economic logic guided him. For example, he began a speech in 1981 – in favour of public subsidy of the ferry service to Northern Ireland – by stating his premise as the sort of mere common sense everyone would accept: ‘Communication is the essence of all government: it is not for nothing that the mail is the Royal Mail.’ The idea that such conclusions can be reached by treating the royal status of the mail as axiomatic would surprise many latter-day Thatcherites, who argue that the market could sort this problem out more efficiently.

We clearly need to look beyond economics for the source of Powell’s convictions. Commemorating St George’s Day in 1961, the minister for health gave a remarkable speech. ‘Tell us what it is that binds us together,’ he imagines generations of ancestors asking. ‘Show us the clue that leads through a thousand years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England, that we in our time may know how to hold it fast.’ And he imagines their response: ‘They would speak to us in our own English tongue, the tongue made for telling truth in, tuned already to songs that haunt the hearer like the sadness of spring.’ This is not the sort of thing that most people associate with the 1960s: more the mode that, forty years previously, Stanley Baldwin (or his cousin Rudyard Kipling) had sometimes tried out. Powell continues: ‘They would tell us of that marvellous land, so sweetly mixed of opposites in climate that all the seasons of the year appear there in their greatest perfection,’ and so on. This reads like John of Gaunt under contract to the English Tourist Board.

‘This most cerebral of political thinkers was thus ultimately driven by his gut instincts,’ Andrew Roberts argues, pointing not only to Powell’s patriotism but to his religious faith. Scruton identifies the ‘sacramental function’ Powell gives to words, citing a characteristic declaration that ‘a bill becomes a law because certain words of Norman French are pronounced in specific circumstances: the same words in other circumstances and synonymous words in the same circumstances would not make law.’ What is being invoked – celebrated – here is a view of allegiance and identity and governance that, as Scruton puts it, ‘partakes of mystery’. Powell is viewed as a politician for whom words were crucially significant, not just as building-blocks for making logical arguments but in hinting, evoking, appealing, affirming and celebrating.

And so, inevitably, we turn to ‘Rivers of Blood’. Those were the words in the headlines, but Powell did not use that exact phrase on 20 April 1968, or even offer it as his translation from the Latin in the press handout. He was speaking at the annual general meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre at the Midland Hotel in his native Birmingham. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was in power and was bringing forward a Race Relations Bill, to which the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath, were opposed. Powell had stood against Heath for the leadership in 1965, gaining the votes of only 15 MPs. But he was a member of the shadow cabinet, appointed (in Heath’s view) to speak on the defence portfolio, but (in Powell’s view) free while in opposition to range more broadly. In Birmingham, and not for the first time, Powell chose to speak on race relations.

He begins in a characteristic reflective mode, already old-fashioned in 1968 and unthinkable from a leading politician today. ‘The supreme function of statesmanship,’ he declares, rather donnishly, ‘is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature.’ Clearly, the ground is being prepared for the application of high general principles, abstractly conceived, to particular issues that might be of more immediate concern to the citizens of the West Midlands. Powell, speaking as the MP for Wolverhampton, highlights the impact immigration has had on the indigenous community: ‘For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country.’ Here is the substantive grievance; it is the preventable evil of which the statesman has a duty to warn: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’

Powell’s warning is cast in his own idiom, as Margaret Mountford’s essay notes. She quotes his response to a critic who had the temerity to ask about it: ‘The quotation came easily to me, as I am a classical scholar and you are not.’ The relevant source is readily found in the Aeneid where the Sibyl of Cumae speaks to Aeneas, later hailed as the founder of Rome but himself an immigrant to Italy – whether legal or illegal not being a matter anyone raised in that epoch. Her warning is filled with the requisite sense of foreboding, but, with due professional prudence, the sibyl opts for an ambiguous form of words: ‘I see wars, horrible wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood.’ Wars have often been described by later orators, including Churchill, as bringing ‘rivers of blood’; but in Birmingham that day Powell did not stray beyond a literal translation of the Latin.

So Scruton suggests that Powell’s peculiar style of speaking ‘depends on an educated audience’ and that his downfall came when ‘he imagined that his hearers would remember their Virgil, see the moral of the story and move on.’ This will not do. For the meaning of any statement is not established simply by looking up the origin of the words themselves, and where they have been used before. The context in which the words meet the audience for whom they are intended is also relevant. Powell was not addressing the House of Commons, and he knew, as a local MP, who would form his audience. He was explicitly raising the concerns of his own constituents, and in their idiom as much as his. As Frank Field puts it, with his own experience as a Labour MP – writing from a sympathetic stance but in some wonderment – ‘he must have appreciated its likely impact.’

In a long and revealing interview at the end of the book, Powell’s widow, Pamela, is asked about a speech on immigration her husband gave, in Walsall, a couple of months before the Birmingham speech. She says that ‘he expected there to be a bigger reaction in terms of publicity – not controversy – and that is why he decided he would have to do it again.’ Maybe he told himself that it was simply his duty; certainly he told that to others. The fact that immigration and race relations were no-go areas, with the two front benches complicit in it staying that way, was as likely to goad him as to restrain him. He was always counter-suggestible, sometimes feigning innocence about the mischief he was stirring up. Given that he was already chafing under Heath’s leadership, here was an obvious opportunity to secure the media attention that had eluded him in Walsall.

He succeeded. It should be acknowledged that his speech raised matters of real concern. In particular, he was right to suggest that areas like Wolverhampton were experiencing acute problems in adjusting to the concentration of recent immigrants. By identifying a new resistance to integration on the part of Asian immigrants, making for a ‘sharpening of racial and religious differences’, he was identifying a problem more widely recognised now than when he spoke. But though Powell wasn’t a crude racist, he deployed anecdote and hearsay in a way that knowingly played to the prejudices of those less fastidious than himself. His story about the (forever unidentified) old lady who had ‘excreta pushed through her letterbox’, also has her being followed to the shops by ‘children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies’.

Powell was dismissed from the shadow cabinet. He spent the next two decades on the back benches, from which he made well-prepared interventions that held the House of Commons rapt. It could be argued that he influenced the outcome of the two general elections after his downfall, in 1970 and in February 1974: the first time by recruiting support for the Conservatives, putting Heath into office, and the second time by recruiting for their opponents, ending his affiliation to the Conservative Party, which ‘became an incomprehensible stranger to me’. Heath’s unforgivable sin was to take Britain into the European Economic Community – something that, as Powell said on his retirement in 1987, would have seemed ‘incredible’ to his younger self and remained ‘incomprehensible’. What he could not comprehend was the abnegation of national sovereignty. Alienated and alarmed, baffled and betrayed, Powell was ready to scheme tactically with the Labour Party, and sat in the Commons as an Ulster Unionist.

Powell did not simply change party, in the way that an ordinary politician occasionally does. He rose above party with a licence granted by his own elevated sense of self. That he allowed nobody to forget his eminence as a classicist was one aspect of this. His readiness to engage with critics was another. When Paul Foot, in preparation for The Rise of Enoch Powell, approached his subject for help, this ‘frankly hostile inquirer’ was able to record not just Powell’s notable courtesy but his confidence in his own consistency: ‘He has the ability not only of convincing others of his rectitude, but of genuinely and totally convincing himself.’ Or one might say, especially after reading Enoch at 100, that Powell’s ability to convince himself of his rectitude has continued to convince others.