Enoch at 100: a re-evaluation of the life, politics and philosophy of Enoch Powell

Published by Daily Mail

Enoch at 100The very mention of the name of Enoch Powell still divides the firmaments. There is no nuanced via media of opinion on the man: either you love him as the rightest of minds, or loathe him as a deranged bigot. Either he was a prophet of God and enlightened philosopher, or the spawn of Satan and reactionary extremist. For many –  if not most – his premature demise was the salvation of the Queen’s multicultural peace. For others – the undoubted minority – it was the greatest philosophical injustice since the execution of Socrates.

John Enoch Powell was born 100 years ago this year, and this collection of commemorative essays, speeches (in their entirety) and poems (some quite touching) is edited by Lord Howard of Rising with a Foreword by Iain Duncan Smith. It is published by Biteback and will set you back £25.

I always judge a book by its cover, not least because we’re now in the touchy-feely postmodern age of visual superficiality, so if a publisher gets the sleeve wrong it’s their lookout. This tome is bathed in Tory royal blue, redolent of the dark, rich shades preferred by Margaret Thatcher at her zenith (contra the leafy green and pastel blue preferred by the current crop of detoxifying modernisers). It has photographs provided by Enoch Powell’s widow, Pam, and a strap-line which hints at critical re-evaluation and philosophical consideration.

It gets even better when you read on the inside fold a succinct summary of Powell’s achievements: his oratorical skills, towering intellect, compassion, loyalty to colleagues (if not to party), and his prescience on such issues as denationalisation, the free market, the EU (or EEC as it was then), the single currency, and the constitutional dog’s breakfast that would surely follow devolution. Powell’s legacy, we are told, is herein reassessed ‘by some of the leading political figures, writers and commentators of the current age’.

And that list is formidable, including academic and political heavyweights like Michael Forsyth, Frank Field, Simon Heffer, Roger Scruton and Andrew Roberts. This is no hagiography (knowing what happens to Conservative Party candidates who so much as hint that ‘Enoch was right’, IDS is unlikely to have given his blessing to such a book): it is, instead, a scholarly and objective critique of a complex scholar, soldier, philosopher, poet and politician who happened one fateful day in 1968 to make a classical allusion to a line from Virgil’s Aeneid in a constituency speech about immigration, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is a book of virtues which certainly doesn’t gloss over Powell’s vices. But the indisputable fact emerges that he was right on an awful lot more than he was wrong. It becomes apparent – to those who do not already know – that Enoch Powell was, like Lear, a man more sinned against than sinning.

Nicholas True provides an essay on the EU and historic determinism: ‘A common currency means a common government,’ said Powell in 1978. Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Frank Field recounts Powell the parliamentarian – ‘one of the greatest’, but eccentric and mysteriously lacking emotional intelligence. Michael Forsyth majors on the Crown-in-Parliament and the constitutional lessons which Powell’s speeches contain. Simon Heffer (Powell’s biographer) gives insights into the man as Adam Smith disciple: the profound economist, the monetarist, who waged war against Ted Heath’s statist and socialist policies. Heffer alone grapples with the historic Tory-Whig tensions which so often found expression in Powell’s high defence of the historic institutions of state interspersed with exhortations to trust the people as ‘the collective wisdom and the collective will of the nation’. As we have seen (and as Powell ought to have known from his Plato), the mob can be fickle, gullible, and prone to occasional acts of collective folly.

Roger Scruton writes eloquently about the dangers of drawing analytically on English history, the world of ancient Greeks, and the language of Shakespeare and the Bible in an increasingly anti-elitist society which relegates them all to the pursuit of equality and moral perfection. Andrew Roberts looks at Powell’s achievements in the context of five centuries of the Protestant state, beginning the moment Henry VIII proclaimed ‘this realm of England is an Empire’. The nation state ‘had so proven its value and efficacy for the British people that it needed to be preserved at all costs’. This became Powell’s raison d’être.

And there’s more; much more. Each essay is a reflective nugget of deeper insight into an intellectual Titan and political romantic. It is a tale of the age-old tension between the philosopher whose virtue consists in saying what is necessary, and the politician for whom these things dare not be uttered. Contra the instincts of many in his party, Powell opposed the Vietnam War and the US ‘special relationship’; he was anti-capital punishment and pro-gay rights; he loved Germany and opposed African apartheid. Indeed, if the demonising Left could overlook one solitary speech on globalisation and race, they might just find in him something of a hero.

My only niggle – and it is only that – is with the inclusion of a short essay by Anne Robinson. I know she’s helped to expose an awful lot of fraud and injustice on Watchdog, but one of ‘the leading political figures, writers and commentators of the current age’ she is not – by a long chalk. Of course publishers, like political parties, seek a sprinkling of stardust celebrity endorsement to raise their profile, but Ms Robinson is by far the weakest link in a formidable chain of intellectual rigour. While the academics are talking about government, ethics, classics and the Constitution, she is happily reminiscing about her idyllic upbringing and what a jolly good egg her mother was.

But it would be unfair to distort this review by over-emphasising this quibble. It is more than offset with the inclusion of the first ever interview with Powell’s widow, Pam. We can scarcely imagine how many lonely tears of frustration she must have wept as the man she loved was reviled and systematically shredded by an unforgiving and unforgetting media. We learn from her that when Powell proposed marriage, he promised: “It will be grinding poverty and a life on the back benches.” In this prophecy, he was proved right. And we read gems like the fact that he ‘never accepted an increase in the parliamentary salary’. She talks of his lacking confidence, his jealousies, his disappointments, and of how much he enjoyed being Secretary of State for Health (determined to pour money into mental health). And we also learn of her husband, this alleged racist, who, as early as 1946, walked out of the Byculla Club in Pune, India, because it only admitted white people.

It is good to re-evaluate the fraught history of a contentious legacy in the relative tranquillity of the present. ‘Enoch at 100’ is a brave, expansive and enlightening read. It is a direct challenge to all who prefer to misrepresent conviction as caricature, equate philosophical disputation with bigotry, or reduce nuanced political thesis to banal sound-bite. The name of Enoch Powell belongs right up there with that of Keith Joseph as one of the principal architects of what became known as Thatcherism. Perhaps of no political philosopher since Socrates are the words of Jesus more germane: “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Powell was simply a man before his time. And that, for politician as well as prophet, is an assurance of conflict and a guarantee of career failure. But what manner of failure is it when the name of Enoch eclipses every Tory politician of the 20th century, excepting those of Winston and Margaret?