Enoch at 100
A Re-Evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell
Edited by Lord Howard of Rising
London: Biteback Publishing, 2012
Hardcover. xxix+320 p. ISBN 978-1849543101. £25.00
Reviewed by Stéphane Porion
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense
Rejoice, rejoice! Since the late 1990s, with the publication of the last two biographies on Enoch Powell,(1) no thorough analysis, but only a spattering of articles or chapters in joint contributions, have been published on the ‘man and this thinking’ to use the words of T.E. Utley – the first to attempt in 1968 to account for the emergence of Powellism and the impact of the ‘Rivers of blood’ speech. Enoch at 100 was released to mark the birth centenary of Powell (who died in February 1998). The present collection of contributions edited by Lord Howard of Rising suggests that this complex, enigmatic and controversial politician is still a ‘towering figure in British politics in the second half of the twentieth century’ [xv], albeit one whose thought is imbued with contradictions that often seem hard to reconcile. However, since Powell’s death in February 1998, this ‘political maverick’ [xviii] has been ‘often remembered for the wrong reason’ [xvii] as is stated in the ‘Foreword’ section of the book. Indeed, many scholars, politicians and journalists still view him as ‘a racist’, and consider his ideas to boil down to a pledge of ‘xenophobic nationalism’ based on sloppy logic, unworthy of academic analysis. Therefore, one should be delighted to read this book divided into chapters that explore many themes pertaining to Powell’s complex thought, which has a lot more to offer than mere ideas on immigration. The different contributors (journalists, Lords, MPs, academics, lawyers, archivists...) look into Powell’s economic, constitutional and nationalist views, and poetry.
This study does not claim to be ‘a hagiography’ [xvi] and aims instead at ‘acknowledging the influence of this remarkable man’ [xvii], asserting that ‘it is as a philosopher, rather than as a practical politician, that Powell has enjoyed continuing influence on Conservative thinking’ [xxiii]. It does not deny nor play down, however, that the ‘Rivers of blood’ speech was based on inflammatory rhetoric which aroused much controversy. Indeed, as Philip Norton recalls: ‘The speech both made him and destroyed him. Overnight, [Powell] became a national figure and a pariah. He never held office again but spent the rest of his life as one of the nation’s most controversial politicians’ [xxvii]. In that respect, Tom Bower’s chapter on ‘Immigration’ is a good and challenging presentation of Powell’s stance on this issue, as well as an up-to-date synthesis on what has been published on the subject,(2) striking a fair balance between Powell’s motives and rejection of a multicultural society, and the negative reactions which followed his April 1968 speech.
One strong point of the book is to offer fresh analyses on topics which have been overlooked in the studies on Powell’s thought, such as ‘Constitutional Reform’, ‘Defence and Foreign Policy’, ‘Energy and the Environment’, ‘Ulster’ and ‘Powell’s Poetry’ (for he was a Classicist). One will also find of course discussions of the more familiar aspects of Powellism, such as his stance against both the European Union and State interference in the economy. Each chapter is followed by one emblematic speech by Powell, well chosen to illustrate the analysis carried out in the preceding pages. It should also be mentioned that the book is peppered with a ‘personal recollection of the man’ given by Anne Robinson and a long and interesting interview with his wife (Pamela).
However, the book has many general flaws. First, the table of contents
does not seem logically ordered. For instance, the two chapters on Powell’s
poetry are not subsequent. More generally, it is unfortunate that neither in
the ‘Editor’s Note’ nor in the ‘Foreword’ section are the ordering and the
choice of themes accounted for. Secondly, it does not include any bibliography
at all of Powell’s books, biographies or studies. Worse, the footnotes are kept
minimal, so many speeches are not referenced or identified. Readers who are not
well acquainted with Powell will neither realise that the Churchill Archive
The study intends to be a ‘re-evaluation’ of Powell’s ideas as the title implies. Indeed, it ‘is meant to be an objective look at how the views and concerns Enoch Powell expressed, some as long as half a century ago, are relevant today’ [xvi] as specified in the ‘Editor’s Note’. Yet, one could honestly deplore the fact that sometimes the arguments put forward by some authors lack critical judgement and vindicate Powell’s ideas too easily. For example, Simon Heffer argues that ‘Powell felt, with some reason, that he had put monetarism into practice twenty years before Friedman expounded his theory, […] he had worked out that inflation was caused by expanding the money supply at a rate faster than that of inflation and growth combined’ . The author should have given a fairer analysis, using other academic works that play down the fact that Powell practised monetarism before the Thatcher years.(4) As for Anne Robinson, she had the chance to meet and interview Enoch Powell a couple of times. Even though she acknowledges ‘the distasteful, even odious wording [the ‘Rivers of blood’ speech] includes’ , she ends her chapter (‘A Personal Recollection’) by rehabilitating Powell on no solid ground: ‘To ascribe racist motives to a politician simply because he used language which, for many of his listeners, was normal is sloppy logic. Enoch deserves better’ . Robinson’s views, like those of other contributors here, are biased, assessments too lenient, thereby betraying a lack of critical distance that personal closeness or friendships may explain.
As far as historical methodology is concerned, it seems irrelevant, not to say somehow flawed, to ‘speculate on how Powell would have responded to the challenge of climate change’, given that Richard Richie himself acknowledges that the issue of climate change ‘presents problems and issues which Powell was not called upon to address during his time in active politics’, because ‘they belong to a different world from the one he live[d] in’ [208-209]. Why is it that Powell’s contradictions are acknowledged [xv] and even identified , without any analytical attempt to account for them?
Finally the treatment of Powell’s economic ideas is disputable. Simon Heffer argues that ‘the part of Powell’s political life in which he devoted a great deal of time, thought and energy to economic questions falls into four unequal sections’  – In other words, from 1957 to 1974. However, there is an inconsistency as only three periods, instead of four are identifiable. Indeed, the author mentions ‘the third and final subdivision’ . Simon Heffer wrote a long and challenging biography on Powell just after his death.(5) One may thus wonder why, in his chapter, he excludes Powell’s regular hard work on housing policy and town and country planning from 1947 to 1956, as well as Powell’s contributions to free market economic ideas in the pamphlets published by the One Nation Group from 1950-1955, of which Powell was a founding member. There is much useful information on economic Powellism to be found in Enoch Powell at 100, but one might have expected Simon Heffer to provide it, rather than Richard Ritchie in his chapter on ‘Energy and Environment’. There is a crucial distinction to be made between ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ purposes or forces, which, for Powell, would legitimate State interference in the economy. Richard Richie is then right to quote Powell in 1970: ‘“Less government” does not mean less government everywhere. If laissez-faire means that government withdraws from those functions in society which the citizens must not or cannot try to perform for themselves, then the Tory Party is not, never has been, and never can be, the party of laissez-faire’ . Powell agreed to a large extent with Adam Smith’s analysis that the State can intervene in non-economic fields per se. The rest of the book convincingly shows that the key to understanding Powell is to view him as ‘a Tory neo-liberal, in essence, wedded to institutions but believing in economic and social freedom’ [xxviii].
All things considered, I would definitely agree with Anne Robinson’s comment that ‘Enoch deserves better’ and Powellism has much more to offer. Fortunately, to be fair to this book, many chapters reached the goal of shedding light upon lesser known aspects of Powell’s thought. For example, it is possible for readers to get a more complex insight into Powell’s rejection of the EEC/EU. Nicholas True shows that Powell had underestimated the political feature of the European construction: ‘Powell did not deny his “mistake” in the early 1960s in seeing the “Common Market” chiefly in the context of trade’ . Between 1969 and 1975, Powell was thus led to believe mistakenly in ‘the British people’s readiness to be stirred to stop a surrender of sovereignty’ [Ibid.] What definitely mattered to him was that ‘A Europe of nations, of sovereign nations, is the only Europe to which Britain, so long as she herself remains a nation, could belong’ . Once Powell made clear to himself what the ‘dangerous vagueness of the phrase “European unity”’ really involved , he ruled out ‘the inexorable logic whereby economic unity and a common currency meant European political unification’ . The author then deconstructs the nature of Powell’s Euroscepticism convincingly, accounting for his opposition to Heath in the 1970s, which paved the way for Thatcher’s September 1988 Bruges speech. As for Michael Forsyth, he argues that ‘it is only in the area of European integration that there are many signs today of the popular revolt [Powell] anticipated’ . However, his chapter on ‘Constitutional Reform’ highlights that ‘when one takes the European Union, the reform of the House of Lords and legislative devolution together, it becomes clear that Powell was fighting a rear-guard action on the constitution throughout his entire parliamentary career’ . The author’s cogent treatment of these issues against Powell’s unflinching defence of his country’s ‘unwritten constitution’ definitely justifies why ‘Powell could never be described solely as a “libertarian”, or as a “Whig”, even though his economic analysis contained much of both’ . That is also why Powell had always fought for the Union of the UK and against the implementation of devolution in Ulster. Alistair Cooke’s chapter retraces this fight well.
Richard Richie’s chapter on ‘Energy and the Environment’ is all the more
interesting as it focuses on one economic area that had not been dealt with in
analyses of economic Powellism. The author argues that ‘over time [Powell]
moderated somewhat his objection to government intervention, despite his
earlier criticism of the whole idea of an energy policy and his assertion that
“you can neither intervene, nor withdraw from intervention, by half measures”’
 – in other words, ‘some of Powell’s free-market views were moderated once
he became an Ulster MP in
Last but not least, Powell was a great Classicist as he became a professor of Greek at 25 and a poet. Readers can have a taste of his poetry as the book includes a small selection of his poems (some were published in 1953, others are published for the very first time). Even though Margaret Mountford’s chapter on ‘Enoch Powell as a Classicist’ almost ends the study, instead of being its starting point, it accounts well for Powell’s taste for Greek and retraces all his publications on Herodotus and Thucydides in the 1930s and 1940s for example. One can understand that Powell got his flair from the value of A.E. Housman’s textual criticism.
All in all the book offers unequal analyses on Powell’s life and ideas, but is still worth reading if one is interested in this complex and controversial political figure of 20th-century Britain and wants to get beyond the prejudices which reduced the man to his April 1968 inflammatory speech on immigration.
(1) Shepherd, Robert. Enoch Powell : A Biography. London: Pimlico, 1997; Heffer, Simon. Like the Roman :The Life of Enoch Powell. London: Phoenix, 1999.
(2) Including for instance, Hillman, Nicholas. ‘A “Chorus of Execration”? Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” Forty Years on’. Patterns of Prejudice 42-1 (2008) : 83-104.
(3) Charter, David. Au Revoir Europe : What if Britain Left the EU? London: Biteback Publishing, 2012.
(4) For instance, see Smith, David. The Rise and Fall of Monetarism. London: Penguin, (1987) 1991; Peden, G. The Treasury and British Public Policy 1906-1959. Oxford: University Press, 2000, and Cooper, Chris. ‘Little Local Difficulties Revisited : Peter Thorneycroft, the 1958 Treasury Resignations and the Origins of Thatcherism’. Contemporary British History 25-2 (June 2011) : 227-250.
(5) Heffer, Simon. Like the Roman, op. cit.
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