Enoch Powell: The Man and his Politics
by Sean Gabb
Speech to the Conference
of the Property and Freedom Society
Bodrum, Saturday, 13th September 2014
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
I may have fellow countrymen who cannot identify these words. If so, I have yet to meet them. The words are from the speech that Enoch Powell (1912-98) gave on the 20th April 1968 to the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre – a work best known as “The Rivers of Blood Speech.” It is, beyond any doubt, the most notable political speech given in England during my lifetime. It may be the most notable of the twentieth century. It made its author both the most loved and the most hated politician in the country. Shortly after the speech, dockworkers marched in his support through the centre of London. Thirty years later, at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, the space outside was filled with a great crowd of those who had come to pay their respects.
If, on the other hand, you want to commit professional suicide in virtually any occupation, not excluding sport or driving a taxi, the surest and shortest mode of self-dispatch is to be overheard muttering that “Enoch was right.” He was never forgiven by those who now have power, and never has been or will be forgiven. And the more he is proved right, the louder and more grim grows the chorus of execration.
I could easily make this speech into an account of what Powell thought and said about immigration. I could pull out statistics to show that, if anything, his projections of the “immigrant and immigrant-descended populations” of my country were too modest. I could probably give you a more entertaining half hour by simply reading out his Rivers of Blood Speech. Like all else he said or wrote, it is a masterpiece of English prose. But I have been asked to speak about “Enoch Powell: The Man and his Politics,” and there is more to him than the debate over immigration. Yes, immigration is part of the story. It is a large part, and I will return to it. But, of all British politicians in my lifetime, he was the most systematic and consistent, and what he said about immigration draws its full meaning only from a consideration of the whole system.
Powell Before Politics
Now, to join the phrases “systematic and consistent” and “British politician” may seem pretentious. But Powell was no ordinary British politician. Not for him a PPE at Oxford, accompanied by much toadying of those already in Parliament, and followed straightaway by a job in Westminster. He came late to politics. His degree was in Classics at Cambridge, where he studied under A.E. Housman and was awarded a starred double first. Even before, at the age of 25, he became the youngest Professor of Greek in the British Empire, he was seen as the most brilliant classical scholar of his generation. He re-edited Thucydides for the Oxford University Press. His Lexicon to Herodotus (1938) remains a standard work on a man who, after all the changes of 2,500 years, is honoured with a statue here in the place of his birth. He wrote poetry. As well as in the classical languages, he was fluent in German, French, Italian and Urdu. He knew Russian and Welsh and Syriac and Aramaic. He was deeply read in German philosophy. He was more than competent in Economics. As learning and subtlety of thought are measured, he would, in the politics of 19th century England, have rivalled, and might have outshone, Gladstone and Macaulay. In British politics of the mid-20th century, he was plainly in a class of his own.
I say he came late to politics. He was in his thirties when he joined the Conservative Research Department. But his immense talents carried him upwards through the Party like a bubble through water, and he was elected to Parliament in 1950. It would be several years still before he arrived fully at the set of views we now call “Powellite.” But to call him systematic and consistent cannot be regarded at all as pretentious.
The Transition to World Empire
I think the best key to understanding Enoch Powell’s thought is to dwell on the years 1760 and 1947. Before the earlier of these years, Britain had been a European nation state – an oddity among its neighbours in its domestic arrangements, and unusually rich and powerful, but a European nation state. It then became a world empire. It would be some while – perhaps a century, or more than a century – before the nature of this change was fully understood. But the governance of the country now had to take into account far wider concerns than those that had filled the thoughts of Walpole and Bolingbroke. Because we ruled India, we had to involve ourselves in the disputes between Turkey and Russia. Because of the long route to India, we had to control Southern Africa. Once the Suez Canal had opened a shorter route, we had to take Cyprus from the Turks, and become the dominant naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean; and it became as great a crisis in our politics as disaffection in Ireland or Church tithes when the King of Egypt refused to pay his debts, and control of the Canal became an open question. Alongside India and its consequent acquisitions, there grew up immense colonies of mainly British settlement, in North America and in the South Western Pacific.
Yet even as, in the later years of Queen Victoria, its full magnificence finally took hold of the British imagination, this achievement was coming under strain. Powell described British India as a strange and improbable dream. As for the colonies of settlement, their possession of British institutions made it inevitable that they would eventually become free standing nations. The rise, towards the end of the 19th century, of other great industrial powers led to calls in Britain for some kind of Imperial Federation, with a common tariff and a common defence. For Powell, the idea was an obvious nonsense. For Powell, the Empire was a phase, terminating in itself, not the first step to a world state capable of staring down the United States.
And then, almost as quickly as a light is turned off, it was over. The wars with Germany were more expensive than had been expected. By 1945, Britain was on the edge of bankruptcy. India could not be held, and, in 1947, became independent. For Powell, this was the end. To use a different simile, it was as if the magnet beneath a sheet of paper covered with iron filings had been shifted. Because India was gone, we no longer had any interest in whether China went Communist or Fascist. Without any border between us, Soviet Russia itself was no longer a threat. Control of the Suez Canal no longer mattered. We had no reason to hold Cyprus as or for a naval base, nor any reason to buy influence in Arabia, or to garrison Aden and Mombassa.
By all means, let the liquidation be dignified, and carried out with some regard for the interests of the formerly subject peoples. But the logic of 1947 was that 1760 was undone. No longer directing a world empire, the British political class was required to think again like Walpole and Bolingbroke. Its whole concern now was to defend our home islands, and to attend to our commerce and industry, and generally to the rights and welfare of the British people.
Yet, if the Empire was only a phase in our history, its loss did not mean our end as a nation. In the life of nations as of individuals, one phase is followed by another; and, until the very end of things, no one can say which one was the more interesting or productive. Speaking in 1961, Powell told his audience:
And yet England is not as Nineveh and Tyre, nor as Rome, nor as Spain. Herodotus relates how the Athenians, returning to their city after it had been sacked and burnt by Xerxes and the Persian army, were astonished to find, alive and flourishing in the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the native symbol of their country.
So we today, at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England herself.
The Long Delusion
Sadly, his view of the logic of our position was not shared by the British ruling class. No doubt, we had been a world empire for nearly two hundred years – longer than the entire life of the United States to that time. By men of second and third rate minds, the assumptions and habits of Empire could not be thrown off overnight – nor, perhaps, in twenty years. But, rather than allow themselves to be led, however slowly and reluctantly, to an understanding of the new logic, our rulers took refuge in a vast and pernicious delusion. The Empire had not fallen, they told each other. It had merely evolved into the Commonwealth. No less organically united than the Empire had been, it remained one of the three great powers in the world, and its unique goodness both entitled and allowed it to act as arbiter between the other two powers.
In this, our rulers were like a man who has lost his job, but who continues, every morning, to put on a suit and buy a railway ticket to his former place of work. And, when the cost of travel exhausts his own means, he turns to borrowing and begging from anyone who may feel inclined to listen to him. So it was in 1950, and in 1960, and in 1970 and 1980 and 1990. So, sixteen years after Powell’s death, it remains. The delusion has become less reasonable since 1950. Its justifications have changed in ways that Churchill and Eden would not have liked. But nerve yourself to attend to the speeches written today for David Cameron to read out: you will eventually hear that we “punch above our weight,” or that “the eyes of the world are upon us.” Or look only at our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone, and our nagging of Iran and Nigeria and Zimbabwe, and our fussing over aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles and other weapons inappropriate for control of our own sea approaches.
I have said that Powell was a systematic and a consistent thinker. His view of what happened in 1947 connects the whole of his thought – his denunciations of inflation and socialism and his firm defence of the Union of the Kingdoms and the ancient rights of its people, and his resistance to our membership of the European Union. But this is a half hour speech, and I will not put myself on your indulgence by going beyond my time. Let me, then, look at just two of the positions he took during his career.
Powell and America
The first is his suspicion of the United States. By the 1950s, it was clear that the delusion of British world power rested on the sufferance or the active subsidy of the United States. We could fight Communism in Malaya because the Americans wanted us to. When we tried to take back the Suez Canal, they told us to stop, and we did stop. I am not aware that Powell set out his thoughts at any length on the United States, and I am here interpolating my own opinion. But I do not think it inconsistent with what I have read by Powell.
Leave aside the evil and insanity of the American ruling class – something, I think, on which all in this room can agree. The problem for us is that every American, unless he denies his own birthright, must resent the survival of England since 1776. It is possible for one nation to speak a language that evolved in another nation, and to study a literature and to possess a legal tradition both of which are truly organic only to that other nation. But success in such an effort requires that other nation to be dead or insignificant. The Byzantines managed it. So have the Brazilians. When that other nation is rich and powerful, and in some degree a rival, the effort will, of necessity, lead to feelings of inferiority.
In 1917, and, again, after 1940, the Americans were given their chance. They helped Britain to victory, and did so with a lavish hand. But, if the fruit of this help was pulled beyond their grasp after the Great War, they took full possession in the 1940s. The price of helping Britain was the reduction of Britain to the status of a satellite. Even a firmly Powellite Britain, after 1950, would have had to take account of American power. But every grand gesture of the rulers we had was underwritten by the United States. To go back to my last simile, the Americans lent the railway fare money – and the price, each time, was entanglement in an American foreign policy that made no sense in terms of our own interests, and that led us into continual and corrosive national humiliation.
Enoch Powell was as hostile to NATO as he was to the European Union – perhaps more so. He never blamed the French or Germans for wholesale bribery of our rulers, or for the occasional murder of dissenting politicians. He went to the grave convinced that Airey Neave had been murdered, in 1979, by the CIA because his policy on Northern Ireland was inconvenient to an American Government that wanted the Irish Republic to join NATO.
Powell and Immigration
Now to immigration, and I hope that his views on that make more sense than perhaps they did before this morning. He never had time for rather American views of white superiority, or for the moral infirmity of the coloured races. You do not become fluent in Urdu, and a scholar of its poetry, when you believe its speakers are a lesser breed. He would probably have been indifferent to the opinions of Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer – not that I think it appropriate to denigrate either of these men thereby. His whole objection to mass-immigration was that the newcomers – regardless of their inherent quality as human beings – were not our people. Small numbers of immigrants – perhaps a few hundred thousand, concentrated in a few well-marked districts – might be accommodated. But the millions who did come, and their children and grandchildren, were in the nation, but not of the nation. Their physical presence displaced and otherwise inconvenienced the natives. The moral effects of their presence were to make the country ungovernable according to its ancient ways.
We can agree that the second, and greater burst of mass-immigration to Britain that began in the 1990s was part of the Cultural Marxist assault on Western Civilisation. But the first wave, beginning in the late 1940s, was entirely an effect of the delusion I have explained. The British Empire had a common citizenship. If the pretence of the Commonwealth as a continuation of Empire was to be maintained, it too needed a common citizenship. For this reason, British Governments refused, until the partial, and unwilling, withdrawal from delusion in the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1961, to give up on insisting that every citizen of the Indian and Pakistani Republics, and of every other territory coloured red on the map in 1947, had the same right to settle and live in the United Kingdom as my own parents, and the same right to vote and to benefit from the various welfare services that, wisely or unwisely, had been made available to the British people.
I began by quoting two sentences from his Rivers of Blood Speech. I will approach my end with another: “It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” Powell said this of British immigration policy. But he could have said it of every other failure of the British ruling class to understand and act upon the logic of what happened in 1947.
Bearing in mind the nature and tone of what I have said, my closing may superfluous. Even so, I will give it. I met Enoch Powell and heard him speak less often than I wish I had. I wish I had known him better than I did. But I can say, with not the smallest doubt, that he was the greatest Englishman of my lifetime. I am proud to say that the Libertarian Alliance frequently invited him to speak at its meetings in the 1980s and 1990s, and that we published several articles by him. Of particular importance among these articles is the attack that he made in 1984 on the Drug Trafficking Offences Bill and the principle that it brought into English law of asset forfeiture without conviction.
I regret that I was unable to stand outside his memorial service. But my late friend, Chris R. Tame, made a point of being there. A hundred years from now, no one will remember the corrupt nonentities who fall over each other to denounce Enoch Powell. Equally, a hundred years from now, men will still be reading Enoch Powell for pleasure and instruction. And, by then, it may not be an informal crime to stand up and say “Enoch was right.”
© 2014 – 2017, seangabb.
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