Books: A talent for impotent fury

Like a Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell by Simon Heffer Weidenfeld pounds 25
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Had he not seen the River Tiber foaming in blood, Enoch Powell would have been forgotten twenty years ago. The speech which destroyed him as an effective politician made him as a myth. He became - in the minds of romantic Tories - the lost leader whose genius was denied to the nation because of a lunch-time meeting in a Birmingham hotel. If the speech had not been made, or if it had been forgiven, he would have become a middle-ranking member of Ted Heath's Cabinet. Assuming he had not, as was his habit, resigned before the 1974 general election, he would have exhibited his talent for impotent fury first from the opposition back benches and then, after 1970, from a seat on the government's side of the House but some distance below the gangway. Margaret Thatcher would not have contemplated giving high office to such an unpredictably arrogant man. Indeed she never forgave him for his other conscious contribution to Powell folklore: "putting country before party" by supporting Labour in 1974 in the foolish belief that Harold Wilson would take Britain out of the Common Market.

Powell himself cultivated the myth to the very end. Indeed, he extended it beyond the grave by stipulating that he was to be buried in the uniform of a brigadier. Less than a year before he died, he was the subject of a television profile which was built around film of his turbulent past and required him to comment on the faded glories. When the studio screen flickered with pictures of dockers marching in support of his attacks on black Britain, he leaned forwards in his chair more clearly to hear them chanting "We want Enoch!". He could not wait until the old film was finished. Turning his manic eye on the camera he cried, in a voice enfeebled with age, "They still do. They still do."

The extraordinary aspect of the Powell career is the way in which men of talent have accepted him and his own, highly inflated value. Simon Heffer now takes his place as the leader of the younger acolytes. He is a journalist of considerable distinction who usually combines judgement with elegance of expression, and has written an excellent life of Thomas Carlyle. True, he usually takes what was once called "a right-wing line" - admiration for Margaret Thatcher, opposition to the European Union, contempt for John Major. But these days the Tory ideological lines are blurred. Few Conservatives would, however, endorse the Birmingham speech which rightly resulted in Enoch Powell's sacking from the Shadow Cabinet. Yet Heffer dignifies it by taking the title of his biography from its most notorious passage. Nobody ever accused Heffer's hero of being oversensitive to the feelings of racial minorities. It seems that his fan club share that characteristic.

It must be said in Heffer's defence that he is not alone in his admiration. Like a Roman lists politicians (some of whom should have known better) who joined in the chorus of unjustified praise. Michael Foot wrote of "the wonder and excitement" which he felt on hearing a Powell speech in the House of Commons - illustrating the former leader's preference for parliamentary style over political substance. Tony Benn congratulated him on his promotion to the Cabinet (which, being before the "rivers of blood" speech, was obsequious but acceptable) and was in the congregation at his memorial service - which, being afterwards, was not. Indeed Powell's death was marked by such a desire to speak only good of the dead, that the old accusation of racism was modified. Powell, we are told, was a nationalist with nothing but affection for his black brothers.

To his credit, Heffer - who must know how poisonous the words are - quotes the offending and offensive passage of the Birmingham Speech in full. In the great tradition of bar-room racism, it retold somebody else's story. In Powell's case it was a lady from a once-respectable street in Wolverhampton who was harassed by what she described as "grinning piccaninnies". According to the unidentified informant they pushed excreta through her letter box. The same story had been told by skinheads and lager louts all over Britain. Perhaps it had happened once on some obscure estate. Powell's offence was to suggest that it was a common course of behaviour, that all the black British were likely to behave (or perhaps did behave) in the same way. That was classic racism. The supplementary charge against Powell was that he briefly made racism seem respectable by dressing it up in pin-striped trousers and a homburg hat. And, what is more, he did it to gain personal publicity. "I am," he predicted, "going to make a speech which will go off like a rocket." It exploded in his face.

So why do men like Simon Heffer admire him? One of his attractions is psychological - a rigidity of mind which sees all issues (not simply race) in black and white. Powell believed that politics should be governed by iron laws, and that was immensely attractive for those who longed for simple certainty. He was - and it proved a great attraction to the romantics - an old-fashioned nationalist. Not only did he oppose British membership of the European Union, and for constitutional rather than economic reasons, he rode to hounds in the mistaken belief that it would make him a country gentleman. And he was a soi disant intellectual in an age when thought and learning was discounted in party politics. However, despite his undoubted early academic distinction, much of Powell's parliamentary erudition was bogus. His forte was to dress up simplistic concepts in arcane language. Often even the concepts were absurd. Heffer tells us that, as an undergraduate, Powell read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population with "excitement" and that it helped to shape his future economic thinking. At least his life was all of one piece. Malthus's population theory was apocalyptic, callous and wrong.

Apparently "Powellism" as a distinct philosophy was launched in the constituency of Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister whose retirement had brought Powell's career to its ultimate end. Powell had resigned as Macmillan's Financial Secretary, accepted his offer of the Ministry of Health and then refused to serve under Alec Douglas-Home when the 14th Earl renounced his peerage in order to succeed the ageing (though not, as it turned out, ailing) Supermac. The speech was about what Heffer calls "socialist delusion". He suggests that it demonstrated that Powell had marked out ahead of his resignation the path he wished to follow. So much for an act of undeniable principle.

It was all elementary stuff: "We believe in capitalism ... the system of competition and free enterprise rewarding success and penalising failure." But that was its appeal and charm. Its attraction was increased by a dash of mysticism. When the numbers of undergraduates entering universities increased. Powell insisted that it was not the result of changing economic conditions, improved prospects or the availability of more places. "This," he said "is the expression of a national call for progress in education." Like so many Powell purple passages, the high-sounding assertion had absolutely no meaning. It is hardly surprising that when Alec Douglas-Home resigned the Tory Leadership, Powell received only 15 votes in the election which followed. Before the result was announced the Daily Telegraph reported a "strong ground swell" for Powell as the man "best equipped to imbue the country with Conservative principles". Although he has moved to the Daily Mail, Simon Heffer is still a Telegraph man at heart.

From the early Sixties onwards, it was all downhill for Powell. Having refused to fight for the Conservatives in 1974, he returned to the Commons as the Official Unionist Member for South Down - and naturally took a more extreme view about the Republic than any of his colleagues. He actually "participated in a great act of Unionist solidarity in west Belfast" - the commemoration of the signing of the 1912 Ulster Convention. That was the occasion when the Orangemen declared that "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right". Enoch Powell the great patriot, royalist and nationalist celebrated the declaration of rebellion against the crown. He was also appalled by the thought that the Queen's head might be removed from British bank notes and coins.

Yet all this is forgotten by those who revere his memory and is even hidden from those who despise him for the "rivers of blood" abomination. On the day that speech was made I was in my Birmingham constituency and at a primary school surrounded by what Powell would have called "grinning piccaninnies". I still wonder how their parents felt when they read the evening newspapers. Enoch Powell deserves to be, and is best, forgotten.