The doom of the prophet

Enoch Powell: A Biography by Robert Shepherd, Hutchinson, pounds 25
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In a parliamentary career of 37 years, Enoch Powell served in government for just over four years and in the Cabinet for only 15 months. Yet for a period of about six years following his notorious "rivers of blood" speech (not that he ever used those words) in April 1968, he commanded more attention, analysis, adulation and excoriation than any figure in British politics between Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

He is credited with making Ted Heath Prime Minister and then unmaking him again; and with anticipating the central elements of Thatcherism - liberal economics combined with English nationalism - at least a decade before the Lady herself stumbled on them. He has already been the subject of more biographies than most Prime Ministers, from Andrew Roth and Paul Foot in the first flush of his notoriety to Patrick Cosgrave's admiring celebration in 1989. So as he slips into history the reader may wonder why we need another; especially as Robert Shepherd does not have the benefit of Powell's own papers. This is not the official life.

The answer is precisely that the bulk of his career is now the stuff of history, as opposed to journalism. Under the 30 year rule the Cabinet papers up to 1964 are open. Year by year, like a receding tide, the rule allows the previously hidden crevices and rock pools of living memory to be systematically explored. Thus the whole of Powell's brief ministerial career is now exposed: not only his year at the Treasury under Peter Thorneycroft, 1957-8, culminating in their resignation on the issue of public spending, later seen by Thatcherite mythology as the seminal moment in the rediscovery of monetarism; but also his considerably more important stint (1960-3) as the most creative Minister of Health between Aneurin Bevan and Kenneth Clarke. Since he never held office again after refusing to serve Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Public Record Office has nothing more to reveal about Powell (except, perhaps, how later governments tried to neutralise him).

Second, Shepherd has had access to the Conservative Party archive up to 1975 (when Powell ceased to be a member), including most crucially the Shadow Cabinet minutes from 1964-70. These chart his growing alienation from Heath on a much wider range of issues than immigration, until the explosive moment of his Birmingham speech and his exile to the wilder shores of populism, where he dwelled in a thickening miasma of conspiracy theories (compounded by further exile to Northern Ireland) for the rest of his career. With all this hard material for the middle years of Powell's life now available, Shepherd, as a serious historian, quite rightly concentrates on what he can document: the "River Tiber" speech comes three quarters of the way through the book.

Shepherd is steeped in this material, having covered much of the same ground only two years ago in his equally good biography of Powell's friend and rival, Iain Macleod. The problem that any biographer has with Powell, however, is getting into his mind. Powell is not an ordinary politician but (almost uniquely in high-level politics) a true intellectual. There are plenty of highly educated people, but that is different: Powell is an intellectual in that he is genuinely fascinated (and led astray) by ideas. No biographer will really crack Enoch Powell who cannot follow him into the three areas of detailed textual scholarship which have excited his intellectual passion over his 84 years.

First, from his schooldays onwards he edited and translated Herodotus, becoming Professor of Greek at 24: years later Lord Hailsham, who prided himself on his knowledge of the classics, found that Powell could always cap him. Second, Powell fell in love at the age of 15 with the German language and German romanticism: Goethe, Heine and above all Nietszche. Hitler disillusioned him equally abruptly, but 50 years later his eight records on Desert Island Discs were all German (four of them Wagner).

Third, he is obsessed with minute analysis and interpretation of the New Testament, an obsession which Shepherd reveals he inherited from his mother (who taught herself Greek in order to clear up some theological point) and which culminated only two years ago in the publication of his bizarre theory that Jesus was not crucified but stoned to death. He has also taught himself medieval Welsh, written a history of the medieval House of Lords and published three volumes of poems. All this Shepherd duly recounts, but he cannot be said to make biographical sense of it. Maybe Simon Heffer (the next biographer in line) will crack it, but more likely the task is impossible.

The great paradox of Powell, a man who lives for paradox, is that his famously logical intellect is actually the slave of his emotions. He suffers Pauline conversions with the regularity of Mr Toad. Every few years his whole belief system is turned upside down by a new passion which entirely overthrows the old. Horrified by the Roehm purge, he renounced his love of Germany overnight. Abandoning the idea of a musical career, he went to the opposite extreme and abjured music altogether. Militantly atheistic as a boy, he dramatically rediscovered Christianity (or his own highly individual interpretation of it) on Easter Sunday, 1950.

He fell in love with India during the war and went into politics to save the British Empire. As late as 1954 he was still asserting that Britain without the Empire was nothing, only to reverse that faith too and turn all his powers of local demolition on ridiculing his party's imperial delusions. In each case it was not simply that he changed his mind, but that he changed it so diametrically, so vehemently, so emotionally.

His subsequent brilliantly argued, but invariably negative crusades - against coloured immigration, European integration, nuclear deterrence, the American alliance and any hint of compromise in Northern Ireland - all stemmed from his traumatic rejection of empire and the adoption in its place of an impossibly idealised notion of English national identity. On every item of this bizarrely disparate checklist Powell had a case.

It was quite right that politicians should face up to the unanticipated social transformation wrought by immigration; and Heath was not candid about the federalist implications of the Treaty of Rome (neither was Thatcher about the Single European Act). But in every instance Powell's credibility was damaged, first by his having previously argued the opposite with equal passion and then by his self-indulgent taste for blood curdling overstatement. While constantly invoking a mystical Englishness, he has the very un-English temperament of a religious fanatic. He overlooks the true British genius for illogicality, compromise and muddling through.

He was most consistent, most prophetic and perhaps most influential on economics. Certainly much of what he was mocked for advocating in the 1960s - free markets, privatisation, limited government - became reality in the 1980s (not only in Britain, but around the world). But even here he did not practice his own principles. As Minister of Health, he not only planned the most ambitious hospital programme in the history of the NHS, but enforced Selwyn Lloyd's incomes policy against the nurses with a ferocious rigidity which appalled his colleagues.

History will remember Enoch as an ascetic half-mad hermit forever prophesying national doom at the hands of Pakistanis, Americans, Eurocrats and Irish (abetted by the treacherous Foreign Office). He deserves some credit as a guru of market economics, John the Baptist to Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. But he destroyed most of that credit by his loony extremism on other subjects. Robert Shepherd has written a first class account of an extraordinary career. But, when the dazzling detonations of Powell's pyrotechnics have faded, all that remains is a whiff of sulphur.