Monday Book: The deluded prophet

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The Independent Culture
ENOCH POWELL died only nine months ago, but here, already, is the authorised biography. Over the previous 30 years, since he shot to notoriety with his infamous "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he had already been the subject of more biographies than any political figure who was not prime minister. The last, by Robert Shepherd, was the first to draw on the Conservative Party archive and the Public Record Office. But Shepherd, like all previous biographers, still ducked the real problem of Powell's intellectual formation. No one will really explain Powell until they can make sense of his bizarre compound of classical literature, German Romanticism and Christianity.

Simon Heffer, with a life of Carlyle to his credit, is better qualified than most to meet this challenge; and in his early chapters he makes a decent fist of it, describing the influence of Housman (both as exacting critic and Romantic poet); and of Nietzsche's atheism (never quite overlaid by Powell's subsequent conversion). Unfortunately, once launched into politics he loses sight of this thread, treating Powell as just another politician - which he was not.

Heffer's second great asset is Powell's own papers. But these turn out to be less revealing than expected. Powell's letters to his - surely bewildered? - parents, from Cambridge, from Sydney (where he was professor of Greek at 25) and during the war, do shed light on his emerging beliefs and ambitions. Other correspondence reveals two intensely homoerotic relationships which inspired Powell's tamely Housmanesque verse, and fills out the story of his comically misconceived pursuit of his first female love (a jolly hunting girl, who very sensibly refused him).

Here again, the early chapters are the best. When it comes to politics, the papers add remarkably little to the published record.

What Heffer does have is the text of every speech, article and letter Powell ever wrote, and these he gives us in extenso. Powell, who believed that a politician lived by his words, would have approved; but the result is a monumental compilation: 960 pages of text, which is not only too long, but also relentlessly chronological and largely uncritical. This is more an exhaustive chronicle than a reflective biography. It is a heroic saga reminiscent of Michael Foot on Bevan (without the purple prose) or AJP Taylor on Beaverbrook (without the epigrams).

Heffer sees Powell unquestioningly as a prophet without honour for most of his life, who lived long enough to see his heresies accepted as the conventional wisdom. But this is a disciple's view. In truth the record is mixed.

On top of a hundred other controversies, from nuclear deterrence to the authorship of Shakespeare, on which he took up stimulating but usually perverse positions, Powell devoted his life to three great causes: promoting free-market economics, reversing coloured immigration and opposing British integration with Europe. On the first, undeniably, he was the pathfinder for a counter-revolution in political economy. It was an astonishing intellectual achievement by a self-taught economist, applying unsparing logic to the wishful illusions of collectivists and corporatists. He had some grounds for thinking he deserved the Nobel Prize as much as Milton Friedman. Yet he only predicted the counter-revolution; he did not cause it.

He was unquestionably courageous to highlight the potential social problem he saw developing in his constituency; but the apocalyptic way he did so was calculated to exacerbate tensions, not alleviate them. Powell gave every impression of wishing to see his grim prophecies of inevitable civil war fulfilled; but he was quite simply wrong to believe that "human nature" made racial assimilation impossible. Moreover, he never confronted the historic irony that immigration was only his beloved empire coming home to roost.

Finally, Powell was undoubtedly clear-sighted, from his British nationalist perspective, in drawing attention to the federalist implications of the Treaty of Rome long before anyone else recognised them.

He anticipated the arguments of the Nineties Europhobes at a time when they were all (Thatcher, Benn, Ridley, Lamont et al) enthusiastically pro-Europe. But the fact that others have picked up his arguments does not make them right. The momentum towards integration is irresistible, and the British electorate - though it is instinctively insular - does not in the last resort share his mystical belief in the uniqueness of England.

Asked in 1982 if he was a Christian, Powell replied: "I am an Anglican". Even his avowed religion was subordinate to his exalted sense of nationhood. But it is dangerous nonsense to make the nation state the highest human value. Fortunately, the British do not believe any such thing. The ultimate paradox of Powell is that he who thought himself so English was in his fanaticism utterly un-English.

John Campbell

The reviewer is the biographer of Edward Heath and is now writing a biography of Margaret Thatcher