Obituary: Enoch Powell
Monday 09 February 1998
Enoch Powell was a protean figure, intellectually by far the most interesting of his political contemporaries, and a man with many lives. A fine classical scholar, he became a distinguished soldier. He was a politician of distinction who, if he never held the highest office, none the less had a palpable influence on great events. And he ended his life as a biblical scholar.
Powell's life can be broken into many compartments, either chronologically or by theme, but it is perhaps best viewed in two sections - before and after 20 April 1968. On that fateful Saturday Powell made a speech on immigration that transformed the face of British politics and made it impossible for him to hold ministerial office again. For a man of vaunting ambition Powell's dismissal from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet as a result of the speech was a hard blow, particularly as he had not intended to create the explosion he did. "I felt," he said, "like a man walking down a street who is hit on the head by a tile falling from a roof." However, "I saw it immediately that I would never hold office again; and I determined to make the best use I could of my circumstances."
Before the speech Powell was regarded as an intensely interesting, quirky, and independent figure in politics; after it he was a cynosure of the national eye, hated by many and loved by many, but never regarded with indifference.
It was an improbable happening in the adult career of a male child born to humble schoolteachers in 1912 in, as he liked to put it, "a house overlooking a railway cutting in Stechford, Birmingham", though he liked to add, with relish, "during a thunderstorm".
His mother, Ellen, gave up teaching when he was born, and devoted herself thenceforth to his education. "My childhood," Powell later wrote, "is very much my mother." Having taught herself classical Greek, she passed her knowledge on to her son. He attended a local dame school, and then won a scholarship to King Edward's in Birmingham. His relaxations were few: he exercised regularly in the school gymnasium because "it was desirable to keep fit" and he played the clarinet because "it was the only instrument common to both the brass band and the orchestra". His parents, however, united to persuade him not to pursue his early ambition of a career in music. Instead he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, and, in his first year, won all the main classical prizes open to undergraduates: this achievement was, and remains, unique.
What he did during his Cambridge years he did by means of intense self- denial. A former pupil of his school once asked him to tea. Powell replied "No". He dined in hall only when college regulations required him to. He refused an invitation to dinner with the Master because he was too busy. He kept fit by walking each evening from Trinity to Cambridge railway station and back - a round trip of about an hour. During the Cambridge years, however, two enormous interests became part of his life, and influenced him thereafter.
The first was A.E. Housman. Housman was both the greatest classical scholar of the age, and a noted poet. Powell began to write poetry. He also, under the influence of Housman, began to write of the Greek classics in the most rigorous (and, some would say, arid) of manners. His A Lexicon to Herodotus (1938, the most complete guide to the meaning of all the words used by the great Greek historian) and translation of Thucydides (1942) were completed before he took his degree in 1933. He had, meanwhile, taught himself Welsh and translated an important medieval Welsh text.
The other powerful influence on Powell was the study of German. At the time of his death, Powell was fluent in eight languages, but his first contemporary love was German, and his hero was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had become a professor at the age of 24. Powell determined to beat him. "To my intense chagrin, however, I did not make it until I was 25." The professional appointment was in Australia, at the University of Sydney.
By then, though, something else had happened. Powell had become convinced of the evil that was in Nazi Germany, and he told his rather startled Vice-Chancellor at Sydney that he would resign his chair once war with Germany began. The Vice-Chancellor, he recalled, thought him more than a trifle mad to envisage such a possibility. But on the occasion of the murder, in June 1939, of an Englishman, R.M. Tinkler, by Japanese soldiers in Tientsin, Powell wrote:
For a while his land forgets
And bends the knee to threats
His vengeful spirit whets
The German bayonets.
On 4 September 1939 Powell resigned his chair and returned to Britain to enlist in his father's old regiment, the Royal Warwicks, in whose churchyard he is to be buried, in his brigadier's uniform.
As he had been the youngest professor in the Commonwealth so Powell became the youngest brigadier in the Army. He served in intelligence, principally in North Africa, and always regretted that he never saw combat. The war over, he went to India and fell in love with the country. He learnt Hindi and Urdu - achieving the status of interpreter in both languages. Inflamed by the prospect of Indian independence, he resigned his commission, to enter politics at home. He wrote later:
I thought of how Burke had said 160 years earlier that the keys of India were not in Calcutta, not in Delhi, they were in that box - the Despatch Box at the House of Commons. I decided at that time that I must go there.
Powell first joined the Conservative Research Department. There he shared a room with Iain Macleod and Reginald Maudling and was in Macleod's words, "memorably unapproachable". Powell did, however, fall for his secretary, Pamela Wilson, the daughter of a colonel. (He loved later to recall, "I outranked my father-in-law.") Pamela turned down his first proposal on the grounds, "My father would never allow me to marry a teetotaller." Powell learnt about drink and, at his second attempt, Pamela accepted him.
Powell was elected to the House of Commons in 1951. Almost instantly he displayed his independence, turning down the offer of a post in the Welsh Office. Thereafter his rise was less than meteoric. His first governmental job was as Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Housing; his second (in 1957) as Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
Nine months later Powell and the two other Treasury ministers - the others being Peter Thorneycroft and Nigel Birch - resigned because of their conviction that the Macmillan government was spending too much. Powell was thus first identified with a policy of thrift in the handling of the public purse which was to occupy much of his time for the rest of his life.
He refused Macmillan's offer of office until Thorneycroft was also restored. (Birch's health was indifferent, and he had ruled himself out of consideration.) In 1960 Powell became Minister of Health, and embarked on a massive hospital building programme. He also won notoriety for outfacing a pay claim by nurses. This was the first evidence the general public had of his flint- like capacity to defy received opinion.
Then, in 1963, he (along with Iain Macleod) provoked another storm. Macmillan decided to retire: his health was not good, and he had been demoralised by a series of scandals. (The most notable of these was the so-called Profumo affair, in which the then Secretary for War lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with a prostitute, Christine Keeler. Powell's acceptance of the Prime Minister's profession of ignorance on the matter was widely seen - because of his known moral probity - as decisive in saving the life of the Government.) Macmillan, however, organised the succession to himself. The palm fell to the Earl of Home. Macleod and Powell, both of whom favoured R.A. Butler, declined to serve in the new Prime Minister's Cabinet. A year later the Conservative Party narrowly lost a general election.
In 1965 Powell stood for the leadership of his party, on the first occasion on which Tory backbenchers could vote for their leader. He gained a derisory 15 votes and then - having been, briefly, Conservative transport spokesman - served under Edward Heath as Conservative defence spokesman. Then came 1968.
The Shadow Cabinet had decided to move an amendment to the Government's planned legislation on race relations. Having agreed its terms, Powell spoke in Birmingham on immigration. The speech - the best remembered phrase from which is "I seem to see the river Tiber foaming with much blood" - had an explosive effect. Heath, whose views on restricting New Commonwealth immigration did not markedly differ from Powell's, objected to the tone of their enunciation. On the night of the speech (and after some pressure from other colleagues), he dismissed Powell from the front bench. Powell was never again to serve in a senior political capacity.
However, the speech did make him a leading national figure. London dockworkers marched in his support. He received thousands of letters. None the less he rejected all appeals to stand for the leadership of his party and, in the general election of June 1970, contributed materially to Heath's victory. In what is, to my mind, the most memorable of his speeches he declared:
On Thursday your vote is about a Britain that, with all its faults and failings, is still free, and great because it is free. On Thursday your vote decides whether that freedom shall survive or not. You dare not entrust it to any government but a Conservative government.
More, however, was to come. Powell had always been a nationalist. After Heath's victory in 1970, and the subsequent entry of the United Kingdom into the EEC, Powell became ever more fervently British and ever more fervent in renouncing the recognition of sovereignty that membership of the Common Market involved. Throughout the parliament elected in 1970 he spoke out on a great many subjects, but on none more energetically than the EEC. As the Heath government foundered he asked, in the House, whether the Prime Minister had taken leave of his senses. (He did not know, at the time, that Edward Heath was quite seriously ill because of a thyroid deficiency.) When, in 1974, in the face of a mounting industrial crisis, Heath called a general election, Powell startled admirers and enemies alike by declining to stand as a Conservative candidate.
His announcement came in the form of a curt letter to the chairman of his constituency association. Towards the end of the campaign, however, he went further. He advised all who approved of his views - on immigration, the economy but, above all, on the EEC - to vote for the Labour Party. Heath lost the election, albeit by a narrow margin. He lost again in October, and was never to hold power again.
Puzzling though it was to many of his followers, Powell's reasoning for backing Labour was simple. Harold Wilson had promised a referendum on EEC membership. This offered a chance of escape from the tentacles of the Community, and Powell believed that the opportunity should be taken: he was never in doubt that Wilson wanted to stay in; but he believed that a referendum could be a way out. He was wrong: the referendum in 1975 kept Britain within the EEC.
Throughout 1974 Powell resisted many attempts to persuade him to return to Parliament as a Tory. When he did come back it was as an Ulster Unionist. His decision to accept a nomination to the Ulster constituency of South Down was, again, all of a piece with his character. He believed above all in the unity of the United Kingdom and was more than happy to serve out his final political years in preserving that unity. His final political victory was to obtain an increased number of Westminster seats for Northern Ireland, up from six to 13 seats. This he secured from the minority government headed by James Callaghan, who had succeeded Harold Wilson as Leader of the Labour Party.
One of the ironies - and there were many of them - of Powell's political career was that the increase in Ulster seats (the achievement of which he was most proud) involved a change of boundaries in County Down. As a consequence of that change he lost his seat in Parliament in the general election in 1987. He did not cease to be active as a commentator on politics. But, as he once put it, "The difference between 1974 and 1987 was this. After 1974 I thought: it was likely that I would come back. After 1987 I knew I never would."
All suggestions of a life peerage were declined. After all, he said, "I opposed the introduction of these things. I could hardly accept one, could I?" Furthermore, in an unlikely alliance with Michael Foot, Powell had, under the second Wilson government, blocked any change in the make- up of the upper house. This was during the life of the second government headed by Harold Wilson: the unlikely pairing was devastatingly effective.
In the year before the general election of 1970, when I was the desk officer responsible for Home Office affairs at the Conservative Research Department, at least weekly - and sometimes, it seemed, daily - there arrived from Powell an attack on one of my leaflets or pamphlets on the subject of immigration. I had strict instructions from my Director, Brendon Sewell, never to reply directly to Powell, but to leave that difficult task to him.
It was difficult not because of any major difference of opinion on the subject between Sewell and Powell, but because Powell so relished intellectual combat that his epistles resembled the work of a scholar of the Talmud. Having himself been a Research Department desk officer, Enoch Powell was particularly zealous in spotting any mistakes we made.
Suddenly, then, there was a change. One evening, after the weekly meeting of the Tory backbench Home Affairs Committee Powell called after me in the corridor. I turned back, expecting a diatribe. He had heard I was against Britain's joining the Common Market. Was this true? It was. He stood in thought for a moment, head bent, hand to chin, and then said, in that deliberate way which was so characteristic of him, "I suppose, then, that I'll have to leave you to get on with that." The letters and memos stopped straight away.
The greatest endeavour of Powell's later years was The Evolution of the Gospel (1994), his new translation of and commentary on the Gospel according to St John. His Aramaic, his Greek and his Hebrew all came into play here. It is an extraordinary testimony to an extraordinary man that he should have both begun and ended as a scholar, and have been the most popular politician of his time between.
Powell stopped writing poetry for publication shortly after his marriage. However, on the anniversary of his marriage each year he wrote a poem for Pamela. These poems are to be buried with him, for his widow will not publish them. That is a fitting thing to record about a man who was such an improbable combination of purist, pedant, romantic and patriot. He was, also, one of the greatest of our patriots. He would deny the adjective in that last sentence. But he would, I hope, be pleased by the noun.
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