Comment: Thank God he never got near Downing Street

David Walker on enoch powell
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The Independent Online
Younger readers start here. Enoch Powell, who died yesterday, was a marginal Tory politician. He was often slightly deranged, and looked it. His political life was a tissue of contradictions which a gullible and right-leaning political press exalted as one of high principle.

It's considered indelicate, even in our coolly secular age, to bad-mouth the dead. But Powell, in death as in life, seems to inspire a peculiar brand of flatulent praise so it's important to do two things - to itemise the contradictions and to trace Powell's political spoor. It turns out the inconsistencies are many and of his enduring influence there is very little trace indeed.

Item. Here was someone who claimed to know a thing or two about ancient Rome, who could doubtless quote verbatim from Cicero's many speeches about senators on the take, who refused to list his commercial interests in the House of Commons Register on the grounds all parliamentarians are ipso facto "honourable".

Item. Here was an imperialist, that's to say a passionate believer in the British Empire who sat on his hands while, in the Fifties, the Tories begged West Indians to come to do menial jobs on the London buses who suddenly discovers that imperial sons and daughters are aliens who deserved to perish - he covered his tracks by pretentious citation of Virgil - in rivers of blood.

Item. Here was a principled opponent of public spending who resigned from Macmillan's Cabinet in 1957 when the old gent cooked the books who popped up as Minister of Health (in Macmillan's Cabinet) three years later to commence the mother of hospital building programmes, the basic fiscal position having changed not a jot in the intervening years.

Item. Here, memorably, was a life-long opponent of socialism, a Tory of deepest hue who urges his followers in 1974 to vote for ... the Labour Party, then entering one of its more obviously socialist phases.

So, when we see in today's obits those pearly adjectives about Powell's principle and brilliance, we need to understand this to be less about Powell than the perennial intellectual frustration of the right-wing in Britain. Gimlet-eyed, Powell gave the impression of high theory and intellectual rigour: the right flatters him to deceive themselves.

Conservatism is inherently an empirical creed which, to its credit, finds ideas, especially Big Ideas, repellent. Powell indeed was no systematic thinker (his great hero, Edmund Burke, not especially consistent in his conservatism, at least wrote whole books). Powell's political testimony is, at best, a ragbag of occasional speeches.

As for his influence on practical politics, he was associated with two questions. One, let's call a spade a spade, was the racialism of large numbers of British people. They had been happy to have had the Empire but, hypocritical, were none too happy when the Empire Windrush docked at Gravesend in 1947 with the first contingent of West Indian settlers. Powell, a passionate opponent of independence for India, offered no analysis of what the United Kingdom was to do in the changed circumstances of the post-war world, no practical advice on the difficulties of integrating (comparatively small) numbers of African Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani people into urban life.

His, instead, was the soothsayer's part. Let others worry about repatriation (was that his preferred final solution?) or government planning for social integration. He preferred to condemn, though - apart from one memorable and unproven assertion about a poor white Wolverhampton widow having excrement thrust through her letterbox by black people - chose to conceal his intent behind euphemism and Latin quotation.

Three decades on, Powell the prophet stands naked. He got the numbers and the sociology wrong. The race-tinged rioting in Brixton and Toxteth in the early Eighties sprang from conditions Powell never addressed. As for the positive cultural impact of non-white immigration, Powell evidently did not eat a balti in his life. As for his impact on Toryism: William Hague's visit to the Notting Hill carnival, however ridiculous he looked, said it all. Britain is a society in which more or less happily black and white live together. There is no alternative.

The other Powell cause was a brand of conservatism with which Thatcherism made such a dramatic break. He was a Tory of the stop-the-world-I-want- to-get-off variety. Market capitalism, Powell was against it. European unity, against that too. The United States of America, bad news there. Negotiation to secure a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland - Powell's love affair with Thatcher ended in the mid eighties when she got all-Irish talks going.

In this kind of conservatism you never appear to need to say what you stand for. Did Powell want to restore the status quo in Ireland ante 1922, ante 1916 or ante 1798? Instead of the European Economic Community as was, he could hardly have proposed a free trade area since on the subject of free trade he was distinctly ambiguous. He was a British nationalist, yes, but (at least on the last occasion I interviewed him) admitted the Scots had every right to vote for independence.

Political views are one thing. Powell's deepest failure - since he was a practising politician, an MP since the early Fifties - was never to strive to build a working political entity to carry his views. Unlike Jean Marie Le Pen, or before him Pierre Poujade, he created no reactionary front; when the dockers marched from the Pool of London in his honour, did he respond? No, the man who allegedly "dared to express all the fears that secretly gripped millions" was a political mute. Powell was never dangerous, though he might have been if he had done a Moseley in 1968.

Eventually Powell's departure from Tory ranks seemed to come as much from callow rivalry with his contemporary Ted Heath as from principle.

Politics in a pluralist, democratic envelope is necessarily about negotiation and compromise, of leg room, of responding to changing empirical reality. That is why, in the final analysis, Ted Heath will always be incomparably greater in stature than Powell. Not just because Heath won elections (for the Tory Party leadership, the 1970 general) but because Heath saw that conservatism is always a bargain between what is and what might be.

Powell, by contrast, was an absolutist. He liked to claim his intellectual descent from Friedrich Nietzsche. (Nietzsche, himself, was forever ruing England's petty compromises, its continual slide away from grand principles.) Thanks in part to his camp romanticism, Powell always had a love affair with death: he once memorably said his greatest wish was that he had been killed in the Second World War. That kind of mind is dangerous in a democracy. The fact he never got nearer Number 10 than the Ministry of Health is a blessing of history.