Profile: Not as rigorous as he thinks: Enoch Powell, craggy, lonely, controversial still

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAS been many a year since a work of biblical scholarship captured the headlines. Yet it happened this week, because the author, Enoch Powell, is one of the most controversial, reviled and revered of living British politicians. And although 82 and out of Parliament for the past seven years, he is one of the few politicians whose constituency crosses barriers of class, education and age.

According to the experts, it is debatable whether Mr Powell's controversial thesis - that Christ was not crucified by the Romans but stoned to death for blasphemy by 'the Jewish Establishment' - is technically heretical. But, if it is taken seriously, it is bound to set the cat among the pigeons. As Bishop John Austin Baker, former chairman of the Church of England Doctrine Commission, points out, 'It really does pull the rug out from under what we mean by Christianity.' And Jewish leaders are alarmed that the sort of folk who once marched for Enoch will give an anti- Semitic spin to Mr Powell's words.

The trouble is that, on this occasion as so often before, Mr Powell applied what the Chambers Dictionary of Political Biography calls his 'enormous intellect', and ploughed on regardless. But is Mr Powell's intellect as great as his admirers make out? And, of at least equal importance in a politician, what of his judgement? Should we really take him seriously?

In a narrow academic sense there can be no debate about his abilities. Powell was born in Birmingham in 1912 and came from a relatively humble background. Both his parents were primary school teachers. Having won just about every relevant scholarship and prize, he gained a First at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1933. He became a Fellow a year later, resigning to become Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney in 1937. At 25, he was the youngest professor in the Commonwealth. His translation and studies of Herodotus, published half a century ago, remain standard works.

Powell is, then, a first-rate classicist as well as being a devout high churchman. But he is neither a Christian theologian nor an expert in Jewish law of the early Christian period. This did not, however, deter him from stating his views on the crucifixion in the preface to The Evolution of The Gospel, his annotated translation of Saint Matthew's gospel, which Yale University Press is shortly to publish.

And how did Mr Powell reach his startling conclusion? Well, having noted that 'the scholarship of centuries has been devoted to (the Gospel according to Saint Matthew)', Mr Powell explains that he wished to clear his mind of 'preconceptions or conclusions arrived at by others'. He had therefore 'neither ascertained nor recorded previous agreement or disagreement with the results I propose'.

Such an approach surely demonstrates poor judgement. The task of an academic coming to a field that has commanded serious and sustained study is to assess critically the body of inherited knowledge and to build on that which is secure. Mr Powell left himself open to easy attack from those like John Baker, who said this week: 'He is a great classicist, but theology is out of his academic field.' Geza Vermes, Professor-emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, and an expert in Middle East religions at the time of Christ, says waspishly: 'A number of his (Powell's) views are difficult to reconcile to Jewish religious ideas and practices in first-century Palestine.'

Mr Powell likes being a loner. He affects not to know what all the fuss is about, and stresses that his latest discovery has not diminished his faith. Those who have spoken to him report that he seems genuinely surprised at the impact of his carefully crafted words - just as he was said to be, back in 1968, after he had delivered his 'rivers-of-blood' speech opposing non- white immigration.

Until Mr Powell enunciated in that flat Midland accent his apocalyptic vision of 'the river Tiber foaming with much blood', he had been a relatively low-profile shadow minister given to delivering arcane but prescient lectures on the virtues of monetarism. But the days following the Birmingham speech saw dockers, meat porters and printers marching in spontaneous and alarmingly rowdy support for his belief that large numbers of non-white immigrants were unassimilable and that planned but voluntary repatriation should be organised urgently.

In subsequent years there have indeed been riots, though not on an American scale and seldom straightforwardly racial. Some blood has flown, but not in rivers. And it is hard to find anybody in public life who would today attack multi-culturalism.

Yet there are still plenty of fervent admirers of Powell and his absolutist approach to race and nationhood, and they are to be found in the fogeyish editorial offices of the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph and around Cambridge high tables, as well as in pubs on run-down council estates.

These true believers are united in their belief that, in some primeval, romantic sense, this austere intellectual patriot spoke for Britain. For those in the bar it remains important that an educated man, immaculately dressed in formal, old-fashioned style, gave legitimacy to their fears and loathings. For this they would even ignore his opposition to capital punishment and his support, in the Sixties, for the legalisation of homosexual acts.

As far as the fogies are concerned, the crucial point is that Powell articulates their world view - a continuing nostalgia for a lost Empire, a mixture of scorn and alarm at the seemingly inexorable rise of the crude and vulgar United States, anxiety that British sovereignty will be subsumed in a federalist Europe, and fear that the nation's racial and cultural identity is under threat. But he was able to combine this world view with something most of the fogies lack - an instinctive ability to ring populist bells.

For his friend and admirer John Biffen, it is the fact that Powell chose to sacrifice his career on the altar of his populist views on race and the Common Market, instead of attempting to exploit them in a bid for leadership of party or nation, which explains his enduring appeal. After all, Powell could have placed himself at the head of the marchers in 1968. He did not do so.

Similarly, Biffen argues, Powell's split with Edward Heath over membership of the Common Market did not, in honour, necessitate resignation from the Conservative Party and a refusal to stand again for Wolverhampton in Febuary 1974. It did not necessitate advising people to vote Labour, or Powell's subsequent retreat to Ulster. (He represented South Down as a Unionist from October 1974 until he lost the seat in 1987.) Had Powell played his hand in a more self- promoting manner, Biffen says, 'he could have positioned himself to be Joseph Chamberlain. He would not have led the party but he would have been an unusually powerful number two'.

That time is, of course, long past. 'We are now in a period of repudiation of political establishments across Europe,' according to Biffen. 'Enoch's craggy individualism and his driving sense of self-sacrifice are suddenly very appealing. If he were 10 years younger he would be a powerful political figure.'

Even those one might expect to number themselves among Powell's harshest critics are often inclined to present him as something akin to a fallen angel. For example, Michael Foot, with whom he co-operated to scupper the Wilson/Crossman reform of the House of Lords in 1968, shares Biffen's perception of Powell as a towering intellect and a lost leader.

'Without the Birmingham speech, the Tory kingdom would sooner or later have been his to command, for he had all the shining qualities which the others lacked. Heath would never have outmanoeuvred him; Thatcher would never have stepped into the vacant shoes.' So wrote Foot in Loyalties and Loners, published in 1986. He continued: 'It was a tragedy for Enoch and a tragedy for the rest of us' (italics added).

Yet read again, 26 years on: what is striking is the intemperate, opportunistic, exploitative nature of Powell's language and argument on that great, defining occasion in Birmingham. For example, Powell spoke of a nation 'mad, literally mad . . . busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre' by admitting supposedly unassimilable masses of alien people.

He went on to describe a letter from an elderly white lady who would not abandon her house in a Wolverhampton street into which immigrants were moving. Her windows had been smashed, she claimed, and excrement pushed through her letterbox. She was afraid to go out because she was apparently followed by what Powell called 'charming wide-grinning piccaninnies' chanting: 'Racialist'.

The speech played to the nation's deepest fears. But it was lacking in judgement and moral rigour, and - far more serious - it failed to offer any convincing way forward.

Those who so choose can salute Enoch Powell's intellectual and rhetorical skills and what Biffen calls his 'craggy individualism'. But we can rest content with the knowledge that he will remain a lost leader. For, as he proved that day in Birmingham, his vision of Britain was ultimately backward-looking and deeply embittered. He is better at casting stones than he is at offering hope for the future.

Comments