Yes, I agree with Enoch (except ...)

His racism should not obscure how right Enoch Powell has always been on Europe and the economy

Niall Ferguson
Monday 13 November 1995 00:02 GMT

I agree with most of what Enoch Powell says. As a matter of fact, I recently sat alongside him at a public meeting. And we are both members of the same political club.

Now there's a line that deserves an HE Bateman cartoon to itself - the man who said he agreed with Enoch Powell. So let me rephrase that first sentence quickly: I agree with everything Enoch Powell says, except what he says about race.

Now, the idea of Enoch Powell without racism may sound like the idea of Tony Benn without socialism. But that seems to me to be a profound misconception. Certainly, history will remember Powell principally for the fateful "rivers of blood" speech of 1968. Of all his many immolation scenes, this was the one that did his political career the most lasting damage, casting him as Mosley minus the black shirt.

Unfortunately, in the interview he gave for Michael Cockerell's documentary Odd Man Out (screened last Saturday on BBC2), Powell did little to dispel this impression. "What's wrong with racism?" he retorted. "Racism is the basis of nationality."

How on earth can any right-thinking person agree with someone who thinks like that? The answer is that it is perfectly easy, once you realise the relatively minor role this idea of race has played in Powell's development.

Let's begin with the things I do agree with. The political meeting at which I appeared alongside Powell was in fact a meeting of the Bruges Group. I had been invited to talk about German attitudes towards European federalism. Powell spoke about his reasons for opposing the original legislation incorporating Britain into the EEC.

It was a remarkable speech; and I do not mean simply because of the way Powell delivered it - without notes, gazing over the heads of the audience into an invisible yonder, his frail, emaciated body rigid with concentration, his every sentence grammatically exquisite. No, what impressed me was simply how right he had been about the constitutional implications of the European Communities Act. There we all were, getting steamed up about the treaty of Maastricht. But, as Powell said, the fundamental diminution of the sovereignty of Parliament had happened two decades before. As a constitutional conservative, in other words, I am profoundly impressed by Powell's logic. The second element of Powell's political philosophy of which I am an unqualified admirer is his economic liberalism. It was over Macmillan's lax attitude to public expenditure that Powell resigned from the Treasury in 1958 (the first of his political immolation scenes). And throughout the Keynesian 1960s, Powell was one of the lone voices prophesying an inflationary crisis and calling for a new monetarism.

It is quite clear that these constitutional and economic ideas have got nothing whatever to do with race. So why the fateful belief in a racially defined national identity?

No one to my knowledge has ever satisfactorily explained this. Powell's own argument in defence of the "rivers of blood" speech remains that he had no alternative as an MP but to represent faithfully the views of his constituents, no matter what. I do not buy that. In fact we do not need to look far for clues as to the real roots of his racialism. For example, when Powell appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1986, his choice of favourite records spoke volumes: every single one was a piece by Wagner. A similar clue lies in the romantic poetry that featured in the Cockerell profile.

"Crusty old Enoch is a romantic" trumpeted the papers after his on-screen outburst of sentiment about Barbara Kennedy, the woman who rebuffed his advances nearly half a century ago. Yes, but what kind of romantic? The answer is that in very large measure he is a German romantic.

This may surprise even those who think they know their Powell. After all, did he not make up his mind early in the 1930s that war against Germany was inevitable? Did he not give up his chair at Sydney to fight against Germany? And was he not eager to die defending his country against Hitler?

True on every count. But none of that detracts from the fact that as a young man at Trinity in the 1930s, Powell had already imbibed, through his classical studies, a deep draught of Germanophilia. Not a love of Hitler's Germany, however, but a love of Nietzsche's Germany. There are fingerprints of Nietzsche all over in Powell's thinking - above all in his belief in a dichotomy between the intellectual and the emotional.

Ditto Wagner. To the untrained eye, there is something faintly absurd about Powell's unrequited passion for "B". But in the mind's eye of the inveterate Wagnerian he was Tristan, she Isolde.

And that brings us back to race. For if there was one idea that the German romantics latched on to, it was the idea of racially defined national character. How better to rationalise German ambitions for European hegemony? And how better to justify traditional hostility to the most successful immigrants to Germany - the Jews?

Like Powell, I revere Wagner's music. But I detest his views on race, and will fight every attempt to introduce them to British conservatism. Powell's heresy - and I use the word deliberately - was to attempt just such an introduction.

Why do I regard a racial definition of national identity as heresy? One reason is scientific: modern geneticists will tell you that Darwin's theories do not apply (as German racists claimed they did) to the vaguely defined groups we call "races". My other reason is historic: not only the fact that such ideas were ultimately used by Hitler to justify the worst crimes in human history, but also the fact that British history so clearly runs counter to the idea of racially defined nationality. As an immigrant Celt I naturally have a strong vested interest in keeping England part of a flexible, multinational entity called the UK. But as I never tire of reminding my complacent English students, their little country would have achieved nothing in the world without immigrants.

On this single point then, I disagree with Enoch Powell. Indeed, I think his views on race contradict his constitutional conservatism and his economic liberalism. That makes me deeply wary of any attempt to canonise him by today's Conservative right. But it does not stop me admiring the man himself - immolation scenes and all.

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