There is still no plaque at the Midland Hotel, Birmingham (now rebranded as the Macdonald Burlington), to mark the spot where Enoch Powell delivered his famous speech on 20 April 1968. Yet of all the speeches delivered by British politicians in the 20th century, or come to that in the 21st, it remains the most memorable, surpassing even the snatches I can recall of ‘We shall fight on the beaches.’ Rereading the full text (some three thousand words), I find that almost every sentence is eerily familiar.
One should not discount the hypnotic power of Powell’s physical presence. Those dark glaring eyes that followed you round the room, the grim ironic twist of the lips that seemed to mock what you hadn’t yet said, the villain’s moustache he had grown, he told Malcolm Muggeridge in 1940, in imitation not of Ronald Colman but of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he adored and to whom he bore a resemblance. Above all, that harsh, thrilling, unnaturally slowed-down voice. Has anyone else ever made the loveable Brummie accent sound sinister, at least until Peaky Blinders came along? In my experience, nobody, not even Oswald Mosley or Richard Nixon, was capable of radiating such unease in company. Harold Macmillan couldn’t stand having Powell opposite him in cabinet looking ‘like Savonarola eyeing one of the more disreputable popes’. So he relocated Enoch way down the table where he couldn’t catch his glittering eye.
There is only one passage in Powell’s Birmingham speech that I had quite forgotten, still a remarkable one, in which Powell pays tribute to the ‘insight’ and ‘courage’ of his fellow Black Country MP John Stonehouse, soon to become postmaster general and then regarded as a coming man in the Labour Party, perhaps even a future leader. Stonehouse had denounced as ‘a canker’ the campaign by local Sikh bus conductors to be allowed to wear their turbans at work. By then, most British bus companies had already agreed to drop the ban on turbans. Powell’s own Wolverhampton dropped it the following year. In 1974, Stonehouse faked his own disappearance by leaving a pile of clothes on a Miami beach (forgetting the absence of tides strong enough to carry his body out to sea). He later resurfaced in Australia, then returned to England, where he joined the English National Party before being jailed for seven years on 21 charges of fraud, theft and forgery. He died in 1988. More than twenty years later, it was confirmed that he had for most of his political life been spying for Czechoslovakia. He is the only person to be praised by name in Powell’s speech. What an ally.
Stonehouse apart, how it all comes back to me. The high-flown beginning: ‘The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.’ And that sonorous, sulphurous finale: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’ (Actually, it wasn’t a Roman but the Sibyl who makes this prophecy, in Book VI of the Aeneid – a rare lapse for such a formidable classicist.) And, in between, the descent into the most vivid and shocking particulars: the widowed old-age pensioner in Wolverhampton who had lost her husband and two sons in the war and whose life was now made unbearable by the ‘negroes’ – Powell was still using the word in a speech he gave at Hatfield in 1987 – who had taken over her street:
The telephone is her lifeline. Her family pay the bill, and help her out as best they can. Immigrants have offered to buy her house – at a price which the prospective landlord would be able to recover from his tenants in weeks, or at most a few months. She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. ‘Racialist’, they chant. When the new Race Relations Bill is passed, this woman is convinced she will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder.
I find it impossible now not to hear echoes from closer at hand: ‘flag-waving piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ – has anyone else between Powell in 1968 and Boris Johnson in 2002 used the word ‘piccaninnies’? And what was it Johnson said about women in burkas? ‘It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes.’ Coincidental no doubt – but what other politician (except Stonehouse as postmaster general) has had occasion to talk about letterboxes? And as for those legendary excreta, how odd that of all the available metaphors, Boris should have chosen to describe Theresa May’s efforts to improve her EU deal as ‘like polishing a turd’.
Of course Powell wasn’t the first politician to draw people’s attention to the strangeness of the immigrants pouring into their cities. The locus classicus here remains chapter two of Mein Kampf:
I was strolling through the inner city of Vienna once, and I suddenly bumped into an apparition in long kaftan with black locks. ‘Is that really a Jew?’ was my first thought, because of course they didn’t look like that in Linz. I watched the man surreptitiously and carefully, but the longer I stared into this strange face and examined it feature for feature, the more there came into my brain a different version of the first question: ‘Is that really a German?’
Powell’s critics suspected at the time that he made some of his material up, that there is more than a touch of urban myth about the stories he told. Only four days after the Birmingham speech, Ann Dummett, wife of the philosopher Michael Dummett and a community relations officer in Oxford, wrote to the Times that the anecdote about the widow from Wolverhampton had been recounted to her in Oxford recently, but about an old lady in London: ‘Almost every circumstantial detail was the same.’
A miasma of doubt hung over the tale for another forty years until smart detective work by Simon Burgess for a Radio 4 documentary revealed that the widow did exist and that one of her friends had written to Powell about her. Her name was Drucilla Cotterill, and she had been teased by the Jamaican children whose families had moved into the street, Brighton Place. The excreta, though, were pushed through someone else’s letterbox and as part of a family feud, not out of racial motives. Nor of course was it likely that the only English word known to the children would be ‘racialist’. What other language would they be speaking? Further investigation revealed other corrective details. Mrs Cotterill was indeed tiny (four foot six inches), but she had never had children, and like most people in the street at that time she did not have a telephone. She drank quite a bit, and was sectioned more than once, but her former West Indian neighbours insist that most of the time they all got on perfectly well together. Drucilla sometimes babysat their children, and they sent flowers to her funeral. Powell was proud of the way he had continued to protect the identity of his constituent. Yet one cannot help feeling that by breaking open the carapace in which political life is normally conducted and drilling down into the tender flesh of ordinary life, he had abused her privacy all the same.
The arguments Powell deployed were a calculated combination of the commonplace, the untrue and the toxic. It was already agreed by almost everybody that recent rates of immigration from the Commonwealth had been too steep for Britain easily to absorb, socially and economically. That had been the rationale for the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, and for the further restrictions imposed by the 1968 Act, which had received royal assent only a month before Powell spoke. On top of that, the Conservative Party in opposition had an official policy, partly devised by Powell himself, of assisted repatriation for immigrants who wanted to return home. Powell does mention this policy in his speech, but then carries on in his tone of vatic despair, encouraging the illusion that nothing was being done. We were ‘watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’. We were ‘mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some fifty thousand dependants’. This was because only a small minority would make any proper effort to integrate. ‘To imagine that such a thing enters the heads of a great and growing majority of immigrants and their descendants is a ludicrous misconception, and a dangerous one.’ As he was to elaborate at Eastbourne later that year, ‘The West Indian or Asian does not by being born in England become an Englishman … in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.’
Today this looks like the most flagrant of all Powell’s false prophecies. At the most conspicuous level, half the England football team are the children of immigrants; the top four members of Johnson’s cabinet are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, and so on throughout society. Integration is a slow and awkward process, and those whose loyalties are evolving should not be hustled into either-or holding pens, let alone subjected to Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. Powell’s predictions for the sizes of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population turned out to be pretty accurate. His grim predictions of race war did not.
But the most immediately repellent feature of the speech is its deceitful narcissism: only I, Enoch, have the courage to tell the truth which the high-ups are keeping from you, that terrible truth which may destroy us all if we do not act now. This ominous preening is a feature of the rhetoric of many a contemporary Brexotic.
Though it is the physical presence of this ‘alien wedge’ that so disturbs Powell, he speaks as if the immigrants themselves are not actually present, that they’re not listening or at any rate can’t understand the implications of what he is saying. Not the least of Powell’s wilful misprisions was to treat the riots in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981 as a fulfilment of his prophecy, when they were clearly a reaction by the black population to the feverish racism to which he himself had given such public licence and to the heavy-handed police tactics which had ensued. Although the rioting set the rundown quarters of half a dozen cities ablaze, not much blood actually foamed. Hundreds of police officers were injured, but I can trace only one fatality, of a man in Toxteth who was struck accidentally by a police vehicle. In the riots that occurred at intervals over the next decades, many of them more to do with unemployment than racial tensions, only the murder of PC Keith Blakelock at Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, in 1985 seemed to threaten the possible fulfilment of Powell’s predictions.
In 1968, however, the impact of the speech was instantaneous. There has been nothing like it before or since. Ted Heath, with the agreement of his leading cabinet colleagues, straightaway sacked Powell as shadow defence minister. Like the broadsheets, what he deplored about Powell’s speech was its ‘tone’, but of course the tone was the speech. And opinion polls showed that 74 per cent of the public approved of it, hundreds of East End dockers marched in Powell’s support, and he received 100,000 letters, almost all laudatory and along the lines of ‘At last someone has dared to speak out …’ Some of Powell’s lifelong opponents, including the young Devon MP Michael Heseltine, conceded that their constituents, even in rural areas which had scarcely seen a black face, were right behind Enoch. If the present system of election to the Tory leadership had been in operation, he would have swept home in any potential contest.
Exhaustive research carried out by the American pollster Douglas Schoen with the assistance of R.W. Johnson suggested that Powell’s recommendation to vote Conservative was decisive in Heath’s rather surprising election victory in June 1970, while his recommendation to vote Labour (so as to secure a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC) was instrumental in the Tory debacle in February 1974.I am not wholly convinced by this thesis. After all, by the spring of 1970 Wilson’s government was exhausted and discredited, while Heath’s government was broken by the miners. Still, there’s clearly something in it. What was not then foreseeable was that Powell would eventually decamp to the Ulster Unionists (in 1974), never to hold office again, pursued by Lord Hailsham’s parting gibe: ‘Enoch has now crossed the water. He has found a new constituency and a new cause to betray and they have a new leader to desert.’
All through his period in Northern Ireland (he remained the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down until 1987), Margaret Thatcher took care to stay on friendly terms with Powell, partly out of a certain sympathy with his views and partly because his support, even when it was tacit, could do her no harm, but she never made any move to tempt him back into the Tory fold, for fear of the rumpus. I happened to be sitting in the Commons gallery the afternoon that Powell paid tribute to the Iron Lady’s Falklands victory – almost the only British foreign policy action after 1945 that he wholly approved of, since it involved the recapture of British territory and nothing else. The public analyst, he said, had reported that ‘a certain substance … consisted of ferrous matter of the highest quality, that it is of exceptional tensile strength, is highly resistant to wear and tear and to stress, and may be used with advantage for all national purposes.’ Thatcher turned to acknowledge the compliment from the gaunt old warhorse sitting way behind her with the other Ulster members, and the whole exchange, ponderous but curiously poignant, was later printed, framed and hung in her office.
Powell was certainly not forgotten. When he died in 1998, the Daily Telegraph declared that he ‘will survive more surely than any other British politician of the 20th century except Winston Churchill’. If political and parliamentary culture should be all but destroyed, ‘those brave few who wish to restore it will find in the thoughts of Enoch Powell something approaching the Bible.’ A Festschrift to mark what would have been his hundredth birthday in 2012 drew contributions from all the paladins of the Tory right: Roger Scruton, Andrew Roberts, Simon Heffer, Iain Duncan Smith. His stream of long, considered speeches continued to ripple through Tory minds, all the more perhaps because they were now running underground. During his wilderness years Powell became the Baptist of the Brexit movement. Puffing a book entitled Enoch Was Right by one of his Ukip lieutenants, Nigel Farage trumpeted, ‘Enoch never goes away.’
Biographies of Powell, many written by ardent fans, now run into double figures, the longest and most enjoyable, by Simon Heffer, standing at nearly a thousand pages. This latest study, by the Belfast lecturer Paul Corthorn, attempts something different: to follow the meanders in Powell’s thought and to unpick his abiding obsessions. It is a crisp and compelling piece of work. Corthorn does not give us much biography or background (Drucilla Cotterill is only named in a brief footnote, for example), but this gives him space to quote amply and tellingly from Powell’s speeches and letters. By halfway through, the reader is already baffled that Powell should ever have been mistaken for an icy, unbending man of principle. On the contrary, he was driven this way and that by volcanic passions, transformed by his eloquence into marvellous rhodomontade, sometimes persuasive and germane, sometimes fantastical to the point of delusion.
The zigzags he scorches on the historical record are remarkable in themselves. After a brilliant academic start – he became professor of Greek at Sydney in 1937 aged 25 – he rose in the war to the rank of brigadier without ever seeing action (something about which he always felt guilty). In 1945, he voted Labour as a protest against Appeasement. In 1950, he became a Tory MP. By 1955, he was a junior Treasury minister. In 1958, he resigned along with his chancellor in protest against Macmillan’s refusal to cut public expenditure. By 1960, he was back in government as minister of health. In 1963, he refused to serve under Alec Douglas-Home, enraged by the way Macmillan had stitched up the leadership process. Back as shadow defence minister under Heath, he was sacked in 1968. In February 1974, he urged his supporters to vote Labour; in October that year, he stood as an Ulster Unionist.
The changes in his political views are no less remarkable, and it is on these that Corthorn concentrates. He doesn’t, however, say much about the first and abiding influence on Powell’s outlook: his wartime service in the British army, and especially in India: ‘One of the happiest days of my life was the 20th of October 1939. It was then for the first time I put on the King’s coat.’ He described it fifty years later as ‘the most important thing I ever did, perhaps the only important thing I ever did’. He was buried in his brigadier’s uniform. He loved the discipline, he loved the hierarchy, and above all he loved the Raj. He was animated then by the ‘hopes of a lasting union between “white” and “coloured” which the conception of common subjectship to the King-Emperor affords’.
When Powell joined the Conservative Research Department after the war, he wrote an 8000-word memo to his boss Rab Butler explaining that ‘for some two generations ahead ultimate responsibility for the government of India will continue to be with Britain.’ He followed this with an even longer memo of 25,000 words describing how Britain could hang on, which Butler recalled as arguing that ‘with ten divisions we could reconquer India’. At Powell’s insistence, he showed the memo to Churchill, who ‘seemed distressed and asked me if I thought Powell was “all right”’. Churchill might well have been distressed; only a couple of years earlier he had been dreaming the same impossible dream. Up until 1951 at least, Powell continued to believe that ‘in its widest sense, the nation is the Empire.’ Which meant that there must be a common citizenship for all under the British crown, from the Himalayas to the Falklands, from Vancouver to Vauxhall. In December 1949, already the prospective candidate for Wolverhampton South West, he was arguing that ‘we must reduce or remove the barriers to free movement within the Empire of goods, of money and, above all, of human beings.’
So he had been shattered by Attlee’s decision to send out Mountbatten to bring India independence: ‘It was a shock so severe that I remember spending the whole of one night walking the streets of London trying to come to terms with it.’ Now and then he sat down in a doorway and put his head in his hands. Clearly the whole basis of British citizenship now had to be rethought. The Conservative Party had to ‘be cured of the British Empire’ and ‘find its patriotism in England’. The Commonwealth was a sham, ‘a symbol to prolong the spirit long after life has departed the body’. By 1964, he was arguing, anonymously as ‘A Conservative’ in the Times, that the Commonwealth was ‘the cause of the massive coloured immigration in the last decade which has inflicted social and political damage that will take decades to obliterate’. As early as 1955, he had supported the West Bromwich bus drivers who went on strike when an Indian immigrant was taken on as a trainee conductor: ‘However wrongheadedly and gropingly, I believe the strikers … to have apprehended the dangers for this country of any appreciable coloured population becoming domiciled here.’
At the same time, through the 1950s and 1960s, another enormous volte face was switching the synapses in Powell’s planet-sized brain. In fact, it was a double volte face. Initially, during his first months as an MP in 1950, he had refused to toe his party’s line and had supported Labour’s refusal to join the European Coal and Steel Community; he was at that point opposed ‘to any pooling of sovereignty with the European countries which would automatically result in severing [Britain] from the non-European countries of the Empire’. But in 1961 he supported Macmillan’s application to join the EEC and blasted those who still worshipped ‘at the deserted shrine of Commonwealth preference’. If anything, he was more passionate on the issue: ‘It is as a European power … that we shall work out a Britain in the 1970s which does not need make-believe to bolster its self-respect … This is Britain’s worldwide role, no less than that of France or Germany, to be herself genuinely and fearlessly, in the Europe and the world of the 1970s.’ More striking still, he now believed that
the instinctive resistance of the British to anything which would limit their treasured independence and national sovereignty has been much softened. They have become accustomed to the notion that the decisions of international bodies on which Britain is represented but which she does not control might be accepted without abandoning their pride that ‘Britons never shall be slaves.’
No modern Remainer could put it better.
That was said in a broadcast on 5 April 1965. On 21 March 1969, in a speech to Conservative women in Clacton, Powell declared that Britain should now withdraw its application to join the Common Market. It was fast becoming ‘an absurdity and a humiliation’. The time had come to resume our independence and freedom of action. He tried to smooth over his Europhile past: he had merely ‘supported, as being right on balance at the time, the decision of Harold Macmillan to seek membership of the Common Market’. As we have seen, he had been far more enthusiastic than that. By the time of the first EU referendum in 1975, he had become apocalyptic about the dangers of staying in: ‘Belonging to the Common Market … spells living death, the abandonment of all prospect of national rebirth, the end of any possibility of resurgence.’ By 1982, Europe had become ‘the question precedent to all other questions, the be-all and end-all of all political activity and belief, an issue literally of life and death’.
These twists and turns may seem both absurd and repellent. How could a man of such fabled intelligence switch so violently from one absolute to its opposite without stopping to reflect whether he might be partly or wholly wrong in one opinion or the other? Yet there is, I think, an identifiable drive which persists through all Powell’s U-turns and Z-bends. He is always wedded to the absolute, hostile to qualification, compromise or nuance, as much the heir of Hegel as of Nietzsche. Always, he is restlessly pursuing the ultimate safe haven: the nation, resolute, inviolate, isolated by her own choice, all-embracing, all-commanding, solipsism incarnate, her powers not to be subsumed or subdivided in the tiniest degree. Like other nationalists (de Gaulle, Trump, Putin), he came to loathe and fear multilateral bodies (the Commonwealth, the UN, the EU) and all the codes and conventions that they spawn. For the same reason, he fiercely opposed all human rights movements: ‘All international conventions to recognise human rights … involve the cession of sovereignty; that is, they imply the transfer to an external authority of the power to secure enforcement of its decrees inside the respective states.’ He considered it futile, for example, for the Helsinki Group to monitor Soviet compliance, because in the final resort, the Soviet Union would always act in its own interest.
For much the same reason, Powell was suspicious of any meddling in the internal affairs of other nations. ‘With the internal politics of Spain, of China … even of Russia herself, we have no business; only our own essential interest gives us the right to range ourselves with or against another power.’ That was in 1951. Forty years later, he was arguing the same thing: ‘Saddam Hussein has a long way to go yet before his troops come storming up the beaches of Kent or Sussex … We as a nation have no interest in the existence or non-existence of Kuwait.’
This connects with another of his abiding obsessions, his loathing of the United States, which he didn’t visit until he was 55 and liked as little as he had expected. Back in 1943, he had written home of the possibility of ‘a war with our terrible enemy, America’. Fifty years later, at the time of the first Gulf War, he was arguing that much ‘of our present malaise arises from the abject subordination to America and American purposes’. He regarded the search for peace in Northern Ireland as driven by the malevolent machinations of the US government, and insisted that the CIA, or possibly MI6, was behind the murders of Airey Neave and Lord Mountbatten. Conspiracy theory came naturally to him.
Nationalism expressed with Powell’s intensity tends to repel historians, or at any rate to unnerve them. Ernest Gellner, for example, says he is ‘allergic to the history of ideas approach, because nationalism as an elaborated intellectual theory is neither widely endorsed, not of high quality, nor of any historic importance’. He argues in Nations and Nationalism (1983) that nationalist rhetoric is so saturated with false consciousness that ‘who said or wrote precisely what doesn’t matter much.’ Eric Hobsbawm, in Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990), went further: nationalism involves so much ‘belief in what is patently wrong’ that ‘no serious historian of nation and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist’. From Mazzini to Powell, it’s all tosh.
But I think this disdain misses the crucial point. Yes, it is profitless to attempt serious analysis of most nationalist narratives, with their rubbish heaps of false memories and embroidered legends. But what matters isn’t so much the sentimental content of the narrative but its iron framework: the insistence that the nation is the supreme political fact, the one in which every citizen finds, and ought to find, his or her greatest fulfilment and which therefore demands all our loyalties; that it can exist and prosper only in vigorously policed independence from all other nations. For this reason, nationalism refuses to kowtow either to economic theory or to religious faith, both of which can only be its servants and must never be allowed to be its master. Powell’s twists and turns illustrate all this rather aptly.
In the 1960s, he became the darling of the neoliberals. Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, the genial masterminds of the Institute of Economic Affairs, regarded him as their most potent advocate. No one else in British politics could argue the case for free markets even half as persuasively. So Harris and Seldon were deeply disappointed when, as minister of health and afterwards, Powell became the most vigorous defender of the National Health Service. ‘See how you have comforted the common enemy,’ Harris wailed to him. But Powell refused to budge: not only did a universal, state-financed service provide better care to the patient and at a lower cost than any insurance system (a view largely confirmed by recent comparative research), it was also ‘completely triumphantly justified on the simple ground that a civilised compassionate nation can do no other. It, and all the other social services, is the corporate recognition by the community of its common obligation to its individual members.’ If the nation was to pull together, its least fortunate members could not be left out. Modern nationalists, from Bismarck onwards, usually include an extensive welfare state as part of their package. Free markets come second to national cohesion.
Powell was equally stern in resisting the moral intrusions of religion into the proper business of the nation. As a young man in love with everything German, he had been a fervent Nietzschean and so an avowed atheist. In his late twenties he hovered on the edge of desolation. Just before Dunkirk he wrote to his parents: ‘Henceforward the only emotions of which I am capable seem to be hatred, ambition and selfishness, and I feel possessed and burnt up with them.’ An odd letter for an only child to write in the darkest days of the war, but then Powell was only intermittently attentive to his effect on other people. Later, he came back to the Church and described himself as an Anglican, but more out of reverence for the C of E as a hallowed component of Englishness than because of any sympathy with the Sermon on the Mount. Reviewing Douglas-Home’s memoirs, he could not help sneering at the Scottish squire’s naive acceptance of ‘the simple message of Christ’. Nietzsche, I fancy, would have felt the same about Sir Alec. Heffer argues plausibly that, later still, Powell veered back towards Nietzsche, or at any rate Carlyle. During a fascinating TV debate with Father Trevor Huddleston in 1969, Powell described the essential teachings of Christianity as ‘in deliberate and direct conflict with human reality and human experience’, and denied that his duties as a politician could be derivable from them.
In the same way, he regarded the UN and its moral precepts as fraudulent, because they presupposed or aspired to a state of world peace, ‘whereas the very nature and existence of the nation itself are inseparable from force, which is why the rise and growth and disappearance of nations is mediated by force … Without war the sovereign nation is not conceivable.’ Force is integral to Powell’s vision of human existence. However awful, war is a necessary and laudable thing, as it was for de Gaulle and Churchill. During the first EU referendum, he voiced ‘the haunting fear, which I am sure I am not alone in feeling, that we, the British, will soon have nothing left to die for. That was not a slip of the tongue. What a man lives for is what a man dies for, because every bit of living is a bit of dying.’ In other words, his greatest dread was that the EU might actually succeed in its overarching mission: to prevent war.
Powell did not invent Europhobia. It was always lurking there on the right wing of the Tory Party, from the moment Macmillan launched his application in 1961. Among the general public, opposition to it was seldom below 35 per cent and was often much higher. But it was Powell who introduced the extravagant paranoia that has finally, twenty years after his death, blown the party apart. It was Powell, and nobody but Powell, who fully articulated the four separate obsessions that have melded to inspire the Brexit movement: loathing of mass immigration, revulsion against the EU (and, in particular, of the ultimate destination of a federal Europe), dislike of devolution in any part of the UK, and disdain for human rights. Each of these is individually calculated to weaken the nation, we are told; applied en masse, they will destroy it.
What then is a nation? ‘It is that which thinks it is a nation’; ‘that self-consciousness which is the essence of nationhood’. It is we ourselves who decide what the nation is, and ourselves alone; ‘Sinn Féin’, or ‘Sinn Féin Amháin’, as the Irish put it. From this simple assertion follows something much more alarming, and it is this alarm which Powell never ceased sounding, and which still throbs in our ears today. If it is we and nobody else who invent the nation, then we can uninvent it, or let it slip, or go to pieces. ‘The question of joining the Common Market is the most fundamental of all’; ‘It is a question not merely, what sort of a nation are we to be but what nation are we to be?’ If direct elections to the European Parliament took place, ‘it would no longer be possible to pretend that Britain has not ceased to be a nation.’ Well, they did take place, rather few of us voted, and the roof didn’t fall in. In the same way, during the riots in Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1985, Powell foresaw a Britain ‘unimaginably wracked by dissension and violent disorder, not recognisable as the same nation as it has been, or perhaps as a nation at all’. If, as Ernest Renan claimed in What Is a Nation? (1882), ‘the existence of the nation is a daily plebiscite,’ then we must be living on a knife edge.
The borders of a nation are not for Powell tiresome impediments to human intercourse, they are the precious delineators of sovereignty. A hard border is a good border. How he would have loathed the smudgings of the Good Friday Agreement, signed two months after his death, just as he abominated ‘the capitulation at Hillsborough’ in 1985. How little he would care about the dangers of a hard border in Ireland after Brexit. All his life he railed against the easygoing English presumption that Irish citizens were not really foreigners.
Paradoxically, while Powell sets out to magnify the nation as the bulwark of our individual destinies, he at the same time makes it look as fragile as a paper lantern, forever liable to burn or tear or simply float off into the night sky, leaving us bereft. He refuses to contemplate the possibility that, in the real world, the nation might be a more resilient thing, able to absorb shocks and humiliations and hardships, to confront social and economic and, yes, political change, and emerge in an altered but not diminished state. If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined, Sir John Sinclair lamented after the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777. ‘There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,’ replied Adam Smith.
Here, I think, is Enoch Powell’s abiding legacy: not his undeniable racism, or his cold disregard for the welfare of those he identified as ‘an alien wedge’, but rather the lurking angst he instilled and bequeathed about the future existence of the British nation, the sense of an imminent catastrophe. Boris Johnson excoriates the ‘doomsters’ and ‘gloomsters’. But who was the Father of all Doomsters? Who first implanted the obsessive belief that breaking out of the prison house of Brussels was our only possible salvation? If Enoch Powell had never existed, I very much doubt that Boris Johnson would be where he is today.