Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

The politics of decline and nationhood…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.

Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.

The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.

Enoch Powell

(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)

There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.

Paul Corthorn

Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.

An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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46 thoughts on “Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

  1. I don’t think I will get beyond reading your ideas on the book this time but I do appreciate your thoughtful review of an apparently well considered book which increases my minimal knowledge of Enoch Powell. From my part of the world, I didn’t note much more than the man’s (fairly notable) name at the time.

    • Yes, he was definitely a very English phenomenon and England was his main focus – even though he talked a lot about the UK, it was really in terms of how it impacted England. I do think it’s a pity he made himself such a pariah because otherwise he was very insightful about how things would develop – we may not have come to such a dire apocalypse (yet) but Brexit, populism, Boris Johnson, N Ireland, devolution and independence – his crystal ball was in pretty good working order! It’s a pity brilliant people are so often so arrogant they antagonise people…

  2. Excellent review. As you say, Powell is such a polarising figure it takes an academic to inject objectivity into analysing his political views. That infamous speech has cast such a long, dark shadow.

    • Thank you! Yes, I was very impressed that Corthorn was able to write so objectively about him. There’s no doubt that he was very prescient about how things would develop over the next fifty or sixty years, but that speech was so incendiary it’s still almost impossible to look past it to the rest of his political life.

  3. A great review, and it’s important to read balanced accounts of such people, so I’m glad this has been published. Not sure I could stomach reading about him, esp as he made That speech in my adopted home city, but if I did, it would be this book.

    • Thank you! I find reading about past politicians (especially dead ones!) doesn’t bother me nearly as much as seeing our current crop all over the TV! And even though he’d have been too right-wing on most subjects for me, even excluding that speech, I do find Powell fascinating – so much of what he foresaw is actually happening though hopefully not as apocalyptically as he suggested…

  4. I don’t know if I will get around to reading this book (so many books & so little time etc etc) – but your thoughtful review has certainly persuaded me that perhaps I should. I do remember some of the fall out following the speech, although much too young to listen to or understand it all, and I’m interested by the fact that it is still frequently referred to (even by my own offsprings during A level Politics). Politicians hoping for a long lasting career now have such a tightly controlled media presence that the likelihood of truly ‘monumental’ discussion-creating speeches is probably getting ever more remote.

    • I was too young – just – to really be aware of the speech at the time, although I do seem to remember my father ranting quite a bit about Powell when I was a kid. But when I was involved in the unions in the mid-70s he was still a major hate figure, mostly because of the speech. I’m intrigued that they’re teaching young people about him – I wonder if it’s just that speech or if they cover his views on other subjects. Yes, I don’t think “we, the people” have the same willingness to listen to lengthy speeches now either – it’s all about twitter-length soundbites. And I do think it means our politicians are less thoughtful than they used to be…

  5. It must have been quite a difficult job to attempt to create a balanced account of such a controversial figure for whom there seems to be very little middle ground in terms of people’s opinions. It seems like it worked though, and so for that reason alone, I am quite tempted to read it sometime.

    • I was very impressed with the job he made of presenting Powell’s views dispassionately, and although he’d have been too right-wing for me on many subjects, I found his reasoning had a lot more depth and basis than most of what our current politicians spout. I also liked that Corthorn stuck to the politics – I’m never enthusiastic about political bios that gives screeds of information about the subject’s personal life. Well worth reading!

  6. What an interesting book, FictionFan! And I give you a lot of credit for discussing its subject in a balanced way (can’t be easy, given who he was). But, of course, it’s those people who often generate a lot of interest, so I can see how Powell’s life would be a really suitable and interesting focus for a book. I’m glad you found it informative, and that it did justice to a very complex person.

    • Balance in politics is something that has come to me late – I seem to have inadvertently developed the ability to see the other person’s point of view! So now everybody hates me instead of just half of the people… 😉 I find Powell fascinating – a real combination of intellectual brilliance and emotional ignorance. I think he remained baffled all his life as to why people reacted as they did to that speech and why he was never anointed by public acclaim…

  7. This is a book that I wish I would read but know it’s unlikely. Your review is superb and has left me with plenty to think about. Even if I don’t read the book, I shall certainly regard Powell with a more open and less judgmental attitude.

    • Thank you! 😀 I find Powell fascinating – such a strange combination of intellectual brilliance and emotional ignorance. I disagree with him more often than not, but I find him thought-provoking… I see where he’s coming from even if I don’t want to go where he’s going…

  8. I’m glad you enjoyed this so much, but obviously not one for me. I can hardly bear dealing with American politics (whether present or past, left or right), much less controversial figures abroad.

    • Yes, this is definitely one for British political nerds only, I’d think! Although Powell was huge here at one point, I don’t think he was ever well known overseas. I do find past politicians (especially dead ones) more easy to tolerate than current ones… 😉

  9. I’m with Kelly on this one, FF. Politics just isn’t my cup of tea, whether in the U.S. or abroad. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading biographies when I was a kid, and my opinion hasn’t changed much over the years. Still, I commend you on a nice, balanced review (and on wading through it, too, ha!)

    • I’m a political nerd, as you know, but it’s really more a kind of interest in what makes the world tick than being a partisan of any particuar position for me, these days at least. I guess that’s why I’m as likely to read about a politician I didn’t agree with as one I did…

  10. Exposing my ignorance here, but I’d never heard of Powell before reading your review. What a fascinating subject. I’ve just looked him up on Wiki and between that and your review am planning to take you up on this recommendation.

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! I don’t think Powell was ever well known outside Britain because he never had one of the big government jobs. But he was huge here – and either loved or hated.And although I don’t often agree with him, I find his analysis of Britain in those days fascinating, and his prophecies of what might happen are coming pretty scarily close…

  11. You must be about the same age as me, I remember the ‘stooshie’ at the time and have had the same thoughts on him as you have had, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading this one. What an interesting review though.

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I don’t remember the speech from when it happened, but it was still being talked about when I became involved in the trade unions in the mid-70s. I find him fascinating – so intellectually brilliant and yet so emotionally stupid not to realise the impact his words would have…

    • Thanks, Laila! I don’t think he was ever well known outside Britain since he never held one of the big government jobs, but he was huge here for many years. A fascinating man, love him or hate him!

  12. I seem to remember reading some reviews of his in The Listener (an excellent but defunct literary weekly aimed at radio audiences) and, in the wake of his notorious speech, being impressed in spite of myself at his ability to write well on relatively neutral subjects. I absolutely despised his politics and his racism, but if he’d stuck to scholarly and literary matters (Ancient Greek was his subject before the war) he might have retained a more respectable reputation.

    • Yes, an immensely well educated and intellectual man and yet so flawed. I remember reading in a previous biography that he was riffing on some ancient Greek story in the Rivers of Blood speech, and was apparenty astonished that most people didn’t pick up on it. His defence seemed to be that it wasn’t his fault if we all thought he was a racist – it was our own fault for being ignoramuses. He failed to convince me… 😉

  13. Great review FF. This does sound like a balanced, interesting look at such a divisive figure. I don’t think I could read it and spend that much time thinking about Powell, especially right now, but I really enjoyed your post!

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! This one was especially good because its neutral tone stripped a lot of the emotional response out. I actually got through it without spluttering with rage once, which is more than can be said about the previous biography of him I read, written by people who clearly though Powell should be given a sainthood! Not in my version of heaven… 😉

  14. Huh! So this is where I admit to never having heard about Enoch Powell! Anyway, if we are talking British politics in the 60s-70s, I think, I have a valid excuse… It is questionable whether I would ever read this book, but I can see, why you found it interesting.

    • Haha! Valid, indeed! I don’t think he was ever well known outside Britain and even younger Brits may well never have heard of him now, but he was a huge figure in my youth – it was impossible to be interested in politics at all without either loving or hating him. I think you can safely avoid this one though… 😉

  15. I’ve never heard of this guy, but I really like the idea of reading a biography/theory of his opinions in a non-partisan lense. Once we know the evolution behind people’s arguments and opinions, we tend to realize we are closer than we think to one another. I do believe that in most cases, we all want the same things in life, we just need to speak about that more openly and honestly.

    • I’ve only read a couple of biographies where they’ve concentrated entirely on the subject’s political philosophy rather than their personal life, and I really much prefer this style. I absolutely agree, and I think that’s why I’m more likely to read about people I disagree with than agree with – as you say, I often find that when you strip the emotion out we’re all trying to get to the same place – we’re just arguing about which is the best route to take….

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