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

The politics of decline and nationhood…

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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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