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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 212…

Episode 212

Phew! Last week the TBR had fallen dangerously low and I know a lot of you have had sleepless nights worrying on my behalf. Well, sleep sound tonight! Thanks to the unanticipated arrival of a box of books, the bookocalypse has been delayed – up 1 to 223…

Here are a few I plan to read before the end comes…

Historical Fiction

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

OK, this doesn’t sound my kind of thing at all, especially since lots of Goodreads readers have tagged it as romance, fantasy and magical realism – ugh, ugh, and oxymoronic! But Omaha is a compulsory spot on my Around the World challenge and you have no idea how hard it’s been to find a book set there! So buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

The Blurb says: On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt – ventriloquist by trade, conman by birth – isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.

One of a travelling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpet bag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.

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Biography

Enoch Powell by Paul Corthorn

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. Enoch Powell was the bogeyman for the left back in the ’70s when I became politically aware, hated and reviled as the arch-racist over his infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, when he warned Britain of the dangers of uncontrolled immigration in extraordinarily incendiary terms. But he had had a long and important career before that, almost completely forgotten now because of that moment. I’ve often wondered whether he was really as vilely racist as that speech made him appear and have wanted to know more about what brought him to self-destruct in such a spectacular fashion. Hopefully this book might answer some of my questions…

The Blurb says: Best known for his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 and his outspoken opposition to immigration, Enoch Powell was one of the most controversial figures in British political life in the second half of the twentieth century and a formative influence on what came to be known as Thatcherism.

Telling the story of Powell’s political life from the 1950s onwards, Paul Corthorn’s intellectual biography goes beyond a fixation on the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to bring us a man who thought deeply about – and often took highly unusual (and sometimes apparently contradictory) positions on – the central political debates of the post-1945 era: denying the existence of the Cold War (at one stage going so far as to advocate the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union); advocating free-market economics long before it was fashionable, while remaining a staunch defender of the idea of a National Health Service; vehemently opposing British membership of the European Economic Community; arguing for the closer integration of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK; and in the 1980s supporting the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

In the process, Powell emerges as more than just a deeply divisive figure but as a seminal political intellectual of his time. Paying particular attention to the revealing inconsistencies in Powell’s thought and the significant ways in which his thinking changed over time, Corthorn argues that Powell’s diverse campaigns can nonetheless still be understood as a coherent whole, if viewed as part of a long-running, and wide-ranging, debate set against the backdrop of the long-term decline in Britain’s international, military, and economic position in the decades after 1945.

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Crime

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Courtesy of Pan MacMillan via NetGalley. I’ve been talking about catching up with Ann Cleeves’ two existing series for years, but never actually get around to them. So I’m jumping aboard on book 1 of her new series – at least I’ll be up-to-date with it!

The Blurb says: In North Devon, where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge and run into the sea, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his father’s funeral takes place. The day Matthew turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, he lost his family too.

Now he’s back, not just to mourn his father at a distance, but to take charge of his first major case in the Two Rivers region; a complex place not quite as idyllic as tourists suppose.

A body has been found on the beach near to Matthew’s new home: a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death.

Finding the killer is Venn’s only focus, and his team’s investigation will take him straight back into the community he left behind, and the deadly secrets that lurk there.

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Classics Club

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr

This sounds utterly dire – I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I put it on my Classics Club list! What would make anyone in their right mind want to read a book like this? Is the world not depressing enough without us choosing to pollute and poison our minds voluntarily? Not that I’m pre-judging it, of course… 😉

The Blurb says: Few novels have caused as much debate as Hubert Selby Jr.’s notorious masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and this Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting [FF says: that alone should have warned me not to touch it with a ten-foot barge pole].

Described by various reviewers as hellish and obscene, Last Exit to Brooklyn tells the stories of New Yorkers who at every turn confront the worst excesses in human nature. Yet there are moments of exquisite tenderness in these troubled lives. Georgette, the transvestite who falls in love with a callous hoodlum; Tralala, the conniving prostitute who plumbs the depths of sexual degradation; and Harry, the strike leader who hides his true desires behind a boorish masculinity, are unforgettable creations. Last Exit to Brooklyn was banned by British courts in 1967, a decision that was reversed the following year with the help of a number of writers and critics including Anthony Burgess and Frank Kermode. [FF says: Yes, this one’s already halfway to the abandoned heap… ]

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?
(I’m not sure I am… 😉 )