An intellectual populist precursor

Before Maggie Thatcher, Nigel Farage, John Howard, George Osborne and Donald Trump there was Enoch Powell.

A new book about Enoch Powell (Enoch Powell: politics and ideas in modern Britain) by Paul Corthorn reminds us of that while we may be hostile  to  Powell’s political views we need to acknowledge his role as the precursor of many of the political developments over the past 50 years – from opposition to immigration and neo-liberalism to Brexit and the potential break up of Britain.

He is infamous for his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech alluding to Virgil’s prediction of racial violence: “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood” which launched the anti-immigrant campaigns we have seen over recent decades.

As an early indication of the success of anti-immigrant policies in gathering support from working class voters in 1968 British dock workers marched through London to Parliament in support of Powell.

He was also an early embracer of Hayek and Milton Friedman, an early member of the Mont Perelin Society and a precursor of what we now call neo-liberal policies.

When he stood for the Tory Leadership in 1965 he also published a book of his essays with many of them expounding free-market economics. Iain Macleod, his fellow Tory, dubbed this ‘Powellism’ although by the time it came to pass it was known as Thatcherism.

In 1980 he left the Mont Pelerin Society and distanced himself from both Hayek and Friedman saying: “I admired and valued much of Hayek’s work, but I dislike his Teutonic habit of telling the English, whom he does not in the least understand, how to set about governing themselves.”

He went on to criticise them both for having not “put to the practical test the principles of free market economics. I am content that their academic labours should bring them laurels; but is perhaps understandable if those who have reaped thorns in the same cause in real life are disinclined to add their contributions to those laurels.”

Of course, citizens of countries have now also reaped some decades of thorns from those labours.

His 1974 stance against UK membership of the European Community- speaking at Get Britain Out rallies and calling for a No Vote in the referendum on joining the EEC-  was another precursor of modern Britain and the Brexit campaign. Yet again he realised that working class voters were potential allies as well as also reaching out to Labour intellectuals such as Michael Foot and Douglas Jay.

His major concern about the campaign was the belief that joining the EEC was another symptom of national decline. He said: “There are two things which are the absolute death of the Conservative Party. One is to cease to be identified with the nation, with its pride in its institutions and its confidence in the rightness of its popular instincts” – adding on a warning about being identified with the division of the classes.

The sense of nationalism was linked to the long-running fears about British decline partly countered by the ongoing illusion that Britain and not Russia and the US had ‘won’ WWII – an illusion still around today and a partial underpinning of Brexit campaigns.

Ironically, when you look at late 20th and 21st century British and Australian politicians, he was not an advocate of reflex pro-Americanism and argued that the UK should seek to come to arrangements with Russia and others.

This attitude to the US was probably due to his view that the aim of US policy was “relentlessly directed towards the weakening and destruction of the links which bind the British Empire together” – a more realistic one than all those proponents of the Special Relationship from Churchill to Boris Johnson have taken.

Moreover, from the 1950s onwards he lost some of his early enthusiasm for Empire – as well as strengthening his doubts about the US following US policy on the UK, French and Israeli Suez invasion.

The final chapter in Powell’s career was in Northern Ireland as a Unionist MP where Unionism and the sense of Britain as one nation were critical to him. He was prescient in seeing that devolution in Northern Ireland had the potential to reinforce feeling that Britain was not one nation but four as well as leading to Irish re-unification.

His Unionism was driven by a philosophical belief in popular sovereignty and this view was echoed throughout a Brexit campaign underpinned by illusions about it and Britain’s place and standing in the world.

The possibility of Scottish independence and a re-united Ireland outcome would be anathema to him but whether he would have paid that price for Brexit is moot. He was always a complex politician.

Of course, it is probably unfair to regard Powell as a precursor of Donald Trump. Trump precedents range from Huey Long to others. If there was any British precedent for Trump it was not Powell but perhaps Horatio Bottomley – demagogue and crook who used early 20th century media much as Trump used TV and Twitter.

Neil Berry, writing in the TLS (9 April 2021) noted that the journalist A.G. Gardiner said of Bottomley after he was sentenced to seven years jail in 1922: it was the end of a national nightmare and asked why had the public enthroned a professional liar?  And, J.B.Priestley reviewing a Julian Symons biography of Bottomley, asked whether the next Bottomley might garner popularity through ‘a TV parlour game’.

Trump, like Bottomley, may eventually be forgotten. But Powell will probably be with us as long as politics is practised – if only for his observation: all political lives end in failure “for that is the nature of politics and human affairs.”

Incidentally, Gough Whitlam was dismissive of Powell’s performance as a Classics Professor of Greek at Sydney University.

He may have been right as Powell did eventually admit he regretted one part of his Rivers of Blood speech – his quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid was a misquote – it was the Sybil not the Roman who saw the Tiber “foaming with much blood”.