Elegy for a Contrarian

Elegy for a Contrarian

Mini Teaser: The life and times of Enoch Powell, a brilliant and blunt British politician.

by Author(s): Scott McConnell

Thus was born "Powellism"-the phenomenon of a man stripped of his
party post, kept at a distance by most Tory colleagues in Parliament,
vilified by the prestige press, but who nevertheless emerged for a
time as Britain's most popular political figure. The tumultuous
aftermath of a single speech demonstrated beyond any doubt that the
establishment consensus on New Commonwealth immigration was not even
remotely shared by the British people, who had suddenly found the
most eloquent man in Parliament to voice their feelings.

Powell resisted entreaties (and offers of funds) to form his own
party or Tory faction; indeed, he seldom returned to the immigration
issue though he would be linked to it for the rest of his life. When
he did, in several speeches and televised forums in the next few
years, he did not retreat an inch, and as a result the issue got the
kind of thorough intellectual going over that it hadn't received
before or since in any Western country. Powell mocked the Times
editors who denounced as "fantasies of racial purity" the idea that a
child born of English parents in Beijing was not Chinese but English,
and that a child born of Indian parents in Birmingham was not English
but Indian. He sparred with Anglican bishops who maintained that only
by allowing a generous flow of immigrants could white Britons have
the chance to become true Christians. He heard a candidly elitist
formulation (from Auberon Waugh) that New Commonwealth immigrants
should be welcomed because they would make Britain a less egalitarian
society. And he never flinched from drawing on all the power latent
in the English language to drive home his points.

He could, at times, go too far. Commenting in the early 1970s on the
growing immigrant stream produced by arranged marriages between
British Indians and families on the Subcontinent, Powell said:

"It is by 'black power' that the headlines are caught and under the
shape of the Negro that the consequences for Britain of immigration
and what is miscalled 'race' are popularly depicted. Yet it is more
truly when he looks into the eyes of Asia that the Englishman comes
face to face with those who will dispute with him possession of his
native land."

Given the size of Asian immigration at the time Powell spoke these
words, such a statement was belligerent to the point of recklessness.

Due in great part to Powell, immigration to Britain was to stay
relatively small. Powellism put Britain's political class on notice
about popular attitudes, and while Heath and other leading Tories
regularly derided Powell for his "tone", they edged toward his
positions. Speaking the next year before the same Birmingham
political club as Powell had addressed, Heath talked of getting down
to "brass tacks" on immigration-and proceeded to spell out proposals
that made it sound as if in the future a native of Bombay would be
able to get more easily to the moon than to Birmingham. In 1973 a
Heath--led Parliament tightened the laws of entry. In 1978 a still
untried opposition leader Margaret Thatcher spoke of the need for yet
more restrictions, telling a radio audience that without reforms
Britain would have four million people-"an awful lot"-from the New
Commonwealth and Pakistan. She added, "the British character has
historically done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much
throughout the world" and it was understandable that people feared it
might be "swamped by people with a different culture." She was
condemned, of course, but rose in the polls, and in 1981 her
government did pass further restrictions. Because of Powellism,
contemporary Britain is less multiracial and multicultural than it
would have been otherwise. Powell always maintained that smaller
numbers would facilitate assimilation, and Britain today, while
hardly free of racial strife, is more residentially integrated and
has more intermarriage between people of different groups than the
United States.

Powell did not win his other great battle with the Tory leadership,
the one over British entry into "Europe." After 1968 he was
skirmishing with Heath along a wide front, endorsing the Tories in
1970, breaking with them in 1974 and refusing to run for his seat.
(Such was Powell's influence that, in the opinion of some good
judges, his words probably swung both elections; he later returned to
Parliament to represent a Northern Ireland district as an Ulster
Unionist.) In the early 1970s he lambasted Heath's management of the
economy and his drawing Britain into the European Economic Community.
He frequently traveled to the Continent to speak against Britain's
entry into the EEC, doing so in fluent French, German, and Italian
(while most of the "pro--Europe" British politicians could only
mangle a few strangled phrases in those languages). He stressed that
British sovereignty could be expressed only through its Parliament:
joining Europe would render Britain subject to bureaucrats who "know
nothing of the political rights and liberties that we have so long
taken for granted."

But despite considerable Labour Party support, the anti--EEC campaign
tended to veer off into arcane issues of tariffs and agricultural
prices, and never penetrated the popular consciousness the way
immigration had done. Powell worried that the British middle classes
were rallying to the EEC because it was pro--capitalist, a buffer
against Britain's left--wing unions. He dreaded a Tory party that was
becoming "a party of class and not of nation", and in his last
decades in Parliament his nationalism took clear precedence over the
free market advocacy that had been a feature of his earlier political
life (characteristically, when it had been very unpopular).

This overriding concern with the idea of the nation was hardly
typical of political leaders of the postwar West. De Gaulle (whom
Powell admired) was perhaps the only other major figure who shared
it. When this French statesman said that the nation--state and
democracy were the same thing, he was making the fundamental point
that people who do not feel themselves part of the same nation as
their fellow citizens will not readily accept the verdicts of
democracy when majorities go against them. Such an idea underlay
Powell's arguments against Britain's entry into "Europe"; but there
is much in it for Americans to ponder as their country becomes
increasingly multi--ethnic and multicultural.

To an American who finds Powell more right than wrong on the
"national questions", his long--held disdain for the United States is
a bitter pill. It arose first in the Second World War, when Powell
was shocked at what he perceived as America's wasteful (in terms of
military resources) way of warfare. The "rivers of blood" speech owed
much to the racial strife Powell witnessed in the United States
during a 1967 visit. In the last decade of the Cold War he would
argue that however unpleasant the Soviet system, it posed little
threat to Britain. When American conservatives warned against
Europe's "self--Finlandization" vis--Ã --vis Moscow, Powell retorted
that Britain had already Finlandized itself in relation to
Washington. Such thoughts were then rare (or at least seldom voiced)
among European conservatives, but they may be a harbinger: even in
the democratic West, the United States is not loved so automatically
as Americans sometimes assume.

Powell saw Margaret Thatcher turn into policy-and then into
bipartisan orthodoxy-the respect for the free market he had advocated
in his early days in Parliament; on immigration he changed the
political climate almost single--handedly. Yet it is still not clear
how much of his influence was durable. He lost on the key issue of
Britain's entry into Europe; more generally, Powellism is out of
fashion in all the major Western conservative parties, where free
market concerns now take clear precedence over national ones. If
these parties become (as Powell might have put it) parties of class
and not of nation, he would not be surprised to see them flounder-and
indeed, they are either out of power or lagging severely in the polls
in all the Western democracies. It may be that what the Tories-and
indeed all of the conservative parties of the West-need most is
another dose of Powellism.

Essay Types: Essay