In certain respects, the Right Honourable John Enoch Powell has long seemed the most original of Britain’s bourgeois politicians—a figure whose every speech is awaited with eager interest and anxiety, who may be adored or hated but is universally felt to be important. Powell represents something new in British politics. If this something new is also something very old—nevertheless,in the present situation its impact, meaning, and possible results are all novel. Powell rose to this doubtful eminence mainly on the impact of his celebrated Birmingham address of April 20th, 1968. This was the speech in which he met ‘a quite ordinary working man’ who suddenly told him ‘If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country . . . In this country in 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.’ After a scarifying catalogue of further such revelations, Powell concluded: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with
Naturally, he came to be regarded as the champion and chief spokesman of the various racist and anti-immigrant movements. He has also been widely accused of inconsistency (vis-á-vis his earlier statements on the issue) and of rabid demagoguery.footnote1 However, both the inconsistencies (which Powell of course presents as the natural evolution of his views) and the blatant demagoguery serve a deeper, and perfectly consistent, purpose. This underlying purpose has been obscured by too narrow a concentration on the question of race and immigration. The narrow focus itself serves Powell’s purpose very well, by turning what is really only a right-wing tactic into an obsession for left-wing and liberal opponents—while in fact, there are wider and far more dangerous trends at work. Referring back to England’s last bout of immigrationmania, against the Jewish immigrants of the period 1890–1905, Paul Foot remarks that in 1970 ‘all that has changed is that new scapegoats must be found for the homelessness, the bad hospital conditions, and the overcrowded schools . . .’footnote2 But in reality, though England’s coloured population has of course become a scapegoat for capitalism’s ills, very much more has changed than the scapegoat itself. Powell knows this. Indeed, it is his sense of these profounder historical changes which supplies the real bite to his attack on the immigration question. The ‘New Right’ he represents is rooted in such changes, as both symptom and aggravation of the historical decline of English conservatism, and so must be regarded in longer historical perspective.
Powell’s basic concern is with England and the—as he sees it—half-submerged nationalism of the English. His real aspiration is to redefine this national identity in terms appropriate to the times—and in particular, appropriate to the end of empire. England’s destiny was once an imperial one; now it has to be something else. Powell is not really sure what it is. But he feels that he, Enoch Powell, carries some intimation of it within his own breast, and he has consistently striven to construe this sense of fate.
In 1964, speaking to the Royal Society of St. George,footnote3 he returned to the theme of the ‘old English’: ‘There was this deep, this providential difference between our empire and others, that the nationhood of the mother country remained unaltered through it all, almost unconscious of the strange fantastic structure built around her . . . England underwent no organic change as the mistress of a world empire. So the continuity of her existence was unbroken . . . Thus, our generation is like one which comes home again from years of distant wandering. We discover affinities with earlier generations of English, who feel no country but this to be their own. . . We find ourselves once more akin to the old English. . . . From brass and stone, from line and effigy their eyes look out at us, and we gaze into them, as if we would win some answer from their inscrutable silence. “Tell us what it is that binds us
In 1964, when the post-war Conservative régime ended, Powell still did not know what they would say. Twenty years of brooding on England’s destiny had availed him little. By April 1968 the ancestors had, finally, said something: approximately, ‘Go home, wogs, and leave us in peace!’ This prodigious clue to a thousand years of history has, however, a meaning beyond its absurd manifest content. For the dilemma to which it appeals is a real one. It is quite true that the English need to rediscover who and what they are, to re-invent an identity of some sort better than the battered cliché-ridden hulk which the retreating tide of imperialism has left them—and true also (for reasons described below) that the politics of the last 20 years have been entirely futile in this respect. Powell’s recipe for the growing vacuum is the—at first sight—incredible patchwork of nostrums expounded in his recent speeches: economic laissez-faire, Little England, social discipline, trade before aid, loyalty to Ulster, and racism. But no critique of such incoherence can afford to ignore the need upon which it works: in relationship to reality, it may possess a driving-force which it lacks when considered simply as a set of ideas. After all, very few past Conservative heroes have been noticeably ‘coherent’ in this sense: compared to those of Churchill, Joseph Chamberlain, or Disraeli, Powell’s career so far is an epitome of logical sobriety. Only in the context of the twilit conservatism of the 1960’s does his cynical opportunism appear startling, or even unusual. British conservatism has always been profoundly ‘illogical’ since the time of Edmund Burke, by an instinct rooted in the great historical conditions of its existence. It has been only too happy to rule, and leave logic to the ‘opposition’.