Every nation, to live healthily and to live happily, needs a patriotism. Britain today, after all the changes of the last decades, needs a new kind of patriotism and is feeling its way towards it . . .

Enoch Powell, Speech at Louth, 1963.

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 foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”’. The message was that Britain’s coloured immigrant population does indeed present a mortal threat to the British (or rather, to the English—for he pointed out that ‘in practice only England is concerned’) and must be got to return home whence they came. As Powell has modestly stated himself, the speech ‘provoked a political furore without precedent since the end of the war’.

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.

From Guilsboro’ to Northampton, all the way
Under a full red August moon,
I wandered down . . . Yet the air
Seemed thronged and teeming, as if hosts
Of living presences were everywhere;
And I imagined they were ghosts
Of the old English, who by tower and spire,
Wherever priest and sexton’s spade
In church or graveyard round about the shire
Their unremembered bones had laid,
Now in the warm still night arising, filled
The broad air with their company,
And hovering in the fields that once they tilled,
Brooded on England’s destiny.

(Enoch Powell, Poem XXVI, Dancer’s End, 1951; written 1940–45)

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 together; show us the clue that leads through a thousand years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England, that we may in our time know how to hold it fast.” What would they say . . . ?’