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Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell - review

A false prophet.

Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell

Edited by Lord Howard of Rising

Biteback, 304pp, £25

Tony Benn once told me that he had put forward a Commons motion requiring the repeal in one fell swoop of every single item of legis­lation passed by Margaret Thatcher’s governments between 1979 and 1990. But, he continued, even if such a motion had been passed, which it was not, it would have made little difference. For Thatcher’s influence came not from her legislation but from her teaching; Benn added, sadly, that the left’s problem was that, since the days of Aneurin Bevan, that was precisely what it had lacked: a teacher.

Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right. Indeed, she was one of his pupils. This commemorative volume – Powell was born 100 years ago this June – comprising essays jux­taposed with speeches, seeks to evaluate his influence, an influence that derived not from office (in a parliamentary career of 37 years, he was in the cabinet for just 15 months) but from his role as a teacher. But what did he teach?

Powell’s early speeches had little impact. Lucubrations on such matters as the Royal Titles Bill and the money supply had little resonance outside parliament; they did not even receive much of a welcome in the Conservative Party, always suspicious of intellectuals. “Put that book away,” Charles Hill, a Conservative minister, told the newly elected Julian Critchley in 1959, when he saw him reading in the Commons smoking room. “Advancement in this party depends upon alcoholic stupidity.”

In April 1968, Powell made the notorious speech in which he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” in consequence of excessive immigration. We were, he said, “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. He cited a constituent who told him: “In 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”; repeating a standard trope of the far right, he referred to an elderly widow terrorised by immigrants and by “wide-grinning piccaninnies” who could not speak English.

His solution was mass repatriation of non-white people. The speech led to racial violence in the Midlands but it made Powell a hero,
particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgivable.

Defenders of Powell say that his prediction of the size of the non-white population, which he persisted in calling “immigrant”, was more accurate than that of his critics. But his predictions of ethnic conflict – indeed, of civil war – have proved spectacularly wrong.

Powell spoke of the “sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected”. The elderly widow terrorised by immigrants was convinced that, if Roy Jenkins’s Race Relations Bill creating the offence of racial discrimination in employment and housing were passed, “She will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder.”

Another stock fable of the far right is a supposed conspiracy of liberals or the “race relations industry” to suppress discussion of immigration. “Almost since that time [April 1968],” declares Iain Duncan Smith, in a foreword to Enoch at 100, “any attempt to enter the debate in a rational and measured way has been met with the allegation of racism.”

But the liberal conspiracy has not been very successful. In January 1978, Thatcher spoke of her fears of the country being “swamped” by those from another culture, while even supposedly liberal Conservatives have not hesitated to raise the alarm when the party is in trouble. Just before the 1992 election, with the Conservatives seemingly facing defeat, Douglas Hurd told an audience at Stevenage that the tide of bogus migrants was “one of the most serious problems” facing Europe in the next decade. This was translated by the Sun into the following headline: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of mass immigration”. Three days before the election, Kenneth Baker declared that Labour would “open the floodgates to a wave of immigration” and that Labour’s “open-door policy . . . would ignite a revival of fascism in Britain”.

In September 1995, Andrew Lansley, a former director of the Conservative research department, reported: “Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992, and again in the 1994 Euro elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt.”

In Northern Ireland, too, Powell was a malign influence, condemning the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 as a step towards ceding Northern Ireland to the Republic and therefore treasonable. He urged the Unionists to reject power-sharing, a notion that he ridiculed but that seems at last to have brought peace to that troubled province.

Powell was one of the 20th century’s false prophets. In due course, no doubt he will receive an objective assessment. Enoch at 100 provides the material for that assessment.

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide