The long road to oblivion. Ian Aitken on Simon Heffer's lucid and majestic tribute to the controversial genius of Enoch Powell

Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell

Simon Heffer <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson,</em> <em>1,024pp,

It tells you a lot about this majestic book, and also about its subject, that Enoch Powell leaves ministerial office on page 333, with 628 pages still to read. For the extraordinary thing about Powell is that he held office - and pretty modest office, at that - for an absurdly short period. Almost everything that is memorable about him took place after he had resigned from Harold Macmillan's government for the second time; and that was as long ago as 1963.

Not that this makes him unique. His friend and occasional cross-party ally Michael Foot was a minister (though a much more significant one) for only five years of a career spanning almost 50 years, yet he retired with the reputation of a supreme - perhaps the supreme - House of Commons man. Tony Benn held office for much longer, but it is fair to say that he will be remembered for what he did out of office rather than in it.

Unlike these two, however, Powell was a serial resigner. As number two to Peter Thorneycroft, the chancellor in Macmillan's Treasury team, he quit with his boss and his junior minister, Nigel Birch, in what Super Mac described as a "little local difficulty" but was actually the first manifestation of Thatcherite monetarism. Then, given a second chance by Macmillan (though more to keep him out of mischief on the back benches than out of regard for his indispensability), he refused to serve under Mac's chosen successor, Alec Douglas-Home, because he didn't think he was the right chap for the job.

Amazingly, the ultra-forgiving Alec Home gave Powell a third chance, but only as a junior member of his shadow cabinet after Labour's election victory in 1964. He was still a shadow minister, by this time in Heath's front-bench team, when he finally committed suicide as a serious seeker after office by making the speech that turned him into the de facto standard-bearer for the radical right inside and outside parliament.

The speech is generally known as the "rivers of blood" speech, though Simon Heffer says that Powell preferred to call it the Birmingham speech. He made it on 20 April 1968, when the shadow cabinet had just agreed a somewhat weaselly response to a government bill to outlaw racialism. The deal was, to be sure, a compromise dictated by a yawning left-right split in the parliamentary Tory party over race. But the point, in the eyes of Heath and his allies, was that Powell himself had helped to draft the compromise.

So when Powell stood up in a small upstairs room in Birmingham's Midland Hotel and delivered the fateful prophesy - "Like the Roman, I seem to see the river Tiber foaming with much blood" - he could hardly have been surprised that Heath, and more particularly his more liberal-minded colleagues in the shadow cabinet, would be outraged. Though a devoted admirer himself, Heffer concedes that his hero knew what he was doing, even if he didn't quite realise how much trouble he would cause.

So Heath sacked Powell by telephone, knowing that any delay would lead to the resignation of a substantial chunk of his front bench. Even the sacking had a Enoch-ish quality, since Powell had taken his phone off the hook, allegedly to escape the press, and an emissary had to be sent round to his house to tell him to ring Ted straight away.

The call was the beginning of one of the great personal feuds of postwar politics. Heath never spoke to Powell again. Powell, for his part, conducted eternal, Miltonic war against Ted until the moment he lost the Conservative leadership to Margaret Thatcher. It was a war conducted on many fronts besides matters of race and immigration, including passionate battles over Heath's failed attempt to control inflation by means of a statutory incomes policy and also (above all else) his successful bid to take Britain into the European Community.

The question has remained ever after: was Powell a racist? Heffer, and many others who felt they knew him well, say he definitely wasn't. I am prepared to take their word for it, not least on the book's evidence of Powell's wartime spell in and fondness for India. But if he wasn't, he was quite prepared to play on other people's racism - which in its way is actually worse. How else can one interpret the use of words such as "piccaninnies" in that speech?

Heffer records that Powell himself once explained that he didn't consciously work out things like the Birmingham text. "Decisions appear to present themselves fully dressed at the door," he explained. "There is a knock at my door, I open it, and there is a decision. And so it was with the speech." That, I fear, translates as: "Not my fault, guv'nor - I couldn't help myself."

I hesitate to add, since I shared Powell's fierce hostility to Heath's ruthless use of the party whips to take us into Europe, that I also have deep reservations about Enoch's full-blooded conversion to the anti-common market cause. For the facts suggest that Powell, once he had come to terms with the end of the British Empire, initially switched to Europe in his search for an effective role for post-imperial Britain. No doubt his passionate attachment to the concept of nationhood and the sovereignty of parliament was the crucial factor in changing his mind. But it still looks slightly fishy that his decision turned up on his doorstep just at the moment when Europe was becoming a populist cause.

Yet on one great (and oddly contemporary) issue there can be no doubt about Powell's absolute sincerity. Even if he had had no other beliefs, he believed passionately in the splendour of the British constitution, and in the concept of the crown in parliament. Even as a young soldier, he used to end his letters to his parents with the words "God save the King". His fight to save the hereditary House of Lords from a somewhat limp-wristed "reform" at the hands of Dick Crossman during the 1966 Wilson government was a model of parliamentary guerrilla warfare. But it would never have succeeded without the help of Michael Foot, who joined the battle with exactly the opposite purpose - namely, that their lordships ought to be abolished altogether, not reformed.

An only child of ambitious parents, Powell was much more than a mere swot. At Trinity, Cambridge, he became a virtual hermit, working from 5.30am to 9.30pm. He was a fellow of his college at 22, and professor of Greek at Sydney University at 25, all the while writing poetry which often reads like a melancholy parody of his mentor, A E Housman. Powell was a fierce critic of appeasement, and flew back from Australia in 1939 to join up as a private soldier. He ended the war as the youngest brigadier in the army, but without hearing a single shot fired in anger - a misfortune which cheated him of a romantic ambition to be killed in battle. He had two male friendships so intense as to raise questions over his sexuality; but he also had two heterosexual love affairs, the second with his future wife Pamela, to whom he remained devoted until his death.

But what about the book? At 1,024 pages, it would have benefited from some judicious cutting. But for all its length, it is never tedious. Heffer writes with the same lucidity as his subject, but happily without Powell's corkscrew-like sentence construction. There are good jokes, my favourite being George Brown's response, during a Commons debate, to a Powell-esque reference to the empire. "Someone shouted, 'What empire?' 'I think he means the Holborn Empire,' said George."

Finally, we learn from Heffer that Enoch Powell the classical scholar very nearly left his River Tiber phrase in the original Latin. What, one wonders, would our recent political history have looked like if he had told his tiny audience that day: Et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno?

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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