Enoch Powell's post-colonial empire state of mind

Camilla Schofield's <i>Enoch Powell and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain</i> argues that Powell was a product of Britain's post-colonial history rather than a “timeless monster”.

English Conservative politician Enoch Powell in 1969. Photo: Getty.

Enoch Powell and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain
Camilla Schofield
Cambridge University Press, 381pp, £65

Enoch Powell remains a disturbing figure even from beyond the grave. In February 1998, shortly after his death, there were public protests at his lying in state in the Chapel of St Faith in Westminster Abbey, a privilege accorded to him as a warden of the adjoining parliamentary church of St Margaret’s and a regular communicant at the abbey. In 2007, Nigel Hastilow, a Conservative candidate for a West Midlands constituency, was forced to resign after declaring in a regional newspaper, “Enoch Powell was right”; in 2011, commenting on the summer riots, the historian David Starkey caused a furore for insisting that Powell had been “absolutely right”.

Camilla Schofield’s central theme is that he was not, as many on the left believe, “a timeless monster” but a product of Britain’s post-colonial history, a nationalist whose nationalism arose out of the ruins of the empire. But was his nation England or was it Britain? From 1974 to 1987, Powell represented a constituency in Northern Ireland – South Down – as an Ulster Unionist MP. A Unionist owes allegiance to Britain but Powell spoke more of England than he did of Britain. That is because, as Schofield points out, his conception of Britain was one in which England was dominant. Powell was as unwilling to recognise that Britain was becoming multinational as he was to recognise that it was becoming multiracial.

The England that for Powell held hegemonic sway was a white England, since skin colour was “like a uniform”. “The West Indian or Indian does not,” Powell insisted, “by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.” So a non-white person could never be truly English.

The “rivers of blood” speech of 1968 – when Powell, quoting Virgil, spoke of the Tiber “foaming with much blood” in consequence of immigration – was delivered in opposition to Roy Jenkins’s Race Relations Act. Powell deplored how the act would prevent a white landlady from refusing to accept non-white tenants. What for liberals amounted to the removal of discrimination was, for Powell, discriminatory against the English.

In the Britain of the immediate postwar years, memories of our finest hour helped to placate concerns about the loss of British power and muffle ideological debate. In the 1960s, however, the old certainties began to dissolve as traditional authority structures came under threat from militant trade unionists, Celtic nationalists, feminists, rebellious students and advocates of sexual liberation.

To those who felt threatened by the un­ravelling of the postwar settlement, the war years appeared a golden age. Only white people, some Powellites falsely claimed, had fought for Britain. So it was that the wartime experience came to be entangled with racism – in the words of one of Powell’s correspondents in 1968, “I never saw one coloured person at Dunkirk.” Powellites remembered the war but forgot the non-white soldier. Those who had sacrificed so much during the war were now, it appeared, being sacrificed by a liberal political establishment that was out of touch with popular needs.

Schofield distinguishes Powellism and its aim to restore historic structures of authority from Thatcherism, which was a transformative project. Yet Powellism was the first sign that popular alienation and disillusionment were pushing voters not to the left but to the right and, from this point of view, it was a precursor of Thatcherism. The true revolutionaries of the 1960s proved to be not the trade unions or the students but the shopkeepers and aspiring members of the working class who supported Enoch Powell and went on to vote for Margaret Thatcher.

According to Schofield, Powell sought to replace an empire based on white supremacy with an England based on white supremacy. She distorts, I think, the idea of empire. In practice, no doubt, the empire did often incarnate white supremacy. However, its ideology was opposed to racial domination.

As early as 1854, the British condition for establishing representative institutions in the Cape Colony was that there be a “colour-blind” franchise subject to a financial quali­fication but not one of colour. In 1897, the then colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, told representatives at the colonial conference “to bear in mind the tradition of empire, which makes no distinction in favour of, or against, race or colour”.

In 1914 and 1939, many Africans and Indians volunteered to fight for an empire that, in theory, they rejected. Admittedly, imperial practice often failed to conform to the high-minded principles laid down in Westminster and Whitehall; nevertheless, the germ of the multiracial Commonwealth lay in the colonial policy of British governments in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, High Tories were using imperialist arguments to reject proposals to restrict non-white immigration. “It would be a tragedy,” declared the then colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, in 1958, “to bring to an end the traditional right of unrestricted entry into the mother country of Her Majesty’s subjects and quite unthinkable to do so on grounds of colour.”

Powell, therefore, was being very un-Tory in rejecting the multiracial Commonwealth and a multiracial Britain. Both have been, despite some blemishes, success stories – so much so that almost all of the African and Asian former colonies chose to join the Commonwealth; meanwhile, in Scotland, members of ethnic minorities are now more likely than the white population to identify themselves as “British”. It is odd that the former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd claimed that Powell had “the gift of prophetic utterance”. Most of Powell’s prophecies (and in particular his prediction of a racial war in Britain) have proved spectacularly wrong. 

Enoch Powell and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain is written with clarity and insight. Its central thesis is not, perhaps, as original as Schofield imagines, being not wholly dissimilar to that put forward by other chroniclers of Powell’s career – notably Simon Heffer, whose magisterial biography Like the Roman is dismissed by Schofield on the strange grounds that it is “highly empirical”. Heffer’s book, however, is over 1,000 pages long, a veritable doorstopper, and Scho­field offers an incisive, shorter account that many will find sufficient.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College London. His books include “The Coalition and the Constitution”