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28 August 2019

The provocations of Enoch Powell

Fifty years after it shunned him, the Conservative Party has embraced Powell’s Eurosceptic and nationalist views.

By Colin Kidd

Enoch Powell, who died more than 20 years ago, is today best known as a pot-stirring populist whose inflammatory anti-migrant rhetoric descended into outright racism. Indeed Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 led Edward Heath, then leader of the opposition, to sack him from his post as defence spokesman in the shadow cabinet. Later, Powell became a Tory outcast, spending the last decade of his parliamentary career as an Ulster Unionist MP – estranged from the party that, under Heath, took Britain into the European Community.

While most politicians find that their ideas become obsolescent within, and occasionally well before, the end of their lifetimes, Powell’s blend of Euroscepticism and English nationalism is enjoying an influential afterlife in the era of Brexit, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Kenneth Clarke – himself a vivid example of the obsolete: a Europhile Tory – claimed in 2017 that Powell would have been amazed at the extent to which the post-referendum Conservatives, “Eurosceptic and mildly anti-immigrant”, had embraced his ideas.

Paul Corthorn’s welcome and timely study invites us to assess the continuing purchase of Powellism in Brexiteering Conservatism. But he is also firm in his injunction that Powell’s ideas should be viewed in context – as they developed piecemeal and haphazardly in response to the dissolution of empire and the British turn to Europe – and in their full strangeness. For Powell is in some ways the least pindownable of hard-right Conservatives: an opponent of nuclear weapons and the death penalty, convinced for geostrategic reasons of Britain’s common interests with Russia and outspokenly anti-American, as well as a wholly committed supporter of the National Health Service, to the extent that it irritated his free-marketeering allies.

Powell’s origins were modest and provincial. Brought up in the lower-middle-class of the west Midlands, Powell won a scholarship to King Edward’s Birmingham, and then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was the outstanding classicist of his generation. He became a fellow of Trinity, and then at the age of 25 a full professor of Greek at the University of Sydney: not a matter of pride, but of distress,  for Powell’s hero, Friedrich Nietzsche, had become a professor of classics at the age of 24. Powell had a distinguished war, rising, incredibly, through the ranks from private to brigadier-general.

Although he voted Labour in 1945 – to punish the Tories for appeasement – Powell soon joined the Conservative Research Department, abandoning academic life, though not the realm of ideas. He became the MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950. In the interim his overassimilation to High Tory norms had begun. He took up fox-hunting from scratch. Later, he turned to the Church of England, somehow fusing the Nietzschean atheism of his early manhood with a commitment to the Church by law established.

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Powell and Heath – who was also a clever, Oxbridge-educated, lower-middle-class Conservative with a good war behind him – were rising stars of the party during the 1950s and early 1960s. However, while Heath was happily conformist, Powell was intellectually restless. As financial secretary to the Treasury, he was the instigator of the resignation of the Treasury team – the chancellor of the exchequer Peter Thorneycroft and his junior colleagues Powell and Nigel Birch – from Harold Macmillan’s government in 1958. Powell dissented from Macmillan’s fiscally loose Keynesianism.

He returned to Macmillan’s government as minister for health in 1960, but resigned again in 1963 out of loyalty to Rab Butler, when Macmillan – through the machinations of a process later described as the Magic Circle – bequeathed the prime ministership and party leadership to Alec Douglas-Home, the 14th Earl of Home, finding none of his colleagues in the Commons up to the job. In 1965 Powell stood against Heath and Reginald Maudling for the party leadership, but came a distant third.

The furore that followed the rivers of blood speech in 1968 marked the start of a prolonged personal, political and intellectual rupture with Heath, which was a leading theme in Tory politics between 1968 and 1974. Powell disagreed with what he saw as Heath’s abandonment of free-market principles in the face of economic turbulence and trade union opposition, his disdainful treatment of Britain’s loyal subjects in Northern Ireland during the early stages of the Troubles, and his further betrayal of British nationhood by way of the UK’s accession to the European Community.

In the February 1974 general election, Powell decided he could no longer stand for a bastardised Conservative Party. Instead, Powell urged people to vote Labour, which was then much more Eurosceptic than the Tories. The result was incredibly close. The Tories won more voters than Labour, but Labour held 301 seats to the Tories’ 297. Arguably, Powell’s intervention had swung things for Labour. Yet, as Corthorn shows, Powell was slow to come round to the Labour idea of a vote on continued membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). Indeed, despite campaigning for withdrawal from the Common Market in the 1975 referendum, Powell remained tentative about referendums in general.


Powell returned to the Commons in the October 1974 election as the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. He soon fell out with those wings of Unionism that favoured the restoration of Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament at Stormont. Powell believed – as very few Ulster Unionists genuinely have over the years, and certainly not the Paisleyite DUP – that there should be no border in the Irish Sea, and that Northern Ireland should be fully integrated into the British body politic. Powell represented South Down until his defeat at the general election of 1987. Throughout that period he was a ghoulish ultra-Tory presence in the Commons, with which Margaret Thatcher – arguably the chief inheritor of his free-marketeering, nationalist mantle – was never entirely easy.

Like Nietzsche, Powell was a deliberate provocateur. It is hard to tell, with this contrarian who spent most of his political career out of high office and seemed addicted to futile grand gestures, what was policy and what was pose. Does Powell’s ultra-realist, unsentimental reading of international relations provide some kind of working template for a world turned upside down by the rise of authoritarian nationalisms and Trump’s neglect of the Western alliance? Or was his poseurship as evanescent as performance art? Corthorn is right to begin with the profound disenchantment that underlay Powell’s vision of international order. Indian independence in 1947 shattered Powell’s dreams of a global British empire that hinged on the subcontinent. It also punctured a very personal aspiration, for Powell had wished to be viceroy of India: a vainglorious ambition, but not perhaps unrealistic for the brigadier-professor.

As a result of this blow, the imperialist turned by slow degrees into a critic of supra-national “illusions” that had no grounding in national interests. The United Nations, Nato, the Western alliance against communism, the Commonwealth and Britain’s special relationship with the United States were all, it transpired, vacuous in conception, sometimes sinister in function. It was idle to pretend that America was the West’s disinterested, benevolent guardian; it had its own national interests and ought to be viewed, without sentiment, as Britain’s chief rival.

Powell himself was convinced, after the delusions of empire fell away, that he saw the world straight. Might his fellow Tories come to see the abiding national interests that remained once one had stripped away the misleading rhetoric of anti-communism? Britain and Russia, situated at the borders of Europe, had parallel interests; indeed, he held that “the existence of Russia has been the ultimate guarantee of the survival of Britain as an independent nation”, as, historically, “in 1812, in 1914, in 1942”. Russia did not constitute a serious threat to western Europe, certainly not to Britain. 

But the unthinkingly close identification with America produced a still more serious distortion in British policy. Here momentary disillusion for the British people came only in 1982 when America – with interests in Latin American stability, and whose ambassador to the UN was the authoritarian-friendly Cold Warrior Jeane Kirkpatrick – dithered between Britain and Argentina during the early stages of the Falklands conflict. Powell rejoiced to see American self-interest so nakedly displayed, at last denuded of its “fairy-tale disguise sustained so sedulously since 1942”. Now Britons could at last see America as it really was – “neither friend nor foe to this country except as its perception of American advantage and American purpose dictates”.

The moment passed. By the time of the demise of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War in 1990-91, Powell saw that Britain’s national interest had been quietly subordinated yet again to American goals. What threat did Iraq pose to the UK’s national security? “Saddam Hussein has a long way to go yet before his troops come storming up the beaches of Kent or Sussex.” But what about British interests in the oil-rich states of the Middle East? This merely elicited the profound disillusionment of the authentic post-imperialist: if “the balance of power in the Middle East ever mattered, it was to a British empire which exists no more”.

Powell’s engagement with the strategic problems associated with nuclear weaponry was of a similar depth, unpredictability and quizzical scepticism. At first he toed the Tory line on the need for a nuclear deterrent. However, discussions with military strategists, including Basil Liddell Hart, convinced him that atomic weapons could only – if ever – be used in the very last resort, and conventional forces should not be neglected. For a time Powell considered the nuclear bomb at best a necessary “burden”, but eventually came – by a tortuously different path from his CND counterparts on the left – to a stance favouring unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Although undoubtedly a man of the right, Powell was unwilling to be pigeonholed in its familiar categories. He favoured the Institute of Economic Affairs and its free market solutions long before Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, but his friends on the free-market right felt, as Corthorn shows, a measure of exasperation at Powell’s idiosyncrasies – including his position on the NHS and, to them, his bizarre belief that it was “barbarism” to evaluate the universities in terms of their contribution to the economy. Moreover, Powell’s opposition to immigration was viewed by his fellow market pioneers as an obstacle to the free movement of labour. Yet, ultimately, with Powell, when it was a matter of market versus nation, the nation trumped the market every time. In this respect he foreshadows the Brexiteers’ disregard of business.


Notwithstanding Powell’s clarity of vision and penetrating intelligence, Corthorn indicates tensions and weak points in his arguments. For a politician the central premise of whose career was the protection and articulation of the nation state, Powell was decidedly unsure of the nation’s very identity, sometimes locating it in the empire, sometimes the United Kingdom – including its embattled province in Ulster – and sometimes more narrowly its English core. Nor did Powell, the ultimate parliamentarian, manage to resolve tensions between the wisdom of parliament and the deeper autochthonous wisdom of the nation at large, between parliamentary sovereignty and the status of that alien import, the referendum.

Powell was unashamedly an intellectual in politics. He conceived his mission as educating the Bufton Tuftons of the Tory tribe in the harsh realities of geopolitics, in the technicalities of monetarist economics, in the constitutional theory that invisibly supported the UK’s traditions of unsystematised constitutional practice. From the very start of his political career Powell saw that the Conservative Party had to “be cured of the British empire”, a task on which, ironically, Heath was also engaged. Nevertheless, they arrived at very different destinations: Heath the European Community, Powell a stand-alone British nation in a choppy, havenless world of competing national interests.

By the 1980s the Conservative Party had recovered from its imperial obsessions, but now, in an age of populist simplicities and hard Brexiteer nostalgia, the patient has relapsed. Rees-Moggery, Faragisme and Johnsonian bluster provide an all-too-intentional snub to the perceived Europhile defeatism of Heath, but, in their attempts to reboot the Commonwealth and in their 51st state supplicancy to Trump, ignore some of the less comforting lessons to be learned from their hair-shirted St Enoch. 

Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews


Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain
Paul Corthorn
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £20

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