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What the West should know about Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao

In the two years since he took China's most important job, Xi Jinping has strengthened his grip on the state.

In the two years since he took China’s most important job, Xi Jinping has become the most powerful national leader in the world. He has assumed seven top positions spanning the Communist Party, the state, the economy and the military. He has also displayed an activism that contrasts sharply with his predecessor Hu Jintao, and has promulgated a tough ideological line.

At home, his big anti-corruption and frugality campaign is attempting to strengthen the 87-million-strong Communist Party by bringing the cadres closer to the people. Abroad, Xi has forged a foreign policy to dispense hundreds of billions of dollars to countries from Asia to Latin America while confronting Asian neighbours and seeking geopolitical parity with the United States.

Projecting a folksy image domestically as “Xi Dada” (Uncle Xi), he appears popular, as a leader with ambitions that match China’s economic weight, the strongest chief of the world’s most populous nation since Mao Zedong. Like the Great Helmsman, Xi knows how to play to perfection the front-line role in his country’s political system – Leninism with Chinese characteristics. (Though paramount leader after winning the power struggle that followed Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping preferred to operate through others.) With his tenure stretching to 2022, Xi does not have to worry about elections or obstructive legislatures; what matters is controlling and strengthening the monopoly movement that has ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. After taking over the Party leadership at the end of 2012, he swiftly pursued the centralisation of authority and set up four top-level national bodies under his chairmanship to add to the usual top three posts of Party general secretary, state president and chair of the Central Military Commission. He has no rivals and has ensured control of a vital power base by reshuffling top commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to promote generals close to him.

Xi has also put his name to an ambitious seven-year programme of economic reform. The growth rate has fallen below the government target but it is projected to be 6.8 per cent this year, strong by global standards. Inflation is low; deflation, boosted by excess capacity, is the big problem. Foreign currency reserves, feeding off the PRC’s position as the world’s biggest exporter, stand at $4trn, as much as the next seven biggest reserve holders combined. (Although this is an enviable position, China is in a “dollar trap”: it cannot sell much of its US assets for fear of provoking a wider sell-off of the greenback, reducing the value of its remaining holdings.)

Internationally, Xi has displayed ever-increasing confidence, discarding Deng’s advice for China to “hide its brilliance and bide its time”. For him, the time has come. The PRC’s huge aid programme includes the “One Belt, One Road” plan, to pay for infrastructure, transport routes and energy generation plants along the maritime passage from China to the Gulf, and also across central Asia to Russia and Germany beyond. China has offered large sums to governments in Latin America to gain influence, buy in to companies and promote infrastructure projects that would provide work for PRC firms. Its firms have been investing in Europe, North America and Australia as well as the old natural-resources-hunting ground of Africa. The Beijing government has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and had the satisfaction of more than 50 countries, led by the UK, joining despite warnings from Washington not to do so – a telling sign of how strong is the ­desire to get on with China.

Xi’s body language at the summit in Beijing of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) organisation towards the end of 2014 told a clear story. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and Barack Obama were both put at a disadvantage by the staging of meetings with him by being made to appear like supplicants, Abe receiving only the most distant of handshakes and no small talk. Xi, who is broad-shouldered and nearly six foot tall, trumped the feline figure of Vladimir Putin, who committed the overeager faux pas of putting a shawl around the shoulder of the Chinese leader’s wife: it was swiftly removed. Xi looked, and acted, like an emperor.

Both Obama and David Cameron will have occasion to savour the Xi style when he visits the US and UK this autumn. Britain has already felt the impact of the tougher Xi approach over Hong Kong with the refusal late last year to allow a Commons select committee to visit the former colony and, in January, the snubbing of the Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire by the two most senior Hong Kong officials. But the Cameron government has accepted such ­rebuffs in the hope that Xi’s visit will result in contracts for British companies.

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Confounding non-Chinese commentators who see the PRC as defined by its Confucian civilisation, Xi belongs to the other philosophical stream, of legalism, dating back to the First Emperor 2,200 years ago. This puts its faith in top-down autocratic rule, with the law frightening citizens into obedience. There is no room for retreat or compromise. The way in which reform is perceived to have brought down the USSR is held up as a terrible example of weakness.

Xi’s wide-ranging war on corruption is a perfect example of the legalist approach. Its cutting edge, the Communist Party’s Commission for Discipline Inspection, can hold people for as long as it wants without charge in a secret location before the Party rules on whether to expel them. Only then are they handed to the courts for sentencing.

In targeting high-profile “tigers” such as the maverick Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013, and the former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who was given a life sentence on 11 June, Xi has shown that nobody is safe though powerful vested interests are bound to oppose him. (Besides being found guilty of corruption, Zhou was accused of divulging secret documents to his spiritual guru, who claims supernatural powers. A brief video of his sentencing showed a man who was once one of the PRC’s most powerful figures, his previously black hair turned white, evidently from having hair dye denied to him in detention.) Close associates of Hu Jintao and his immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, have been detained; the campaign has also swatted tens of thousands of less eminent “flies” and induced a widespread atmosphere of fear.

Not content with the Party’s 66-year-long monopoly of power, its Politburo ruled last month that all social, cultural and economic organisations must have a Communist cell, as is already the case in most companies. A legal programme launched last year aims to use the law to buttress central control; judges already had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Party. Liberals who, having given up on canvassing for democracy, ask merely that the constitution be respected, are denounced as foreign agents out to undermine the PRC. Anybody trying to operate outside the system is in danger. An anti-corruption campaigner who called for party and state officials to be required to declare their assets has been jailed for disturbing public order; his real sin was to have operated on his own.

After being abolished officially in 2002, class warfare has reappeared as a mantra in state media, along with Mao’s “mass line” – to ensure conformity under the leadership – and denunciations of “western values”. Repression of dissent, officially equated with subversion, has increased; Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, remains in jail, where he is serving an 11-year sentence for having circulated an online petition in favour of democracy.

Beijing has also toughened its hold on Tibet, where more than 100 Buddhist monks and nuns have burned themselves to death in the past five years to protest against Chinese rule, and on the huge western territory of Xinjiang, where the state faces increasingly violent action by Muslim Uighurs who oppose the Chinese rule imposed by military force around 1950. Mass immigration by Han Chinese, who get most of the benefits of the cash being poured in by the central government, is changing the population balance in both territories.

Xi’s persona as a strong leader with populist characteristics is nurtured by events such as his 2013 visit to a neighbourhood restaurant for a lunch of vegetables, steamed buns and pig-innard soup. His liking for football is reported in the Chinese media, along with his desire for the People’s Republic to improve on dismal performances and become a World Cup challenger. In 2013 he was photographed on a dockside in a downpour holding his own umbrella and with his trousers legs rolled up, like a holidaymaker caught in the rain at Blackpool – though the snap disappeared from mainland websites after Hong Kong democracy protesters took the umbrella as their symbol.

His wife, Peng Liyuan, has become China’s most prominent first lady since Madam Mao – Jiang Qing, who led the extremist Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution and subsequently died in jail – if a good deal less scary. The handbags Peng carries on foreign visits quickly sell out on e-commerce sites. She was a well-known folk singer with a big voice before she stopped performing when her husband rose to the Politburo Standing Committee (she sang in the PLA entertainment corps and holds a rank equivalent to major general). A schmaltzy ballad, “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama”, even went viral last winter, with tens of millions of internet downloads in China.

 

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Xi, 62, has radiated a sense of entitlement from his youth, somebody who knew him in those days told me. The son of a first-generation Communist leader, he was sent to live in a cave and look after pigs when his father was purged in the Cultural Revolution. He then worked his way up through provincial posts, including senior positions in two high-growth provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang, before being put in charge of Shanghai in 2007. That same year he was elevated to the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, marking him as the man to succeed Hu Jintao at the following congress, in 2012.

He stands at the top of the “princelings” group of offspring of first-generation Communist chiefs, though the leadership factions apparent before Xi became general secretary appear to have dissipated. Other Standing Committee members seem to have accepted his power play. Premier Li Keqiang, the leading member of the “Youth League faction” of Hu protégés, lines up loyally, but knows that if the economy falters seriously he will be the fall guy. Any ambitious younger politician aiming to join the Standing Committee at the next congress in 2017, and so position himself in line for the post-Xi leadership, is likely to hunker down in the leader’s tent.

For all his power, Xi confronts a long string of challenges; indeed, he has indicated that he feels he needs great authority because of the scale of problems facing the regime. China has major economic imbalances. The leadership has to manage slowing growth, deflation, excess industrial capacity and a mountain of debt incurred by local governments for projects unlikely ever to provide a decent return on ­capital. To ensure sustainable growth, it needs to reduce the dependence on exports and fixed asset investment and to increase domestic consumption – but the rate of consumption growth remains weak. Prices have fallen on the property market, into which many Chinese poured their savings. The recent stock-market boom has run ahead of itself and international investors showed what they thought early this month by declining to include in the benchmark global MSCI Emerging Market Index stocks that are listed on the mainland, rather than in Hong Kong. For all its adaptation of inventions from abroad, China is not good at original innovation. It also faces competition from lower-cost producers and needs to move up the value-added chain of manufacturing.

The second generation of the urban middle class, which holds the key to the PRC’s future in many ways, and which has never known anything but strong growth, is more questioning than its parents. Social media has introduced conversations that are outside the range of the official channels, and too numerous for the censors to keep track. Chinese citizens make more than 100 million trips abroad each year and see the liberties democracy can bring.

There is a grave environmental crisis in air quality (life expectancy in polluted northern cities is five and a half years lower than in the cleaner south), water and soil (one survey showed that 10 per cent of arable land was unsafe to grow crops on). Food safety is a constant concern. Differences in regional and personal wealth have soared. As the scale of the current anti-corruption campaign shows, graft is deeply embedded. Public trust in officialdom is low. The hukou registration system that ties people to their place of ordinary residence deprives migrant workers of rights to welfare, education or property, and prevents them from launching businesses in the cities, where they are treated as second-class citizens.

Low fertility, the one-child policy and the cost of raising children in a system without adequate maternity facilities have all caused the birth rate to fall just as more old people are living longer. The result is a demographic time bomb in a nation without a proper pension system and sparse state care for the elderly. Confucianism is fraying, and despite the new, Mao-tinged ideological campaign the “ism” that most marks out China today is materialism. The government wants people to spend more and thus boost growth, but the inadequate welfare system obliges Chinese citizens to save a lot.

Abroad, some of the rulers with whom Beijing has formed close relationships have come unstuck – as in Sri Lanka and Venezuela. The PRC’s project to build a highway and railway from the Arabian Sea through Pakistan to China’s westernmost territory of Xinjiang has problems with both topography and the Taliban. There are serious doubts about the transcontintental railway proposal for Latin America. Moscow may resent China’s push into central Asia and Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas have drawn Japan, the Philippines and other countries closer to the strategic umbrella of the United States. Tokyo has launched its own aid programme in response to Beijing’s initiatives. America has critical allies in the region; Beijing’s only formal alliance is with North Korea. Despite its military spending, the People’s Republic lags behind US military power in east Asia.

As for soft power, the idea that Chinese civilisational values will spread to match those of the west looks good only on paper. Since 1949 the Communist Party has presided over extensive destruction of Chinese traditional culture. Apart from the Forbidden City and a few temples, Beijing is now a city of modern towers and ring roads, of shopping malls and mobile phones.

There are far more signs of western influence in China than of Sinicisation in cities of the west; the latest film in the Avengers franchise did far better at the box office in the PRC this month than a popular cartoon biopic of Deng Xiaoping. Despite the success of Chinese enterprises such as the internet giant Alibaba, the US remains well ahead in innovation and China usually adapts novelties from elsewhere rather than invents things itself. When it comes to politics, demonstrators in Ukraine or the Middle East call for western democracy but nobody marches to demand a Chinese political system. While universities in China are told to repel foreign values, any Chinese parents who can afford it send their children to be educated abroad. Xi’s own daughter went to Harvard (under a pseudonym).

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The greatest problem facing the Chinese leadership is simple. What is the Communist Party of China for and where does it derive its legitimacy? That raises some very knotty issues.

Is this movement that has never run in a national election – let alone won one – the deliverer of material progress, extending Deng Xiaoping’s insight that going for growth was the path both to restoring the PRC’s global status and to giving the Party a source of popular legitimacy? If so, what will happen if growth drops more sharply than Xi and Premier Li Keqiang plan and if the aspirations of the second generation of the middle class reach beyond money? What impact will the anti-corruption campaign have on the Party’s patronage networks and its poorly paid cadres, who live by rent-seeking?

Does the Party still have an ideological message as Xi’s invocations of Marxism and Maoism would suggest? If so, how does that chime with a rapidly evolving but still materialist society whose leaders cannot bring themselves to deal with the reality of China’s past? Mao is officially seen as “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, but his record is still shrouded in myth. The story told at the grandiose National Museum in Tiananmen Square of how the Party saved China and is leading it towards “rejuvenation” is far from reality. Can a regime that cannot confront its own past command credibility?

For all the rampant growth and the praise some commentators heap on China’s supposedly meritocratic system rooted in thousands of years of history, its ruling class has a spotty record. The country’s economic success, which may be the most important global event since the end of the cold war, was buoyed by a combination of low wages, cheap credit and strong demand for exports. None of those factors now applies. The vast stimulus programme launched at the end of 2008 to counter the world financial crisis restored growth but led to wholesale misallocation of capital into wasteful projects that earn scant returns, the vast debt problem affecting companies as well as local governments, and also created soaring excess capacity in sectors such as steel production. In 2007, the then prime minister, Wen Jiabao, called the economy unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable, a situation that was exacerbated by a £400bn expansion of credit and stimulus spending the following year.

The seven-year reform programme laid out in a Party plenum document at the end of 2013 was the response to that. It was limited to the economy; political change is unthinkable. Yet there is still a core problem. The plan aims to use market mechanisms to buttress the state and build “national champions” in a modernised system, but there is no mention of the main driver of growth and jobs: the private sector. If they are to be effective, China’s economic reforms must involve structural liberalisation, which has inevitable political implications and will reduce state power.

If he faces a choice between economic modernisation and party control, Xi is likely to choose protecting the second – in line with his condemnation of the Gorbachev experiment in the Soviet Union – as he steps forward as the strongman who defends the PRC’s Leninist form of bureaucratic state capitalism. But that in turn would cramp the development and modernisation necessary to perpetuate the Communist Party’s claim to rule. Such contradictions will shape China in the coming decade and, given the country’s global impact, will weigh heavily on the world.

Jonathan Fenby’s most recent book is “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” (Polity). He is also the author of “Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Why It Has to Change” (Simon & Schuster) and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

CREDIT: ARNOLD NEWMAN/GETTY IMAGES
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Will post-Brexit Britain overcome or fall further upon Enoch Powell’s troubling legacy?

It is 50 years since his notorious “rivers of blood” speech. Yet, in the intervening decades, Powell’s ideas have entered the political mainstream to take revenge on a complacent establishment.

Enoch Powell wrote that “all political lives end in failure… because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”. This pithy, realist judgement has often been applied to his own career. Fifty years ago, on 20 April 1968 at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel, he delivered the incendiary “Rivers of Blood” speech on immigration, with its apocalyptic warnings of violent civil strife. The speech would cast him into the political wilderness. His reputation, once burnished by a fiercely bright intellect and powerful oratorical style, never recovered.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, however, and it appears that Powell has gained his. The major themes of his later career – withdrawal from the European Union, hostility to immigration, an insistence on the indivisibility of sovereignty, and rejection of devolution and power-sharing in Northern Ireland – are all now central to British politics. The United Kingdom is negotiating to leave the EU. The Conservative Party is committed to “taking back control” of the sovereignty that Powell argued it should never have given up. There is even talk among some Brexiteers of abandoning the Good Friday Agreement. Arguments of impeccably Powellite pedigree have entered the bloodstream of British politics.

How is it that Powell, for so long a political pariah, has proved to be an enduring influence upon the thinking of so many later politicians? This question is all the more pertinent given that Britain has moved in directions he would have disliked intensely, becoming a largely successful multicultural and more socially liberal society, and devolving significant powers to the different nations of the UK.

One of the answers to this puzzle lies in the unresolved nature of the European question in British politics from the 1970s until the Brexit vote. Another lies in Powell’s own thinking and his preoccupation with questions – of sovereignty, nationhood and citizens – that have, since his death, opened up the major schisms running through our political life.

Powell began his career in academe. A brilliant classicist, he became a professor at the University of Sydney aged 25. His academic life was cut short, however, by the outbreak of the Second World War and he returned home to enlist in the British army. In 1943 he was posted to India, where he learned Urdu and nurtured ambitions to become viceroy. His outlook at this time was broadly conventional for a Conservative, not least in his support for empire. But from an early stage he was sceptical of the burgeoning power of the United States, which he perceived as antithetical to the survival of Britain’s empire.

Powell embarked upon a political career after the war, serving in the Conservative Research Department before becoming MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950. He became a junior minister for housing, and then financial secretary, resigning
with his Treasury colleagues over Harold Macmillan’s failure to cut public spending in 1958. He was a monetarist who collaborated routinely with the Institute of Economic Affairs long before Margaret Thatcher brought their ideas into mainstream public policy.

During these postwar years he changed his mind radically on the thorny question of how Britain should respond to its diminution as an imperial power. India’s struggle for independence shook his worldview to its core. Increasingly convinced that Britain was no longer capable of operating as a hegemonic power in the world, and that it was delusional and damaging to believe that it could, he began to turn against empire.

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The root source of his revisionism was his deep commitment to the idea that what defined Britain (or England as he usually called it) was the tradition of indivisible sovereignty – the Crown exercising its authority through parliament – which was embedded in the state’s unique history and governing institutions. And this precious gift was, he came to believe, imperilled increasingly by the inability of Britain’s rulers to see that the empire was becoming a source of weakness, not ballast, for the British state. One of his most important and impressive speeches in parliament was devoted to the murderous brutality meted out by British soldiers in 1959 against Mau Mau prisoners at the Hola camp in Kenya. Powell was a lone voice on this occasion, arguing that the chain of responsibility for this episode stretched to the Colonial Office. He offered a powerful, moral case for the equal treatment of all subjects of British rule.

Yet from the late 1940s onwards there were indications that he was, bit by bit, turning away from the assumption that empire underwrote British power. And, during the 1960s, Powell started to gravitate towards positions that set him against the leadership of his own party, and indeed the entire political establishment. An important spark for his deepening sense that a new course needed to be set in British politics was frustration at the hold that the imperial delusion still exerted. The country’s rulers were
suffering from a profound “post-imperial neurosis”, as a once great nation was in danger of overreaching itself while simultaneously seeking refuge under the American nuclear umbrella.

Powell viewed the Commonwealth association that had emerged from the wreckage of empire with deep suspicion. This was little more than a “farce” or “sham”, a meaningless confederation in which countries exhibited no allegiance to each other, and over which Britain lacked any actual authority. Instead, it was to a neglected English heritage that Powell urged the Conservatives to return. In speech after speech he supplied a poetic vision of a nation that needed to be reborn, freed from the baggage of empire.

The English needed to look back over the compass of their own history to rediscover who they were and determine a new national mission. Appreciating England’s cultural and religious heritage, and understanding the unique achievement of a system of government based upon parliamentary sovereignty, were the keys to this enterprise. Englishness grew out of an ancient heritage and bequeathed a set of cultural habits and common practices, and was interwoven with the governing institutions and parliamentary tradition that Britain had forged. Only those steeped in the customs and ethnicity that had borne the nation through its life could be members of a national community, a stipulation that ruled out the possibility that people from different racial backgrounds could live together under the same national banner.

This was the intellectual underpinning for Powell’s anti-immigration arguments in the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and the racism they legitimated. His fixed and overtly ethnic characterisation of the nation was exposed subsequently by the development of forms of patriotism and national solidarity that have unified people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in Britain. On the question of how modern forms of nationhood work, he has been shown to be profoundly wrong.

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But other aspects of his thinking have proved to be more prescient and pertinent than his critics have allowed, however uncomfortable it may be to acknowledge their influence – especially his recognition of the depth and importance of distinctly English traditions of culture and thought. This insight was discarded by mainstream politicians, along with his racist views on ethnicity and nationality. As a result, a widely felt sense of English patriotism became an object of scorn in the public culture. English political identity was left for Powell’s political heirs to claim, most notably by Nigel Farage during Ukip’s rise to prominence in the 2000s.

Certainly his lyrical, and sometimes spiritual, evocations of Englishness read now like the artefacts of a different time, and reflect an intellectual culture that has all but disappeared. But amid the classical allusions and pastoral sentimentalism – a combination that undoubtedly reflected the influence of one of his teachers at Cambridge, poet and classicist AE Housman – lay an acute grasp of the senses of loss and dispossession that were increasingly hallmarks of England’s social culture.

In the speech he delivered on St George’s Day 1961, he celebrated the enduring mystery of England and its unnoticed, but very real, presence at the heart of the British system of governance and law. The English after empire, he went on, were returning home, just like the Athenians coming back to their city to find that it had been sacked and burned. Albion was, metaphorically, smouldering and damaged, with the conditions for its integrity challenged and its cultural heritage facing mortal threat.

Powell, it should be said, was not alone in urging Britain to think anew about its place and responsibilities in the world in these years, but he was alone in mainstream politics in thinking in this particular way. He emerged as an unlikely scourge of the mythologies to which the British elite had clung since 1945. Freed from the delusions of “Greater Britain”, he argued, the UK should limit its military ambitions to its proximate neighbourhood and operate more independently of American power.

But it was not his high-minded rendition of the English lineage that began to gain traction among the wider public. Instead, it was his objection to the small, but growing, numbers of immigrants entering Britain from the countries of the Commonwealth. Powell sensed a political opportunity and was happy to interweave the kinds of vernacular racism deemed illegitimate in public discourse into his predominantly highbrow speeches. By the 1970s the name “Enoch” became synonymous with street-level racism, as his views gave credence to deep wells of anti-immigrant prejudice.

Having begun the 1960s seemingly content with his own party’s position of supporting relatively low levels of immigration to Britain, by its end he was outspokenly opposed, and depicted the effects of immigration into the UK in increasingly apocalyptic terms. He repeatedly expressed scepticism about the anticipated numbers of new immigrants, arguing consistently that official figures underestimated the total numbers of likely arrivals, and questioned government policy towards family dependents. From 1965, he began to call – with some ambiguity – for consideration to be given to programmes of voluntary repatriation. The sores of this history have reopened recently, as some members of the “Windrush” generation of Commonwealth citizens that arrived as children in the UK after World War Two have faced deportation at the hands of the British state, to considerable public disgust.

Broad spectrum: a
press conference of the anti-EC National Referendum Campaign, 1975. Credit: Hulton Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty

Powell exploded into public consciousness following the “Rivers of Blood” speech. In this heavily trailed intervention he told the dramatic – and probably fictional – story of an elderly woman taunted by immigrants, and claimed that public order would break down if mass immigration into Britain was not stopped. His colleagues were furious at his deliberate failure to consult them in advance, and by the inflammatory language he used. In response, the Tory leader Edward Heath sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet. And, ironically, he may well have helped the Conservatives to victory in the election of 1970, as the party hardened its immigration policy following Powell’s intervention.

Instantly he became a political outlaw, but he was now also the occupant of a powerful pulpit beyond the confines of party politics. Powell subsequently broadened his critique of government policy, first on immigration and then on the question of Europe, into a more expansive attack on the political establishment as a whole. And he readily adopted the stance of the reviled outsider, ready to speak uncomfortable truths, and masochistic in his relish for the opprobrium heaped upon him. In these ways Powell played the role of Britain’s first postwar proto-populist leader, willing and able to promote the defence of the national homeland against the indifference and machinations of the elites.

Melancholy, loss and decline melded powerfully with notions of redemption, emancipation and renewal in Powell’s speeches during this period. In political terms, the brand of parliamentary populism that he developed created a model that would be explored at a later point and in different ways, first by Margaret Thatcher and, subsequently, by some of the leading proponents for Brexit. Certainly, Thatcher’s politically powerful combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism owed something to Powellite thinking.

But in some respects Powell’s populism was, like him, one of a kind, and was beset by a distinctive set of internal contradictions. He remained deeply committed to the ideal of parliamentary sovereignty and looked with disapproval upon forms of extra-parliamentary mobilisation and anti-parliamentary rhetoric. He famously told a deputation of meat porters who marched in support of his stance on immigration to go home and write to their MPs. And for a while he was uncomfortable with the call to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the Common Market, fearful for what it meant for the sacred doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

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Europe became the focus of Powell’s second public crusade. Having been initially in favour of the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community, on the grounds that a European customs union would promote the cause of free trade, he came to denounce such an entity, convinced that it would necessitate forms of political and legal co-ordination that would invariably compromise the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. He first publicly criticised entry to the EEC in 1969 and, during the accession negotiations conducted by the Heath government over the summer of 1971, made a series of speeches that warned of the threat the community posed to British sovereignty.

While his hostility to European membership confirmed his stance outside the political mainstream, this was not such a lonely field to plough, as he joined forces with other leading sceptical figures, often – like Tony Benn – from the political left, in campaigning during the European referendum of 1975 (although Benn avoided sharing platforms with him). But it was not until the much later debates on the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency that his views gained traction among Conservatives.

Many of the notes he struck during these years of opposition would be repeated by a later generation of sceptics, especially his mockery of Brussels “bureaucrats” and denunciation of what he saw as vested interests at work lobbying for the European cause, for instance the CBI.

With extraordinary prescience Powell expressed the belief – shared by almost none of his political contemporaries – that Europe would one day become the site upon which a wider sense of popular resentment would coalesce. In a speech in the early 1970s he argued that, “Every common policy, or attempted common policy, of the Community will encounter a political resentment in Britain… These resentments will intertwine themselves with all the raw issues of British politics: inflation, unemployment, balance of payments, the regions, even immigration, even Northern Ireland.”

Powell left the Conservative Party over the European question in 1974, and was returned to parliament in October that year as the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. This surprising move presaged the third “front” in Powell’s rearguard defence of British sovereignty. His unfailing belief that Northern Ireland needed to be reintegrated into the UK put him at odds with most of his Unionist colleagues. But Powell was insistent that the people of Ulster needed to be protected not only from paramilitary violence but also from the unwillingness of the rulers of their own state to recognise the priority of the principles of nationality and indivisible sovereignty. What for most politicians looked like a “law and order” question was in his mind a conflict that dramatised wider issues of sovereignty and citizenship affecting the whole of the UK. In the 1980s, he bitterly denounced the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher.

Through these different public campaigns Powell became Britain’s best known political heretic, firmly established in the public eye as the politician ready to speak out on issues where British sovereignty and national identity were at stake. Despite appearing to be on the losing side on all of them, over the long run his thinking gained more adherents. Above all, he helped keep alive the contention – which recurred with a vengeance in the run-up to Brexit – that British accession to the Common Market was an act of betrayal by a cadre of establishment politicians who had lost faith in the historical lineage and unique cultural tradition of England. On the eve of the referendum in 1975, he predicted that if the people of Britain voted in favour of membership, they would one day “rise up and say: ‘we were deceived, we were taken for a ride, we will have no part of it”’.

Powell’s rejection of the Churchillian vision of “Global Britain”, which shaped the thinking of much of the political establishment in the middle years of the last century, earned him the tag of “little Englander” among his political opponents, and post-colonial nationalist among later academic interpreters. Yet in key respects both of these epithets are misplaced, since his relationship with empire was more complicated and intimate than they suggest. Powell’s deep immersion in classical sources led him to view national history in cyclical rather than linear terms. The return to the English homeland which he urged upon Britain’s rulers was of a piece with the previous era of expansion and civilisational leadership, not a simple negation of it. But, where once England had the capacity and opportunity to lead the world, now it needed to return to the habits and policies which had put it on the road to greatness in the first place.

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For Powell, the hangover of empire obscured the need for a realistic and proportionate understanding of Britain’s influence and place in the world. The UK was a medium-sized power with a successful economy, which needed to put aside delusions about its ability to shape events in far-flung places and focus instead upon its own regional position. In order to rescue the English from their rulers’ weaknesses of mind, it was time for the English idea to be replanted on home soil. And so Powell invoked an older – largely Edwardian – idea of an elegiac and pastoral Englishness (here too exhibiting the influence of Housman), but inflected it with the claim that this heritage was being overlooked by the moral and political guardians of the state.

Enoch Powell’s radical Tory vision is rightly seen as the first indication of a turning of the tide against lingering dreams of Greater Britain. It also reflected the hierarchies associated with imperial thinking. And, despite the exile from mainstream politics that he endured, some of the ideas that underpinned his views on immigration, Europe and the unitary state have, if anything, gained in power and influence as the decades have passed.

“Take back control” was not a slogan that Powell used, but it touched on exactly the same concerns about sovereignty and nationhood, and Britain’s place in the world, that were the major themes of his later political life. Despite his marginalisation from party politics and Britain’s embrace of social liberalism, the European sore has ensured Powell’s enduring impact in political terms – on some Labour voters, aspects of Conservative political thinking and the populist nationalism advanced by Nigel Farage and Ukip. The question now is whether the UK after Brexit will finally get over, or fall further upon, Powell’s troubling legacy. 

 

Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce are authors of “Shadows of Empire: the Anglosphere in British Politics” (Polity)

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao