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Can Jeremy Corbyn win back Scotland for Labour?

“At the end of the day, the referendum was about half the bloody things Corbyn was talking about.”

On a sunny Wednesday morning in mid-August, a small group of local Labour activists stood outside The Carloway Mill, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Gazing out at the tawny, rolling scrubland and glittering blue lochs, they waited for the man they had invited, who lived nearly 700 miles south. A minibus pulled up, the door rolled open and out stepped Jeremy Corbyn.

During the election campaign, when the idea of Labour winning two seats in Scotland still seemed mildly optimistic, Corbyn held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Now, with seven Labour seats, the Labour leader has the country in his sights. His trip to Lewis was the first day of a week-long tour of a country governed by the Scottish National Party.

Scottish Labour is not known for its Corbynism – a YouGov poll found a majority of members voted for Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership battle – but the conversion of local Labour voters has been swift. “Some people who voted Labour all the time said six months ago ‘[we] don't think we'll vote Labour because of Jeremy’,” Matt Bruce, the tweed-jacketed local party chair, told me. “Two weeks ago, it was ‘Jeremy's coming’. He's changed things.”

Harris Tweed may be associated with the elite lifestyle shops of Oxford Street, but manufacturing it is a humbler process. The wool is spun at mills like The Carloway, before being sent to individual crofters for the weaving process.

Inspecting the mill, Corbyn seemed genuinely fascinated. He entered a room of spinning cylinders, where green and pink wool streamed back and forth, and disappeared to inspect the looms. A worker in a black waistcoat showed him how to iron on the quality label on finished tweed. Corbyn’s wife, Laura, meanwhile, rifled through the hangers of finished, mossy green jackets (they each bought one).

Brian Wilson, a former minister in the Blair government, who lives on the island and works in the tweed business, watched approvingly.

“Against the predictions of people like myself, Corbyn really struck a chord with a lot of voters who maybe didn't vote Labour,” he said. “These are the realities and I recognise them.”

After Kezia Dugdale’s resignation, most pundits expect the next Scottish Labour leader to be someone who at least nominally supports Corbyn. But three years on from the independence referendum, will the energy of Corbynism be enough to transcend Scotland’s constitutional politics?

"There was a village with no road – the EU built it"

To get to the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides from Westminster, you need to first fly to Glasgow, and then board a propeller plane for a further hour to reach Stornoway. Lewis, in turn, is only the northernmost in a string of islands which make up the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles). The islanders’ self-sufficient outlook is countered by a deep dependence on the timetable of the ferry. There is little materialism, faith is everywhere, and yet every conversation comes back to economics. Residents have elected a stream of centrist representatives, from early 20th century liberals, to New Labour’s Calum MacDonald and since 2005, the Scottish National Party’s Angus MacNeil, or “Angus Brendan” as he is known to locals.

Centrism may well be a cover for a hard-defended consensus. When asked about Jeremy Corbyn, the default answer in Stornoway was “no comment”. Most locals seemed surprised to hear he was even there. “I haven’t heard much, and I live here in the centre of town,” said Annalisa Engebretsen, a retiree in pink-framed sunglasses. I told her he was at the other end of the street. “Was he?” There was a pause. She pointed to the sky in front of her. “About an hour ago I saw the most amazing group of seagulls.”

The Scottish Nationalists, too, wear their ideology lightly on the island. Alasdair Allan’s office has a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, the 1320 declaration of Scottish independence, hanging on the wall. But the MSP was more interested in talking ferry fares than freedom fighters.

He was, however, outspoken about a different constitutional issue. “I would be telling a lie if I told you the fishing community took the same view as me in the EU referendum,” he said. “However since then we have had fishermen saying 'we wanted to leave the common fishing area'. The industry didn't realise it meant leaving the single market.” Some of the biggest export markets for Scottish fishing produce, he pointed out, were Spain and France. 

Allan said the EU had been almost solely responsible for funding the expansion of roads on the island: “There was one village in Harris that had no road to it at all and the EU built one.”

“People do have concerns about the common fisheries policy but their biggest concern is the future,” he added. “With respect to Jeremy Corbyn, the biggest question has been left unanswered is on Britain's relationship with the European Union.”

"We need many changes here"

After visiting the mill, Corbyn’s next stop was an empty classroom in a Stornoway school, to answer questions from pupils beamed on to a screen. Some of the students were from Castlebay, more than 100 miles away, on the isle of Barra. Their questions were no less direct than a journalist’s, but Corbyn seemed to prefer answering them. One pupil asked him about leaving the single market and the customs union.

“The UK as a whole voted to leave the EU,” Corbyn said. He talked about getting tariff-free access to the European market, and then asked: “Do you feel we should keep very close trading with Europe?”

“Yes,” she said. “I do.”

In the months after the EU referendum, when Labour dissolved into civil war, the SNP stood out for its clear opposition to Brexit. Its position has since looked less wise, given a third of SNP voters backed Leave, and Nicola Sturgeon was forced to retreat from a call for a second referendum.

On Lewis, though, I found that Brexit was more than just a handy SNP rhetorical device. Elly Fletcher, chief executive of the An Lanntair Arts Centre, showed me around a smart auditorium which doubles as the island’s cinema. The building was funded in part by EU grants. “Brexit is a worry,” she said. Another institution at risk is the Stornoway campus of the University of Highlands and Islands, which has already put projects on hold.

John MacLeod, standing by the quay, had a different point of view. Dressed in a blue boiler suit, open to reveal a knitted jumpers, and leather boots to match his tanned skin, MacLeod claimed at 56 to be the oldest fisherman in town.

He remembered how, 30 years ago, the fishing boats in the harbour used to be 10-12 boats deep, compared to the single line bobbing there that day.

“This island is just dying on its feet in the fishing industry,” he said. “Even in the past 10 years it has changed. This place has been decline, decline, decline.” Brexit he saw as just one of many shake-ups required: “We need many changes here, or these islands are going to die a death.”

Corbyn told The New Statesman a "jobs-first Brexit" was "essential to local economies, industries and businesses in Scotland".

He added: "We are pushing for a Brexit deal that protects the interests of the many and repatriates powers from Brussels to every nation and region in the country."  

 

"Corbyn's message chimes with independence voters"

Corbyn finished his day in Stornoway with a rally which attracted several hundred supporters. The next day, he flew to Glasgow, where his first appointment was a photo-op at a building site. TV crews in loose hard hats and luminous jackets waited outside. Crammed into the Portakabin with him was Paul Sweeney, the newly elected Labour MP for Glasgow North East, and Frank McAveety, the leader of Glasgow City Council until the SNP shook it out of Labour’s grasp in the 2017 local elections in May.

In May, with Labour’s polling in the doldrums, the loss of Glasgow Council was seen as a harbinger of what was to come. McAveety disagreed. “Clearly there was something already happening,” he said. “The gap between the SNP and Labour on the council elections wasn't as profound as it had been in 2016 Scottish Parliament election. The glamour was coming off the SNP.”

Sweeney, on the other hand, thought it was Labour’s message of hope that persuaded some Yes voters to back him. “We have perhaps framed things too much in terms of our opponents,” he said. “The best way to defeat our opponents is to ignore them.”

Since 2014, Glasgow has been the spiritual capital of the independence movement. Campaigners gathered in George Square, its iconic Victorian centre, to cheer at rallies, and later to weep, after Scots voted No. Along with Dundee, it was one of only two major cities to vote Yes.

The trade unionist Cat Boyd was at the heart of the independence movement. In 2017, she publicly declared she voted Labour. An articulate trade unionist with striking black hair, I met her in a café near Glasgow’s busy Central Station. She recounted the reaction with rueful laughter. “People see Corbyn as a unionist who does not support Scottish independence, but a lot of the background to that is people’s complete disillusionment and anger with Scottish Labour,” she said.

Boyd, who came to political activism through the anti-war movement, retains a personal respect for Corbyn and she is not alone. Since going public with her vote choice, she has received messages from other Yes voters saying they had done the same. “Corbyn’s message chimes with them,” she said. “At the end of the day, that was what the referendum was about - half the bloody things Corbyn was talking about.”

The problem for Corbyn in Glasgow, it seems, is less his personality and more the party. Matt Kerr, a Labour candidate who narrowly missed out on Glasgow South, a constituency where turnout was also down, told me left-wing supporters could be split into three groups. There were those who switched to Labour, those who stayed at home, and those who were tempted to vote Labour but “believed that ‘Scottish Labour’ didn’t back Corbyn”.

"There's a feeling the establishment's against them"

The SNP, on its tenth year in power in Scotland, knows the danger of complacency. “Glasgow is a vivid illustration of the success of our party,” Nicola Sturgeon told the 2016 party conference. “But it also stands as a lesson. Labour lost because they took the voters for granted. They became arrogant on power.”

The question remains as to whether a Corbyn-led Labour party can win over such voters. I visited Mhairi Hunter, an SNP councillor with a big grassroots following in the party’s recent prize – the marbled halls of Glasgow City Chambers. Hunter, whose blue-and-gold walled office would put Westminster ones to shame, was quick to point out the SNP’s hold was a fragile one. “We’re a minority administration, which I’m quite happy with,” she said. “That’s the way proportional representation is supposed to work.”

Hunter believes Labour made gains in the 2017 general election because SNP voters stayed at home. The numbers suggest she is right. In Glasgow North East, Sweeney’s seat, 37,857 turned out to vote in 2015, of which 21,976 voted for McLaughlin. Two years later, the turnout was down by 6,082 voters, and votes for McLaughlin fell by 8,581. Similar patterns were evident in other seats where Labour won.

Yes voters’ attachment to Corbyn, Hunter thought, is more about his story than their politics. “There has been a feeling of the establishment being against them, and not getting a fair hearing. That resonated with a lot of people.”

The distinction between the man and the party was repeated again and again. Outside, in Glasgow’s shopping streets, 25 year-old George Dalkin, 25 told me he had “always been Labour” but “Jeremy Corbyn brought a bit more faith back in me”. Shona Joyce, 20, also voted Labour, but added: “I feel even if you vote for Corbyn you don't get the changes in the local party.”

Natalie Muir, 38, a conveyancer, repeated the same concerns I had heard across Scotland about Labour’s unclear stance on Brexit. She was relatively happy with the Scottish government, and respected Sturgeon.

She told me: “In terms of down south and Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn seems like a more sensible option.” Then she added: “What he says seems different from what Scottish Labour says.”

One structural difference between Corbynism in England and Scotland is that Momentum has little presence here. Since 2017 it has created a joint membership with the long-running Scotland-based Campaign for Socialism, but the two remain separate organisations. Whether Corbynism can organise at the grassroots level remains to be seen. 

"The party needs a new leader"

In August 2016, it was common to hear Scottish Labour activists bemoaning that “the axis of politics has shifted” to a pro-union argument dominated by the Scottish Tories, and the independence camp commandeered by the SNP. In August 2017, the SNP is playing down independence, a resurgent Scottish Tories are talking about housing policy and Corbyn enjoys at least part of the credit for six new Labour seats in Scotland without devoting much time to unionist politics at all.

The SNP looks tired. The problem for Dugdale’s successor, is so, too, does Scottish Labour. "I am convinced that the party needs a new leader with fresh energy," wrote Dugdale in her resignation letter, just two years after she took the job of leader. It may be tempting for London HQ to cultivate a mini-Corbyn, but this too has risks – one of the reasons Labour fell from grace in Scotland was a prolonged feeling that the absentee landlords were in power, and that Labour First Ministers were merely departmental heads of the branch office. 

Much also depends on the SNP, which holds many of the central belt seats ripe for Labour’s picking. The party has lost seats in its old stronghold of north-east Scotland, home to the old SNP of Alex Salmond, comfortable on the golf course. It has spent the summer soul searching, torn between left and right, Brexit and independence, and the different priorities of urban seats in Glasgow and the needs of places like Lewis. Despite its stumbles, the SNP is still capable of winning, as the Glasgow council result shows. On 5 September, Sturgeon unveiled the Holyrood government's latest programme, with policies including scrapping the public sector pay cap and a Scottish National Investment Bank. With the consequences of Brexit still playing out, it should not be underestimated. 

The SNP and Scottish Labour may be mortal enemies, but Corbynism and the wider independence movement have much in common. They both offer hope, an idealistic vision of the future, and a vision of "the early days of a better nation", whether that is renationalisation of the railways or reform of feudal land laws. Both are anti-imperialist, sceptical of centrism and driven by left-wing creatives and the young. The challenge for Scottish Labour is whether it can, as the SNP did, harness that idealism, yoke it to a party machine and turn it into practical politics. And that will take more than a Harris tweed photoshoot. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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)