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Old wound, same pain

The conquest of the Wild West left North America’s first inhabitants scattered, diseased and broken.

The past is not well buried at Wounded Knee. The bodies themselves are long gone, and little more than a sheet-metal sign covered in scrawled, bleached-out graffiti commemorates the events of a bitter winter’s day in 1890. But for the Oglala Sioux, who inhabit the squalid trailers and drafty bungalows scattered across the grassland around the battle site, old memories are preserved in the people’s present-day suffering.

It is nearly 119 years since the Hotchkiss guns of the US 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of their ancestors, ending the Indian Wars and leaving Chief Big Foot sprawled dead in the South Dakota snow, and with him the dream of native resistance to the white man’s westward expansion. Yet today on Pine Ridge, the tribe’s reservation close to the state line with Nebraska, life expectancy is still the lowest in the United States: the men of the Sioux live on average only to the age of 56.

The story of how the native inhabitants of North America have fared since the arrival of the first European settlers is a sad one. Their numbers depleted by foreign diseases to which they had scant resistance, they were cheated and defrauded out of their lands, and then stereotyped as tomahawk-wielding savages by Hollywood. Recently, however, much has changed; while some tribes such as the Oglala Sioux remain in desperate straits, others have begun to find new ways to make livelihoods for themselves in a modern world. And in this pivotal year for race relations in the US – with a black man in the Oval Office for the first time – it seems timely to investigate where the continent’s first oppressed people find themselves today. What does it mean to be a Native American in the age of Obama?

Fittingly, my first encounter with Native American culture was in Washington, DC in January, during the heady few days around the presidential inauguration, the city packed to the gills, the grass on the National Mall trampled and chunky Humvees crowding the street corners. I was there to speak with members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the body that represents native interests to DC lawmakers and Capitol Hill politicos.

My arrival coincided with a tribal leaders’ meeting in Crystal City, a suburb across the Potomac River in northern Virginia. There, the Hyatt hotel was packed with delegates: downstairs in a subterranean chamber were dancers in magnificent feathered headdresses; upstairs in the conference chamber, the talk was of the new administration and the president’s promise of help to Native American communities through the economic stimulus package, a fund that would eventually amount to more than $2bn.

Yet when I spoke to Jacqueline Johnson Pata, a Tlinglit Native American from Alaska and chairwoman of the NCAI, she explained that, for some native communities today, the most important economic support is not through handouts from Washington, but in fact the money generated by these communities’ own casino operations. US law treats Native American tribes as sovereign entities, in a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government, and since the 1970s various tribes have exploited this status to run gaming operations that remain outside direct state control.

“Casinos build schools, build bridges,” Johnson Pata said. “Gaming has been the one economic opportunity that’s actually benefited . . . Gaming has made some tribes have some revenues that have helped them build their communities, send their kids to school, provided college, diversification for other businesses.”

Just how much money some tribes have made from gaming became apparent months later when, at the newly opened New York Yankees baseball stadium in the South Bronx, Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole tribe in Florida, smashed a Fender guitar to open the ballpark’s outpost of the Hard Rock Cafe. The Seminole, flush with gaming wealth, bought the entire Hard Rock chain for $965m in 2006, in the largest ever purchase of a corporation by an indigenous people.

But even in January, it was clear that gaming was key to understanding the contemporary Native American experience and both ends of the wealth spectrum it had created. The apparatchiks in DC had insisted that while a few tribes had been able to make substantial profits from their casinos, many others, despite having gaming operations, were still mired in poverty.

A few weeks later, I made my way to south-eastern Connecticut and the reservation of the Mashantucket Pequots, a tribe massacred by European settlers in 1637, now owners of the largest casino in North America. Their operation, Foxwoods, began life as a bingo hall in 1986; a cash injection from a Chinese-Malaysian businessman, Lim Goh Tong, underwrote a huge programme of expansion. Today it boasts 340,000 square feet of gaming areas, 7,200 slot machines and six separate casinos. The vast concrete-and-mirrored-glass complex towers above the treetops, amid concentric rings of parking lots and hotels.

Yet when I spoke to Michael Thomas, chairman of the Pequots, he explained that the crucial factor that allowed his tribe to profit from gaming in such a spectacular fashion was its location, close to major population centres. “We have 26 million people within two and a half hours’ drive of the reservation,” he said, agreeing that the spoils of Native American gaming were not equally distributed across the United States. “For a select number of tribes, like mine, that still reside in heavily populated areas, it has been an economic blessing. The vast majority of the tribes continue to be mired in poverty.”

In some respects, Foxwoods seems an extraordinary success story. With its themed restaurants and leisurewear-clad punters, it may be no Monte Carlo, but it is still a brash reversal of centuries of oppression. However, in other ways the Pequots also embody many of the controversies attached to this new form of native enterprise – in particular the vexed issue of tribal membership.

Although the gleaming museum that the tribe has built with casino revenue is full of dugout canoes and mannequins in traditional dress, the idea that the 870 current members represent an unsullied heritage is disputable. Like most Native American peoples, the Pequots were severely weakened by the white man’s diseases, to which they had little resistance. Yet their lineage is more fraught than most. By the 1970s and before the rise of gaming wealth, there were only two tribe members still living on the reservation. Others returned subsequently, but still today most of those who profit from Foxwoods are of only fractional native descent. And unlike some other tribes, the Pequots do not enforce a blood quantum – a minimum amount of Native American ancestry – as a requirement for membership. Instead, anyone who can prove lineal descent from two censuses, completed in 1900 and 1910, is eligible to join.

Lori Potter, a member who now works for the casino, argued that it was irrelevant to question the present Pequots’ ancestry. “We determine that it is not necessarily how much blood you have, but it’s your ties to the community and to the land, and to the culture and heritage here,” she said. “Just like Britain doesn’t use a blood quantum to define a Briton.” Potter herself, who moved back to the reservation in 1996, is one-eighth Native American.

Foxwoods provides an extraordinary insight into how some of the tribes have transformed their way of life, but the gilded trustafarians of the Mashantuckets are far from typical Native Americans. To travel to South Dakota and the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Sioux, however, is to see how the other half lives. Located out on the vast prairies that dominate the state, it is the poorest tribal homeland in the country, and has become a byword for Native American social deprivation.

The contrast between Prairie Wind Casino, the Oglalas’ own venture into gaming, and Foxwoods back in Connecticut could not be more complete. Under a great sky squatted a low brick-and-steel building, an island far out in the endless grassland. In a parking lot smeared with windblown snow stood muscular pick-up trucks, bearing licence plates from neighbouring Nebraska and Wyoming as well as South Dakota. Inside the casino itself was a compact gaming floor where slot machines buzzed beneath a replica wigwam.

In a partitioned back office, I spoke to Pam Giago, a tribe member and the casino’s general manager. She explained how Prairie Wind laid on transportation to bring in customers to the remote casino. “We do busing from the various locations,” she said. “Sometimes we have buses that come in just for the day; other buses bring customers for night stay. We have slow days and we have good days.”

Nevertheless, it was clear, given the Oglalas’ isolated location, that a Foxwoods-style gaming operation was never going to be an option for them. Their casino provides 288 much-needed jobs for local people and, according to Theresa Two Bulls, the tribe’s chairwoman, contributed $125,000 per month to the community. On Pine Ridge, however, a reservation with a population of 40,000-plus and an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut, that is not nearly enough to lift the Sioux out of poverty.

Some poverty it is, too. Keen to see conditions on the reservation first-hand, I drove across the prairie to Wounded Knee, the old battleground synonymous with the Native American plight in the United States. There, a stone’s throw from the massacre site, I met Emerson Elk, one of the few remaining speakers of the Lakota language, whose 100 per cent native ancestry makes him a “full-blood” member of the Oglala Sioux. He lives with his wife and sons in a bungalow streaked with mould and surrounded by a bone yard of cannibalised cars and a van full of animal hides and pelts. Lifting a stone-bladed tomahawk axe from beneath the table, Elk explained how, in the 19th century, the US government reneged on its treaty obligations to the Sioux, confining them to a shrinking area as their ancestral lands were annexed for settlement by the white man. Elk, 52, was grimly matter-of-fact about the present conditions on the reservation, too.

“We, the people, are living in extreme poverty,” he said. “It’s very bleak here. It’s very hard being Lakota. We have government housing: [there’s] a cookie-cutter effect, all the houses are the same. The insulation, it’s not very good. It’s not doing its job in the wintertime. We can’t even have a wood stove in these houses. In 1890 our people were being exterminated, and that mentality is still here today. Under the US government we’re barely surviving. We have treaties that are not doing their obligations – to health, education and welfare. By the time the money trickles down to the Lakota people, it’s zero.”

That afternoon Elk, whose Lakota name Sai-Moto translates as “Bad Bear”, took me out to see the manner in which his tribe now lives. As he directed from the passenger seat, I drove up a rutted track of ice and mud to the mass grave where the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre were buried, and there he spoke to his ancestors in the clipped tones of the indigenous language. Then we traversed the reservation, passing battered trailer homes with no indoor sanitation; in some cases, their desperate inhabitants had stripped the aluminium coverings to sell, leaving their trailers naked and looking like husks.

Ninety miles from Wounded Knee, in the eastern part of Pine Ridge, we visited the hamlet of Wanblee, where I saw a tiny, four-bedroom bungalow awash with dark-eyed children. Twelve people call it home. Seeing the scant insulation and propane heating, I asked Elk just how cold it could get in a hard winter.“Sometimes you can saw a gallon of antifreeze in half,” he replied. “When the wind blows, it gets right through the wall.”

A vast divide exists at Pine Ridge between the full-blood members of the tribe and those with lesser native ancestry, who dominate the local administration and business community. In Wanblee, I spoke to Fred Sitting Up, a full-blood who had lost much of his vision to diabetes, which is endemic to the reservation.“The federal government allowed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enrol anyone in our tribe,” claimed the 55-year-old. “They assumed more leadership roles. They get in by saying, ‘My great-great-great-grandmother was Indian.’ They want our land base. Right now they’re trying to dig for uranium. They’re all non-Indian. They’re not doing anything to protect our people, our land. Three-quarters of the reservation is owned by non-Indians. They don’t like us.”

Elk added: “When I die, I don’t want to see no half-breeds.” It was clear then that even though the Oglalas were a world away from the Mashantuckets (far from their casino’s money being sufficient to fund the education of the tribe’s children, some tribespeople claimed they received just $10 per child) they were still negotiating the same identity issues as their eastern counterparts.

My visit to South Dakota also helped to put my earlier experiences in Washington into perspective. Much had baffled me during Obama’s investiture, when I had attended the Native American inaugural ball at the Hyatt in Crystal City, and the ballroom shook late into that historic night. In particular, I was puzzled by the dress code of ornate feathered headdresses worn over jeans and tuxedos laced with beads. But after I’d witnessed the residents of Mashantucket and Pine Ridge thrashing out their identity politics at both ends of the Native American socio-economic spectrum, that sartorial melange seemed more appropriate.

I understood the real irony that underpinned the night of the ball. For the United States had just inaugurated its first black president, yet the system of tribal sovereignty that governs Native American affairs – and indeed underpins the gaming enterprises that have brought great wealth to some communities – remains a riff on the “separate but equal” doctrine of institutional inequality that the civil rights movement fought so hard to dismantle.

And so, on that frigid but joyful evening of the ball on the Potomac River, as Barack Obama was on his way to the White House, most of the revellers would be returning, sooner or later, to their American bantustans.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!