Enoch and his influence

There are already many books on the British conservative intellectual, politician and racist Enoch Powell (1912-1998): biographies (a choice of respectful and coruscating), polemics in favour and against, attempts to contextualise and critique. Two new books, written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Powell’s most famous – most notorious – speech, are useful and original additions to this substantial literature.

Paul Corthorn’s book (Enoch Powell: politics and ideas in modern Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019) grew from a plan to write a journal article on Powell’s time as an Ulster Unionist MP (1974-1987), a relatively under-explored aspect of his life. His clearly written thematic study duly includes a substantial chapter on this period in Powell’s career, when he argued that Northern Ireland should be fully integrated into the United Kingdom. This put him at odds with those proposing structures which recognised any degree of legitimate interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland by the Republic of Ireland, but also with those who argued for forms of devolution from London to Belfast: Corthorn notes that Powell’s positions within Northern Irish unionist politics have not ‘weathered well’.

The book’s other chapters cover Powell’s thinking on ‘international relations’; ‘economics’; ‘immigration’; and ‘Europe’. Corthorn writes clearly and systematically, detailing Powell’s opinions on each of these areas across his career, whilst offering careful assessment, and giving some sense of changing contexts. The chapter on economics, for example, details the ways in which Powell was an early and thoughtful adopter of the neo-liberal perspectives which became central to Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s.

It is, of course, Powell’s divisive positions on immigration which have defined him in the public mind. In 1968, disregarding a shaky bipartisan ‘consensus’ between Labour government ministers and the Tory frontbench to avoid ‘inflammatory’ statements on race, Powell promoted an exclusionary concept of Britishness, consciously promoting antipathy towards black people.

Corthorn shows how Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech fitted into his established and coherent nationalist outlook. The author sets Powell’s ‘diverse’ and sometimes ‘inconsistent’ campaigns against the backdrop of debates within conservatism about ‘the long-term decline in Britain’s international, military and economic position in the decades after 1945’.

Unlike his views on ‘Ulster’, many of Powell’s inter-connected views on economics, immigration and Europe have ‘weathered well’, in the sense that they have continued to resonate and to attract new followers. Corthorn’s concluding chapter tests the argument that ‘the age of Brexit is the age of Powell’. Insofar as this is so, it has happened indirectly: Powell was immediately excluded from leading roles in the Conservative Party after his April 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham. Instead, his views animated and emboldened those with right-wing and anti-immigrant views who felt excluded from and not represented by mainstream politics, and helped stimulate the growth of the National Front during the 1970s. Powell had previously noted that the ‘public silently but firmly despise those who decline to acknowledge uncomfortable facts on their doorstep’, and warned that ‘Conservatives will have only themselves to blame if they acquiesce in a taboo being placed on issues which are live and real to millions … immigration was, and is, [such] an issue’.

The successive waves of increasingly significant electoral support for the BNP, UKIP and the Brexit Party have been partly fuelled by a view that ‘talking about immigration’ is a ‘taboo’ (a view promoted by mass-circulation tabloid newspapers which, in spite of this supposed ‘taboo’, have managed to promote anxiety about and hostility to immigrants in every single one of their daily editions over the last twenty years and more). This has helped shape times in which, as Corthorn says, ‘the debates in which Powell participated have persisted’.

Shirin Hirsch’s approach (In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: race, locality and resistance, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2018) is to focus on Powell’s parliamentary constituency, Wolverhampton, at the time of his April 1968 speech, and to assess its impact on the place then and over subsequent years. The result is an extremely impressive combination of detailed local history and a broad, critical exploration of the issues and controversies generated from Powell’s views on immigration.

Combining archival material and her own interviews, Hirsch gives a real feel of the social context in which Powell made his speech, detailing the history of immigration into Wolverhampton, showing how Commonwealth migrants were attracted to work in the town’s industry after the Second World War, and how housing shortages and racial discrimination at work shaped the distances, suspicions and tensions that Powell’s campaigns then exploited. Hirsch has stated that her book explores how Powell’s ‘words were translated into the lives of ordinary people on a local scale, as well as examining the ways in which people began to resist and build an anti-racist movement’.

Her treatment of social relations in Wolverhampton schools is particularly useful, a model of how to evidence the ways in which official policy, political controversy, educational practice and the granular realities of life combine. Throughout her well-structured book, Hirsch offers many succinct and telling observations, sometimes almost as asides. Talking, for example, of the way the national media focussed on Powell’s constituency in 1968, she notes that ‘the superficial reports of the town often rendered black people silent, merely a subject for others to discuss. The few times when Commonwealth immigrants are questioned and we hear their voices, it is difficult to garner any real understanding of their thoughts and feelings, since they are represented only as a burden or an outsider subject’.

There is very much more to Robbie Shilliam’s stimulating and necessary book than his points on Powell (Race and the Undeserving Poor: from abolition to Brexit, Agenda Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2018). Nevertheless, it is relevant to highlight some of these points in this ‘booknotes’ article. Though Shilliam’s lively and polemical style is a world away from the cool chronological account offered by Corthorn, he also locates Powell’s politics in a response to the loss of Empire, and a desire to define, defend and nurture ‘the English genus’, also confirming how his racism connected to his hostility to socialism.

Tracing Powell’s influence over the last fifty years, Shilliam highlights how ‘the mendacity of political elites was a central topic in Powell’s diatribes against EEC membership during the early 1970s … [he] bequeathed to Euroscepticism a racialised populist nationalism, condensed into a defence of Englishness … True, Powell was sidelined … but ideologically, his position remained extremely influential within Conservative debates’, as well as being ‘clearly identifiable’ in UKIP policies during its years of success, and as a direct and ongoing inspiration to Nigel Farage.

Booknotes published September 2019.

Illustration shows the poet and counter-cultural activist Dave Cunliffe making a point to Enoch Powell on the occasion of the politician’s visit to Blackburn Rugby Club in the late 1960s.