Thursday, June 14, 2012

Enoch was right (again)

Legend has it that when Enoch Powell went to the House of Commons barber's one day and he was asked: "How would you like you hair cut, sir?" he replied: "In silence."

This tells us a great deal about the man sometimes described as the greatest Prime Minister this country never had.

His caustic answer to a perfectly polite and reasonable question shows he was never one to bandy words unnecessarily. He was not a particularly sociable man. And nor did he bother very much about what other people thought of him.

Enoch Powell, who was born 100 years ago on June 16, was one of those rare politicians who wasn’t desperate to be liked.

No doubt, like all those in his line of business, he enjoyed the limelight, the applause of his audience and the admiration of his supporters.

But he was not afraid to say whet he thought. He was prepared to stick his neck out, make himself unpopular – especially among those on whom his career depended – and stick to his principles whatever the consequences for his own career.

This is called integrity. A rare commodity in a politician.

His critics, who are legion, claim his 1968 “rivers of blood” speech was a disastrous attempt to secure support for a planned challenge to Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

They say that until that speech, Mr Powell had never shown much interest in immigration.

Indeed, it is true he actually encouraged it when, as Minister of Health, he was persuading more people from the Commonwealth to work in the NHS.

He was a highly intelligent man – he translated ancient Greek texts and published four well-received books of poetry. He was an intellectual.

It is possible he miscalculated catastrophically. It is more likely, though, that he had become genuinely concerned at the transformation the country started to undergo in the 1960s.

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood,” he said.

As a result, of course, he has gone down in history as a racist and anyone who refers approvingly to his views is similarly condemned.

Yet, while some of the language used in the 1960s might not be acceptable today, it is difficult to argue with the sentiment that Britain was changing dramatically, without the consent of the people.

That, it seems to me, was the crucial point for Enoch Powell. Nobody had asked the British people if they were happy with the transformation taking place before their eyes.

There was little or no political debate about immigration. The main parties were all, basically, in favour of it and damn the consequences.

The voters had no say. There was no democratic legitimacy in the process. The people might approve of immigration but who would know? They had never been consulted.

After he was sidelined by the Tories and branded a racist by the entire sixties liberal establishment, Mr Powell continued to be his own man.

Never mind his comments about immigration, consider his views on Britain’s entry into the European Union.

He thought it would destroy this country’s sovereignty. He was so vehement that in the first election of 1974 he urged people to vote Labour.

Ted Heath and Mr Powell both believed this intervention tipped the balance and handed victory to Labour’s Harold Wilson.

As the former MP for Wolverhampton South West said: “If there be a conflict between the call of country and that of party, the call of country must come first.”
Mr Powell eventually became an MP in Ulster and continued to plough his own, unfashionable furrow.

Most of what he said remains relevant today. For instance, he was strongly opposed to reform of the House of Lords.

Of an elected upper house, he asked: "How can the same electorate be represented in two ways so that the two sets of representatives can conflict and disagree with one another?"

We still don’t have an answer to that one.

Had we listened to him, would this country be very different today? Who can tell?

What we can be certain of is that our democracy needs people who know their own minds and are prepared to dig their heels in when they judge it to be necessary – no matter what the impact on their own careers.

Such people are few and far between. But they are memorable.

Think of the Labour left-wing MPs Clair Short and Tony Benn, the founder of the SDP Dr David Owen, the arch-Eurosceptic Bill Cash or even Winston Churchill during the era of appeasement in the 1930s.

It is difficult to stand against the might of your party and the received opinion of the British establishment – the BBC, the civil service, the political consensus.
Such principled politicians rarely achieve their full potential.

Enoch Powell once observed: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

It’s only partly true. Some politicians achieve greatness even when their careers are unfulfilled.

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