‘All political lives,” said the British politician Enoch Powell many years ago, “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 certainly the nature of politics in the Westminster system. Consider the dazzling Tony Blair of 1997, and the universally reviled “Bliar” of a decade later, skulking into premature retirement against his will and cursed as a warmongering Bush stooge who’d sold his soul and gotten nothing in return.
Powell himself spent the final third of his life as his own dictum’s ultimate cautionary tale. Asked in his twilight how he would wish to be remembered, he replied, “I should like to have been killed in the war,” which seems a tad gloomy even for him. Yet, upon his centenary this month, I found myself struck not for the first time by his relevance. Not because he got everything right, but because he got enough right of the things that almost everybody else got totally wrong and that haunt us still. Powell is little known in America, and his antipathy to the United States dated back at least as far as the 1943 Churchill-Roosevelt Casablanca summit, which he attended as a staff officer. Thereafter, he was never well disposed toward Uncle Sam, which avuncular epithet almost certainly never passed his oddly sculpted and forbidding lips: As he once conceded, he was “allergic” to “the things that are typically American.” This “allergy” was about all he had in common with his bête noire, the faux-Tory technocrat Euro-fetishist Edward Heath. On almost every other matter, Heath was wrong, and Powell was right.
In Britain’s Daily Mail, his biographer Simon Heffer reminded readers of a few of them. In 1957 (pre–Milton Friedman), he insisted that public debt would lead to economic decline, and that government should denationalize the public sector and use the proceeds for tax cuts. The European Union? Incompatible with self-government. The euro? It would lead, inevitably, to the loss of economic sovereignty. You might argue that all the above is entirely obvious — except that, to varying degrees, Messrs. Obama and Hollande, Frau Merkel, the Spanish government, and the Greek electorate are busy trying to disprove the obvious 15 years after Powell’s death.
He was a diligent attender of the Conservative Philosophy Group. On one occasion, just before the Argentines invaded the Falklands, Mrs. Thatcher spoke about the Christian concept of the just war and Western values. “We do not fight for values,” said Powell. “I would fight for this country even if it had a Communist government.” “Nonsense, Enoch,” snapped Maggie. “If I send British troops abroad, it will be to defend our values.” Powell stuck to his guns. “No, Prime Minister, values exist in a transcendental realm, beyond space and time. They can neither be fought for, nor destroyed.” John Casey, co-founder of the group, asserted that Mrs. Thatcher had just been confronted with the difference between British Toryism and American Republicanism. Be that as it may, it also applied to differences closer to home: In Iraq, the aforementioned Mr. Blair thought he was fighting a war for his party’s famous “values” only to find that his party and its voters thought he was fighting a war for another country’s interests.
Powell was famous and notorious, loved and hated, for a single political intervention, the so-called Rivers of Blood speech on immigration, the one that ended his career. However, his personal favorite among his many speeches was the one on what NR readers may find his rather arcane objection to the 1953 Royal Titles Bill, addressing modifications to the Queen’s style in her various realms. He denounced the changes as “a sham . . . something which we have invented to blind ourselves to the reality.” I would hazard that was also his objection to “values” — that too often they’re something we invent to blind ourselves to reality. Likewise “Europe” as a political construct, and “multiculturalism” as a civilizational virtue. To oppose them is to embrace nationalism, or nativism, or racism, or something else polite society disdains to put in its portfolio of “values.” Powell thought it impossible to “foresee how a country can be peaceably governed in which the composition of the population is progressively going to change.” That’s to say, rapid one-way biculturalism is inherently transformative. That would seem to be stating the obvious, but stating the obvious became more difficult in an age of “values,” and arguing against values and virtue and moral preening was tougher than arguing against monetary policy.
He had been a professor of Greek at 25, the youngest brigadier in the British army, a reforming health minister, and then he gave one speech and it was all over. The British state is fulsome with its baubles: Harold Macmillan, the prime minister who put Powell in the cabinet, was garlanded with an earldom; Edward Heath, the Tory leader who fired him, was made a Knight of the Garter; even the mediocrity who preceded him as health minister got a baronetcy and a peerage. But almost alone among his generation of cabinet ministers, Enoch died as plain old Mr. Powell.
Which, in its way, was fitting. Out on the streets, he was, like Madonna or Bono, one of those rare uninominal celebrities: To the despair of captive leftie passengers, cabbies the length and breadth of the realm enthused about “Enoch.” A decade after his death and in a jurisdiction for which he had little use, John O’Sullivan and I took a taxi ride in Dublin in which our driver ended his disquisition on immigration with the words, “Enoch got it right.” I once wrote a piece on the increasingly crusty and reactionary Aussie feminist Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, which a waggish editor headlined “The Female Enoch,” confident that every reader would get the joke.
Most of today’s political class will end their lives as failures, too, and without even the consolations of contrarianism. But, on statism, Europe, multiculturalism, and much else, Powell taught a very basic lesson — that any sane person should be instinctively skeptical when all the smart people agree. The “unforeseen consequences” are usually out there on the not-so-far horizon looming large in plain sight.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).