The Powellian Progressives

How Enoch Powell and modern progressives are closer aligned than they think

Enoch the apparition. The ghoul. The specter conjured to chase an opponent out of the public square whenever the idea is floated that the United Kingdom’s 20th-century demographic transformation may not have been an unambiguous good. That such a figure would chat to new arrivals to his Wolverhampton constituency in their native Urdu is the kind of absurdity that Britain excels at.

But Powell was hardly a little Englander. His was a life so widely lived it makes André Malraux look like the manager of a Boots in Telford. Born into a modest working-class Birmingham household, Powell was the winner of every possible Classics prize available to undergraduates at Cambridge (a feat not since equaled); a professor at the University of Sydney at the age of 25; a champion of Indian culture (the place where he dreamed of spending his years), and master of 12 languages over his lifetime. He was also one of only a handful of men in the history of the British Army to be promoted from private to brigadier, and although initially an imperialist and later steadfast defender of Ulster, he bore little hostility to Irish nationalism and was prepared to break with the party line and attack the colonial administration if he thought the circumstances demanded it, as he did famously over the treatment of Mau Mau rebel prisoners in 1958.

Widely regarded as the greatest parliamentary orator of his generation, he received praise on his death from a surprising range of figures. “One of the great figures of 20th-century British politics, gifted with a brilliant mind,” said Tony Blair. “He was my friend,” stated Tony Benn, flatly unapologetic, when his presence at Powell’s funeral raised eyebrows among his more dogmatic Labour colleagues.

After India gained independence in 1947, Powell realized sooner than most that the Empire was finished, that the Commonwealth was an inadequate replacement, and Britain’s place in the world needed revising. His romantic British nationalism needed a new focus, which he eventually found in the idea of popular sovereignty granted via the institution of The Crown in Parliament. The magisterial pretensions of The Raj he would later dismiss as “a shared hallucination.”

For a figure so often associated with the far-right, nationalism based primarily upon a civic institution, not clannishness or blood ties or conquest, is unusual. How strange, then, that the image of a wide-eyed, stern-faced Powell in front of the Union Flag was chiseled onto the British collective consciousness as the embodiment of beyond-the-pale right-wing politics.

Powell’s notorious “foaming River Tiber” during his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968 was probably the most banal observation of his life. Although overestimating the degree to which late-1960s England would pick up on classical references, he was surprised by the backlash to the speech, which reflected both the Conservative Party’s official policy and majority opinion. That a rapid shift in the ethnic make-up of a population poses a threat to the continuation of a modern polity is obvious. It is a view so trite that it is intuitively recognized across the political spectrum. Progressives act on this assumption as much as conservatives: whether with respect to Israeli settlers on the West Bank, Native American/Australian Aboriginal campaigns for indigenous rights, the recent celebration of Catholics outbreeding Protestants in Northern Ireland, or even laptop-class Americans in Mexico City.

But, as Powell, the classical scholar, would have known, this has not been the historical norm. From the Roman model to the management of confessional groups under the Mongolian Empire, the semi-autonomous millet system of the Ottomans, the Habsburg Empire in Europe, or the organization of a plethora of subcontinental identities under the British Raj in India, imperial structures have a far better track record of securing peaceful co-existence between diverse ethnic and religious groups than modern egalitarian democracies.

An imperial system usually assumes a vertical power relationship. Take the Ottoman millets. All groups, while often managing their own administrative, social and religious affairs, recognize the monarch as the sovereign. They do not compete with one another via a representative parliament but appeal to the court of the shared monarch, whose position is acknowledged as sacred by all. The particular religious and ethnic identity of the monarch is also subsumed by their symbolic position. Hence Suleyman the Magnificent wore an approximation of the Roman Imperial Crown as he marched at the head of the Ottoman army to Vienna rather than a Muslim headdress: the Sultan was a Caesar, not an Imam.

The Ottoman millet system was brought down through modern secular reforms including the removal of the tax on non-Muslims in the 1840s which spread through the Empire thanks to new technologies like the telegraph and the steamship. The secularisation of the sacred relationship between the ruler and ruled created a more horizontal, open, power dynamic. This meant minority groups were increasingly in competition with each other and, with the social adhesive of the appeal to the kingly common ruler gone, identifying with ethnic brethren beyond the borders.

Once this process begins it tends to accelerate. Growing Armenian calls for independence prior to and throughout the First World War, which replicated earlier Greek demands, caused Ottoman authorities to fear that the Empire’s Armenian minority, a group they had lived with in relative peace for centuries, would collaborate with the advancing Christian Russian Empire. This fear culminated with the first instance of the modern phenomenon of genocide.

The breakdown of the millet dynamic is reflected in the current animosity between the Turks and Greeks, and the real prospect of the ethnic cleansing of contemporary Armenia at the hands of Turkey’s proxy Azerbaijan, despite the fact that the three peoples once shared a culture so intertwined that nobody can say who baklava, stuffed grape leaves, or sujuk originally belonged to.

For the British, the universalism of the Empire was the basis and the justification for mass migration to the United Kingdom. Because all subjects of the Empire were subjects of the same Crown, they had the same rights to move across the Empire’s territory. Before the advent of cheap travel and post-war consumerism, however, there was limited desire, and ability, to do so.

As colonial and ex-colonial subjects flocked en mass to Britain in the years following World War II, many of them no longer even subjects of The Crown but citizens of newly independent republics, much of the Old Guard were caught sleeping at the wheel. Powell was not one of them. From his extensive knowledge of the classical world, he understood the rise and fall of nations and the realities of power. He also recognized the dangers that active, parallel, engaged, communities – devoid of universal sacred sovereignty of the old order – would bring. In a speech in the House of Commons in 1980, he called out the “tinkering” with immigration rules then underway as an irrelevant self-deception intended to obscure the truth about what the future for the country held.

This was a future that only he and the then-burgeoning race-relations industry (the proto-progressive Left) were prepared to address. Only extensive, intrusive policing and bureaucratization of language and behavior, he argued, could prevent the kind of civil discord inevitable in a horizontal and competitive society where citizen-groups embody different psychological realities and exhibit strong loyalties to peoples, places, and ideas beyond the borders of the now faceless system that issues them their passport.

The civic, democratic, and national sovereignty of the British parliamentary system, whose precepts are copied to various degrees around the world, and whose apparent potential for a non-ethnic national identity is the very thing often used to refute Powell’s prediction, was according to Powell what made multiculturalism impossible. Powell, endlessly fascinated with other cultures as he was, stated that this conclusion was one he had tried many times to convince himself was not the case. A parliamentary system, with a restrained Crown and its auxiliary values like free speech, required for Powell the level of trust that only a high degree of cultural homogeneity can provide. Perhaps he also had an eye on the chaos that a multicultural democracy like Lebanon had descended into by 1980 without Ottoman or French overlordship.

As he pointed out in the speech, progressives implicitly accepted his conclusion about the incompatibility of liberal democracy and multiculturalism in their actions, even if they are not likely to admit to it. This is evident in the increasing willingness in recent years of liberal leaders to resort to authoritarian measures, antithetical to any form of liberalism – classical or otherwise – or parliamentary culture, to suppress social discord. If they truly hold the values of secularism, freedom of expression, humanism, and democracy in high regard, this is something that people holding the James O’Brien outlook should look to address as soon as possible. Yet equally, when reactionaries, upon hearing half-coherent BBC reports of grievances from Kashmir being hammered out on the streets of the West Midlands repeat “Enoch was right”, they should recognize that they are questioning a centerpiece of British identity that they, too, may hold very dear.

Daniel Hardaker is a writer and translator.


Scroll to top