If I say that I used to be very afraid of Enoch Powell, I think a certain proportion of Literary Review readers will guess what I mean. To be a socialist in the 1960s was to know that, even as the working class showed no affection for any return to Toryism, it did seem to be vulnerable to certain decided ideas about race and nation. The Labour and Liberal toffs never quite got this point, but serious socialists knew it very well. We would discuss it nervously and earnestly in the pub afterwards. I think we sort of hoped no-one would ever discover this secret weapon, which was as open as most secrets.
That might raise a smile, written as it is by someone who is a socialist in the eighties. But nobody who remembers that day in April 1968 is likely to miss my point. At a single blow, an entire consensus was broken. One might point out this or that – David Edgar in Maydays gets a good scene out of the coincidence that the speech was delivered on Hitler’s birthday – but the change in political landscape was more or less a geological one.
I never missed a chance to go and hear the man who had done me, and all I cared about, such an injury. Oddly enough, and after a while, I began to relax. There was an anti-Common Market meeting in my neighbourhood of Islington, and Powell was billed to speak on a platform nailed together by some Paisleyites and the local Labour Party and trade union dunces. The petit-bourgeois were all there, dressed as for divine service. Powell opened by talking of a small yet proud maritime nation, reaping its perilous living from the open seas yet proud and unbending. Just as the grocers were beginning to nod their heads modestly in recognition he stopped speaking and bent forward. ‘Athinns’ it sounded like. ‘Athinns,’ again repeated with creepy sibilance. Well, I don’t have to tell you that the burghers had not come to hear some complicated tribute to a load of Greeks.
At about the same period, I watched the Winter Gardens at Blackpool fill to bursting and stay full and bursting because the delegates to some bloody awful Tory autumn conference had been told that, platform rigging notwithstanding, Enoch was on next. You could have heard a whatnot drop, or cut the whatsit with a whatever, as he mounted the podium. Was I wrong, or did he enjoy curdling the mounting orgasm with a dreary address on the importance of sound money? Evidently, no Mosley or Poujade or Carson had come amongst us. Within a few years, the dreaded figure had vanished among the dismal steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Even his cab fans, who had so often made me hoarse with anxiety and rage, took that as the infallible sign of a raving nutter.
This preface is (or so I think) necessary for a sober consideration of the latest work of the good Dr Cosgrave. Cosgrave is the Gussie Fink-Nottle of Tory historiography. Disappoint him as you will, humiliate him as you may, he has the temper and address of the shy but indefatigable lover. His fingers aching from slammed doors and his clobber in rags from the house-dogs turned upon him, he will stay true. Enoch is his newest and perhaps most original pash. Cop this:
‘The private humour is quite different. He once gave me some cuttings of a handsome shrub in his garden which I had greatly admired. I explained that I was going to attempt to grow them initially in a new-fangled gel. (He was disappointed that I had not taken the trouble to investigate the constituent elements of the gel.) I ‘said that, if they took, I would bring a pot back to him: “Ah. You are being the foster parent to my favourite shrub. I warn you. I may call in the social workers to demand an early return.”’
I think I would rather have been in prison than have witnessed or overheard even one second of this newt-fancying exchange. But does Cosgrave repine? I should say not. Here is his greatman, toiling in the Tory Research Department in the locust years of post-war Butlerism:
‘Powell in Old Queen Street made – as he had done everywhere else he had been – a quite different impact from other men. It was not just that he worked improbably long hours, arriving early and staying late – while lain Macleod, for example, was wont to slip off early substantially to supplement his exiguous income by playing bridge, at which he reached international standard. It was his method of doing things. “I was quite startled, “ a contemporary of Powell’s recalls, “to arrive one morning at what was, for me, an unusually early hour to find him cleaning up his room. His coat was hanging neatly in a cupboard and he had his sleeves rolled up while he swept the floor. I expressed astonishment and he merely stated that he intended to do the dusting since, in his opinion, “the cleaning ladies were lamentably inefficient.” “He was already a legend,” lain Macleod said of Powell shortly after his appointment. “He used to travel from Earl’s Court on a workman’s ticket at some unearthly hour in the morning and in full hunting ink to revel in a day’s hunting.”’
I can’t apologise enough, or at all, for the length of this quotation from Cosgrave. Here I was, wasting my youth in terror of Kenneth Widmerpool! Not long after this Old Queen Street apotheosis, so the stout chronicler informs us, Powell took to wife a woman named Pamela. One probes in vain for any sign of Flittonesque qualities, or indeed any qualities at all.
Had I known earlier what Cosgrave now imparts, I could have alternately relaxed and stiffened. The well-known moustache was, it seems, grown in the hope of hitting off a resemblance to Nietzsche. And I always thought it was Kipling. Then again:
‘He was able to astonish his parents at the age of six when, on a visit to Caernarvon Castle, he doffed his cap in a particular room, explaining to them that it was the room in which the first Prince of Wales was born.’
Did Cosgrave get this from Powell, or from a parent? Was any serpent safe in the cradle of this Hercules? We cannot be sure. A few pages later, it is recorded that:
‘On being asking why he so rarely listened to music he replied, “I don’t like things which interfere with one’s heart strings. It doesn’t do to awaken longings that can’t be fulfilled.”’
Oddly enough, that’s just what Lenin said about the Apassionata. Perhaps Powell’s notorious upholding of the kinship between England and Russia (unpardonably unmentioned by Cosgrave) has deeper roots than the moustache. But then, when Powell wrote those pro-Russian articles for The Times, he was celebrating the ‘self-confidence’ and bravado of Brezhnev, nor the sickly doubt and self-criticism of the Gorbachevites.
This, with its peculiar terminus in Powell the unilateralist, Powell the foe of the American Empire and Powell the enemy of Ian Paisley, is a potentially thrilling and ironic tale. Cosgrave chooses to recount it at a medium-pace trudge. He gives a fair account of Powell’s finest hour, which was his protest against the British government’s torture and murder of political prisoners in Kenya during the colonial period. He more or less describes the wobblings of Powell about decolonisation in general, including his momentary flirtation with Julian Amery’s doomed Suez Group. But it all reads like a supervisor-pleasing doctoral thesis. The same is true when we get to the Birmingham crux in April 1968. Of course it is true that Powell never used the expression ‘rivers of blood’. But remember what he did say, of a constituent who could never quite be identified:
‘She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning, piccaninnies.’
The interest of this is considerable. Here is a man who loved lndia, and who said he cared for it. Here, also, is a man who felt that the British had a special mission to Africa and the Caribbean. Here is a man, furthermore, who lived in Wolverhampton for decades and who, on Cosgrave’s own indubitable claim, canvassed every household every year as part of his solemn duty as an MP. And he didn’t have a single black or brown friend. He can’t have done, or he could not have spoken in those cloacal and puerile terms. I am pretty sure I am right about this, because even Cosgrave mentions Powell’s surprise at an invitation from a forgotten Indian Army colleague, to lunch at the Indian High Commission, that came very late in his life.
I should have liked to read much more on this, and on the post-imperial trauma which formed Powell’s personality. But Cosgrave is determined on the world of fact, and bent upon a course of vindication. He wants to prove that Powell defeated Heath in 1974, and reelected Harold Wilson. I find that I can’t care about that, even if it is also true, as Cosgrave suggests, that Powell was decisive in chucking our Callaghan in 1979. It seems a lot of trouble to have gone to in order to bring about the election of Margaret Thatcher, who is in many crucial ways Powell’s negation. And along the factual and narrative road, Cosgrave confuses the Leyton and the Nuneaton by-elections, tells one or two anecdotes twice, and either misquotes Browning or quotes Nigel Birch misquoting him without noticing the fact.
Here is a subject quite rare in English political life; an intellectual who is the complete and abject captive of his emotions. Those who really supported him emotionally used to go on about his intellectual capacity, and those who valued him intellectually were forced to deplore his emotionalism. In between, I now wonder if I missed anything. Cosgrave’s book at least has the effect of making me wish that I could read more about this protean, self-destructive fellow.