In the Telegraph of Christmas Eve, Paul Goodman, Editor of Conservative Home, has published an extremely erudite and well-considered discussion of Vince Cable’s astonishing comparison of Prime Minister David Cameron with Enoch Powell. Goodman points out that the claim was mere political gamesmanship. Cable gets the oxygen of publicity. The Lib-Dems get a little help in differentiating themselves from the Tories, eighteen months ahead of a General Election. Even the Prime Minister stands to benefit. In rejecting Cable’s suggestion, he reassures his back benches, while also gently showing the Lib-Dems as irresponsible and scare-mongering. And the general public? Probably completely unmoved.
Powell, of course, has become a hate figure, particularly on the left of politics. He is a deeply (and perhaps deliberately) misunderstood figure. Merely to mention his name makes one automatically a bad person, and quite possibly a closet racist. So though I was tempted to Tweet along the lines of “Unlike David Cameron, Enoch Powell was a statesman”, I anticipated the avalanche of vilification I could expect from Twitter (and probably from the Guardian’s diary column). So I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and left the thought un-Tweeted.
Powell is variously described as scholar, soldier, statesman, arch-rebel, philosopher and poet. Curiously, a word applied to him less often is “politician”, and it is true that Powell was so principled, so logical, so sure he was right, that he sometimes seemed to lack the empathy to understand how his words would be received (as a politician should).
Perhaps that was never clearer than in his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech, on which the left’s vilification is largely based — although of course he didn’t use the phrase “Rivers of Blood”. He said “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. This of course was a classical allusion from a classical scholar (Virgil, Aeneid VI, 87) and I have read that in his first draft of the speech he intended to quote it in the original Latin. Perhaps it would have been better had be done so.
He clearly intended it as a metaphor. He was not actually predicting blood in the streets (although we’ve seen some of that recently). But he feared, with some justification, that large-scale immigration by people of radically different cultures would lead to problems with what these days we call “social cohesion”. Powell would not have been at all surprised by the calls we hear today for the application of Sharia Law in the UK, for example.
Was Powell “a racist”? He was a man of his time. But he had served as an officer in India, where he was reportedly highly regarded and respected by the men under his command. Was he a right-wing extremist? He returned to the UK in 1939 to join the fight against Fascism. He believed in his country, and he believed in freedom and democracy. So do I. If that makes us right-wing, so be it.
My dilemma over Twitter was resolved by a letter in the paper (on the next page from Goodman’s piece) from John Carlisle, the former Conservative MP, whom I have met a number of times in Brussels. A very sound man, and obviously more courageous than I am. His two-line letter read “Cable compares Cameron to Enoch Powell. If only….”. I Tweeted it as a quote.