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Enoch Powell, the dazzling man who won only 15 votes in a Tory leadership election

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2012-06-14 at 08.04.52One of my early duties for the Catholic Herald was to interview the man who had opposed the Pope's visit to Britain, and I thus travelled to South Eaton Place with a degree of trepidation.  Enoch Powell indeed turned out to be as terrifying as he was courteous, but this was as much as consequence of my journalistic incompetence as his frightening learning.  The subject was his recently-published work on the origin of the gospels.  Hunched, taut, and fixed in his chair, his brilliant blue eyes gazing into the void, Mr Powell told me that St Matthew's Gospel is written in code: "a very dangerous conclusion to draw".

Drawing my attention to Matthew  9:10-13 ("But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless"), he explained that mercy is the mercy offered to the gentiles, while sacrifice is the sacrifice of the Jewish temple.  It was at roughly this point that the batteries in my tape recorder ran out.  I told Mr Powell that this had happened and, after I changed the batteries, he took off exactly where he had left off, finishing with the words: "that was the sentence I had attempted to project before you told me that your batteries had failed, though how you knew that was so is a mystery to me."

I replied that I knew they had failed because the wheels of the machine had stopped turning.  Mr Powell half-started from his chair, paused like an eagle mid-flight, and swooped on me.  "And is that the only reason why the wheels could have stopped turning? No!" he cried.  And then he laughed: "But that -" he conceded - "is the commonest cause".  I still have the letter he wrote me after the event.  "Dear Mr Goodman," it said, "I think you have produced a very nice piece."  It was one of the biggest compliments I have ever been paid.  Mr Powell was the finest British political writer of my lifetime (only Daniel Hannan approaches him), one of the finest of any age .

And he was a fine writer because he was a fine thinker - an exceptional mind.  This does not mean that he was always right - no-one can be - and I think he was often wrong, because politics, as he knew well, is shaped not just or even largely by mind, but other things: conviction (good ideas can be held by stupid people), technological advancement (he once made this point in a riotously funny yet profound imaginary interview with Disraeli), events, chance, emotion.  For example, I think he was wrong to make his 1968 speech on immigration, and I suspect that emotion played a part in shaping the terms in which it was written.

By this I mean not only his alarm about the future of the country - that is a given - but a certain frustration about his own circumstances.  Not all that long before, he had stood against two men for the leadership of the Conservative Party: the first, Reginald Maudling, was corrupt and the second, Edward Heath, propelled to the top of British politics despite the absence of nearly every political gift.  Mr Heath, the winner, got 150 votes.  Mr Maudling won 133, not many fewer.  Mr Powell - brilliant, dazzling Enoch, who had scooped every classics prize at Cambridge, who had been the youngest wartime Colonel in the British army - won 15.

It is always dangerous to try to pin down someone else's motives (it must be, since to do so even to one's own is impossible), but I believe that the result threw that fine mind off conventional tramlines and away into the political wilderness - where prophets, whether false or real, inevitably belong.  We can't know what kind of party leader or Prime Minister Mr Powell would have made, but we do know that he left a body of writing and thinking that people still want to read, a point that both Simon Heffer and Peter Oborne make today.  They do so because the hundredth anniversary of his birth is approaching, and a book will shortly be published to mark it.

Mr Oborne points out that Iain Duncan Smith has written a foreword to the volume: compassionate conservatism meets high toryism.  That juncture in itself could launch a thousand essays, as could the assertion Mr Heffer makes that Mr Powell was right about almost everything.  (By the way, he lost on much: Northern Ireland, Britain's relationship with America, and Europe, though in the latter case at least the debate stretches on.) I close with a quote from that interview - Powell's with Disraeli, not mine with him:

"And your quotation is nearly accurate.  No, I do not mean that.  It is a politician's principles, or objects, or ambitions which his imagination ought to play upon and endow with the indispensable romance. What I do mean is that at the end of a lifetime in politics - you too will find this one day - when a man looks back, he discovers that the things he has most opposed have come to pass and that nearly all the objects he set out with are not merely not accomplished, but seem to belong to a different world to the one he lives in."


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