Pursued by Furies

Neither Roy Jenkins nor Enoch Powell became prime minister, but they are our two most influential postwar politicians

Once dismissed as “dolls’ houses” by an exasperated Queen Alexandra, the cosy Georgian abodes of Lord North Street, a stroll away from parliament, have played an outsize role in British politics. Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet plotted at number 5. The academic scribblers of the IEA invented Thatcherism at number 2. Now it is the turn of number 11.

This is the house of Greville Howard, Lord Howard of Castle Rising, from where successive insurgents have launched their assaults on the Europhile Tory establishment. Michael Portillo, back in the day when he was a stern and unbending defence secretary rather than a primary-coloured trainspotter, planned his abortive challenge against prime minister John Major here in 1995. Iain Duncan Smith did rather better in 2001. He captured the leadership after the resignation of William Hague, although as it turned out IDS’s tenure as party leader was even shorter and more hapless than his predecessor’s. Boris Johnson went one better last July, installing his team in number 11 to grab the party’s top job and Downing Street all in one go.

Finally, the rebels had stormed the citadel, and from the spiritual home of Powellism. For Lord Howard was Enoch Powell’s private secretary in the late 1960s, in the tumultuous years after his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech. Howard has remained true to his political mentor ever since. The common thread running through all these campaigns has been hostility to the European Union and all its works, which Powell, more than anyone, elevated into a question of principle for Conservatives. And how typically English that such a rebellion against the establishment should have been nurtured from within the bosom of that very establishment. For Lord Howard is a scion of the aristocratic Howard family and a direct descendant of William D’Aubigny, the first Earl of Arundel, who built Castle Rising in the county of Norfolk in 1138. The remains of that castle remain in the family.

Neither Jenkins nor Powell ever became prime minister. But they remain the two most influential politicians of the postwar era

When Powell died in 1998, aged 85, he seemed like a lonely relic of a bygone age. He certainly dressed the part, always immaculate in a three-piece pinstriped suit. He was given credit for keeping the flame of free-market capitalism alive in the Tory party and passing the torch on to Mrs Thatcher, but in other respects he appeared destined to be an eccentric footnote to British history. New Labour’s 43-year-old Tony Blair had just been elected prime minister in a landslide, the youngest holder of the office since Lord Liverpool in 1812. Blair boasted, bizarrely, of leading a “young country”, a tabula rasa onto which he would fashion a social democratic, multicultural, internationalist nirvana “at the heart of Europe”.

The immediate triumph was clearly Blair’s. The vision, however, was entirely that of Roy Jenkins. By then a very grand and not so old panjandrum of centre-left politics, Jenkins had become Blair’s political mentor and architect of the “project”, as the progressive politics of the 1990s came to be known.

Bridges burned

Neither Jenkins nor Powell ever became prime minister. But they remain the two most influential politicians of the postwar era. Jenkins proved to be a reforming home secretary and even better chancellor of the exchequer, though he never quite possessed the ruthlessness to seize the crown for himself. Powell never even got close, enjoying a brief stint as minister of health before burning his bridges with the Conservatives over immigration after 1968. However, more than anyone else these two men defined very specific and opposing visions of Britain, and what it means to be British. The fact that both were believed to have sacrificed their chances of attaining the highest office on the altar of political principle merely enhanced their reputations among their highly partisan supporters. More so than any prime minister, they drew up today’s battlelines over the EU and the culture wars that go with it.

Nigel Farage found the elderly statesman of Powell “mesmeric” from the start

Indeed, these battles continue to be joined mainly by their disciples and acolytes. Blair remains a stubborn advocate of the EU, just as Andrew Adonis, Jenkins’s putative biographer, is a leading campaigner of the so-called “people’s vote”. The Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to revoking Article 50, the instrument that takes Britain out of the EU, thus casting aside the 17.4 million who voted No in the 2016 referendum without further ado. Jenkins himself added the “Democrats” to the Liberal when his Social Democratic Party, founded in 1981, officially merged with Gladstone’s old party seven years later.

Peering at them over the tops of their own trenches are the Powellites — not just the line of apostolic succession to emerge from the well-heeled ambience of Lord North Street but also the streetfighters of the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage remembers very well the first time that he met Powell in 1982, a “wildly eccentric” figure making his way up the road to the school gates of Dulwich College in south London, Homburg firmly in place, furled umbrella in hand.

Farage was on the committee of the politics society and had invited Powell to speak; he found the elderly statesman “mesmeric” from the start. Specifically, Powell’s arguments for the maintenance of British sovereignty, as embodied in the country’s historic institutions such as the crown in parliament, have had an enduring impact on the likes of Farage and the foot-soldiers of the European Research Group, the dominant Leave caucus of the Tory party. The story of English exceptionalism as told by Powell, most memorably in his address to the Royal Society of St George in the City of London in 1961, is one “that I buy into totally”, enthuses Farage today.

Freakish renaissance

How the wheel is come full circle. When Jenkins died in 2003, he must have been quietly satisfied that the country he left behind was largely of his own making. His centre-left protégés had recently won another huge election victory. They even seemed committed, given the right conditions, to joining the single European currency, which Jenkins had first pushed in the 1970s when he had spent four years as Britain’s one and only president of the European Commission. Yet how quickly Jenkins has been eclipsed, by Powell.

The latter famously reflected that all political careers end in failure, but since his death Powell has enjoyed an almost freakish renaissance. On immigration, Europe, nationalism, sovereignty and economics, it is Powellism, led by the likes of Farage and the ERG, that has set the agenda, and its stamp is clear on the present government, led, like Powell, by an unabashed classicist. The Jenkinsites, by contrast, have been reduced to a rump in parliament and barely claim a foothold in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; liberal Toryism is at its lowest ebb for several generations. It has been a brutal reversal of fortune for the two antagonists. Jenkins, fortunately, was spared from witnessing it all.

This whirlwind oscillation from social democracy to Powellism accounts for much of the ill-temper of our time. It has come all too fast and unheralded for the heirs of Jenkins, provoking anger, bewilderment and denial in equal measure. With the benefit of hindsight, the quiet satisfaction of the early 2000s now looks more like complacency, even smugness. For it was clear even then that the Powellites, like the Furies, the wrathful Greek goddesses of retribution, might one day exact vengeance, having been alternatively ignored and vilified for so long. In truth, they had earnestly been hacking away at the props that supported the “project” decades before the superstructure actually collapsed.

Admired exiles

The uncivil war between the two factions is deepened, as it always is, by the fact that they share a lot in common, just as did Powell and Jenkins. Both were precociously bright, studious schoolboys from modest backgrounds; Jenkins’s father was a mining MP in the Welsh valleys, famously imprisoned in the aftermath of the general strike of 1926. Powell’s folk were Birmingham schoolteachers. Jenkins took a first-class degree at Balliol College, Oxford, in politics, philosophy and economics, Powell a double-first in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Roy Jenkins: An internationalist and by conviction an aristocrat with tastes to match

Both served as intelligence officers during the war, Jenkins latterly at Bletchley Park, Powell in the Middle East, with the 8th Army, and in India. Powell ended the war, famously, as the youngest brigadier in the army, whereas Jenkins entered parliament as the youngest MP in 1948. Both men were intellectuals in politics (the epitaph inscribed on Jenkins’s headstone is “writer and statesman”, in that order), with numerous books to their credit, and both became MPs in the West Midlands, Jenkins for leafy Stechford, in Birmingham, and Powell for industrial Wolverhampton South-West.

Both, also, ended their careers estranged from their original political parties, even if they retained the affection and admiration of many whom they had left behind; Jenkins, horrified by Labour’s left-wing drift, co-founded the SDP, whereas Powell was expelled from the Tory party for advising the electorate to vote Labour, over Europe, in 1974. He ended his parliamentary career bivouacking with the Ulster Unionists in South Down until final defeat in 1987.

Yet despite these biographical similarities, Powell and Jenkins reached profoundly different conclusions about Britain’s future, especially as the weary titan emerged from the Second World War. The Raj left a lasting impression on Powell: he learned Urdu and Hindi, among other languages, in preparation for the time when he himself would become viceroy. Remarkably, the romantic imperialist seems to have been tone-deaf to the obvious realities of the situation, the growing clout of the Indian independence movement.

Nothing, for Powell, could quite replace the empire. He remained implacably hostile for the rest of his life to those institutions that attempted to do so, such as the pale simulacrum of the Commonwealth, as well as those countries that had, in his view, conspired against the empire’s survival, notably America. Rather than merely swapping the Raj for the Special Relationship, or the EU, Powell urged his countrymen to rely instead on Britain’s ancient and sturdy institutions that had served it so well in the past, hence his vociferous and racially-tinged opposition to further immigration and multiculturalism, which he believed would undermine those same traditions and institutions.

For Powell, therefore, joining a supranational body like the EU was symptomatic of nothing less than “moral collapse”. In stark, almost apocalyptic terms, Powell argued in 1975 that belonging to the EU “spells living death, the abandonment of all prospect of national rebirth, the end of any possibility of resurgence”. It was an existential choice, whether Britain possessed “the will and power to remain a nation”.

Radically opposed

Roy Jenkins, by contrast, drew exactly the opposite conclusion from Britain’s diminished stature. Like his Balliol contemporary Edward Heath, Captain Jenkins’s main experience of the war was against Germany in Europe rather than in the farthest corners of the empire. For the second-front warriors, their main preoccupation was to heal those divisions between Germany and France that had led to such a loss of British blood and treasure.

Jenkins never exhibited any interest or faith in Britain’s imperial role and thus was quite happy to subsume Britain in multilateral bodies such as the Anglo-American alliance, the UN and eventually the EU. Pooling sovereignty, he argued, would buttress Britain’s standing in the world rather than diminish it. Like Powell, joining the EEC was just as much an existential issue, for he saw it as a lever to modernise Britain and entrench a progressive, social democratic politics. Would Britain, he asked in 1975, have the “realistic self-confidence” to grasp the opportunities before it? “Without [the EEC]”, he warned, “we face a future of narrowing horizons.” Jenkins’s view, for many decades, was largely the establishment view, a branch line of the “orderly management of decline” school of politics.

Jenkins and Powell also represented a diametrically opposed style of politics. In their very beings, they embodied radically opposed ways of life, which in turn shaped the ways in which their followers have come to conduct politics. These are the culture wars that have exacerbated the great divide over Brexit.

Powell was emotionally buttoned-up, austere, a dedicated family man, a stickler for authority and tradition, unusually fastidious and a revered, if occasionally clunky, orator. He was one of just a handful of MPs who could empty the bar of the House of Commons, irrespective of party affiliation. But, more importantly, unusually for a profession of selfish talkers, he was a great listener and took the duties of parliamentary representation very seriously.

Enoch Powell: An austere family man and a stickler for tradition

All politicians, and Jenkins was the quintessential example, devote most of their time to climbing the greasy pole. Powell, by contrast, seemed to work backwards, engrossing himself ever more quixotically in the concerns of his constituents. He was pointedly rooted in the local politics of the West Midlands, and later Ulster; for all his erudition and mastery of Welsh, Russian, German and ancient Greek, it would be difficult to conceive of a man less cosmopolitan. He might have taught himself foxhunting but he was never a snob and always seemed eager to learn from anyone.

For Powellites, these were the virtues that allowed him to become a “tribune of the people”, daring to express the opinions of ordinary voters even if those opinions were so unwelcome that the rest of the political class did not want to hear him. This was certainly true of mass immigration in 1968, of market economics and of hostility to the EU in the 1970s and beyond. The pejorative term for this short-cutting of the well-trodden Westminster system is “populism”, but for a Powellite like Philip Holobone, a stalwart of the ERG, Powell was merely speaking “for millions of people who felt voiceless”. Another might have baulked at the tens of thousands of letters that arrived in the aftermath of his “Rivers of Blood” speech, but not Powell, recalls Lord Howard. “Virtually everyone got a reply, except the obvious loonies.” Powell was a one-man twitterstorm before his time.

Metropolitan man

Jenkins, by contrast, was gregarious, tactile, libidinous and self-indulgent. He was as permissive in his love life as he was in his politics; after homosexual liaisons at Oxford he kept up several long-term affairs while he was married. Intensely “clubbable”, he was by conviction an aristocrat, with tastes in houses, friends and claret to match, a man who turned his back on his Welsh roots at an early age. Jenkins considered himself to be a committed internationalist, and unlike Powell had a tin ear for localism, barely engaging with his Stechford constituents.

Jenkins was gregarious, libidinous and self-indulgent, as permissive in his love life as he was in politics

Jenkins positively cultivated the intellectual and emotional divide between the metropolis and the provinces, and nothing typified this more than EU planning. For Jenkins and his acolytes, the European project was a mandarin plan, to be honed at plenaries and summits, at lunches both long and very long, with little reference to ordinary voters. Powell, by contrast, became increasingly irritated by the mandarins and anxious to represent the little platoons. It is as if he was convinced that the political synapses connecting the peripheries to the centre had frayed, and his personal mission was to reconnect them. This motivation distinguishes many of his devotees to this day.

Widening gulf

It was easy, and lazy-minded, to dismiss a man principally interested in those beyond a narrow mainstream of politics as being beyond the pale himself; neither did Powell help himself by always employing suitably inflammatory language when something blander might have helped. His opponents (most of the political class of the 1970s and 80s) could thus dismiss him as a racist crank and so never engaged with his politics, thereby missing Brexit altogether. Jenkins’s opponents, meanwhile, regarded him as snobbish, arrogant, out of touch and patronising. For all his achievements, many of his friends wouldn’t have quibbled with that, and his style of politics has come to characterise everything about Remainers that Brexiteers despise.

It would be idle to expect any reconciliation between the two sides any time soon. The gulf has been widening since the mid-1960s; Brexit will have to happen first.

Only then will the Furies rest.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover