Enoch Powell at 100: trust in parliament, not Paisley, he told unionists

I hope Mick forgives me for not burying my brief precious memoir of Enoch Powell in a comment below. I had quite a bit to do with Powell in the late 70s and again in the early 80s. His belief in the supremacy of Parliament had a mystical quality. For as long as Northern Ireland elected members to Westminster the Union was secure. No one would dare remove them against their will. Constitutional observance secures the Union. By implication therefore he was no traditional post 1922 Ulster Unionist but the sort of Unionist Carson would like to have been had circumstances permitted. In his view there was no existential threat to the Union (and in that, despite all sorts of manoeuvres and aspirations, I think he was right).

Paisley’s provocations and paramilitary flirtations were therefore anathema. Powell also came to despise the devolutionists in his own party, leaving poor old Jim Molyneaux, at heart an integrationist himself in a mainly devolutionist party, to hold the ring.  In 1977, after the collapse of the Paisley supported Action Council strike following which Paisley was unsuccessfully prosecuted, I did an interview for Newsnight saying that unlike the  UWC strike of 1974, this time loyalists did not have a target to tear down and could only rely on Parliament  to maintain their position. As I came off air, someone said to me: “Enoch Powell on the phone for you”. I groaned, fearing some kind of intellectual rocket; you never know if he would blow hot or cold. “Well done absolutely right,” he said. I admit I was relieved.

I had gone by the time of the 1985 Anglo Irish agreement when Powell’s faith in Parliament was put under severe test and he bitterly accused his partial protégé Margaret Thatcher of betrayal. She was later to recant over this as over other things. The Agreement – or the general unionist view of it which was in my view exaggerated  – signalled the beginning of the end for the Molyneaux/Powell trust in Parliament, although they had nothing to put in its place until Trimble’s surprising demarche a decade later.

Powell was a man of surprising parts. He proudly displayed the row of carpenter’s tools from which  he had made some of the furniture in his  little Loughbrickland cottage. And he could regale you with the history and topography of south Down as well as any local antiquarian.

There’s little doubt in my mind that he came to exult in perversity  to demonstrate  his sheer capacity as a politician to come back from near death experiences – at least after he had given up the hope of high office in the 1970s. The rivers of blood speech in 1968 was bound to be described as racist with its use of  the term piccaninnis  for children and his mordant view of black and Asian customs and culture. His ability to speak fluent Urdu was no excuse. But racism was  a sloppy intellectual category he despised.

Politically  the speech was probably a loner’s gamble at an  18th century  style coup inside the Conservative party. Paradoxically it delivered for him for a time the reputation of a demagogue in England which more than rivalled Paisley’s in Northern Ireland. At the same time he will have known it excluded him from power forever. He had served in cabinet for less than two years, as minister of Health His self image as a prophet might well have been more widely accepted had he simply used less apocalyptical language. But without it, he might never have touched a national nerve.

Powell never quite denounced devolution as such. Here perhaps the prophet trimmed out of regard  for Molyneaux whose position would have been made impossible had he done so.

I often told school teachers of whatever persuasion to take their senior pupils just to hear him speak and ask him a question. I myself went along to hear what I thought would be his last speech in south Down in 1987 . If memory is correct, it was in Shrigley Orange Hall just prior to the general election. It also served as the local pigeon fanciers club. The cooing of the pigeons provided the chorus for Enoch’s reedy tones. Defending a majority of 1800 he was likely to lose in the redrawn constituency when every vote counted, what was the subject he treated his solid Unionist audience to?    A fierce denunciation of an attempt to restore the death penalty which had been defeated three years previously . He was perverse to the end.

More on Enoch Powell is in a new book of essays on Enoch reviewed by Charles Moore the very pro UU former editor of the Daily Telegraph. The monumental biography is by Simon Heffer.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London