It’s something of a love that dare not speak its name. But Powellism has remained a major subtext on the British right for something like half a century, with the rise of UKIP marking only the latest incarnation of this ongoing infatuation.
It may seem a bit of a stretch to compare a reactionary intellectual such as Powell, with an organised base that extended only to a few hundred in the Powellight Association, to the leader of a 26,000-strong party, who so effectively adopts an ordinary-bloke-down-the-boozer persona.
But Powell was far from being as patrician as the constant classical references peppering his speeches suggested; indeed, his lower middle class grammar school upbringing was less posh than that of Dulwich College City Boy Nigel Farage.
Moreover, the crux of Powellite politics, as Tom Nairn discussed in some of his influential writings on Britishness in the 1970s, came down to an articulation of England’s latent nationalism, and UKIP likewise captures the current incarnation of precisely that. It just does so in such an appallingly dumbed down manner.
In his day, Powell led the way on UKIP’s two touchstone issues. While he is most famous for his opposition to what was then called ‘coloured’ immigration, do not forget that he swung the February 1974 election by calling for a Labour vote, perceiving Labour to be more opposed to the forerunner of the European Union.
In the years that followed, Powellism mutated into Thatcherism, described by one well-known journalist of the time as ‘Powellism by other means’.
Thatcher was not a racist in any direct sense – indeed, she represented a constituency with a substantial Jewish population – but was all too aware of the potential of sensitivities over immigration as a tool to mobilise popular support for a free market economic programme similar to Powell’s premature anti-Keynesianism.
In more recent years, any hint of sympathy for the proposition that ‘Enoch was right’ has been a hanging offence in what was supposed to have been a detoxified brand. One Tory prospective parliamentary candidate in a winnable west Midlands seat after was forced to step down after making just that claim only a few years back.
But Powellism hasn’t gone away, you know. The support that has always been there, numbering hundreds of thousands of voters, is precisely that layer now being so effectively tapped by UKIP.
There are differences as well as similarities with the past; no longer is anachronistic nostalgia for imperialism a viable basis for an electoral project.
Moreover, UKIP is devoid of the intellectual content Farage evidently cannot deliver. That probably works to his advantage, given contemporary British culture’s dislike of smartarses and the desperation of all party leaders to come across as pretty straight guys.
Hence we are left with the logical absurdity of a ‘libertarian’ opposed to gay marriage and unfettered immigration. Farage reduces what is a serious political philosophy to a demand for the right to smoke fags in pubs.
He starts from two single issues and proceeds to bolt on populist prejudice pretty much ad lib, plucking random numbers of Bulgarians out of thin air with which to scare the Home Counties horses, while his supporters propose buying in policies from think tanks off the shelf. And why ever not, so long as they tally with the marketing proposition?
Where this project is going remains unclear. Some of Farage’s utterances indicate that not even he sees UKIP becoming a viable party of government in its own right, capable of superceding the Conservative Party as the main vehicle for the British right.
He has even portrayed its role as analogous with that of SDP, restricted to drawing one of the mainstream parties in the desired direction. If he succeeds in that, and he well might, Powellism will finally have reached it final posthumous fruition.
UPDATE: After writing this piece, I came across this interview with Farage himself:
When I ask him who his political hero is, he instantly cites Powell, the rightwing Conservative who made the famous speech about immigration anticipating “rivers of blood”. “Enoch Powell was an extraordinary fellow. I admired him for having the guts to talk about an issue that seemed to be to be really rather important – immigration, society, how do we want to live in this country.”
I think that rather makes my case.