What are the roots of Britain's identity crisis?

Posted in: Brexit, Democracy and voter preference, European politics, Political ideologies, UK politics

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath. 

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of “Rivers of Blood”, Enoch Powell’s infamous and inflammatory denunciation of immigration in a speech that the Conservative politician gave to party members in Birmingham. It remains controversial. Powell’s street-level racism and his dire apocalyptic warnings cast a pall, not unlike his own somewhat deathly visage, over community relations in Britain. The speech ended his career in mainstream UK politics. Yet still Powell “commanded influence without power”, as Margaret Thatcher once put it. Indeed, his abiding concerns — with free-market economics, Europe, Northern Ireland, immigration and Britain’s place in the world — define almost exactly the dominant issues in British politics in the era of Brexit. Why is this?

Historian Paul Corthorn’s new study offers some clues. Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain is organised around the diverse themes to which its subject applied his formidable intellect. It is not a conventional biography (Powell is already well-served with those) but an analysis of the ideas he articulated and applied in particular post-second world war political contexts. What can otherwise appear idiosyncratic, eccentric and extreme in Powell’s thinking gains a certain coherence when presented as a series of interventions in a long-running public debate about national decline. Powell is centrally preoccupied with the fate of the nation: what it is and what it should become.

As Corthorn shows, Powell was one of the first Conservative politicians to realise that the British empire was finished and that the Commonwealth was a “sham”. He developed early links in the 1950s and 1960s with the proto neo-liberals of the Institute for Economic Affairs, anticipating the Thatcher revolution in conservative thinking. Powell first backed the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community but then became one of its staunchest opponents, raising the banner of parliamentary sovereignty that later Eurosceptics would rally behind. He opposed devolution within the UK, coupling his arguments to the same insistence on national homogeneity and indivisible sovereignty that underpinned his hostility to the European project. In all these areas, Powell’s thinking was influential. But as Corthorn demonstrates, Powell’s causes were often far more marginal, like his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to any “special relationship” with the US and even, at one point, entente with the Soviet Union. For a slim volume, Corthorn’s book is a scholarly one.

Unfortunately, Corthorn never quite escapes the archives in which he has laboured. The bigger picture of Powell’s place in the constellation of postwar conservative thinking, his influence on British Euroscepticism, and his long-run political importance, remain largely unexplored. The book contributes important new insights to this wider appraisal of Powell, but it will be left to others to complete the task.

The question of national destiny is taken up by William Waldegrave in his long essay Three Circles into One. The title refers to Churchill’s description of the UK’s spheres of influence: its unique position within the three “majestic circles” of the British empire and the Commonwealth; the English-speaking world (the US and what would today be called the “Anglosphere”); and Europe. This was the national narrative, Waldegrave argues, that furnished the country with an elite consensus and a direction to guide the ship of state.

It is this national sense of purpose that has now broken down. Cantering through an account of recent British history characterised by national pragmatism, aversion to grand theory and the gradual evolution of political institutions under the benign guidance of decent chaps, Waldegrave arrives at the “toxic and sulphurous ditch” of the Brexit process. How, asks Waldegrave, do we cross this ditch, and what should constitute our new national narrative?

With a respectful nod to Powell, Waldegrave locates the ultimate cause of the Brexit crisis in a failure to argue openly that joining the European project would entail pooling sovereignty in the pursuit of “ever-closer union”. Pro-Europeans, starting with Edward Heath, the prime minister who led Britain into the EEC and Waldegrave’s old boss, never argued for the “dream” of political unity in a new European entity. This was their undoing. “Take Back Control”, the effective rallying cry of the Vote Leave campaign, was the return of the repressed.

Waldegrave muses that Eton might once again furnish the nation with good chaps to lead it in a lower international division Thus, a new national story is needed and this is where Waldegrave’s argument gets more interesting. Across the ditch lie four alternative futures: a deregulated free-market Singapore-on-Thames; a new Atlanticism of a “one circle”, subservient “special relationship” with the US; a return to Europe, only this time without inhibition, joining and strengthening all of the EU’s core institutions; and finally, “punching at our correct weight”, as a “larger Canada offshore from Europe” that has abandoned imperial delusions of grandeur.

It is the last of these that commends itself to Waldegrave as the most satisfactory. He hopes the UK might be salvaged from the Brexit wreckage, with a written constitution to hold it together. He muses that Eton College, of which he is provost, might once again furnish the nation with good chaps to lead it in a lower international division. He argues for an independent nation that has left behind the three circles of empire, the US and Europe, but lives at ease with itself, its national character intact. Shorn of “Rivers of Blood”, it is ironically the most Powellite of alternative futures.

  • Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain, by Paul Corthorn, Oxford University Press, RRP£20, 256 pages
  • Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain: How Did We Get Here and What Happens Next?, by William Waldegrave, Mensch, RRP£10, 138 pages

This blog was originally published via the Financial Times on 4 October 2019.

Posted in: Brexit, Democracy and voter preference, European politics, Political ideologies, UK politics


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