By a happy coincidence, Easter Sunday falls this year on the thirty-fifth anniversary of Enoch Powell's great speech on immigration – given in Birmingham on April 20, 1968. This neatly intertwines the themes of spiritual and national death and resurrection in a way that might have pleased Powell, who had been a fierce atheist as a young man and whose equally fierce if unorthodox Anglicanism in later life was explicitly related to his appreciation of the English Church as an expression of the English nation.
By another happy coincidence, Easter falls this year as we give thanks (despite regrettable insinuations in some quarters) for the conclusion with relatively little loss of American life of what may well be only the first phase of an immense imperial enterprise in the Middle East. No one thought more deeply about imperialism and democracy than Enoch Powell. Or reached more pessimistic conclusions.
I first met Powell, as a visiting journalist from Canada, in the summer of 1974. In the spring election of that year, he had stunned friend and foe by declining to run. In a series of devastating speeches, he had helped ensure the defeat of Edward Heath's Conservative government, which he believed had betrayed its election promises, notably over Britain's entry into the European Union. In the U.S. system, Powell could have run against Heath in the presidential primaries, as Pat Buchanan did in a very similar situation in 1992. The British system fatally lacks this flexibility.
Contrary to a widespread perception, as I've noted before, Powell's 1968 speech did not end his career: it made it. It began a brilliant six-year guerrilla campaign as an unofficial opposition. With the Heath government sinking into stagflationary crisis, Powell had seemed perfectly positioned to claim his reward. His declining to run in the 1974 election, on the unprecedentedly scrupulous grounds that he could not accept Heath's election manifesto, was like a jeweled clock suddenly striking thirteen. It meant he was not eligible to run when the Conservative parliamentary caucus voted on Heath leadership – a vote that ultimately lead to Mrs. Thatcher's victory.
Of course, you wouldn't know this by reading the British establishment media - just as the U.S. establishment media dismissed Pat Buchanan after 1992 and was thus totally unprepared for his 1996 New Hampshire primary victory.
Powell lived in a narrow townhouse in an elegant area near the House of Commons. (Many years later, I learned there was only one bathroom.) It was full of books. One of his teenage daughters had draped her jeans over the stair rail. This caused him to mutter into his moustache – to the end of his life he wore the style he must have adopted while serving in the British Eighth Army in North Africa during World War II – histrionically but without, I thought, any particular hope.
This was a man who had come into politics to save the British Empire – the good points of which, mysteriously, are now once again mentionable in polite company – above all in India, where he hoped one day to be Viceroy. (He spoke several Indian languages.) When in 1947 the Labor government announced its decision to abandon India, much more precipitously than anyone had expected, Powell wrote that "it was a shock so severe that I remember spending the whole of one night walking the streets of London trying to come to terms with it."
But he did come to terms with it. For a while, he told me in 1974, he had hoped that Britain would be able to maintain what he called "an empire of position" – not ruling vast alien populations, but holding military bases in strategic spots around the world. But he gave up even that hope after the retreat from Suez.
"Now," he told me, "I don't believe any democracy can be an empire, except transitionally."
Powell's reasons for this conclusion appear to have been two-fold.
Firstly, he did not think a democracy was capable of the sustained ruthlessness necessary to crush the continual insurrections that colonial rule inevitably provokes. There were many such insurrections in the 1950s, for example in French Algeria. They appear to have been forgotten by the architects of current U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Secondly, Powell was concerned about the consequences for any democracy of that sort of sustained ruthlessness. After eleven Mau Mau terrorists were beaten to death in the Hola camp in Kenya in 1959, and a fellow Conservative Member of Parliament dismissed them as "subhumans," Powell said in a famous speech: "I would say it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgment on a fellow human being and say, 'Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow.' "
My emphasis. This speech is often cited to rebut the conventional charge that Powell was a "racist." Today, looking at alarming developments like the Homeland Security Act, I wonder about that recoil upon our heads.
Powell's new grand strategy for democracy: a libertarian isolationism. It led him, contrary to his right-wing image, to advocate abandoning Britain's remaining bases "East of Suez" and to oppose the American effort in Vietnam. But he did this in the name of national interest. Democracies could not defend those bases, in the long run, nor win that war. Better not to make the effort - and deploy accordingly.
What would Enoch say about the invasion of Iraq? We know, because he said it at the time of Gulf War I: "Saddam Hussein may not be nice and his form of government not to our taste. That is no business of ours nor of the United States." The balance of power in the Middle East, he told his biographer, was no longer a British interest.
Why is the balance of power in the Middle East an American interest – especially given that the U.S. is so much further away and so much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil?
And can the U.S., as a democracy, maintain its multi-base "empire of position" – and, increasingly, its empire of conquered countries?
Maybe. But Powell's conclusions were dearly, and painfully, bought. I would like to think Washington has considered them carefully.
The obverse of Powell's retreat from Empire was his renewed focus on the nation. He began this process as early as 1961, in a speech celebrating the day of England's Patron Saint, Saint George.
The imperial phase in Britain's history, he said,
"…is ended, so plainly ended that even the generation born at its zenith, for whom the realization is the hardest, can no longer deceive themselves as to the fact…
"And yet England is not as Nineveh and Tyre, nor as Rome, nor as Spain. Herodotus relates how the Athenians, returning to their city after it had been sacked and burnt by Xerxes and the Persian army, were astonished to find, alive and flourishing, the sacred olive tree, the native symbol of their country. So we today at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England herself."
"We in our day ought well to guard, as highly to honor, the parent stem of England, and its royal talisman; for we know not what branches yet that wonderful tree will have the power to put forth."
This, of course, is exactly why Powell so passionately opposed the transformation of Britain through mass immigration from the Third World – which, paradoxically, did not begin until the empire was dissolved. A nation for Powell was an enthocultural entity – in the case of England, over a thousand years in the making. It is not an ideological "proposition." It is not infinitely plastic. Change cannot be introduced without consequences.
In Britain this year, the consequences of immigration include government schools being ordered to end the ancient tradition of serving hot-cross buns at Easter so as not to offend non-Christian children. ("Hot Cross Banned" by Chris Hastings and Elizabeth Day, Sunday Telegraph, March 16, 2003. Note the eloquent denunciation of this ban by a Muslim organization. Since there actually is an Established Church in England, this episode highlights the fact that the similar war against Christmas every year in the U.S. really has nothing to do with the Constitution, however interpreted.)
In the U.S., mass immigration began in the year of Powell's speech, triggered by the 1965 Immigration Act. I told him once, some years after our first meeting, that the U.S. (about which he knew little and, alas, cared less) was in a "pre-Powell situation" – that it was only a matter of time before immigration began to damage what I called "the fabric of the nation."
"The fabric of the nation," he nodded. "That's the point."
And it is the point.
Unlike Britain, but like Rome, the U.S. faces the threat of transforming immigration as it moves to its imperial zenith. This raises the danger that, when that empire has passed away, the American nation itself may turn out to have been destroyed.
In the face of this threat, we don't know what branches yet the American nation may have the power to put forth.
But, at Easter, we can have faith that it will.