The name of Enoch Powell provokes consternation in many on both the left and right of British politics. But the sometime Conservative was a powerful influence on Tory Euroscepticism – probably greater than most would want to acknowledge, writes David Shiels. His views on Europe chime with recurring themes in the referendum campaign.
In the current ‘blue on blue’ debate about Britain’s membership of the European Union, politicians on both sides of the debate have invoked past heroes in order to justify their position on Brexit. What would Churchill do? What would Thatcher do? Yet there is one politician whose views on Europe were not in doubt, and whose influence is still felt today: that is Enoch Powell. As the most prominent Conservative critic of British entry into the European Economic Community in the 1970s, Powell was an outsider for most of his career, but his views have undoubtedly shaped the modern Tory critique of European integration. In some respects, he can be regarded as the founding father of modern Tory Euroscepticism.
For many Conservatives today Powell’s legacy is wholly a negative one, bound up with his anti-immigration speech in Birmingham in April 1968. Neil Kinnock’s recent suggestion that the rise of Euroscepticism in the Conservative party showed that Powell was ‘winning the argument from his grave’ was criticised by a prominent Conservative Brexiteer. Yet Powell was a complex politician, also credited with anticipating the rise of Thatcherite economics. His views on Europe are worthy of serious examination.
At the time of the 1975 referendum Powell was not even a member of the Conservatives. In 1974 he had left the party – ‘deserted’ was the word used by Margaret Thatcher – and cast his vote for Labour, believing that Harold Wilson’s promise to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership and offer a referendum made a vote for Labour the only viable option for opponents of the Common Market. To many it seemed like an act of political suicide, the moment when Powell sealed his fate as an outsider in British politics. From October 1974 until 1987 Powell sat as an Ulster Unionist MP, continuing to oppose further moves towards European integration. It was only later, during the 1990s debates on the Maastricht Treaty and entry into the single currency, that Powell’s views on Europe seemed to take on renewed relevance for a later generation of Eurosceptics. His influence has been acknowledged by mainstream Conservatives as well as leading figures in UKIP, and may well account for the attitude of Brexit-supporting Unionists in Northern Ireland.
Powell rested his case against British membership on the Common Market on the defence of Parliamentary sovereignty and support for free trade. His call for British ‘independence’ from the EEC, his mockery of Brussels ‘bureaucrats’, and his denunciation of the vested interests in the campaign (notably the Confederation of British Industry) are echoed by Brexit-supporting Conservatives today. A politician who, in the words of Ferdinand Mount, ‘represented the Brexotic temperament in its purest form’ Powell campaigned against the ‘Project Fear’ of the day. Instead he offered a vision of Britain operating independently on the world stage, rejecting the economic and moral decline that he believed was affecting Western Europe at that time.
Powell’s opposition to the European project was primarily influenced by his experience of the Second World War, and his response to the demise of the British Empire. His attitude to Britain’s place in the world was far removed from Churchill’s idea of Britain as a Great Power at the centre of three interlocking circles: the Commonwealth, the Special Relationship and Europe. In some respects, Powell’s thinking is best understood as a form of British Gaullism, in the sense that he questioned the whole apparatus of the post-war settlement and was deeply uncomfortable about American influence in Europe. He was not a supporter of what would now be called the ‘Anglosphere’ or of the ‘Special Relationship’ with the USA. Unlike Thatcher he was not a Cold Warrior, and indeed he questioned the value of the nuclear deterrent and Britain’s membership of NATO.
Powell’s views on Britain’s relationship with Europe evolved over time in response to waning British power. Once a passionate imperialist, he had flirted with the idea of imperial federation in the early days of his political career, but by the early 1950s he began to see Britain’s remaining imperial commitments as economic and political liabilities. He disregarded the Commonwealth as an institution and did not believe that it provided a forum for British ‘influence’ in the rest of the world.
During the 1960s Powell actually supported Britain’s applications to join the Common Market, a position that was consistent with his attempts to redefine British identity in the post-imperial era. Contrary to his later claim that he had misunderstood the true nature of what this entailed, Powell had been prepared to accept a certain loss of sovereignty as a necessary requirement of membership. It was only at the end of the 1960s – after the infamous River Tiber speech that defined his career – that he reverted to a Eurosceptic position and developed a distinctive right-wing case against British membership of the EEC. Political ambition was no doubt a factor, but his change of heart on Europe was also a response to the changing international situation and the idea that Britain’s domestic political system was in crisis.
By the early 1970s Powell was the most prominent Conservative backbencher to oppose Prime Minister Edward Heath’s decision to take Britain into the EEC. He accused Heath of breaking his promise to secure the ‘full-hearted consent of the British Parliament and people’ before entry. Powell expected that Heath’s actions would lead to a backlash against the Conservatives, splitting the party and leading to a generation of Labour Government. While Heath succeeded in his ambition of joining the EEC, Powell had helped to popularise the idea that British accession to the Common Market was part of a great betrayal – an idea that remains popular in parts of the Conservative party today.
The fact that the UK is having a referendum in 2016 therefore owes much to the legacy of Powellite Euroscepticism, even if that legacy remains complex and disputed. At the same time Powell is best understood in the historical context, as a man whose views on Europe were shaped by his own life experiences and the political circumstances of his day.
Also by David Shiels: What would Maggie do? Had she been given the chance, we probably wouldn’t even be asking
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the BrexitVote blog, nor the LSE.
David Shiels holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. He is a College Research Associate at Wolfson College and has been an Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College. He is completing a biography of Enoch Powell: The Outsider to be published by I.B. Tauris, and provides research for the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher.
This was a post which I found on Facebook earlier today……………..if anything infuriates, it is the things like this that I see, not with the article, but in the frightening reality of what often goes on around us, and often is un noticed by the british public, if there was ever any doubt in my mind about leaving the EU, this was the one article which completely cemented my desire to leave the EU. I do not know who wrote this article, but I do take my hat off to them for writing it.
Cadbury moved factory to Poland 2011 with EU grant.
Ford Transit moved to Turkey 2013 with EU grant.
Jaguar Land Rover has recently agreed to build a new plant in Slovakia with EU grant, owned by Tata, the same company who have trashed our steel works and emptied the workers pension funds.
Peugeot closed its Ryton (was Rootes Group) plant and moved production to Slovakia with EU grant.
British Army’s new Ajax fighting vehicles to be built in SPAIN using SWEDISH steel at the request of the EU to support jobs in Spain with EU grant, rather than Wales.
Dyson gone to Malaysia, with an EU loan.
Crown Closures, Bournemouth (Was METAL BOX), gone to Poland with EU grant, once employed 1,200.
M&S manufacturing gone to far east with EU loan.
Hornby models gone. In fact all toys and models now gone from UK along with the patents all with with EU grants.
Gillette gone to eastern Europe with EU grant.
Texas Instruments Greenock gone to Germany with EU grant.
Indesit at Bodelwyddan Wales gone with EU grant.
Sekisui Alveo said production at its Merthyr Tydfil Industrial Park foam plant will relocate production to Roermond in the Netherlands, with EU funding.
Hoover Merthyr factory moved out of UK to Czech Republic and the Far East by Italian company Candy with EU backing.
ICI integration into Holland’s AkzoNobel with EU bank loan and within days of the merger, several factories in the UK, were closed, eliminating 3,500 jobs
Boots sold to Italians Stefano Pessina who have based their HQ in Switzerland to avoid tax to the tune of £80 million a year, using an EU loan for the purchase.
JDS Uniphase run by two Dutch men, bought up companies in the UK with £20 million in EU ‘regeneration’ grants, created a pollution nightmare and just closed it all down leaving 1,200 out of work and an environmental clean-up paid for by the UK tax-payer. They also raided the pension fund and drained it dry.
UK airports are owned by a Spanish company.
Scottish Power is owned by a Spanish company.
Most London buses are run by Spanish and German companies.
The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station to be built by French company EDF, part owned by the French government, using cheap Chinese steel that has catastrophically failed in other nuclear installations. Now EDF say the costs will be double or more and it will be very late even if it does come online.
Swindon was once our producer of rail locomotives and rolling stock. Not any more, it’s Bombardier in Derby and due to their losses in the aviation market, that could see the end of the British railways manufacturing altogether even though Bombardier had EU grants to keep Derby going which they diverted to their loss-making aviation side in Canada.
39% of British invention patents have been passed to foreign companies, many of them in the EU
The Mini cars that Cameron stood in front of as an example of British engineering, are built by BMW mostly in Holland and Austria. His campaign bus was made in Germany even though we have Plaxton, Optare, Bluebird, Dennis etc., in the UK. The bicycle for the Greens was made in the far east, not by Raleigh UK but then they are probably going to move to the Netherlands too as they have said recently.
Anyone who thinks the EU is good for British industry or any other business simply hasn’t paid attention to what has been systematically asset-stripped from the UK. Name me one major technology company still running in the UK, I used to contract out to many, then the work just dried up as they were sold off to companies from France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, etc., and now we don’t even teach electronic technology for technicians any more, due to EU regulations.
I haven’t detailed our non-existent fishing industry the EU paid to destroy, nor the farmers being paid NOT to produce food they could sell for more than they get paid to do nothing, don’t even go there.
I haven’t mentioned what it costs us to be asset-stripped like this, nor have I mentioned immigration, nor the risk to our security if control of our armed forces is passed to Brussels or Germany.
Find something that’s gone the other way, I’ve looked and I just can’t. If you think the EU is a good idea,
1/ You haven’t read the party manifesto of The European Peoples’ Party.
2/ You haven’t had to deal with EU petty bureaucracy tearing your business down.
3/ You don’t think it matters.