When Enoch Powell died in February 1998, British politics lost one of its most remarkable and intelligent figures. A controversial politician, Powell is most widely remembered for his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech on immigration in 1968 while the Labour government was trying to pass its race relations legislation. He was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet as a result of the ensuing outcry. Whatever the consequences for race relations in Britain-and many would still maintain that Powell helped to engender a climate of fear and mistrust in which National Front activity steadily increased for more than a decade afterwards-the speech destroyed Powell's political career.
In a controversial account of a controversial man, Heffer goes some way towards rescuing Powell from demonisation--though there's no getting away from how hilariously curmudgeonly he often was. He seemed to spend his entire childhood being 81 years old; Heffer's account of the proud, spiky Classical scholar (Powell's precocity in this area was astonishing) poncing about like Socrates, his flirtation with morbid German Romanticism and his desire for war, and his success in the army despite his mannerisms and brusque, self- assured superiority do eventually make him a human, almost sympathetic character; but one is not always sure that Heffer is right to attribute irony to Powell's more drastic remarks rather than, say, arrogance or naivety.
What Heffer has done--remarkably swiftly, given that he only saw Powell's most personal papers after his death--is to provide an enormous, well-sourced and sympathetic biography of a towering yet flawed figure. It has wit and an attention to detail that would have pleased the pedantic Powell in his guise of scholar. The youngest ever British professor, promoted from private to brigadier during World War Two, and a much-loved politician for two parties, Powell also wrote tolerable romantic poetry (in the mould of A.E. Housman). One is left with a sense of sadness that such an intelligent and hard-working man was so coldly intellectual as never to appreciate the appalling consequences of his discussion of race and immigration. Whether or not Powell was a racist (and even his enemies seem to have doubted this) his ideas were received rapturously by those who were. But there was more to the man than that; and this is a surprisingly engaging portrait of a sometimes disagreeable genius. --Robert Potts
About the Author
Simon Heffer was born in 1960 and educated at King Edward VI School, Chelmsford, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he read English. He is now a political columnist with the Daily Mail and has previously been political editor of The Spectator and deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph.