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Logical or emotional?
on 3 June 2015
Although he died in 1998 Enoch Powell is still to some extent a political figure who still arouses passions, both for those who admire him, as Simon Heffer does, and for those who remember him as a sinister influence in our political life. I should declare a personal interest in that for a short period of time, which included his “rivers of blood” speech, I was briefly a constituent of his, and that my political views have never been at all similar to his.
While he was a Tory (which, while a critical epithet for some, is used by others as a compliment) it is interesting that his friends included Michael Foot, and Tony Benn. It would have been more interesting if Simon Heffer had written about the basis of these friendships as it would probably have helped in more fully understanding Powell both as a person and as a politician.
The positive aspect of Powell’s reputation rests on what is represented as his capacity to argue logically and lead to conclusions of a profundity which was seen as unique to him. I disagree.
Before going into detail there is a preliminary point. If you read Powell’s own words, and even more so if you remember him speaking, I think that it is quite clear that he wrote and spoke with great emotional conviction. The problem this leads to is that we all tend to be persuaded by emotion, often more so than by reason. While I would not claim that Powell deliberately spoke in this way so as to mislead, we can think of more recent politicians who did, and who persuaded many others, who suspended their more rational judgements. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair stand as two examples, and it is also interesting that they like Powell polarised opinion. It is interesting that their example is now followed by most British people who would be political leaders
In considering Powell’s reputation the first problem is that logical arguments do not necessarily lead to true conclusions. If the premises are false the conclusion will be false irrespective of the quality of the logic. The syllogism “Paris is in France, France is in Europe, therefore Paris is in Europe” leads to a true conclusion because the logic is correct and the two premises are also true. But if you substitute for the second premise “France is in America” this logically leads to the false conclusion “therefore Paris is in America”.
I want to analyse one example which I contend illustrates this, and which stands for many others.
Heffer writes: “Powell started a new religious controversy … when … about the possibilities of a papal visit to Britain. He argued there had been no discussion of the implications of such a visit, and there should be … (and) if in the light of it a substantial body of opinion felt it would be better for the Pope not to come, these views should be respected. He stressed that religion had nothing to do with his objection, it was a political issue. The Pope was a head of state and if he came to Britain it would be as a result of a political decision taken by the Government.
There would be, he said, an “English nerve” touched by the visit, because only in England was the Crown supreme judicial authority in the national church. From this, he concluded that “it is constitutionally and logically unthinkable for England to contain both the Queen and the Pope. Before that could happen the essential character of the one or the other would have to be surrendered.” It was, for Powell, a question of the surrender of yet another national symbol, the last possessions of a nation, without which it cannot renew itself.
Although this has the appearance of a closely argued opinion containing a serious point it is not at all clear quite what that point might be, nor how it is properly arrived at.
Firstly, quite what is meant by saying that the “Crown … (is). the supreme judicial authority in the national church”? (My underlining.)
The Shorter OED has five definitions of “judicial” when used as an adjective, which is how Powell appears to be using it:
i. “pertaining to proceedings in a court of law”,
ii. “pertaining to the judgement of the reputed influence of the celestial objects on human affairs”;
iii “that has or shows sound judgement, judicious”;
iv. “having the function of judgement; invested with authority to judge causes”;
v. “of a judge; proper to a judge”.
None appear to be any kind of “authority” which is held by the Crown, and so we are left to wonder quite what Powell meant. The simplest conclusion would be that he uses a word whose meanings, with two exceptions, relate directly to the legal process, so as to add what is sometimes called “gravitas” to his argument. The reader, or listener, is invited to accede to the judgement of one who claims greater understanding and judgement.
It is also quite unclear what he means by stating that it is “constitutionally and logically unthinkable for England to contain both the Queen and the Pope. Before that could happen the essential character of the one or the other would have to be surrendered.” One possible thought might be that he sees the Pope as the supreme judicial authority in the Catholic Church, (which may be so) but this is hardly adequate, as even if this were so it is not obvious why should this lead to the conclusion that it “unthinkable for England to contain both the Queen and the Pope”, and further again why are the purported reasons for this are “constitutional and logical”. A possible explanation would again be that they add “gravitas”. A further thought might be that the emperor’s apparently impressive clothes do not exist but we are invited not to object for fear of being criticised as stupid for not appreciating their splendour.
A Pope has visited England since and I do not recall it being a “political decision”. The Pope may well be, albeit technically, a head of state, but although it would be understandable if the government had openly or tacitly assented to a visit that could have been seen as controversial, I think that the Pope was invited by the Catholic Church in England,. While there were people who objected to the visit it passed off peacefully, without any of the consequences warned of by Powell.
The difficulty for people whose warnings are expressed as predictions is that they are tested by later events, which may validate or refute them. A further and more significant example is Powell on immigration. (In what follows I will for the sake of the argument temporarily allow Powell’s claim that he was not racist.)
After the riots in Brixton and Toxteth, which were serious and worrying, Heffer states that Powell also “pressed on, predicting inner London becoming ungovernable … (through) violence which could only effectually be described as civil war’” and Powell discounted what he regarded as the prevailing mentality ‘that it was ‘too late to do anything’.
We now know that each part of this statement proved to be untrue.
After giving an account of his earlier, pre-political life Heffer is almost solely concerned with the public figure, and we have relatively little about Powell the man. However, what little there is is intriguing. He appears to have had a strong relationship with both of his parents, and appears to have only two significant relations with women. The second was his wife who he married when he was 39, and she 26. This appears to have been a very happy marriage, and without wishing to be cynical she must have been very tolerant, as any political wife would need to be.
His only other relationship with a woman petered out, and to his great chagrin she married someone else, and while invited to the wedding he declined. Heffer is not explicit but reading between the lines they did not have any sexual relationship.
Powell’s ex cathedra statements include that all political careers end in failure. Powell clearly had great qualities. He was a professor of Greek at Cambridge in his early twenties, and became a Brigadier in the army also at a very early age, after having joined up as a Private. Yet despite his great gifts Powell only held office in government for a very brief period, and if this is a relevant measure it might be said that his career ended in failure much earlier.
Heffer’s book is worth reading, both for an account of Enoch Powell, and as one who set out to praise one who is sometimes seen as a Caesar, but who inferentially buries him.