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Who Killed Enoch Powell?

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Sphere, London, 1972
(price: 30p; 224 pages)

(first published in Great Britain by Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 1970)

The blurb on the back:

'Terrifying and very, very well written' - The Irish Press

The killing of Enoch Powell threw Britain into turmoil. The bomb that devastated the lecture platform unleashed a reign of chaos that threatened to tear the country apart. Colonel Monckton was put in charge of the enquiry ... and saw it as a means of seizing power.
A fanatical fascist organisation stood ready to exploit the situation as the politician's followers vented their rage on the coloured population.
And the police found their investigations blocked by the threat of civil war.

'An exciting, frightening thriller' - The Times Literary Supplement
'Frightening - all this could happen if EP was assassinated for real' -
Morning Telegraph

You can tell something about a culture from its paranoid fantasies. In America the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945 was immediately followed by a panic about the communist enemy within that was way in excess of any reality, extending down even as far as The New Slave Masters. In Britain in the 1960s and '70s, on the other hand, the fear was of a far-right coup responding to the perceived communism of the trade union and labour movement. Books like The Leader and The Chilian Club spelt out the dangers of extremist politics swamping traditional British virtues of tolerance and moderate good sense.

The fears expressed in these books look a tad exaggerated now, but they reflected deep concerns in society at the time; and at the heart of all the insecurity was the bizarre figure of Enoch Powell.

'There are millions that think he's given them an identity - told 'em they're British, told 'em to stand up straight and look the world in the face, told 'em they matter. And there are nearly as many who think he's a kind of Messiah. I tell you, he speaks for people who can't speak for themselves.'

That's the leader of the Labour opposition in this novel, but he's about right. Powell has pretty much faded away altogether now from the popular consciousness, leaving hardly a stain behind him, but there was a time when he was not only the most popular politician in the country, but potentially the most powerful and significant. When the London dockers marched in support of his anti-immigration speeches in 1968, it was clear that he spoke for huge sections of the working class in a way that the Labour Party and the Left simply didn't. (I know this episode has been heavily airbrushed in orthodox Left histories, but damn it, it's still true.)

Powell was sacked from his front-bench position by the then-Tory leader Ted Heath for those speeches, and never held any office again, but his power remained undiminished for some time to come. He was the real voice of opposition - the Prime Minister in exile, representing the people against the politicians, speaking up for the common folk who felt betrayed by a remote and appeasing intellectual elite. All of which was a touch peculiar, since he himself was (a) a consummate politician, and (b) an active member of the intellectual elite. But somehow he was perceived as being different to the rest of them, in the same way that Tony Benn is sometimes considered to be different (not that Benn was ever any kind of intellectual, of course). And, together with Keith Joseph, he was also laying the foundations of Thatcherism.

In the 1974 general elections, by which time Powell was out of the Conservative Party and was standing in Ulster for the Unionists, he was widely credited with helping Harold Wilson win by calling on people to vote for Labour as the anti-Europe party: his popular support in the West Midlands was still strong enough that several critical seats were lost to Labour by the Tories.

The premise of this novel, therefore, is horribly plausible. Powell is speaking at a packed public meeting in Yorkshire when a bomb goes off, killing him outright. The country descends into paralysis, then chaos, then a coup. It's all too convincing and - remembering the Brighton bombing - for once the slogan 'It could happen here' is genuinely applicable.

It's a neat book this, reflecting the panic of the response to Powell's death by hurtling along with no sense of direction and with no chapter breaks - just a seamless stream of action. Good stuff. Though I do wonder about an author whose biog runs as follows:

Ex-actor, ex-fighter pilot, Arthur Wise gave up his job as Lecturer in Speech Education at the University of Leeds to concentrate on full-time writing. He is the founder of a firm manufacturing weapons for the theatre, and is interested in violence as a form of communication.

Wise (1923-1982) was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel for this book. I feel that Sphere deserve an award for the most uninspired cover on this site.

Ho Ho Ho
Enoch Powell


a couple of studies of Enoch Powell:

Bill Smithis & Peter FiddickPaul Foot

check out the Churchill Society hagiography