The EU referendum took place a month ago tomorrow, and a glance at its result invites the eye to gaze back still further. Britain’s membership first of the Common Market, then of the European Community, and then of the EU itself has divided both of our main parties (some more at one time than another) for well over 50 years – indeed, for almost the entire post-war period. Within the Conservative Party, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher are sometimes taken to represent the polarities of debate: In or Out – a viewpoint framed by her successful challenge to his leadership in 1975, and their tense relations through the years that followed.
But Thatcher was as much a Remainer in Government as a Leaver once she had departed it, having quit the Commons too for good measure. She wore that European flag-displaying jumper during the 1975 referendum campaign. And her Government saw through the Single European Act. No, to find a more authentic representatives within the Party of Leave (or Don’t Join) has to search further back. Heath remains the spokesman for In; Enoch Powell is the voice of Out.
Powell was not always a vocal Eurosceptic – or whatever its equivalent was half a century ago. Indeed, it has been claimed that he had a hand in One Europe, a federalist-leaning publication by the One Nation Group, during the mid-1960s. And at least one pro-EU observer has complained that Heath, whose French was famously atrocious, was never fully engaged with Britain’s role in the European project: “What Britain-in-Europe was for, in his mind, is a question to which the answer is elusive,” wrote Hugo Young in This Blessed Plot.
None the less, the two squared off against each other from the late 1960s onwards, after Heath had sacked Powell from his Shadow Cabinet over the latter’s “Rivers of Blood” speech (words which its author did not actually pronounce). Powell opposed Common Market membership; left the Conservatives in 1974, and continued to contest the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, Nice – and so on. He sat as an Ulster Unionist in the Commons until 1987, when he lost his seat in South Down. Heath stayed put as a backbencher from 1975 until 2001.
But my purpose is not so much to review the history of their relationship and rivalry as to take a snapshot of what their legacy may turn out to be. Powell had four main causes during his later backbench years: the free economy (perhaps the most longstanding of his interests), Northern Ireland, immigration, and Europe. He won on the first – Powell was championing free markets before they were even a gleam in Keith Joseph’s eye – but lost on the other three…at least until last week.
The EU referendum result should force a reappraisal of the influence of Powell and Heath on conservatism and, even more importantly, on Britain – on its people, its state and its policy. The biggest political win of the latter’s premiership – arguably the only one of lasting importance – was his taking of Britain into the Common Market. For over 40 years, membership of it seemed entrenched. It looked as though Heath’s scarcely-articulated sense of where Britain’s emotional centre of gravity lay was more sure than Powell’s layered eloquence.
The referendum vote should provoke a revision. Since it does not guarantee Brexit, any conclusion must be provisional. But it is beginning to look as though Powell may turn out to be the most influential post-war Conservative thinker, just as Thatcher emerged as the most powerful post-war Tory doer. His free market ideas have triumphed. Now his view of nationhood has been endorsed: Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows that the main reason why voters backed Leave was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.
Immigration from the EU itself will probably come down after Brexit takes place (if indeed it does). But there may be a sting in the tail for Powell, or at least for his political vision. There is a risk that Britain leaving the EU will help to drive Scotland in turn to leave the UK, and that the knock-on effects of a Scoxit will push Northern Ireland formally into an all-Ireland condominium. This would have been a bitter cup for Powell to drain. It may be possible to look at Brexit in 50 years time and conclude that he and Heath both lost.
But while it may turn out otherwise for Powell, Heath’s reputation is already that of a loser. The referendum result will have reinforced that verdict – and in the light of it, assessments of his legacy will need updating. As coincidence would have it, next year marks the hundredth anniversary of Heath’s birth. There is a series of events to commemorate it. John Major has delivered an inaugural lecture. Michael Heseltine gave the second yesterday evening. Michael McManus has just seen his own memoir of working with Heath published.
The consensus of the Conservative Right is that Heath’s Government was a failure, that there is no more to it than that – and doubtless that the Brexit vote hammers a final nail in the groaning coffin. This was not quite the view of Thatcher as I heard it set out during the early 1990s. At an event during those years, I heard her explain that Heath’s Government can be seen as a dry run for hers. This sounds like a contrarian take: after all, he introduced an incomes policy, she eschewed having one; he tried Keynesianism, she experimented with monetarism, and so on.
But her account was that, like her governments, Heath’s was set on modernising Britain: maybe his adminstration can be viewed as a kind of military advance party, sent across a mine-strewn landscape to discover where the explosives are – and take collateral damage and death in consequence. So where Heath attempted a single Industrial Relations Act, in order to tame union power, she instead introduced a gradualist series of trade union bills. Nigel Lawson also learned from the industrial protests of the Heath era that it was essential to build up coal stocks.
Heath and Powell came to represent such differences of view – over Europe, economic policy, Northern Ireland, conservatism itself – that it has become hard to see them as having anything much in common. Yet both share in the Party’s affections a residual distrust: Powell for leaving it, Heath – far worse! – for losing general elections (three out of four). The former has certainly had the latest laugh; it is too early to say whether it is the last one. Either way, Europe helped to keep them apart in life. But in death, it draws them together in a kind of strange meeting, implacable symbols of irreconcilable convictions, while the national conversation rolls ever-on.