Who indeed? The third part of Peter Jackson’s films of the The Hobbit is currently showing. Bilbo Baggins’s later disappearance “became a fireside-story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold became a favourite character of legend and lived on after all the true events were forgotten”.
Perhaps the former Conservative and Ulster Unionist MP will be remembered only as Evil Enoch, who made incendiary speeches about immigration, only to vanish with a flash and a bang. Such a fate may be foreshadowed by the fact that an exchange of letters between him and Nigel Farage is deemed shocking enough to have made the front page of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.
This would be some way short of the full story about Powell. The four main causes of his political career were the free economy, immigration, Northern Ireland and the European Union – the last two being parts of a bigger one: his vision of Britain as a self-governing nation. He won on the free economy, and lost on immigration and Northern Ireland. And Europe? The great game goes on.
The legacy of that immigration speech has obscured the extent of his triumph over the market economy – of which he was, in the Conservative Party of the 1950s and ’60s, almost a solitary champion. Powell was denouncing prices and incomes policies when Sir Keith Joseph believed in the Keynesian consensus and Margaret Thatcher was remarkable only in being a woman among so many men.
And the speech itself? Its self-dramatising nature transformed Powell into a national figure. He turned out to be right about the numbers but wrong about the blood. Some has been shed, but not nearly enough to set a river foaming. It also made calm discussion of immigration control harder. Edward Heath sacked Powell from the Shadow Cabinet. Six years later, he left the Conservative Party.
Richard Ritchie, Powell’s literary executor, says in today’s Sunday Telegraph that Powell would never have joined UKIP. What is certain is that the immigration speech, and the misjudgement that lay behind it, has overshadowed Powell’s legacy as a writer and thinker (and as the non-racist who made the Hola Camp speech).
“These men, and those who opposed them/And those whom they opposed/Accept the constitution of silence/ And are folded in a single party.” Enoch at 100, published two years ago, offered a more dispassionate view of Powell than was possible during his lifetime. What is true for him is true for all of us. We don’t get to write our own obituaries. Others will decide how we are remembered.