On 22 December 1963, the Sunday Times published an article by Enoch Powell in which he had an imaginary conversation with Benjamin Disraeli. Here is my (RR) take on what Powell (EP) would make of Brexit:
Enoch Powell: Have I been proved right, yet?
Richard Ritchie: What did you have in mind? You made quite a few predictions.
EP: On Brexit, of course. It’s still the supreme issue. Even more important than immigration, although I hear that the two are now often spoken of together.
RR: Well, what’s interesting is that it was immigration that brought home to the British electorate what a loss of sovereignty means in practice. Until then, it was all a bit theoretical and nebulous. Ministers sometimes spoke of the things which EU membership prevented them from doing. And business and industry spent all of their time lobbying against EU regulations and directives which they disliked. That, indeed, was the CBI’s main purpose in life. But so far as the electorate as a whole was concerned, it was the issue of free movement of labour – and the refugee crisis – which really hit home.
EP: But I was never against the free movement of labour. When I spoke of the need to control immigration, I was talking about citizenship and belonging. I feared the democratic and cultural consequences of what one high court judge described as ‘an alien wedge’ amidst our major British cities. I wasn’t complaining about students or people seeking work. I never had a problem with the concept of ‘guest-workers’ as the Germans used to describe them.
RR: Well be that as it may, one consequence of this country’s failure to control immigration over many years meant that when the issue arose in a European context, people had had enough. It was something which, in a way, you had not predicted.
EP: Often in politics one can be right about the fundamentals but wrong concerning the accidentals. Predictions are one thing. Getting the timing right is another.
RR: One thing you were right about is how difficult extricating ourselves from the EU is proving to be. The law states we are due to leave the European Union on 29th March, but few people are confident that we will. I would love to know what you think should happen.
EP: You are right. I never said it would be easy. Do you remember that speech I made in 1976 when I said ‘The battle over Britain’s national independence is a battle which will be fought through to the bitter end however long it lasts. It is a battle in which no quarter will be asked and none will be given. It is a battle in the course of which all other political lines and links will continue to be overrun and broken as it surges one way or the other. It is a battle in which the bitterest foes of the past will stand together and the closest of old alliances be destroyed.’
RR: Indeed, I remember it. And only this week, eight Labour MPs resigned the whip to form a new party.
EP: What, again?
RR: Yes, but what I find interesting is that you predicted endless discord and animosity over Europe after having just lost a referendum. That suggests you can hardly complain when some of today’s ‘Remainers’ show as little willingness to accept the referendum result of 2016 as you did of 1975.
EP: As you know, I was never an enthusiast for referendums. But as I understand it, there was a difference. Harold Wilson in 1975 never argued that it would have been a disaster had the British people voted to leave. He could have lived with either outcome. And in a way, it was never claimed even by the government that the question would be settled forever. David Cameron’s was different. He said it would be decisive, even though he believed that a vote to leave would be a national catastrophe. As I once said about Jim Callaghan, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, how could they justify promising and participating in a referendum if they knew that Britain would be hopelessly handicapped outside the Common Market? I’m afraid that’s what David Cameron did as well.
RR: Yes, but however irresponsible that may have been, it was the holding of a referendum that has led to where we are now. But as before, the debate was highly unsatisfactory. In 1975, you will remember that the fundamentals of EEC membership were overshadowed by a meaningless debate on Harold Wilson’s so-called renegotiated terms of entry. Well, now it is the terms of Mrs. May’s deal that is dominating discussion – to such an extent that most people have forgotten why it was they voted to leave in the first place. And we are arguing not only about what a long-term trading relationship should look like, but over what is called a transition period in order to get there – although what ‘there’ means, nobody knows either.
EP: Do you mean to say that it’s still unclear whether our country will leave the European Union at all?
RR: Absolutely. I know many people who voted to leave the EU, but who now think May’s deal is worse than remaining a full member. I also know many people who voted to leave the EU on the understanding we would negotiate a free trade agreement, although they can’t agree amongst themselves what that means either. And there were many who either wanted to leave or remain on principle, regardless of the consequences. I wondered what you think?
EP: As you know, I predicted that Britain would never join what was then called the European Economic Community. When we joined, my reputation for infallibility took a knock. But was I wrong? I remember stating later that perhaps I had been right all the time – that our whole experience of membership was that of a constant minority, under governments of every persuasion, attempting without much success to resist a relentless tendency towards political union. What some described as the ratchet effect. It is possible to argue that in a much larger European Community, outside the Euro, and (as it were) in a second tier, we had never fully joined the Community – which is precisely what I predicted.
RR: But that doesn’t mean you’d have voted to remain in the referendum of 2016?
EP: No, no. Of course not. Had the country voted to remain, it would have been taken as a green light by the EU to advance all their plans for political union and we’d have found it much harder to resist pressures to join the Euro, participate in a European Army, and to remove fiscal competition. And I think the democratic deficit would have got worse, not better. However, I must admit that – given where you seem to be now – it might have been better for the referendum never to have happened in the first place.
RR: Why do you say that?
EP: Because, as I remember teaching you when you were very young, it is dangerous to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
RR: But you would have identified surely with the slogan ‘Take Back Control.’
EP: Yes, provided that meant taking back control to make our own laws under the jurisdiction of our own courts. I’m not sure there is much point in it otherwise. I have an instinctive preference for free trade, but I’ve never claimed that economic policy is what matters in the end.
RR: You sound to me much less enthusiastic over leaving than I expected.
EP: If I do, it’s because the whole exercise has been so disastrously mishandled. It was naïve in the extreme to believe the European Union would ever help to make the readjustment of leaving easy. We should never even have asked for a transition agreement. We should have expected nothing, and offered nothing in exchange. We should have used the notice period as a time to prepare for leaving the customs union and the single market. That would have provided certainty.
RR: But we didn’t. And now, all the argument is about whether we can afford to leave ‘without a deal’; or whether we should be part of some sort of customs union; or whether we shouldn’t leave at all. So, where do you stand?
EP: Do you remember the conversation we had when you were writing your book Enoch Powell on 1992? I started by saying that ‘1992 underlines a great fallacy by which this whole subject has been haunted in the British debate. It is the fallacy of confusing free trade with a customs union.’ I went on to say that not for the first time in European history, the EU wanted to use internal free trade as a lever for political unification. I likened it to the concept of Zollverein in which trade is only free if those who participate in it are, in all other respects, similarly conditioned. And by that I meant, the need to have the same regulations, the same taxes and the same immigration rules. Now that is what a Customs Union is about. And as I was against it in 1992, I am of course against it now.
RR: So it sounds as if you wouldn’t be voting for May’s deal, even if it were the only way of leaving the European Union?
EP: One doesn’t have the right to give advice beyond the grave. I am in purgatory, hoping to enter heaven at the earliest opportunity. I mustn’t break the rules.
RR: Well you are luckier than us. The president of the European Council has already consigned us to hell.
EP: As Ronald Knox once said, the only people who go to hell are those who want to. But this conversation is reminding me of a similar conversation to one which I had, as a much younger man, with Disraeli. He told me that ‘At the end of a lifetime in politics, when a man looks back, he discovers that the things he most opposed have come to pass and that nearly all the objects he set out with are not merely not accomplished but seem to belong to a different world from the one he lives in.’ Now that I’m no longer alive, I can assure you with even greater confidence that he was right.
RR: Does that mean that people like myself should shut up, and leave it to a new generation to settle?
EP: No, one must never stop caring. And I’m certainly not giving credence to the ‘young’ versus ‘old’ divide. As I also once told you, it was always a generation which did not remember – or it was very often a generation which did not remember – those who had defended and developed the characteristic constitutional rights of the United Kingdom in the past, who have done the same in their own time.
RR: Yes, but what I’m really asking you for is advice to give to the ERG. Should they regard May’s deal as preferable to remaining or extending Article 50, if that is what it comes to? Whether we like it or not, the House of Commons seems set against preventing us leave with no deal.
EP: Which it has the perfect right to do. I never challenged the right of the House of Commons to make life for the government as difficult as possible. In the final analysis, the House of Commons must always have its way – although what a mess you have got yourselves into by introducing fixed term parliaments. That should never have been agreed to.
EP: That doesn’t answer the question, which is very uncharacteristic of you. There is a real possibility that May’s deal won’t go through. Your old party – the Ulster Unionists, albeit of the Paisley rather than Molyneaux variety – is bitterly opposed to it, and some would argue that the future of the Union is now as much at stake as parliamentary sovereignty. Under these circumstances, would it be better to remain, or at least have another referendum, than leave on her negotiated terms? Or indeed, on Labour’s terms which is to be a full member of your hated Customs Union. Jacob needs to know…
but as with Enoch’s conversation with Disraeli, it was too late. The unforgettable voice, with its light tenor timbre and black-country monotone, receded into the ether and we were left alone to decide for ourselves.
Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate