Enoch Powell has been in many minds this month. It’s the 50th anniversary of his famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and I took part in a BBC radio programme discussing this — and hearing the speech itself read superbly by the actor, Ian McDiarmid.
The small campaign against the very broadcasting of the speech fizzled out — not least, I think, because the ghastly text does Mr Powell no favours, and many of us who had never read it in its entirety were shocked not only by its tone but by its careless inaccuracy and faltering logic. Yet there’s been a widespread popular view that, agree or disagree with him, the man had a fine mind, a fastidious regard for facts, and courage.
I have doubted all three ever since a personal conversation with him at an awkward time for both of us.
In the Commons chamber around midnight on 25 October 1982, we had just spilled out of the voting lobbies. I remember exactly where I was standing when Mr Powell saw me, a young MP he hardly knew, and walked over. The order on which we’d just voted was to amend the 1967 Act decriminalising homosexual behaviour between consenting adults over 21. Originally applying only to England, it had been amended to include Scotland in 1980. Now we were extending the Act to Northern Ireland, where all male homosexual behaviour remained a criminal offence. A brave soul, Jeff Dudgeon, a Belfast shipping clerk, had taken the UK to the European Court of Human Rights, and won. Westminster had to comply. The order passed easily after a short debate.
Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet was content that the ECHR should take the flak for something they knew needed doing but which would enrage the Ulster Unionists. Jim Prior, though, made it clear as Northern Ireland secretary that the UK government was not only content, but pleased to extend the law. Ulster Unionists made speeches of predictable, eye-rolling outrage.
I chose this debate, after three years in the Commons, to indicate my own sexuality. I had of course spoken privately to the whips when first offered a bag-carrying job as a parliamentary private secretary (the offer was promptly withdrawn) but, though I suppose most people guessed, I had never ‘come out’. So in the debate on that order I made a short speech commending it ‘with all my heart’ and indicating that I had the most personal of reasons for doing so. A bit coy, but those were different times, and the House understood me. Jim Prior spoke kindly towards me in his winding-up speech.
Enoch had certainly understood me. I had the strong impression he felt guilty and defensive about his own speech, which came immediately before mine. He must have known his had been an inglorious and ignoble mess. He had been a stalwart supporter of the 1967 reform, as the late Leo Abse reminded MPs in a speech of magnificent ferocity. Powell had supported the extension of decriminalisation to Scotland, too. Had he changed his mind?
In explaining, Enoch got into a serious logical tangle. First he complained volubly that the time allocated for debate had been too short. Then he said he was voting against as a matter of conscience, because this matter should not be subject to party whipping. It was pointed out to him that government members had been given a free vote. Unwilling to concede that he had been ignorant of this, he said that an order in council was by definition a government measure, and therefore there was duress. It’s fair to say that the House was bemused.
He then said that different parts of the UK held different views on morality, so it was (somehow) in principle improper that Westminster should force such change upon them. As a strong believer in the Union and a devolution-sceptic he was on tricky ground here, and proceeded no further with the doctrine. He then said there was a convention that legislation on moral questions was advanced only through private members’ bills. This was untrue, as Mr Abse pointed out.
Somewhat desperately (some of us thought) he then launched an attack on the very existence of the European Court of Human Rights. He was entitled to that view, but it would have been much strengthened if Powell had said that the British government, not the ECHR, should have initiated the change. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to say that.
It is, again, fair to say that the whole House, including (I suspect) Enoch’s Ulster Unionist fellow MPs, could see clearly why Powell was tying himself in these knots; but only Abse had the guts to spit it out. There were impending parliamentary boundary changes in the province, Abse said. Powell was running scared of his Ulster colleagues, and of the evangelical anti-gay lobby in Northern Ireland.
When he spoke, Enoch had not heard my speech. Now he was heading towards me in the Chamber. I must say he looked uncomfortable. He did not mention my speech but told me he wanted to insist — and for me to understand his insistence — that it was ‘upon the constitutional question’ and upon that alone that he had spoken and voted as he did. He knew we’d all heard him say so in his speech, but it seemed he wanted to say it again — to me.
In fact even that was not true, as his speech had made much of the argument that the people of Northern Ireland did not want this change. In a fine intervention, my old colleague the late Percy Grieve (Dominic’s father) had challenged Mr Powell to say what he thought personally of the merits of the order. This was Powell’s chance to say he supported the merits but opposed the manner. Instead he ducked.
A small vignette of no great importance in itself. But I had seen no Cicero, and — for that matter — no monster either: but a frightened man, and philosophically all at sea.
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