Richard Ritchie: It is futile to ask where political giants of old would have stood in today’s chaos
Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs
Anyone who has had the privilege of a close association with a political Giant of Old must be accustomed to the question “And what would ‘X’ or ‘Y’ be saying or doing now?”
Normally, it is possible to give a reasonably objective answer, and always with the important qualification of “all things being equal”. But of course they never are “all equal”, which is why nobody knows for certain how any figure of the past would react to a contemporary event.
Some politicians, however, are more careful than others to provide future generations with material on which to speculate. For example, one might argue from Churchill’s past speeches on Europe that today he would have been either a fervent remainer or brexiteer – both sides of the debate have indeed claimed as such. It is difficult, however, to banish the suspicion that their selection of the great man’s quotes are largely driven by their own political objectives, and often with less regard to when they were actually said.
In the case of Enoch Powell, with whom I worked, I always add the qualification, when asked “what would Enoch be saying now”, that it depends on what stage of his career you are speaking. When Powell started off in politics, he was an imperialist. He wished to govern India and maintain the Empire. But being young with a political future ahead of him, he abandoned this principle when it was no longer tenable – and being Enoch, he abandoned it dramatically, logically and conclusively.
I have sometimes wondered whether he would have acted similarly over Europe, had he embarked upon a political career in the 1970s. I have always thought it possible that he would have adapted to a loss of sovereignty in the same way as he adapted to loss of Empire. Of course, nobody knows. But there is at least enough material on which to construct a case for the possibility.
There is one sense, however, in which the question “what would they be saying now?” is especially difficult to answer at the moment. That is because we can no longer rely on the conventions of the past, which in turn is mostly due to the European curse – for better or worse, membership of the EU has eaten away at Britain’s unwritten constitution. And that is why we now seem to be confronted on a daily basis with one constitutional aberration after another which, only a few years ago, would have been considered unthinkable.
In the space of a matter of weeks we have had a Government accused of breaking the law, in contempt of the courts, and in contempt of Parliament; but at the same time we have a minority Government with no control of its business in the House of Commons but denied its right to hold an election in order, as it would argue, to honour the result of a referendum.
Were they alive, the great Parliamentarians of the past – the Powells, the Foots, the Benns – would have been at the forefront of these events. But nobody can be sure of what they would be saying. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider Powell again in this context – not because he is more important than many others, but because he vividly illustrates the difficulty of making parallels with the past.
Most people would surely assume that were he alive today he and his supporters – MPs like Ronald Bell, Dick Body, Nick Ridley and possibly John Biffen – would at this juncture have supported leaving the EU with no deal, although even that is uncertain had they believed in the veracity of the Yellowhammer document’s warnings. It’s worth recalling, for example, that the reason why Powell supported Macmillan’s effort to join the Common Market in the 1960s – unlike many in his Party who were already objecting to the political implications – was that he feared that our trade with Europe would be threatened outside the group.
With the global liberalisation of trade and the developing political ambitions of the European Union, his mind changed. But given his extreme distrust and dislike of America and his championing of Ulster, one shouldn’t assume that even Powell would have been sanguine over the economic dangers of leaving “without a deal.”
But whatever his views on this, it’s hard to believe he would have challenged Parliament’s right to try and prevent it. He and his friends would have been aware of every legitimate political trick and device available to thwart the Government, and provided their perpetrators acted in accordance with precedent they would have upheld their right to do so, however much they disagreed with their purpose. After all, that was the concept of Parliamentary sovereignty which all shared at the time. However dangerous and unwise it might be, Parliament has the undoubted right to ignore the result of a referendum and repeal any Act it has passed. Retribution, if deserved, will follow at a general election.
Except that now we are denied a general election – and this is something Powell could never have conceived. I am sure he would have considered it unconstitutional for a minority Government, having lost control of the business in the House of Commons, to continue in office. It is not without precedent for an Opposition leader to refuse to take over from a Prime Minister in difficulties. But for a failing Government without a majority to be denied a general election by its opponents would have been unthinkable to Powell or any of his contemporaries.
Neither could any of them have conceived of a Speaker who only respects Erskine May when it suits him and who regularly criticises the Government, even when on holiday. Powell often criticised the Speaker of his day for failing to observe precedent or to preserve Parliamentary standards of behaviour, but always in private. However, I think with Speaker Bercow he would have moved a vote of censure against him.
Above all, neither he nor any politician of his generation could ever have imagined a measure such as the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011 reaching the statute book. They would have regarded this Act as madness from the start – they would not have needed the benefit of hindsight.
That does not mean, however, they would have approved of this particular prorogation. Powell and most Tories of the past would surely have been concerned that the precedents created today would prove extremely dangerous under a socialist government. Whether they would have agreed that this was a matter properly to be considered by the courts is a different matter – of course, for Powell the Supreme Court did not exist, and the high court was Parliament itself with a proper Lord Chancellor in office.
But when it comes to how we ended up in this situation, what would Powell, Foot, Richard Crossman, or Tony Benn have said? Powell would have started off by saying, unhelpfully, “I told you so”. Conservative governments are not expected to meddle with the constitution. But that is what a Conservative Government did when it acceded to the Treaty of Rome in 1972: from henceforth it’s been downhill all the way, and now Heath’s (or should I say the Nibelung’s) curse continues to wear away the Norns’ thread of destiny. Powell would have undoubtedly believed this.
But the existence of a legislative Parliament in Scotland; a referendum result which opposed the policy of a Government on a fundamental matter of principle; a partisan Speaker; a fixed-term Parliament; the island of Ireland now divided not only between Unionist and Republican but between the competing political regimes of the EU and the UK – this means that any revered Tory politician of the past would, today, be completely out of his depth. No point in asking what Enoch, or anyone else, would have done in today’s circumstances. We just don’t know.
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