The Prophet Enoch is a well-known figure in the Old Testament. Consequently his name has been popular as a personal name at certain periods, with parents of Jewish and Christian backgrounds naming their sons after him.
The name never used to have any significance, except in reference to the biblical figure, other family members or some minor celebrity used to be the fictional character “Aynuk”, who features in comic dialogues with his mate “Ayli” (Eli) in local humour from the Black Country, the industrial area to the west of Birmingham – if you can understand the dialect.
But nowadays it is a very brave person who dares give their child the name Enoch. It has developed connotations so disturbing that no one wants to be associated with it.
“Enoch” is an insult you give to a particularly nasty, bigoted, narrow minded racist who is happy to be that way, regardless of the harm it causes. Call someone that, and you expect a violent or verbally aggressive reaction, a lot of other people joining in, and probably several trips to the hospital.
So why has the man who destroyed the reputation of this name come back into the news? In the UK, where he did his evil deeds, there was no story.
But the rest of the world has noticed his resurgence for the same reason they do when former Communists gain votes in Eastern bloc countries, and the German and Italian far right make comebacks. These countries are supposed to have got over all that nonsense, but here they are, backsliding into the bad old days.
For over fifty years, British political life has tried to move beyond Enoch Powell. Now he is being looked back on with fondness by the most extraordinary constituency. What he represents has gained a new respectability – and this is as frightening as any nuclear bomb, or deranged US president, when you realise why this has happened, and how easily it can happen anywhere else.
One of many ironies in this story is that he wasn’t even supposed to be an Enoch. The notorious former Conservative and then Ulster Unionist MP was christened John Enoch Powell, and therefore not expected to use his middle name in everyday life.
Powell was always known to be intellectually brilliant. He was a classical scholar who university contemporaries remembered being very much a loner, simply because he couldn’t find anyone of his own level to talk to. Even near the end of his life, when accused of agreeing with something outrageous in conversation at a dinner, a witness to the event commented: “He wouldn’t remember because he is always in the clouds above us. He was probably speaking Aramaic at the time.”
Yet despite his many gifts and accomplishments, Powell lives in history as a result of a speech he made in Birmingham in 1968 in which he attacked mass immigration from the British Commonwealth. This is known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, because although he didn’t actually use those words, he quoted this line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”.
This astonishing attack on people of colour by a senior politician got Powell sacked from the Shadow Cabinet (the opposition party’s alternative ministerial team). But they struck a chord with many people who felt that the UK was being overrun by “foreigners” (non-white people), and they were becoming strangers in their own land.
Though hardly anyone in a public position wanted to be associated with Powell thereafter, his views were shared by many voters, who thus considered themselves a persecuted underclass, being robbed of what was rightfully theirs by a liberal elite incapable of representing them. Exactly the same arguments used by the Brexit cult and its supporters today.
Down the pub, in safe environments, you could admit to agreeing with Enoch Powell. In places regarded as “respectable” and “establishment,” his views and supporters were beyond the pale.
Yet now, in a poll by the radio station of The Times newspaper, the most “establishment” journal of all, 16% of respondents have stated that Enoch Powell, out of a long list of historical figures, would have made a good Prime Minister. That is the third highest number. Just imagine how loved someone must be to be the third most desired leaderin any country’s history.
Powell died over twenty years ago. But his racist rhetoric, and general outspokenness on other subjects, are still part of the UK’s political legacy. Everyone still knows who Enoch was, and why he’s famous, and has an opinion on him.
Far from softening his reputation, time has magnified it beyond the many failures Powell endured after his notorious speech. So have the many attempts, at every official level, to declare him and his views unacceptable., because these are so obviously political in nature, dictates from above.
When consulted by people in authority about other issues, people who agree with Powell think they are being spoken to as fellow human beings. If they mention race issues,they feel they are talking to a dictated opinion, imposed upon the people who repeat it as much as them. This sends them running to anyone who can treat them with respect, but still hold these abhorrent views.
But Brexit has taken the sad rehabilitation of Enoch Powell to another level. Leaving the EU remains as it always was: the mantra of those who feel dispossessed because they have the “wrong views” on immigration and many other matters.
Winning that argument has made the “Enochs” feel they are now in charge, and can behave however they like. BoJo the Clown and his circus have made this acceptable, and they pride themselves on doing what no other government has dared to say or do, because that in itself makes them heroes to people who just want someone to listen to them.
All this has made Enoch a Prophet once again. For some he is a martyr to political correctness, the forerunner of Farage who suffered for being on the side the Brexit referendum has now proved right, in its own eyes.
But most of us never deal with anyone like Enoch Powell. We don’t have a framework to see him within. This isn’t because it doesn’t exist, but because it does – and makes us all look so stupid, we wish it didn’t.
Powell has had several biographers. Each one has soon discovered that Powell had very clear positions on a wide range of topics, each meticulously argued, often in the face of intellectual disapproval.
For example, it is generally agreed that although Saint Matthew’s Gospel is placed first in the New Testament, Saint Mark’s Gospel was written earlier. Powell spent decades trying to prove the contrary, with a supreme belief in his own understanding backed by wide and deep scholarship few can ever have equalled in this field.
The big task for a biographer is to work out how all Powell’s different positions fitted together, and what this tells us about the man. Each one has made a point of saying they have done this. But by the act of doing so, they make clear that there isn’t a definitive understanding, and that what they think may be their personal conclusion, but there is room for argument.
As a result of the horrible views he expressed, no one wants to bracket Powell with other great geniuses. But he was undoubtedly a major figure in the political life of his day, even when he no longer had any chance of office, or even a party he could call his own.
Major figures do have one thing in common. Everyone who is good at a particular thing is very different from all the others who are good at it. Think of artists, car makers, sportspersons, newsreaders – if they are good, they are distinct, and do what only they can do.
Brilliant people have the next dimension up. They can only function by being not only different, but the opposite. They cannot accept the arguments everyone else finds persuasive. They can only exercise their brains by arguing the opposite of what everyone else accepts, simply because only people of their intellectual level can do that successfully.
Enoch Powell was an early exponent of what later became known as monetarism. He developed his views at a time when Keynesianism was the accepted logic, backed by powerful political and social forces which declared all non-accepters to be morally maladjusted, unable to grasp the rightness of the new, post World War Two classless society.
In time, professional economists started drawing the same conclusions as Powell. Most of these probably never knew that Powell had had the same ideas first, and wouldn’t have wanted to admit it if they had, because he was a layman in economic terms. But when Keynesianism ran its course, politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, like Powell conservatives who gloried in seeming extreme, adopted a lot of Powell’s own economic thinking as if it were their own.
Most thinkers in such circumstances would be glad to be proved right. But Powell was rather upset, insisting that these people didn’t really understand his arguments.
What he meant was, if his arguments were so poor that his inferiors could understand them, they weren’t as good as he thought they were. The mere fact that his views had been accepted meant he had to reject them as unworthy of his superior intelligence.
This is the one common thread in Enoch Powell’s outrageous and contrary bucketful of opinions. They were so wrong that only a brilliant man would be able to think and argue them. Powell needed the power of his own argument, which was always more important to him than believing a word he said.
Maybe Enoch Powell really did believe his evil rhetoric. But that wasn’t important. The point was to gain intellectual stimulus by trying to make the impossible true. It’s the way brilliant people operate. But doesn’t it remind you of anyone else?
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are in broadly the same part of the political spectrum Powell was. Neither is regarded as anywhere near as brilliant as Enoch. But they attract the same sort of visceral adoration from the same type of people: those who feel excluded for having the “wrong views,” who feel these wilful outsiders represent their interests and no one else does.
Both Trump and Johnson are regarded by many as pathological liars, and with considerable justification. This is often considered, rightly or wrongly, to be par for the course for politicians. What makes these two different is that they don’t seem to care, or understand why anyone else should.
Trump is so associated with lying to his back teeth that people began counting his lies even before he had been elected. Since then, this has become a cottage industry, and has produced disturbing data.
But Donald doesn’t care, and neither do his supporters. All that matters is that he makes the argument he wants to make, no matter how wrong and downright dangerous it is. He doesn’t feel any need to believe a word he says, or have anyone else believe it, it is all about how he says it.
BoJo was sacked for lying when he was a newspaper columnist, and has made a long string of offensive statements about every segment of the population, in print and in person. Thousands of these are also well-documented. When this was brought to his attention, he told everyone to ignore whatever he might have written or said. It was all show, people shouldn’t conclude that he actually believed anything he’d ever said or done in his whole life.
Those who buy into the racist rhetoric and wilful contrariness of Enoch Powell, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson do so because they believe in what these men say. It matters to them, it’s important. But those who say it are only interested in advancing an argument to convince themselves they can get away with it. They don’t have to believe it themselves, and aren’t interested in whether they do.
Maybe we want someone to con us so we don’t have to admit we’ve conned ourselves. We all know, deep down, that conning ourselves leads to nowhere good. We don’t want to put ourselves in that place, or our friends and family.
So we let Enoch and Donald and Boris do it for us, in public, and let them take the blame for what we have chosen to become. This is what these people represent, and as Enoch isn’t alive to disappoint anyone, he always will – if we let him, by continuing to let his successors get away with it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.