Best known for his notorious 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968 and his outspoken opposition to immigration, Enoch Powell was one of the most controversial figures in British political life in the second half of the 20th century. Telling the story of Powell's political life from the 1950s onwards, Paul Corthorn's biography goes beyond a fixation on the 'Rivers of Blood' speech to bring us a man who thought deeply about—and often took highly unusual (and sometimes apparently contradictory) positions on—the central political debates of the post-1945 era.
The task of tracing the course of Powell’s ideas in all their contortions and contradictions, and assessing their impact, is not easy. But Paul Corthorn accomplishes it admirably. His book is clear, coherent and concise. It is based on a vast amount of reading and research. All told, it is a model of scholarship—save in one respect. Seeking the goal of academic objectivity, Corthorn adopts as far as possible ‘a detached, impartial perspective.’ Thus he refuses to discuss whether Powell was right or wrong about the two major causes which he championed and which today have coalesced in Brexit, namely opposition to immigration and to the European Community ... Corthorn does at least argue that what united Powell’s maverick notions was anguish about Britain’s post-imperial decline ... Corthorn’s book preserves a studious neutrality...where a more critical appraisal might have attributed many of Britain’s subsequent ills to the Powell effect.
Biographies of Powell, many written by ardent fans, now run into double figures, the longest and most enjoyable, by Simon Heffer, standing at nearly a thousand pages. This latest study, by the Belfast lecturer Paul Corthorn, attempts something different: to follow the meanders in Powell’s thought and to unpick his abiding obsessions. It is a crisp and compelling piece of work. Corthorn does not give us much biography or background (Drucilla Cotterill is only named in a brief footnote, for example), but this gives him space to quote amply and tellingly from Powell’s speeches and letters. By halfway through, the reader is already baffled that Powell should ever have been mistaken for an icy, unbending man of principle.
Paul Corthorn’s welcome and timely study invites us to assess the continuing purchase of Powellism in Brexiteering Conservatism. But he is also firm in his injunction that Powell’s ideas should be viewed in context—as they developed piecemeal and haphazardly in response to the dissolution of empire and the British turn to Europe—and in their full strangeness ... Corthorn is right to begin with the profound disenchantment that underlay Powell’s vision of international order ... Notwithstanding Powell’s clarity of vision and penetrating intelligence, Corthorn indicates tensions and weak points in his arguments.