BERKELEY – Understanding the political success of US President-elect Donald Trump is not easy. There have been many glib comparisons with populist politicians of the past, from Huey Long to George Wallace. But the most revealing comparison may be with an historical figure from another country: the British nativist firebrand Enoch Powell in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At first glance, the comparison might seem peculiar. Powell came from a lower-middle-class family. He was a classical scholar of true erudition and a man of principle. He was also a political insider, having served as Member of Parliament since 1950 and as the junior minister for housing in Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s government in 1955.
Still, the parallels with Trump are undeniable. In his notorious 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, Powell, a skilled orator, broke decisively with the political mainstream. He decried immigration and denounced the Race Relations Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in housing, employment, and lending. The passage giving his controversial speech its name alluded to inner city riots in the United States and invoked Virgil: “Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
Powell’s equivalent of Trump’s Mexican bogeyman was Indian and Pakistani immigration, which he portrayed as threatening the British way of life. “Ordinary people,” he asserted, knew that the true number of immigrants was larger than official government figures showed. Powell went on to advocate large-scale repatriation of immigrants to their country of origin.
The “Rivers of Blood” speech was denounced as evil by no less than The Times. But it won Powell a dedicated following among working-class voters experiencing hard economic times, discomforted by the “invasion” of their neighborhoods by Asian and Caribbean immigrants, and prone to conflate the two phenomena.
Moreover, the parallels with Trump extend beyond hostility to immigration. Powell was fervently pro-business. He was a committed nationalist who rejected any and all foreign alliances that threatened Britain’s policy independence. He implacably opposed joining the European Union (then the European Economic Community) on the grounds that doing so would compromise British identity and sovereignty. He left the Conservative Party over the issue in 1974.
Curiously, Powell, like Trump, was also pro-Russian. Notwithstanding his free-market principles, he appreciated the Soviet Union for its World War II sacrifices, its prideful nationalism, and as a counterbalance to other self-interested foreign powers (read: the US).
The apex of Powell’s influence was bracketed by the “Rivers of Blood,” which made him a national figure, and his defection from the Tories. Quitting the party left him a political outcast. Although Powell left the House of Commons once and for all only in 1987, his political influence was increasingly marginal.
Why, then, did Powell – unlike Trump – fail to scale the higher reaches of power? And what does his failure tell us about the Trump phenomenon and the prospects for its repetition in other countries?
First, there were limits on Powell’s ability to mobilize public opinion. He was able to attract attention mainly by delivering speeches and encouraging his followers to circulate the text. With the exception of two tabloids, coverage by the establishment press of his “Rivers of Blood” speech ranged from skeptical to outright hostile. And the establishment press was all there was. The 1960s and 1970s, recall, were when the BBC ruled the airwaves. Powell had no equivalent of Twitter to spread the word, and there was no Fox News or Breitbart to create an ideological echo chamber.
Second, Powell fundamentally believed in the British parliamentary system, having grown up in it. He was reluctant to harness his followers’ nativism and economic insecurity to build an anti-system movement that might weaken the foundations of the country’s parliamentary democracy.
Third, public dissatisfaction with British politics in Powell’s heyday was more limited than Americans’ political dissatisfaction in the age of Trump. Even in the economically disastrous 1970s, British voters were not prepared to reject the political status quo. Discontent and disillusion were not “accompanied by a basic questioning of British political institutions,” in the words of Powell’s biographer, Douglas Schoen.
Finally, the structure of the political system worked against a maverick like Powell. In Britain, MPs, not the electorate, choose the prime minister. Only in a full-blown crisis can popular opinion effectively determine who becomes leader. This institutional arrangement creates a high barrier to populist outsiders.
Maybe, then, the ultimate lesson of the Powell-Trump comparison is that a presidential system of government, like that in the US, is not superior in terms of the checks it imposes on political extremists. On the contrary, the opposite may be true.