Of all the politicians I have interviewed, and there were many, Enoch Powell stands out as one of the intellectual giants of his day.
Casting aside his infamous and ill-judged speech on immigration, I was totally captivated by his charm and will always remember our encounter with great affection.
This is my interview with him, from my book Of a Certain Age. He died in February 1998.
You were a very precocious scholar, both at school and at university. Was there a price to pay for all that solitary dedication?
I think one has to examine the term ‘precocious’. I was not precocious inthe sense that I was enormously in advance of the year of birth to which Ibelonged. It is a handicap to be too far ahead of your contemporaries, and Idoubt if I actually was. I was probably put in a form of an average age ayear older than mine, but no more than that. Precocity is therefore an ideato be handled very gently in this context.
You said of your early days that what drove you was the urge to ‘rise’. What was it to rise in your sense?
My father used to say to me that if I were not a teacher that would becontrary to the laws of biology because both he and my mother wereteachers. My father always said that the great thing in life was to write andspeak good English. The nature of attainment as it presented itself to me inthe first two decades of my life was therefore academic.
But was it something you wanted or were you driven to it?
I was not driven. I have no sense of having been physically or mentally pushed, but the implication of the environment was that there was no point in education unless one was academically successful.
In retrospect, who do you think was more influential in your life? Your mother or your father?
I think it was my mother, whom I remember describing, in the preface to a book published in the 1940s, as my first teacher and certainly my first Greek teacher. But it was a household in which learning was respected and the prizes in life were prizes to be won mentally.
You have often been described as a puritan, which is a word sometimes used unkindly. Is it a label that offends, or do you think of it as a badge of honour?
I think of it as a severe inaccuracy. After all, I am a high churchman in the Church of England and how a high churchman can be a puritan I do not understand, because puritan and Anglican are incompatible terms. A puritan is distinct from and opposed to an Anglican. Which is why the attempt was made by William III in 1689 to find a via media between the Church of England and the puritans. All those characteristics which predispose a man to be comfortable and find his natural niche in the higher end of the Church of England are incompatible with puritanism.
You are using puritan in the intellectual sense. But it is a term also commonly used to mean someone who is offended by sex.
I think the word ‘squeamish’ is perhaps eluding us here. I’m certainly not that, and if puritan is used in the sense of squeamish I disavow the description. There is no subject to which the human mind cannot properly be applied.
People constantly use the word austere in reference to you. Would you accept their judgement as appropriate?
Here again the word is used in a narrowed sense. Presumably it’s intended to describe a person who does not find life primarily and self-evidently enjoyable. Well, I enjoy life; life without enjoyment would be intolerable. Indeed, sometimes when I’m asked what I have been doing for thirty-eight years in the House of Commons, I am disposed to reply that I have been enjoying myself. I don’t think that comes under the heading of austerity.
There seems to have been a marked reluctance on your part to take up the academic life. You said you felt a sense of enclosure when you passed in under Trinity Gate. Why did you persevere if that was the case?
I didn’t persevere. I tried to escape from Cambridge and eventually succeeded. From the time that I became a fellow of Trinity I sought appointment as a professor of classics or of Greek at any university which had a vacancy and when one occurred at Sydney and I was appointed to it I accepted it. But all through those years I was quite certain that this was a very brief temporary phase, which would be terminated by the coming of a war. This notion was derived from my observation and knowledge of what was going on in Germany and Italy. I had close connections with contemporary scholars in both those countries, so that I was aware of the rising threat which I perceived as a threat to the independence and self-government of the United Kingdom, and which I believed would have terminated sooner in hostilities than it actually did.
If you’re interested in one of the reflections upon life from an older person’s standpoint, one of the things which has surprised me most is that events take longer to happen than one would have supposed. One can be sure that there will be war, but one thinks it will come sooner. The causes are there but the causes are not necessarily effective at the earliest possible time. I’ve always underestimated the speed with which things can happen and the promptitude with which the foreseeable can occur. I’ll enlarge on that if you like.
It has been one of the experiences of recent years that after eighteen years of trying to make people understand what was being done to this country by European unity, what they were losing and what they were being asked to sacrifice, I’ve observed that at last they have woken up to its importance. I wouldn’t have thought it would have taken so long, but I was mistaken; my fellow countrymen had only one eye half open. They did know, and they show signs now of remembering that they were told.
So I think if I were advising my younger self I would say: you must not suppose that because saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur cause an explosion, they will cause an explosion now. There has to be a set of special circumstances arising before that explosion occurs, so do not imagine because you can trace the causes of events, because events are predictable, that they are imminent. From this I would engage in another reflection, which is that one of the great laws of life is patience. Do not imagine that because such and such a thing is ripe to happen it’s going to happen immediately. You may have to spend a long time waiting for it to happen, but if you are right the world will come to meet you. If you are wrong, then you don’t matter. That might almost be written up as the favourite adage of my declining years.
Your inaugural lecture in 1938 showed you conscious even then of the difficulties which attended maintaining Greek as a central part of higher education. Do you think that the battle is still capable of being won, and does it matter all that much anyway?
All battles are capable of being won, even the most apparently hopeless battles. In the mid 1920s it was the received wisdom that classical education was on its way out, and I remember the revival of classical studies which took place in the late 1920s and in the 1930s. There is a natural predisposition amongst people who belong to Western culture to be inquisitive about the Greeks and when you show them what Plato said, or what Jesus said, they say, let me get at it. People will not be indefinitely content to be held at arm’s length from that which is ultimately intelligible or appreciable only in Greek. So long as Greek thought is immortal, Greek studies will be immortal, because people will not submit to being estranged from the source of that thinking.
In your collected poems you recall, without being able fully to recover, what you called the ‘compulsions’ under which they were written. Did you ever think of yourself writing poetry in the consciously public classical manner or was it restricted to a more self-absorbed romanticism?
Self-absorbed romanticism is a rather cruel but not entirely inaccurate expression. I wrote poetry when I had to write it, in obedience to an emotional compulsion, as a form of self-expression. Of course I was aware that I was using form, that I was entering into a tradition. Nevertheless, the necessity to do so was internal; it was not an exercise, it was not a chosen activity. In fact I was liable to write a poem in the most adverse circumstances, on the back of an envelope in a train.
Were you at all sympathetic to the modernist tradition which was being established while you were growing up? Were you able to share Eliot and Pound’s sense of a need to break from an older tradition?
I’m afraid I was absorbed in what you describe as the older tradition, and Tennyson and Milton were the principal fountains from which I drank.
Have you written poems which remain unpublished?
I suppose all poets have. “Ev’n copious Dryden wanted, or forgot, ‘The last and greatest art, the art to blot.'” That’s somewhere in Pope, isn’t it? The art to blot is part of the art of writing poetry, and the knowledge that you must scrap a poem is a sign that you may be trusted at any rate.
I have heard that you have written poems to your wife which remain unpublished. Is that correct?
I write one poem a year on our marriage anniversary and I have been guilty of jocularly saying that this is a part of my wife’s pension. I give her a rose for each year we have been married and a poem, sometimes referring to the number of roses, sometimes not. And I can imagine a book being published one day with a reproduction of a print of a rose on one page and on the other side the serial poem for the year.
Philosophers and even historians, like Lola Martinez, now think of poetry as a valuable source of evidence. When you write poetry do you think of it as a way of exploring or as a way of persuading? Is it cognitive in some way, do you think?
It’s communicative, that is certain. A painter wishes to exhibit the landscape which he has painted because he has seen something which he thinks his fellows may not have seen. Similarly a poet says, here, listen, that’s what I felt. The perception brings with it an urge to communicate. We are after all a herd animal and communicating our perceptions is bred deeply into humanity. This has a political application. As a politician I sometimes used to be asked,How do you go about your business? And I used to say it was rather like Luther in his Reformation hymn: “I hear the nightingale in the dark hedge, the dawn is coming…” That is to say, I sing in the hedge to my fellow countrymen in case the song I want to sing is a song which they also want to hear. But there is a compulsion to sing it and see if somebody else will react to it; it’s part of the communication mechanism of homo sapiens. Homer knew that he would have an audience – perhaps he didn’t know how large it would be – but if no audience had been conceivable, he would not have sung.
Why do you find it so hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him? So far no one has been able to establish that he was not the author.
I find the whole chronology from the earliest quartos right through to the publication of the first folio in 1623 or 1624 highly suspicious. Here are works, some of the earliest of which are the most mature, which appear in unofficial editions in the 1590s, then suddenly in the 1600s this flow is interrupted, with one exception, which is ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in 1609. Then in 1623 we have a volume which contains some of the greatest plays, which have not only never been published before but of which there is no trace of a performance. How do we reconcile this with the biography of an individual who undoubtedly existed (because we must believe the parish records in Stratford upon Avon)? I find the whole chronology challenging and I have seen no convincing or satisfactory explanation of the appearance of those plays before the world.
In 1972, after the European Communities Bill had been forced through parliament, I thought I wouldn’t remain in public life much longer. I saw no point in seeking to return to a House of Commons, and when I thought of what I was to do, the answer seemed to lie in the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, and the Greek New Testament. The Greek New Testament beat William Shakespeare by a long head, but it’s a half-open door which always beckons me whenever I glance in that direction.
But do you think you will ever open it properly?
But if he didn’t write them, who did?
A committee. You may laugh, but we underestimate the extent to which great art can be produced by two or more hands, and undoubtedly the furnace of court drama under Elizabeth and in the early stages of James I was fed by a group of people, and that group was a necessarily changing group, though there is a voice and a mode of apprehension detectable in that joint product. I have not been convinced of any specific proposal to put a name to that voice, but do not underestimate the possibility of a joint creation of great works of art.
But has it happened before?
Yes, it happened in the Old Testament, the content of which is largely a joint creation. We tend to associate works of art with individuals, but in so doing we over-individualise. It’s a natural human fault to exaggerate the importance of the individual – there’s a Tory statement for you.
I wonder if your own poems form in the way you describe one of Shakespeare’s coming to him; that is, as a germinal phrase carried in the head until a suitable framework is gathered round it?
That was certainly my experience, and incidentally it is also the sort of experience which is described by Housman in his lecture on the name and nature of poetry. I would think it quite common among those who write poetry, that it comes in pieces, that an emotionally charged blob arises in the mind, and a framework for this must grow around it.
At Cambridge you were a fervent admirer of A.E. Housman and in some ways he became a role model for you. How far do you think his homosexuality was an integral, even an inseparable, part of his creativity? And did this matter to you or detract from his greatness in any way?
I probably was not conscious of it in the years that I attended his lectures, and I doubt the practicability of detaching one element from all the rest in an individual’s character, particularly an artist’s.
But a lot of great artists are homosexual…do you think that homosexuality and art complement each other?
If homosexuality is a common human characteristic then that would account for what you’ve drawn attention to. To say that artists have two eyes doesn’t prove that they are different from other men, because having two eyes is quite common, pretty well invariable. If this strain is common in humanity then we shall find it in all manifestations of humanity, amongst artists, amongst painters, amongst politicians. Only if we could produce a statistical survey of the incidence in mankind at large at a particular time and in a particular society, and then show that that incidence was greatly exceeded amongst artists, might we be justified in coming to any such conclusion.
How do you yourself look upon homosexuality? Are you tolerant of it?
Well, I voted for its decriminalisation, for it seemed to me grotesque that male homosexuality continued to be criminal from the reign of Henry VIII when female homosexuality was not. Nor did I regard it as a proper area for the criminal law to operate.
But why do you think homosexuality appears to be on the increase?
Ah, I notice the word ‘appears’, and I agree with that. That which is more discussed appears to be more common. It’s not a matter to which I’ve applied my mind. I daresay there are those who are in the position to form some rational answer to the question, but I do think we have to beware of the impression made upon our minds by publicity. Familiarity tends to multiply, so we must beware of amateur statistics.
You were keen to join up in 1939, even passing yourself off as an Australian to do so. What was the attraction of the army, was it a sense of achieved order, or a duty fulfilled, or some more basic urge to help defend Britain, the land itself, as Wilfred Owen wanted to do in the First War?
I can remember saying to my father that it was my intention to get into uniform on the first day if I could. It was a spontaneous resolve of mine, though I didn’t achieve it. It was the 20th October 1939 before I succeeded in getting enlisted. I wanted to defend my country, which is quite a natural impulse.
I was told a story that a man who had been one of your fellow privates at the beginning of the war met you years later when he had become a major and you a brigadier. When he greeted you in a familiar way you had him disciplined for not saluting a superior officer…is there any truth in that story?
No truth. That’s an easily invented type of story. Indeed, it’s a very interesting specimen of myth making. I did put fellow privates on disciplinary charges on the first day that I was a lance corporal, but that was for urinating in the barrack room.
You spent part of the war in India which was then part of the Empire. Did you have any feelings for the imperial idea or did you think the time had come for withdrawal?
Like most Indians, I didn’t think the time had come for that phase of India’s immense history to come to an end. It was as surprising to the Indians as it was to the British. And I only came to terms with it when back in this country in the late 1940s I began to apply myself to the constitutional history of my own country, and to understand that there was an insoluble contradiction in the government of a population on the authority of an assembly to which they could not be elected. The Empire of India was a huge repudiation of the lesson of the American colonies, and one with which England is still struggling; that is, that you cannot govern responsibly to parliament those who cannot be, or who choose not to be, represented in parliament. That’s the underlying axiom of what is meant in English by democracy, and it was curious that it was our earliest conquistadores in India who understood this better than it was understood at the end of the nineteenth century. In India that principle was apparently unavoidable, but persistently and tantalisingly breached.
Now this is not the me of 1943 speaking to you, who came back to politics in this country with the vague idea at the back of his head that it might somehow lead to the viceroyalty of India, and then had to work out his understanding of what happened to the United Kingdom when it ceased to be the mother country of a worldwide empire. The me of 1943 has arrived at New Delhi station at two in the morning on a posting from the Middle East. He realises that it is impracticable to report to General Headquarters India until a much later hour, so he undoes his valise and he goes to sleep on the platform, and when he wakes up, what he breathes he finds intoxicating. Eventually he becomes an interpreter in Urdu and one of his unrealised ambitions is to produce a critical and literary edition of ‘The Rise and Fall of Islam’ by the Urdu poet Hali, which is really the story of the Moslems in India.
I suppose in my eightieth year I am a real oldie, and one who has to be constantly aware that he carries a lot of previous beings around in himself and that they are liable to be still vocal. Just as one’s dreaming self is also one’s waking self, the past individuals are asleep there somehow, and occasionally their words are remembered and repeated.
What was it that attracted you so powerfully to India? As a country it can seem so hopeless, so overburdened with a huge population, so impossible to organise, its democracy so fragile, its savagery scarcely suppressed…
You used the word ‘organise’. I suppose one of the fascinations of India for the British was its organisability. Here are immense resources, human above all; if these are harnessed together, what a wonderful organisation could one not create, and in many ways the British did. The creation of a railway system, the drainage system of the Punjab – these must have given immense delight and satisfaction to those who organised them. But what we couldn’t organise was a solution to the inherent constitutional contradiction of the British Raj. Nor could Indians, for they were mainly using material which they had obtained from us, and British material is very dangerous when used by those who are not British.
In an article you wrote about E.M. Forster’s Passage to India you spoke very fairly about the difference between his India and yours. How far, or when, do you think it is right to ask for accuracy in novels? May a book not be a good novel even if it’s a bad social history?
The dramatisation of the novel The Jewel in the Crown always seemed to me grotesque, because life in India was not spent as life was spent by the protagonists in that novel; but that’s not to say it’s not a good novel or drama.
But if you present a drama to a person who has lived in a particular place and situation and say, ‘What do you make of it?’ – he will react with the contrast between his own memories, his own sensations, and the drama. I’m not apologising for my review, I’m explaining it. Although the political axiom is supposed to be, never apologise, never explain, I don’t mind explaining.
And you don’t mind apologising when you’re wrong?
As a politician I try to follow the rule I’ve just quoted. And I’ve probably explained too much in politics, more than I ought to have done.
You now adhere to the Church of England, though you were not religious as a young man, and religious faith is often thought, perhaps wrongly, to be unusual in modem intellectuals. Does your faith ever sit uneasily alongside your intellectual convictions?
No, because worship and intellectual activity are manifestations of different aspects of the person, and they serve different – God forgive me, I was going to say biological purposes – no, they correspond to different aspects of that extraordinary animal homo sapiens. Religion must have been very important for his survival, because he has it everywhere. One of the remarkable things which J.G. Fraser, the great anthropologist, found so alarming, was how frequently in places between which there could have been no interconnection or intercommunication, man hit upon the device of killing God and eating him. Now this is not a rational proceeding, but it may nevertheless be a proceeding which is beneficial or necessary to humanity. I hope I have not unduly alarmed you.
No. You have said that you are deeply aware of a dilemma and a contradiction between Christianity and human life. Some observers have suggested that despite your participation in holy communion and observance of religious practice it is as if you are somehow forcing yourself to believe, if you like; that you are really struggling with agnosticism.
Well, who is to look into the heart of man and declare what he sees there, and who is man to say what is in his heart? I can only observe that at no stage in the last forty years can a credible political motive be assigned to what I have done and said as a member of the Church of England. Self-interest is difficult to establish – a very modest disclaimer I realise – but then we’re often led by motives of which we are unaware.
It is said that those who believe have the grace of belief, and that is something that comes from God. Do you feel that you have the grace of belief or do you have a constant struggle to believe?
I feel everything comes from grace; I have everything by grace. My wife and I, for example, are celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary but our marriage was a grace; it was something I didn’t deserve, something I’ve been given beyond my desert. I find the concept of grace, that is to say an input of indeterminate origin, unavoidable in a whole range of experiences. To arrive at a logical conclusion from premises is in a way an act of grace. Perhaps this is to acknowledge what a wonderful thing it was that man originated.
Have you any doubt in your own mind about an after-life?
If you had substituted immortality for an after-life, I would not have hesitated to reply in the affirmative. The expression ‘after-life’ is timebound; immortality is not. The individual, encapsulated by time, unable to think or understand or have his being except as bounded by time, ceases to belong to that framework on death, and it’s therefore a misrepresentation to treat him as though he continued to exist on the same scale. Suppose time is a man-made illusion, which it probably is…in that case the meaning of immortality will be very different.
Presumably you have a view about the ordination of women, a matter which looks as if it might further fragment the Christian Church. Is it possible theologically in your view, and is it desirable politically?
We’re going through a bad dose of feminism, aren’t we? Certainly the chattering classes are. Under the influence of a worldwide cross-infection, we are calling in question specialisations which have been necessary to the survival of humanity. It may well be that the preservative and the destructive impulses of mankind have been specialised in the sexes and that we are playing with fire when we introduce confusion into that specialisation. The specialisation can, of course, be defined and debated, but the anxiety is whether we can radically interfere without unforeseeable but damaging consequences. I would place the proposal for the ordination of women and the enthusiasm for it in the context of that movement which leads all political parties at present in the United Kingdom to say that they want to see more women sitting in the House of Commons, even though those who do the work necessary for putting the members there don’t think so.
There is now and there has been for a long time a great deal of agitation about women’s rights. I suspect that you are not especially sympathetic to the women’s movement. Is it that you fear the consequences of a loss of natural complementarity, or what.
I am very happy to consider with an open mind proposals for a change in the law where the law differentiates between men and women, though I am not sure that to treat the female as an independent tax band will be something welcomed by all those whom it will affect. My wife was certainly alarmed when I told her that she will be making her own tax return in future and would surely not expect any help from me.
Since you are a member of the Church of England, I assume you believe in original sin. How is the outcome of that to be combated in a society without any restraints on gain?
Covetousness, greed, are not matters which can be the subject of legislation. They belong in the category of sin rather than crime, and from sin we are saved by grace.
You acknowledged once that you are intellectually arrogant. Does that degree of self-confidence not isolate you in the political world of horse trading?
I’m also a corporate man, a person at ease in society, fulfilling the laws and obeying the conventions, just as – constitutionally – the shared responsibility for the advice tendered to the sovereign extends right through political life. I accept that the unity of that advice implies give and take between those who are responsible for it being tendered. In other words, I am a naturally compliant member of a cabinet. The intellectual arrogance leads me to perceive that the whole structure of cabinet government and of party government depends on bargaining and compromise. But I’m a good colleague, one who goes to meet his other colleagues halfway, more than halfway if necessary.
Can you tell me what is it to be a Tory?
To me a Tory is a person who believes that authority is vested in institutions – that’s a carefully honed definition. We have made the law, not for extraneous reasons, not because it conforms with a priori specifications; it has been made by a particular institution in a particular way and can be changed by that institution in a particular way. A Tory therefore reposes the ultimate authority in institutions – he is an example of collective man.
Do you believe in the Thatcher philosophy which is sometimes characterised as advocating greed and free enterprise as a way of life, irrespective of community benefit.
It is alleged that the speeches I made on the working of the competitive market in the early 1960s influenced Mrs Thatcher, but I wouldn’t attribute to her the formulation which you’ve just provided. There is undoubtedly a role in the functioning of a human society for possessiveness, for competition, for envy, and for many urges which live in a kind of balance and coexistence with the other urges within. For instance, if we take the question of denationalisation: do we wish our railways to be run by politicians, or do we wish them to be run by those who will lose if they are ill run? The private enterprise corporation is founded upon the assumption that the resources which it puts to work are put to work most efficiently if it is managed by those who stand to lose if the customers’ demand is not anticipated and met. That seems to me a very happy and ancient device which most nations have grown up with.
You have described yourself as a man naturally sympathetic to authority and its institutions. What is to be done when authority ceases to be impressive or even trustworthy, when for example a minister insists that the economy is recovering in the face of the facts, or when unemployment statistics are patently ‘managed’?
No institution is immortal, any more than any other human thing is immortal, and there is no sovereign remedy against its deterioration. Institutions are not only created and strengthened, they also weaken and disappear. We cannot deny that.
You have been the subject of a great deal of abuse for stating your views about immigration. Have you modified them at all?
The aspects and consequences of immigration as perceived now in the 1990s are not the same as those which were perceived in the 1960s. In the 1960s the level of admissions was the critical subject; this resulted in a factor of almost equal importance being underestimated and largely overlooked – the age structure of the incoming population. Age structure is now asserting itself and will result in a progressive and on-going relative increase in what are called the ethnic minorities in proportion to the total population. What we don’t know and what nobody can know, is how long institutions based upon the working of majorities can continue to operate.
There is an on-going change in the population of this country, and one doesn’t know how far that will be compatible with the continued operation of our parliamentary institutions. If you cannot change your mind between one election and another in reaction to what has been your experience in the meantime you cannot operate a parliamentary system. If an election is a census it cannot form a basis of parliamentary self-government.
These are the questions which with the passage of time are now emerging, but I do find that, so far as I can judge it, public anxiety is as lively on this subject as it was thirty years ago.
Except our worst fears have not been justified…
My projections have been verified. What I said in 1968, I would say again if it were 1968.
In a discourse on Wagner’s ‘Ring‘ you say that Siegfried of course did not fully understand or intend the consequences of his actions. Did you fully understand or intend the consequences of your ‘River of Blood‘ speech?
Those words were never used. That phrase did not occur in the speech. I don’t think one ever foresees the consequences of one’s actions and certainly in politics one never knows which utterances are going to be heard and which are not.
The sting in Paul Foot’s book about you was that you had exploited the race issue as an act of political opportunism and not, as you claimed, as a matter of principle. What is your comment on that?
That’s what he thought when he started to write the book, but after he’d met me he thought better. In fact, I ruined his book for him. When I heard he was writing it, I sent him a letter inviting him to come and talk to me. This was fatal because one can see in the course of the book that he discovered his conception was not viable.
The story goes that when you went to Northern Ireland someone called you a Judas, to which you retorted: ‘I am sacrificing my political career. Judas was paid.’ Is there any truth in that story?
That interchange did in fact take place after I’d delivered the second of my Vote Labour speeches in the election campaign of February 1974, but it was nothing to do with Northern Ireland.
You once spoke of yourself as a ‘Lansdowne man’ in the sense that since by 1943 it was clear that the axis powers could not win, we ought to have had a negotiated peace. Does that view not place you in the strange company of Oswald Mosley who also advocated a negotiated peace?
It does not put me in the company of those who see war between civilised nations as ending with the destruction of one’s opponent. The object of war is to prove to one’s opponent that he cannot gain his aim by force. When that has been proved the justification for war is at an end, and that point should be sought. Unconditional surrender was the most barbaric and inhuman concept to bring into the Second World War. You do not have to destroy your opponent; you merely have to prove to him that he cannot win, and when he can be persuaded that he cannot win, then you must make peace. Otherwise you will have to rebuild him and there will be a lot of other fallout too.
Many people have drawn a comparison between you and Mosley: intellectually rigorous, patriotic, a natural leader, a powerful orator, uncompromising, destined for – but never quite achieving – high office. Is it a comparison which offends you?
It’s a comparison which is quite strange to me. I’ve never come across it. I am of course a failed politician, if one assumes that the object of politics is to gain and keep high office. Mosley was a failed politician too, so I may be included in the same category, but there is a large category of failed politicians.
Yes, but failed politicians because they were incapable…
Alright, I can be placed in the category of failed capable politicians; they’re still a sufficiently large company to contain me and Oswald Mosley and dozens and dozens of others.
You once wrote that ‘no time spent reading history is mis-spent for a politician’. But do not circumstances change beyond all recognition and invalidate the ‘lessons’ of history…may it not be an error to read the future out of the past?
It is an error in any case to read the future out of the past, because history is not repeatable. The lessons which we learn about the scientifically measurable and investigatable world are applicable because that world is a constant. But history is not a constant; it is an artistic presentation of change in progress, irreversible and unique change. I recently improved upon my dictum about time spent reading history, and I would now say time spent reading biography is not mis-spent, perhaps because the repeatable element in individual human life is more substantial than the repeatable element in social or national life.
Hailsham said of you: ‘He has the best mind in politics, until it is made up.’ Did you understand what he meant by this, and did you accept the implied criticism?
No to the first question, and therefore the second does not arise.
A lot of people have said in that context you are your own worst enemy.
Well, it depends what a man wants, what his standards are, what life means for him.
But if you were to live that period in your life again…
Don’t frighten me with such a horrible idea. Imagine putting all my prejudices as an octogenarian into the body of a forty-year-old man – it’s such a horrible notion that I decline to entertain it.
Maurice Cowling called you ‘a closet socialist’. What do you think he meant by that?
He meant what I was saying earlier about a Tory being an aspect of collective man. Society is in the end normative, and politics is about the management and governance of a society. Society is prior (in a logical sense) to the individual; the individual in the last resort is an abstraction. Nobody has ever met an individual, we didn’t start as individuals, we don’t live as individuals, we only know ourselves as members of a collectivity. I think it was that aspect of my Toryism that Cowling may have had in mind.
It is said that an unofficial approach was made to you with a view to your becoming a life peer, but that you made certain conditions.
That’s not a question I would ever answer.
Would you like to have been in the House of Lords? Conditions or no conditions?
You mean, would I have liked to have a different father? [Laughs.]
The House of Lords would have provided you with a forum in which to express your views…
I find no difficulty in getting my views on to paper, or getting what I put on to paper printed. Nor do I find any shortage of my fellow countrymen who are anxious to lend me their ears.
The House of Lords wouldn’t interest you in the least?
You’re putting words into my mouth.
Would it interest you?
I do not wish to say anything disrespectful about the upper chamber.
I am puzzled by your suggestion that the greatest act man is capable of is to choose death instead of life. I assume you are not writing in praise of suicide. Are you describing the capacity to sacrifice oneself for someone or something else?
Yes. It was the only way out for mankind that God could discover. It was the only way to save mankind, to allow someone to sacrifice his life for the remission of sins. It is an idea endorsed by the strongest authority.
Are there circumstances in which you would sacrifice your own life for that idea?
I suppose my decision to enlist is the only evidence that I have to offer. And I know now that I’m not the only person who put on uniform and took it off again who has a lurking feeling at the back of his mind that there must have been something wrong with him if he came back. When I was asked on a radio programme how I would like to be remembered, and I replied that I wished I’d been killed in the war, I received a large correspondence from people who wrote that they were glad I had said that, because until then they thought they were the only people to feel that way. A large number of people who voluntarily went into the forces in 1939 are dogged by the idea that they were left unscathed when others were taken. Those who survived concentration camps also have this feeling.
Now that you have reached a certain age, are you afraid of death?
The nearer Death comes actuarially, the more He tends to present himself in the guise of a potential friend, a hand laid upon the shoulder saying, ‘Never mind old chap, I’ll come along in due course and carry you away.’
There’s a wonderful line in Homer where the prophecy is made to Ulysses that Death will come to him from the sea, with the words (in Greek) ‘gentle, ever so gentle’. And one does come to regard death as a gentle presence.
Many people have commented on your seemingly cold exterior, yet in private you are obviously a compassionate man. Are you aware of this tension between the public and the private personae?
The surprise that I sustain is how widespread and undifferentiated is the friendliness towards me, evidently entertained by large numbers of my fellow countrymen. It constantly comes as a happy but still remarkable thing to me. Perhaps that is an act of grace.
What in essence so attracted you to the music of Wagner?
Hearing it. There’s a line in Carducci: ‘When Wagner breathes into the sounding metals a thousand spirits, men’s hearts tremble.’
What is your view on the current debate in Israel about Wagner’s music? The Israeli Philharmonic wants to play Wagner but the public continues to reject him because of the association with Hitler and the Nazis.
That is their business, and I will thank them to mind their business in declining to express corresponding opinions about the affairs of the United Kingdom.
Siegfried proclaimed what you call the great moral discovery of humanity: that it is better to die than to live in fear. While it is an idea which greatly captures the imagination, is there not a case for saying that in practice it is all but worthless. Many people live in fear of life itself or in fear of God, but their life still has intrinsic value.
Well, that will turn upon the word ‘intrinsic’, won’t it? We live because we cannot help it, and we die because we cannot help it. You remember in front of Bolingbroke Richard II says: ‘Give Richard leave to live till Richard die.’
When you reflected on age you said that to your surprise it was ‘a constant opening of doors’. Can you elaborate on that?
I’m surprised by how much new there still is to think and to see, and the apparent immunity of one’s thinking mechanism from those ravages that are making their advance in other parts of the organism. That one continues to think and enjoy thinking, to observe and to enjoy observing, is a constant marvel.