29 JULY 1972, Page 6

Political Commentary

A particularly awkward customer

Hugh Macpherson

There was an interesting little Parliamentary scene in the Commons on Monday, of which knowledge the nation has been deprived because of the absence of newspapers. Miss Bernadette Devlin was in the midst of one of those dissertations of which she is so fond, which attribute every kind of human and inhuman folly to the present government. It seemed to imply that all the money the government is devoting to repair the wreckage of Northern Ireland was part of a plot to help the shareholders of Courtaulds. She also produced the direst threat yet by prophesying that if an independent republic of Northern Ireland were not obtained this time more Miss Devlins would emerge. Her homily ended with a quotation from an unspecified old Irish lady who said "We've got to finish it this time."

The speech was received with wellmerited thunderous silence and Mr Enoch Powell lay back on a bench behind Mr Whitelaw, deathly grey, with eyes closed so that one could really have believed that Homer had nodded off. When Miss Devlin finished the Reverend Ian Paisley rose and bellowed that Ulster was part of the UK, not because of the presence of British troops, but because the majority of people who live there want it that way. It was the moment of maximum discomfort for Mr Whitelaw as the problems of Ireland were encapsulated in two short speeches.

At the sound of the Rev Ian Paisley's voice, which for all its robust qualities hardly rivals the great exponents of bel canto, Mr Powell came alive as if he had heard the lost chord. He sat up, smiled, looked around for support, tapped the back of his bench in an almost animated manner before sinking back into a state of happier repose. One suddenly recalled the way in which Mr Whitelaw, in defending his policy of reconciliation, had snapped at Mr Powell the previous Thursday "I do not expect my Rt Honourable friend, who has been permanently opposed to me and everything I am trying to do, to do anything at all to try to help me in that task."

Mr Whitelaw apparently sees Mr Powell as being purely destructive and personally hostile to himself. In this he underestimates Mr Powell's political astuteness for, although Mr Powell is totally convinced of his infallibility in all things political, he is also aware of Mr Whitelaw's universal popularity with all save the Ulster Unionists and some other backbench irregulars. As far as personal dislike is concerned it is widely recognised that Mr Powell's disfavour is directed towards Mr Heath and not towards the amiable Mr Whitelaw. One young government backbencher summed up the views of many of his colleagues when he said: "In understanding Enoch you have to face the fact that since the Birmingham speech in 1968 he has been bent on one thing and one thing alone and that is to destroy Ted Heath."

To my mind that analysis is far too negative for it fails to take into account the consistent thread that runs through Mr Powell's political tactics and which can be detected in his present posture towards the Government's Irish policies. It is based on the politics of Armageddon: the belief that the nation will stumble eventually into such a crisis that it will have to send for a strong man. That is why one so often hears references at Westminster to Mr Powell waiting for the call in Wolverhampton-Les-Deux-Eglises.

The difficult question to answer is to what degree Mr Powell simply acts as a Cassandra and how far he is prepared to go to encourage the final difficulties which could destroy his own government and put himself roughly in the same position as he was before the 1970 election. People who take extreme views in politics often refuse to ameliorate present political difficulties in the belief that they only treat symptoms and put off the final radical solution.

Many Tory backbenchers now ruefully acknowledge the role the Wolverhampton Member played in pushing the party to the right economically, after he was sacked, from the Shadow Cabinet because of his views on racial questions and in particular the way in which he chose to express them. One of them put it to me that such was the following for Mr Powell in the country, after he had captured the darker parts of the nation's imagination on the problems of a future mixed racial society, they had no choice but to adopt some of his economic ideas or a dangerous gap would have opened up between his composite political views and that of the leadership which could have given him a substantial following in the Parliamentary party.

Just how disastrous this shift in policy proved to be has been shown in recent months as the Government has stood on its head over interventionist policies and now gropes towards a Prices and Incomes Board under another name.

When analysing the reaction of Mr Powell to the Ulster question the same elements are found as in his sally into the field of race relations. There is the simplistic appeal to the country at large. With race it was lurid pictures of the River Tiber and offensive quotations about "charming, wide-eyed, grinning piccaninnies" abusing old white ladies. There was no substantial contribution to the constructive side of improving race relations or any attempt to grapple with the complex human difficulties involved — simply an earnest desire to be rid of the ' aliens ' in our midst, even if some of them were born here.

With Ulster again he offers the apparently simple solution of making Ulster a permanent part of Britain, tougher measures in the North and making Eire a completely foreign country. What many people in his own party consider the 'height of irresponsibility is the fact that Mr Powell has not completed the equation to face the fact that such a policy would be an open invitation to the IRA to extend their activities to Britain, and might even precipitate unrest in areas with large Roman Catholic populations of Irish descent in the West of Scotland and Liverpool.

Mr Whitelaw has the uncomfortable and unrewarding task of patiently cooling both sides because, as he so often says, his first concern is to save lives. It has driven him into seemingly inconsistent postures for he is dealing with illogical people. Mr Powell no doubt has done a rough calculation as to the number of lives that would be lost if his 'get tough' policy were adopted but so far he has not vouchsafed it.

The Ulster crisis presented a golden opportunity for the Wolverhampton prophet to gain a genuine following among members of the House. He has not proved so far capable of gaining that following. One of the small band of genuine Powellites remarked to me that he thought Mr Whitelaw had just about judged things correct by going as far as he did with the Provos. Another avowed Powellite — a man of few words — said simply "softly, softly, catchee monkee." Perhaps Mr Powell has gained the affection of the Ulster Unionists, and a few military irregulars. But, he has also alienated so many of his own party by his opportunism that the call from a grateful nation seems even more remote. For in this country it would have to come through his own parliamentary party.