Corthorn’s rigour is impressive, and with such a controversial figure he is perhaps wise to stick to a “detached, impartial perspective”. But with Powell’s views – and his toxic brand of nationalism and racism – ascendant, there could have been a deeper assessment of how his ideas have continued to poison the wells of British politics long after his death. By tracing their history, however, Corthorn has offered a valuable guide to a figure who looms over Brexit Britain.
[This] is not a conventional biography (Powell is already well-served with those) but an analysis of the ideas he articulated and applied in particular post-second world war political contexts. What can otherwise appear idiosyncratic, eccentric and extreme in Powell’s thinking gains a certain coherence when presented as a series of interventions in a long-running public debate about national decline... For a slim volume, Corthorn’s book is a scholarly one. Unfortunately, Corthorn never quite escapes the archives in which he has laboured. The bigger picture of Powell’s place in the constellation of postwar conservative thinking, his influence on British Euroscepticism, and his long-run political importance, remain largely unexplored. The book contributes important new insights to this wider appraisal of Powell, but it will be left to others to complete the task.
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. On the contrary, he was driven this way and that by volcanic passions, transformed by his eloquence into marvellous rhodomontade, sometimes persuasive and germane, sometimes fantastical to the point of delusion.
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... Notwithstanding Powell’s clarity of vision and penetrating intelligence, Corthorn indicates tensions and weak points in his arguments.