Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
As one of Enoch Powell’s literary trustees, I often ask myself what he would be saying if he were alive today.
It’s little more than a parlour game, especially since he wasn’t as consistent in his views as is sometimes imagined, and many would say it’s an irrelevant speculation.
Except for one thing. Nobody yet in politics has fully assumed Powell’s role in exposing political cant.
His judgment might sometimes have been suspect, but he was never sloppy. He had a contempt for what he called ‘humbug’. And there’s a lot of humbug currently spoken about gas prices.
One should say in passing that Powell would probably have opposed intervention in Russia’s war against Ukraine at the outset, not because of the prospect of higher energy prices but because in his view Russia never threatened vital British interests. But his singular view of Russia wouldn’t have allowed him to escape the consequences of his advice being ignored.
Nor would Powell have been surprised by them. Even ignoring the mixed signals proffered by purchases of energy from a country one is attempting to blockade, the idea that sanctions imposed on Russia would not lead to the ‘weaponization’ of Russia’s gas supplies would have been ridiculed by Powell.
It’s incredible that the European Union seems to think it ‘surprising’, ‘unfair’ or ‘illegitimate’ for Russia to deny supplies of gas to Europe in retaliation to EU sanctions upon her economy. My guess is that Powell, who never approved of sanctions, would have said this is what happens when you engage in economic warfare, and you’d better be prepared for it.
That is something which the market is best suited to do in peacetime, assuming it had been allowed to operate properly. But it hasn’t been. Instead, it has been regulated to satisfy conflicting objectives, namely the provision of abundant supplies of cheap energy which some wish to ban, while switching to high-cost alternatives which are incapable of delivering energy security as part of the ‘Net Zero’ package.
On top of this, the problem became acute when companies like BP and Shell started apologising for their existence, advocated ‘windfall’ taxes and cravenly agreed that they were as objectionable as tobacco or armaments companies (although how Ukraine could have defended itself without the arms industry is another issue which even the Pope is incapable of addressing). Instead of arguing that the oil and gas industry provided an essential ‘public service’, the companies mouthed slogans which they knew to be illiterate and innumerate in engineering terms.
No wonder Powell’s contempt for large corporate companies and the CBI was equivalent to his dislike of nationalised industries.
Not that Powell would have agreed with the extravagant language deployed by commentators such as “horrendous”, “panic” and “catastrophising” because energy prices now have to rise. It was only recently that these same people were calling for the imposition of carbon border taxes and levies in order deliberately to increase the price of oil and gas in order to address climate change. If the outlook for the climate is as bad as they believe, today’s dramatic increase in energy prices is the fulfilment of their dreams, not nightmares.
But understandably, this doesn’t go down well with voters about to face inflation on a scale most have never experienced in their lifetime. Even though the causes of today’s inflation are different from the past, if Powell were alive I think he would be finding uncanny similarities with the 1970s and the Conservative Party’s loss of direction.
Apart from widespread demands for price controls, trade unions are being vilified for seeking wage increases which match inflation. There may be many good reasons for arguing that such demands are unaffordable, but that doesn’t make them inflationary. That was the myth which Powell and others exploded during the 1960s and 1970s when arguing against statutory and voluntary incomes policies.
Indeed, at a time when manpower shortages are evident for all to see, one could be forgiven for arguing that wage increases are just what the economy needs.
Higher wages would at least assist people in employment to meet the unavoidable and necessary increase in energy prices. And for those unable to work or of pensionable age, adequate financial assistance paid directly into their pockets is much less likely to do long term damage than energy price caps or other price controls.
The problem today is not that energy prices are too high, but that the safety net – which Conservatives have always believed in – is far too low. And if higher taxation is required to raise it without excessive borrowing, that is something which I believe Powell would have supported.
But there is one major caveat. Powell back in the 1960s was at his most eloquent in arguing for a free economy and against state planning, but he constantly made a distinction between ‘butter and guns’ . His argument was that the market was much better than the state in making us prosperous, but it couldn’t decide what share of the nation’s wealth should be devoted to non-economic necessities such as defence. The choice between ‘butter’ and ‘guns’ was a political, not an economic, choice.
And arguably, it is the same political choice we face now. In the Second World War, there were also fears over the security of energy supplies, and coal was one of the essential commodities which was rationed.
If the price of energy is to be held down now, thereby diminishing the incentive to conserve energy or to develop new sources, then perhaps people should be denied as in wartime the freedom to drive their cars, heat their homes or travel abroad in the way to which they have become accustomed. If the price mechanism isn’t allowed to do its job, something else must take its place – and it is normally ‘rationing’ which does so, as the NHS exemplifies.
All one can say with confidence about Powell and today’s crisis is that he would be asking the right questions. He would be asking how it is consistent to discourage oil and gas consumption while forbidding their prices to rise. He would be asking how it is possible to attract workers without increasing their wages. He would be exposing the misguided political opportunism of large companies whose senior executives are incentivised fiscally to place their own financial interests above those of their employees.
And to the extent that public expenditure cannot realistically be reduced in time of war and pestilence, he would be arguing for an increase in taxes, albeit imposed neutrally with the sole objective of maximising revenue in as simple a way as possible.
What implications all this has for the choice of leader of the Conservative Party is perhaps best left for us to decide, who must live with the consequences.