Voice of the Past: Enoch Powell on Overstaying Your (Political) Welcome



Politicians often overstay their welcome. Presidents are lucky in that the 22nd amendment cuts short a political life before abject failure, allowing each of them to become elder statesmen. But even that defense rarely protects them in the waning year of their presidencies–as most presidents are found to be odious after eight years of them. Clinton and Bush were loathed immediately after their presidencies, and I suspect Obama will be as well. All are rehabilitated to fondness in later years–so long as they accept their exile from the ballot.

This past week, a milestone in American political history happened. For those wonks and talking heads that follow such a thing, the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor–the usual heir apparent to the Speaker of the House, lost his seat in a primary election. Eric Cantor didn’t have the luxury of a term limit to inflict the abortive blow. Instead, he had to experience what the British arch-conservative Enoch Powell observed:

“All political lives end in failure.”

Powell, a Conservative member of parliament, exuded the sort of privileged arrogance that some American politicians display. Truly, many of them can get away with this sort of bravado for a bit, but showing too much of your hand–your contempt for the electorate–will end you. Powell gave a fiery speech against immigration in Britain, a speech that went down in their history as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and left such a bad taste upon the stiff upper lips in Britain that he lost his seat in the Shadow Cabinet–dashing any hope to lead the UK someday. Despite the fact that many agreed with his sentiments, he rode out his time as a meaningless backbencher.

His quote–his epitaph really–came from a book he wrote about another politico, the 19th century Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain. The quote in full tells more of the story:

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”–Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 151.

Note to politicians–best to leave the game on your terms, rather than overstay your welcome.





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