KARL Marx argued that history always repeats itself, firstly as tragedy then second time around as farce. Marx was talking about how Napoleon Bonaparte was followed by his mediocre and dandyish nephew, Louis. However, there is a case to be made for a similar comparison between Enoch Powell and Boris Johnson.

Each was or is a classical scholar, maverick Tory, romantic English nationalist, and passionate enemy of Europe. But while Powell, with his pinstripes and rolled umbrella, was fastidious in dress to the point of being a caricature English gentleman, Boris is, famously, a dishevelled clown.

More ominously, both men use racism as a political device, even if Johnson prefers dog whistles to Powell’s invocation of “rivers of blood”. Above all, with Powell the progenitor, these two archetypes recast Britain’s relationship with Europe and with itself. Put simply, where Powell pointed, Boris has marched. God help us.

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Back in the 1960s, Enoch Powell was treated by the liberal centre and the left as an aberration – dangerous to a degree but ultimately a throwback. Powell’s invocation of empire, English nationalism and racial purity seemed obsolete as the UK joined the then Common Market. His defection from the Tories to embrace the antediluvian Ulster Unionists seemed quixotic. But from the vantage point of 2019, Enoch Powell appears not a failed politician marooned by history, but rather the harbinger of these bleak times we live in.

Powell (1912-98) came from the lowest strata of the West Midlands petty bourgeoisie. His great-grandfather was a coal miner, and his grandfather had been employed in the iron trade. Powell himself was the cosseted only child of a primary school headmaster and the daughter of a Liverpool policeman. He might have been a teacher himself, but the young Powell was blessed with a truly outstanding facility for languages. After grammar school, he went on to study classical Latin and Greek at Cambridge – he was also fluent in Urdu, Welsh, Russian and Portuguese.

At university, the impressionable Powell fell under the spell of AE Housman, famous for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad, which combines adolescent sexual angst with an invocation of a mythical English countryside. Thus, Powell’s romantic nationalism was shaped – a lower middle-class youth coming of age in the Great Depression, desperate for intellectual and personal security. At the same time in Cambridge, Powell’s contemporaries were joining the Communist Party.

While Powell’s nationalism has imperialist overtones – his early messianic ambition was to be Viceroy of India – it is less a call for Trumpian world conquest and more a lower middle-class desire to hide from an ungrateful world in a leafy country bower. It is Downton Abbey not Trump Tower.

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The same pessimistic nostalgia infuses today’s revived English nationalism. For all Boris Johnson’s pretentions of “global Britain”, Brexit represents a vision of historic retreat, of hiding under an American umbrella, of scrapping HS2 to preserve an English countryside long under developers’ concrete.

During the Second World War, Powell was one of only two British soldiers to rise from private to brigadier. He fought in North Africa and India, yet his one regret was not being killed in action. Again, we see Powell’s morbid, depressive streak decked out as romantic nonsense. But there is also a self-destructive impulse here, which is the inevitable consequence of erecting a romantic image of the world and having it punctured by reality – which sums up a hard Brexit exactly.

Powell voted Labour in 1945 (and 1974). This is no surprise because Powellite-style English nationalism and has always been at odds with the establishment Conservative Party and its European orientation. Witness billionaire James Goldsmith who set up the Referendum Party to oppose John Major over Europe. Or Nigel Farage’s Ukip and Brexit outfits. But Powell’s first resort was to try to influence the Tories directly – he was elected Conservative MP for Wolverhampton in 1950.

By 1957, he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

At the Treasury, Powell showed another side to his uncanny political prescience – he was an early monetarist, free marketeer and economic libertarian in an era when the Tories still believed in fiscal intervention. Even today, the extreme Powellite libertarianism of a Jacob Rees-Mogg is at odds with Boris Johnson’s rush to spend anything it takes to buy the coming General Election.

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Why did Enoch Powell’s anti-establishment politics become rooted in a free-market economic fanaticism that even Mrs Thatcher baulked at? Partly, because the hermetic logic of economic libertarianism – free markets always work perfectly – appealed to Powell’s intellectual snobbery. And partly because Powell (and Rees-Mogg) need an ideological hammer to attack establishment enemies. I predict Boris and the libertarians will come to blows eventually.

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In the 1960s, Powell would finally break with the Conservative Party, in a wholly calculated fashion – over immigration. This was triggered by his infamous April 1968 speech in which he predicted a coming race war, with blood flowing in the streets of English towns as the Tiber might – a typically obscure and snobbish Powell reference to the Roman poet Virgil. By 1968, Powell had stood and lost (badly) against Edward Heath in the Tory leadership battle. Burning his political boats was another example of Powell’s self-destructive urge.

Re-reading the speech at this distance, it is remarkable how vacuous it is for someone with Powell’s erudition. There is no agenda for reform, designed to mitigate the supposed race war except crude (and unworkable) repatriation. Instead, Powell gives us a Daily Mail-style simplistic prediction of doom, supported only by anonymous quotes from constituents – a bit like a Boris column in The Telegraph, though without the poor jokes.

Powell’s animus is directed against the dilution of a separate English culture – he always refers to England and the English in his writings and speeches. The language and tone are more visceral than that of Boris Johnson and his references to burkas as letterboxes, but the two nationalists share a common conclusion. They are both projecting a mythical English culture that has to be protected from immigrant contamination.

Powell’s career ended in tragedy and Ulster exile, but he left a poisonous legacy. On race, he was proven wrong: the Tiber did not foam with blood. Powellism, and its fascist National Front appendage, were crushed in the egg by popular resistance. There have been outbursts of urban rioting over the decades, but these were mostly in response to poverty rather than inter-racial.

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The riots which spread across England in 2011 followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a man of mixed Irish and Afro-Caribbean descent. These riots, and their 3000 arrests, were decidedly multi-racial.

Thankfully, modern Britain has proven remarkably open to cultural assimilation.

But the virus spawned by Enoch Powell of a negative, defensive, backwards-looking English nationalism has remained in the body politic. It has now been given a deliberate new lease of life by Boris and the Brexiteers as a rationale for quitting the EU.

Powell was a political loner while joker Boris is happily taking donations from a host of hedge fund managers desperate to bet on the chaos that will follow Brexit.

Yes, Boris is history as farce. But that does not mean we won’t suffer.