On April 20, 1968, Enoch Powell, a leading member of the Conservative Party in the British parliament, made a speech that would imprint itself into British memory—and divide the nation with its racist, incendiary rhetoric. Speaking before a group of conservative activists, Powell said that if immigration to Britain from the country’s former colonies continued, a violent clash between white and black communities was inevitable. “As I look ahead,” Powell said, “I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood,’” an allusion to a line in Virgil’s Aeneid. He maintained that it would not be enough to close Britain’s borders—some of the immigrants already settled in the country would need to be sent “home.” If not, he declared, attributing a quote to one of his constituents, “in this country, in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
Fifty years on, Powell’s name still resonates and provokes. When the BBC decided to broadcast a full recording of his so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech last Saturday, it sparked a national controversy. The broadcaster arranged to have the speech delivered by an actor and set off with critical analysis, but the intensity of the response spoke, at least in part, to the unsettling shadow of Powell in the age of Brexit, two decades after his death. His prophecies of doom never materialized, but he proved prescient in a different sense: as a figure who embodied fears that continue to animate Britain’s present and will help define its future.