"Rivers of Blood:" The Legacy of a Speech That Divided Britain

Fifty years on, Enoch Powell’s speech remains a subject of controversy and condemnation. But some of its themes are alive in Brexit Britain.

Right wing conservative politician Enoch Powell speaks at Islington Town Hall.  (Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

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Powell was the founding father of Tory Euroskepticism in the 1960s and 1970s, when Britain was still aglow from its efforts in World War II but had been shorn of its empire. Around his quest to inject the country with a new kind of patriotism orbited a vast constellation of concerns: angst over immigration; isolationism as an ideal; an obsession with parliamentary sovereignty; a fear of Britain becoming “one province in a new Europe superstate;” a need to assert the unique superiority of England within the United Kingdom; and the insistent belief that the “will of the British people” was being betrayed by an out-of-touch elite. These anxieties remain as potent as ever in large parts of the British population.

Powell maintained that neither Europe nor the Commonwealth, the new network of nations that comprised Britain and its former colonies, offered a path forward for Britain. Instead, inspired by his own memories as a soldier during World War II, Powell believed that Britain needed an enemy. Facing the specter of a common threat, Powell hoped, would revitalize Britain, and cure it of its faltering self-belief. Yet for all his hopes to heal Britain, the Brexit movement is the belated symptom of a very Powellian affliction: the contraction of a nation grappling with questions of identity at a moment of profound change. All these years later, conflict—whether it be against the Germans and the French, the bureaucrats in Brussels, immigrants, or an impossible alliance between them all—conjures a mindset where, for many, the nation feels most at ease.

Powell’s violent warning arrived at a time when Britain’s place in the world was changing. As the nation clung to its heroic memories of war, it stuttered each time it tried to assert its superpower status. In 1956, Britain was humiliated when it tried to invade Egypt and seize control of the Suez Canal, only to withdraw after America disapproved. Its economy was beset by crises and stagnation, earning it the nickname of the “sick man of Europe.” In the 1960s, when Britain tried to join the European Union, then known as the European Economic Community, France vetoed its membership twice. This dealt a special kind of blow to the nation’s mythology: Europe was supposed to need Britain, not the other way around.

What it meant to be British was also being recast. Partly in response to losing its colonies, Britain began to close its borders. In 1968, the Labour government passed the Commonwealth Immigration Act, which restricted U.K. citizenship to those born in the U.K. and their children or grandchildren. Those living in the ex-colonies without a direct family connection to the U.K. were no longer entitled to enter the country. “We don’t want any more blacks,” Jim Callaghan, then Labour Home Secretary, reportedly told colleagues. He cited pressure on public services and domestic race relations, while hysterical panic from the Conservative opposition—especially from the likes of Powell—also played its part.

At the same time, between 1957 and 1961, Britain more than doubled its international aid output. Through the Commonwealth, Britain sought to strengthen political and economic ties with the same people it was now keeping out. New legislation was introduced to outlaw discrimination within Britain’s borders. Thus emerged the modern, liberal Britain, with all its contradictions: enforced formal equality internally, enforced exclusion of immigrants on its edges. Powell was dismayed by the former. For him, aid and anti-discrimination legislation were clear examples of a political establishment burdened by the past, unable to escape the guilt or greatness of Empire (or a crippling combination of the two). The political class had forgotten what he saw as its foremost duty to the (white) British, or English. “The Tory Party has to find its patriotism again,” he said, “and to find it, as of old, in ‘This England.’”

Powell’s position on Empire was peculiar. He was among the last to let it go—even calling for a re-invasion of India in 1950—but when he finally did, he did so resoundingly. “The Tory party must be cured of the British Empire, of the pitiful yearning to cling to relics of a bygone system,” he declared in a speech in 1957. Like a thwarted lover, no longer able to stand the sight of his obsession, he railed against Britain’s “imperial neurosis.” As far as Powell’s new patriotism went, the Empire—and the “gigantic farce” of the Commonwealth—was an unambiguous story of decline. It showed Britain “at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory.” What Britain needed was a “clean break with the imperial past” and the people that went with it. If the colonial subjects could not be ruled, he seemed to suggest, they were not welcome.

Far more important to Powell’s worldview than Empire was World War II. For Powell, it was when the British were at war that they truly knew themselves: with the stiff upper lip and the spirit of sacrifice, the embrace of austerity and the Churchillian refrain: “very well, then, alone.” War was a time when the British people were ready to die for what they believed in—and that, Powell thought, was the essence of patriotism, the soul of nations. “Patriotism,” he said, “is to have a nation to die for, and to be glad to die for it—all the days of one’s life.”

For Powell, the sovereign nation was “not conceivable” without war. But with old enemies now partners—namely Germany and France—in a new European peace project, a new enemy was needed. In Powell’s imagination, immigrants and their “allies” became the mortal threat that Britain needed to survive. “It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre,” Powell said of Britain’s immigration policy in the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Memories of war were essential to this tale of life and death. He compared journalists who defended anti-discrimination legislation to those in “the 1930s [who] tried to blind this country to the rising peril which confronted it.” The legacy of World War II became for him an unending story of Britain under attack.

In the Brexit referendum, fears and fantasies akin to Powell’s came to the fore. The alleged invasion had reached, in the words of one notorious Leave campaign poster, a “breaking point.” Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP and one of the pioneers of the Brexit movement, hailed Powell as his political hero. Nigel Farage has also glorified him. Leave.EU, one of two main Brexit campaigning organizations, recently declared that Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech was "the most important speech in postwar history.”

Reverence for Powell lay at the extreme end of the spectrum. But the immigration narrative defined the referendum, and it was often conveyed, as he might have wished, in the language of war. Once again, Britain could be united against a common enemy. “We will win this war,” Farage declared at the beginning of the referendum campaign. Politicians who opposed Brexit became in his words “quislings,” a reference to those who collaborated with the Nazis. The judges that decided parliament should have a vote on Brexit became “enemies of the people” in the pages of the pro-Brexit Daily Mail. Prime Minister Theresa May’s team of senior ministers on Brexit negotiations has been dubbed a “War Cabinet.” When Brexit Secretary David Davis was asked whether Britain had the bureaucratic bandwidth to cope with the task ahead, he replied: “Our civil service can cope with World War II, they can easily cope with this.”

During the campaign, reasonable concerns over the state of society—housing shortages, stagnant wages, struggling public services—became tied inextricably to Britain’s border policy. Polls have shown that immigration was a priority for voters, and the press played on the theme relentlessly. On 17 of the 23 weekdays leading up to the referendum, the front page of the Daily Mail ran stories on immigration-related fears. Just like in Powell’s time, the fear of an immigration invasion successfully transformed an economic crisis into a crisis of identity—the jealous need to guard what little there was trumped the righteous demand for more.

Those who leveraged those fears for political gain employed nakedly racist tactics: In 1955, when Winston Churchill declared his intention to “Keep England White,” transport workers in central England went on strike after the local transport authority hired its first Indian immigrant as a conductor. “I believe,” Powell said, giving the workers his backing, “the strikers … have apprehended the dangers for this country of any appreciable coloured population domiciled here.” In 1964, Conservatives campaigned in an election in Smethwick with the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” The problem of immigration is often presented as one of cohesion and harmony, and Powell did likewise in his infamous speech. But what these instances show is that, for people like Powell, the fear was not that immigrants wouldn’t integrate: the fear was that they would.

The same went for the now much-cherished “Windrush generation,” starting with the 500 or so people who arrived from the Carribean on the HMT Empire Windrush ship on June 23, 1948. They were part of the first recruitment drive for Britain’s under-staffed public services. The same day they landed, a group of Labour MPs warned then-prime minister Clement Attlee that “an influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our people.” This week, it emerged that some of the children of the "Windrush generation,” now a name for all those who were recruited to the U.K. through the '50s and '60s for postwar rebuilding, were facing deportation. Following a public outcry, Prime Minister Theresa May made a public apology and reneged on the plans. The Daily Mail called their mistreatment a “Fiasco that shames Britain,” and most of the Brexit Brigade agreed. For them, the Windrush generation now represents a noble chapter of Britain’s history. One can only wonder what they would have said at the time.

Similar to the Brexit vote, after which police reported a spike in hate crimes, the change in atmosphere after Powell’s speech was so stark for people of color that members of the West Midland Caribbean Association began to refer to “BE” and “AE”—“Before Enoch” and “After Enoch.” Powell became a figure to rally around and against. In 1969, thousands demonstrated in a “March for Dignity” in London, with the Indian Workers Association walking alongside the Black Peoples’ Alliance, the Zimbabwe Solidarity Action Committee, Irish Republicans, and others. The broad targets were racism and the 1968 Immigration Act, but when the march reached the prime minister’s residence at Number 10 Downing Street, an effigy of Powell was set alight. It lay in a paper coffin, one side painted black and marked “Common,” the other painted white and market “Wealth.”

The impact of Powell’s speech was immediate. He was fired from his ministerial position, yet he remained a Conservative Party MP. (He eventually left the party in 1974, in protest of Britain’s decision to join the European Union.) While politicians and newspapers condemned it, thousands of workers—traditional Labour supporters—went on strike to protest Powell’s dismissal. He received hundreds of thousands of letters of support. A Gallup poll found that 74 percent of the population shared his fears. Even those that criticized him suggested—still do suggest—that his crime was more complicated than racism. His offense, we’re told, was one of rhetoric, he had the best interests of the nation at heart.

In February earlier this year, there was a proposal to commemorate Powell with a blue plaque in the city of Wolverhampton, which he represented as Tory MP between 1950 and 1974. The proposal provoked outcry and attracted international attention, with the likes of Breitbart weighing in. A poll by the regional newspaper Express & Star found that 70 per cent of respondents backed the plaque. The proposal was eventually rejected. In any case, plans to commemorate Powell seem premature when his spirit is still so very much alive.