Learning from 1968's Leading Anti-Immigration Alarmist

Enoch Powell gave his xenophobic “Rivers of Blood” speech 50 years ago—but the lessons of its reception still apply today.

Harris / AP
Editor’s Note: This is part of The Atlantic’s ongoing series looking back at 1968. All past articles and reader correspondence are collected here. New material will be added to that page through the end of 2018.

Fifty years ago, the Conservative Member of Parliament Enoch Powell delivered what may be the most controversial speech in postwar British history: an attack on mass immigration comparing growth in that country’s minority population to “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Already, Powell argued, immigrants had rendered his nation’s existing population “strangers in their own country.” Suddenly, “they found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated; at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker; they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted.”

He sympathetically quoted one of his constituents, who thought that “in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man."

And he argued that “the sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected is something that those without direct experience can hardly imagine.” By way of example, he chose “just one of those hundreds of people” to illustrate his point. She had lived on a “respectable street in Wolverhampton” where, eight years prior, a black person had bought a house. Now she was the only white person left:

This is her story.

She lost her husband and both her sons in the war. So she turned her seven-roomed house, her only asset, into a boarding house. She worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age. Then the immigrants moved in. With growing fear, she saw one house after another taken over. The quiet street became a place of noise and confusion. Regretfully, her white tenants moved out.

The day after the last one left, she was awakened at 7am by two Negroes who wanted to use her phone to contact their employer. When she refused, as she would have refused any stranger at such an hour, she was abused and feared she would have been attacked but for the chain on her door. Immigrant families have tried to rent rooms in her house, but she always refused. Her little store of money went, and after paying rates, she has less than £2 per week. “She went to apply for a rate reduction and was seen by a young girl, who on hearing she had a seven-roomed house, suggested she should let part of it. When she said the only people she could get were Negroes, the girl said, "Racial prejudice won't get you anywhere in this country."

So she went home.

The telephone is her lifeline. Her family pay the bill, and help her out as best they can. Immigrants have offered to buy her house—at a price which the prospective landlord would be able to recover from his tenants in weeks, or at most a few months. She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. "Racialist," they chant. When the new Race Relations Bill is passed, this woman is convinced she will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder.

In his estimation, those who believed that integration would allow people like the pensioner and her neighbors to live together in harmony were dangerously deluded:

Now, at all times, where there are marked physical differences, especially of colour, integration is difficult though, over a period, not impossible. There are among the Commonwealth immigrants who have come to live here in the last fifteen years or so, many thousands whose wish and purpose is to be integrated and whose every thought and endeavour is bent in that direction. But to imagine that such a thing enters the heads of a great and growing majority of immigrants and their descendants is a ludicrous misconception, and a dangerous one.

We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population—that they never conceived or intended such a thing, and that their numbers and physical concentration meant the pressures towards integration which normally bear upon any small minority did not operate.

Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences, with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest ... The cloud no bigger than a man's hand, that can so rapidly overcast the sky, has been visible recently in Wolverhampton and has shown signs of spreading quickly.

Thus his dramatic proposals: an end to almost all immigration; and financial incentives to encourage some percentage of immigrants to voluntarily return to their countries of origin, so as to tip the demographic trajectory decisively toward whites. He went on to say, “as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood,’” a line that explains why his words have since been referred to as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

He concluded by invoking the U.S., where the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. had just sparked riots in dozens of cities. “That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and neglect,” he said. “Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now.”

Though little-known in the U.S., the “Rivers of Blood” speech remains massively controversial in the U.K., as illustrated by the response to the BBC’s decision to mark its anniversary with an actor’s reenactment interspersed with critical analysis.

“Why the BBC would think to do this at a time when far-right nationalism and casual racism is on the rise in Europe and the UK is baffling,” Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff declared in The Guardian. “It’s a flamboyant party trick that masks the deadly undertones of racism in British society that still exist … and it’s been heartening to see an immediate backlash to its decision on social media.”

Andrew Adonis, a Labour member of the House of Lords, pronounced the speech “the worst incitement to racial violence by a public figure in modern Britain” and declared that “the BBC should not be broadcasting it on Saturday.” He then sent a letter calling on government regulators to preemptively forbid the broadcast. “If a contemporary politician made such a speech,” he wrote, “they would almost certainly be arrested and charged with serious offenses.”

The BBC responded to its critics as follows:

Many people know of this controversial speech but few have heard it beyond soundbites. Radio 4’s well established programme Archive on 4 reflects in detail on historical events and, in order to assess the speech fully and its impact on the immigration debate, it will be analysed by a wide range of contributors including many anti-racism campaigners. This is a rigorous journalistic analysis of a historical political speech. It’s not an endorsement of the controversial views themselves and people should wait to hear the programme before they judge it.

For one side, a society confronted with nativistic sentiments ought to suppress their expression; for the other, they are best aired with context, analysis, and dissents.

In my estimation, both the original “Rivers of Blood” speech and the controversy over how the BBC marked its 50th anniversary clearly bolster rather than undermine the case for airing problematic speech rather than suppressing it.

The original speech utterly failed in its aim.

After delivering it, Powell appropriately faced political consequences: He was dismissed from his position in the shadow cabinet. “I dismissed Mr. Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations,” said the Conservative leader Edward Heath. “I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife … I don't believe the great majority of the British people share Mr. Powell's way of putting his views.”

Many observers believed that its extremeness undermined the cause of limiting immigration as politicians distanced themselves  from its entire approach. In any event, British immigration continued, far surpassing even the projections that alarmed Powell. No incentive program was adopted to urge existing immigrants to leave. And no viable anti-immigration coalition emerged.

If British law circa 1968 would have forbade a politician like Powell from delivering a speech of that kind, would suppression have merely spared immigrants the fear they felt on hearing the speech? Or would it have caused the anti-immigrant faction to be radicalized or rallied around as free speech martyrs? It is impossible to say for sure. But if pro-immigrant folks could rerun history from 1968 onward, suppressing the speech would be imprudent, given how things turned out.

As for the BBC’s decision to reenact and analyze the speech 50 years later, it seems to me that doing so illuminated at least three crucial points quite powerfully.

First, Enoch Powell wasn’t just utterly ineffective in pushing his agenda forward— he was utterly wrong about the consequences of ignoring his warnings. He forecast bloody conflict by 1988. His constituent fretted that Britain’s black population would “have the whip hand” over the white population by the same year. Now that twice as much time has passed, even as more than twice as many immigrants as he anticipated took up residence, it could not be clearer that his dire predictions of bloody ethnic strife were flat wrong. That doesn’t strictly prove that today’s dire warnings are similarly wrongheaded, but it does illustrate how wrong nativist alarmism can be (even when uttered with confidence) and suggests needless damage can be avoided by rejecting it.

Second, the speech was a useful reminder that there are always some people in all democracies who find the rapid changes and the different kinds of diversity that characterize most free societies to be deeply unsettling and hard to abide. Karen Stenner argues persuasively that we ignore the reality of those people and their innate predisposition to prize sameness at our peril. Even as we reject their most coercive demands, we must find ways to understand and ease their discomfort—or face the sorts of authoritarian backlashes that tear societies apart.

Are we doing enough to avoid that fate today?

Third, to hear the speech today is to be forced to confront its racism. Even the mass-immigration skeptic Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, admits to “an intake of breath and a considerable wince or gulp” at various moments. One of the most flagrant such moments concerns the aging pensioner who was cast as the quintessential victim of demographic change. In fact, she was brought to the brink of bankruptcy by a self-inflicted handicap: As the racial composition of her neighborhood changed from all white to all people of color, she simply refused to rent to the latter, then sought welfare in order to subsidize her xenophobic housing discrimination.

Today’s right will see much more clearly than the anti-immigrant right of 1968 that the social worker who told her that “racism doesn’t pay” and the kids who called her a “racialist” when she walked down the street were simply correct. As Jemima Lewis wrote in The Telegraph, “The examples he gave of ‘decent, ordinary’ Britons suffering because of immigration … could hardly have been less sympathetic.”

In 2018 Britain, speeches raising fears about immigration are typically much milder. Insofar as that reflects a debate more focused on legitimate fears about integration than retrograde racism or skin-color determinism, that change is an unalloyed good. But insofar as some anti-immigrant figures use coded language to obscure their commitments to bigotries as virulent as ever, hearing “Rivers of Blood” is clarifying. As one Tory MP put it, “His speech was terrible. It’s why I think the BBC broadcasting it was a good thing. Because lots of people say ‘Enoch was right,’ without ever having bothered to read or listen to the speech.”

The rebroadcast also inspired some Britons to post on social media under the hashtag Rivers of Love. The sentiment, “Enoch was right” might have gained more traction in a Britain too politically correct to air his arguments. Now that BBC exposed them to sunlight, that sentiment may wither under evidence of all the ways Enoch was wrong, some of it marshaled by people newly determined to disprove his pessimism.

Earlier this month, Damon Linker warned the American left against the tactic of trying to suppress ideas that they deem beyond the pale rather than mounting the most rhetorically and logically formidable counterargument possible.

He regards the tactic as the manifestation of a dangerous fantasy that politics can be settled:

Whether the issue concerns public policy or the fundamental moral principles undergirding American public life, progressives tend to presume that their own positions deserve to be treated as lying beyond the give-and-take of political disagreement and debate. What the rise of a less liberal, more radical, intransigent, and populist right is forcing progressives to confront is that this way of conceiving of democratic politics is a fiction. Nothing in democratic politics is given—or rather, the things we consider given at any moment enjoy this status for no more exalted reason than that public opinion (expressed primarily through elections) favors treating it as such.

But the settlement or consensus in its favor is always temporary and contingent. The contestation of politics, the struggle over power and ideas, over the Constitution and the law and who we are as a political community, never ends. It's always possible for a settlement or consensus at one moment of history to be rethought, overturned, or reversed. Rights granted can later be rescinded—and there's no way to prevent that from happening beyond continuing the fight, day after day.

In 1968, Enoch Powell had his say and was defeated by rhetorically and logically superior ideas. Today, his ideological descendants are in a much weaker position, due partly to demographic change, and partly to rock-solid proof that the most dire predictions made five decades ago did not come to pass.

Alas, xenophobic impulses are present in every generation. And hard, legitimate questions about integration will always confront every society that attempts to rapidly welcome newcomers from radically different countries and cultures to live in dense, diverse communities of free, fallen humans.

But even when such conversations veer from constructive concerns to Powellite hysteria, the safest way forward, for immigrants, their descendants, and society, is to best xenophobic ideas as they were bested before, not to try a new, risky, suppressive approach that is more liable to fuel extremism, create free speech martyrs, and give authoritarians precedent to suppress the ideas that they find dangerous. “Rivers of Blood” didn’t ultimately teach much that Powell intended. And yet, as with so much of history, studying it can teach us quite a lot.