On Saturday 20 April 1968, at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, Conservative shadow defence spokesman and MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell, made arguably the most infamous speech in modern British political history.
Delivered to a Conservative Association meeting attended by 85 people, the speech was startlingly racist and demagogic in tone, coupling prejudices about non-whites with an apocalyptic vision of racial conflict and calls for the repatriation of immigrants.
Powell’s speech, which he neglected to clear with his party, was carefully planned and intended to provoke. Prior to the delivery of the speech he cryptically told the editor of a local paper: “You know how a rocket goes up into the air, explodes into lots of stars and then falls down to the ground? Well, this speech is going to go up like a rocket, and when it gets up to the top, the stars are going to stay up.”
During the speech itself, he claimed that he could “already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing?”
Despite the small immediate audience, sections of the Tory media ensured that the fallout of the speech was felt all over the country, and, as demonstrated by recent rows over a plan to commemorate Powell with a blue plaque in Wolverhampton, continues to cause division today.
Powell delivered his speech just days before Labour’s Race Relations Bill of 1968 – which was to outlaw discrimination in housing, employment or public services on the grounds of ethnicity or national origins – was due to have its second reading.
The speech was also made against the backdrop of political jostling and animosity between Conservative leader Edward Heath and Powell, who, according to his biographer Simon Heffer, was determined not to be sidelined.
The ensuing scandal catapulted Powell into the national headlines, MP Angus Maude describing it as “a sensation unparalleled in modern British political history”.
The Times, which supported Heath, declared it “an evil speech”, writing “this is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our postwar history”. The Sunday Times damned him for “spouting fantasies of racial purity.”
Powell attributed some of the speech’s most inflammatory passages to his constituents and the press scoured Wolverhampton for an old aged pensioner – purportedly now the only remaining white resident of her street – and who was being harassed by her new “negro” neighbours, allegedly suffering “excreta” being pushed through her letter box and being stalked by “charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.”
The press could not locate such a woman, leading to pointed questions over her actual existence.
Leading Conservatives Iain Macleod, Edward Boyle, Quintin Hogg and Robert Carr all threatened to walk out of the Shadow Cabinet unless Powell was sacked. Heath himself lashed the speech as “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions” and sacked Powell, with unanimous support, from the shadow cabinet.
Powell banished to the backbenches for the rest of his political career, left the Tories in acrimonious fashion to become an Ulster Unionist MP in 1974.
The “Rivers of Blood” diatribe instantaneously transformed Powell into a lightning rod for latent anti-immigrant sentiment. Both the Daily Express and News of the World supported him and, on 23 April, a small minority of London dockers struck to protest at Powell’s “victimisation”, marching from the East End to Westminster, some reportedly with signs, handed to them by fascists, saying “Back Britain, not Black Britain”.
Heath was reportedly forced to enter through a back entrance in order to speak in Dudley Town Hall seven days after Powell’s speech due to a crowd of about1,000 people singing racist songs and chanting “Heath out, Enoch in”.
The speech also solidified Powell’s status as a cult hero within the right-wing of the Conservative party. Heffer writes that Powell was supported by MPs Duncan Sandys, Gerald Nabarro and Teddy Taylor. The imperialist, racist Conservative Monday Club handed representatives badges promoting as Powell its “Man of the Year” at the party conference in Blackpool.
In 1970, Monday Club member Beryl “Bee” Carthew established the newsletter Powellight. By 1971, the Monday Club claimed over 10,000 members and 35 MPs.
Powell’s speech also buoyed the burgeoning National Front (NF), formed in 1967. Powell’s sacking led some staunch Powellites to defect to the NF. John O’Brien, for example, initially attempted to organise a “Powell for Premier” movement within the Tory party before drifting into the NF and briefly becoming its leader in the early 1970s. Carthew of Powellight would also join the NF and, later, play a prominent role in the far right group, the London Swinton Circle.
To a degree Powell also inspired to John Tyndall, who led the NF through much of the 1970s under a racist and anti-immigrant message that added to his hardcore nazism. Tyndall, who would later found the British National Party (BNP), invited Powell to represent the party as a candidate in Wolverhampton South West. Powell declined.
As Jonathan Rutherford writes in Forever England: Reflections on Masculinity and Empire, the Tories won an unexpected victory in the 1970 General Election and Powell was interpreted by some contemporaries to have played a vital role in changing the landscape of debate and drawing in new voters.
Despite publically abhorring Powell’s words and the mounting thuggery of the NF, the Conservatives promised “no further large-scale permanent immigration” in the election and in 1971 introduced the Immigration Act, restricting immigration into the UK.
Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979, consolidated racially discriminatory immigration laws in the British Nationality Act of 1981.
The phrase “Rivers of Blood” soon became synonymous with whipping up fear and tensions around immigration, and invoking the speech came to be regarded as beyond the pale in mainstream politics. Nonetheless, the speech helped change the landscape of British politics by proving the power of the issue of race.
Powell claimed that “people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles.” However, numerous accounts attest to the fear and strife that “Rivers of Blood” provoked in communities housing immigrants.
Ten days after the speech, The Times reported a slashing attack on attendees of an Afro-Caribbean christening party in Wolverhampton. One of the victims, Wade Crooks, told the press that the young white assailants were chanting “Powell, Powell”. “I have been here since 1955”, he said, “and nothing like this has happened before. I am shattered.”
The comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar told the BBC that at the end of the 1960s Powell was a “frightening figure” for his family, who kept suitcases readily packed in case they were forced out.
Britain’s first mixed-race cabinet minister, Paul Boateng has spoken of being spat on and abused in the streets in the wake of “Rivers of Blood”. There are many other such examples.
Dr Camilla Schofield reports in, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain, that in the wake of Powell’s speech violence against Britain’s ethnic minorities took on “a clearer political meaning.”
Members of the West Midlands Caribbean Association began referring to the time prior to 20 April 1968 as B.E: “before Enoch”.
Such attacks were not absorbed passively, however. As an explicit reaction, more than 50 Caribbean, Pakistani and Indian labour organisations formed the Black People’s Alliance, leading to 8,000 people taking part in the “March for Dignity” in 1969 against racism and in opposition to the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act.
This was the largest demonstration against racism Britain had yet seen. As Schofield relates, “Rivers of Blood” helped to politicise the issue of racism and racial inequality and opposition to it sowed the seeds for future anti-racism and anti-fascism campaigns.
Powell remains a hero on the extreme margins and, thanks to the internet, now claims an international following. For example, it is not uncommon to see his image on alt-right propaganda, and the open American fascist Mike Peinovich (aka Mike Enoch), the founder of influential alt-right hub The Right Stuff and co-host of the noxious antisemitic podcast The Daily Shoah, chose his pseudonym in reference to Powell.
Worryingly, Powell is slowly being rehabilitated closer to the mainstream. As The Economist has pointed out, Brexit has seen a revival of his politics that were rooted in anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment.
Our Fear and Hope 2017 report revealed that while an increasing number of people are tolerant and open to immigration and multiculturalism – in part due to a belief that Brexit will “solve the problem” – society is deeply polarised, and 23% of society remains bitterly opposed to immigration and multiculturalism.
Powell is now being openly embraced by politicians wishing to exploit this sizable pool of antipathy. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage is a well-known admirer of Powell.
Farage asked Powell for his support in a by-election in 1994 and, while not endorsing Powell’s tone, claimed in 2008 that his “principles remain good and true” and that “had we listened to him, we would have much better race relations now than we have got.”
More recently, Farage’s support for these principles has come through in his involvement with Leave.EU, the unofficial Brexit campaign headed by Farage and former UKIP moneyman Arron Banks.
The campaign has relentlessly linked the European Union to immigration and the latter to social decline and violence. Farage is not an anomaly within UKIP in this respect. In 2015, UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge gave a speech in Dudley, claiming that “the creed of multiculturalism is in fact a creed of surrender and it will lead to rivers of blood.”
Whilst Powell’s almost messianic visions of race war have failed to materialise, the phrase “Enoch was right” has long been a common slogan in far right politics.
Worse, recent radical Islamist attacks in Europe now reliably prompt claims that “Powell was right” even in mainstream publications like The Telegraph and the writer and journalist Douglas Murray has claimed that “portions” of the speech “now seem almost understated” in his 2017 bestseller The Strange Death of Europe.
50 years on, the spectre of “Rivers of Blood” continues to cast a dark and sinister shadow over British politics.