Why they still fear ‘rivers of blood’

Today’s elite shares many of the prejudices about immigration expressed by Enoch Powell in 1968. PLUS: Shirley Dent on Liam Byrne.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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At lunchtime on Saturday 20 April 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell walked into the Midland Hotel, Birmingham, to address the annual meeting of the West Midlands Conservative Political Centre. He had already indicated to his friend, Wolverhampton Express & Star editor Clem Jones, that the speech he was about to give would ‘fizz like a rocket’ (1). And fizz it did. As its fortieth anniversary approaches, debate over the impact of what became known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech continues to rage.

In the speech, Powell unleashed a diatribe against immigrants who had arrived in Britain since the late 1940s. He described them, and their offspring, as ‘an alien element’ that would ‘destroy’ the British nation. Powell also told anecdotes from his constituents in Wolverhampton South West, that ‘wide-grinning piccaninnies’ were abusing elderly folk, while some were even pushing human excreta through their letterboxes. Quoting from Virgil, Powell concluded that ‘like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”‘ (2).

Nearly 40 years later, many commentators point out – with relief – that such publicly aired opinions would be ‘unacceptable’ today. For immigrants now, surely Britain is a more caring, tolerant place? As it happens, Powell’s vitriolic speech was also seen as ‘unacceptable’ when he delivered it in April 1968. On the evening after his speech, the then Conservative Party leader, Edward Heath, told Powell that he had been sacked as a shadow cabinet minister. Most of the newspapers backed Heath’s actions. Under the headline ‘An Evil Speech’, The Times (London) called Powell’s words ‘racialist’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘shameful’ (3). At Westminster, the general consensus was that Powell had gone ‘too far’ and he was effectively banished to the back benches for the rest of his political career.

In private, though, the political elite did not really object to the content of Powell’s speech; rather it was the inflammatory and harsh words he used that they considered objectionable. In the aftermath of the Second World War, after the Holocaust had exposed the barbaric, inhuman consequences of Western racial thinking, public statements on race had to be strongly toned down. The new consensus was also fuelled by an imaginary fear of racial retribution from former colonies in Asia and Africa (4). It was better to ‘keep quiet’ on matters of race in case things spiralled ‘out of hand’. The late Labour Party minister, Barbara Castle, echoed the opinions of many in the political elite when she said Powell had ‘taken the lid off Pandora’s box’. ‘I believe’, she said, ‘he has helped to make a race war, not only in Britain but perhaps in the world, inevitable’ (5).

For the political elites, then, Powell had gone ‘too far’ because his incendiary, hysterical speech would probably ‘stir up’ racial hatred and violence on British soil. But what such thinking belies is not only a fear and loathing of non-white immigrants into Britain, but a greater hostility towards the British white working class. Although Powell falsely said he was merely speaking for his working-class constituents in Wolverhampton, in fact he was speaking against them. Like a Victorian-era anthropologist discovering some exotic tribe, he refers to the white working class as ‘natives’ whose atavistic ‘fears’ of immigration ‘must be dealt with’ or the nation will be ‘busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’. Reading Powell’s speech again, the subtext is ‘don’t shoot the messenger for the bad news’. That bad news was considered to be the ‘thousands and hundreds of thousands’ of ordinary white people who were about to burn Britain’s cities down to protest against ‘coloured’ immigration. As Powell haughtily said about this imaginary threat: ‘I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else.’ (6)

In 2008, the idea that Powell had a mandate from the white working class to demand forced repatriation of immigrants is stronger than ever. BBC 2’s White Season last week made the explicit connection between Powell’s racism and the white working class then and now. Liberal middle-class journalists could barely conceal their glee in recounting how East London dockers went on strike in 1968 ‘in support of Enoch’, or how chants of ‘Enoch was right’ were de rigueur for white racist thugs in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Thank god we’re not like them‘ is the self-flattering conceit of commentators who look with disdain at the white working class.

The idea that Powell was simply ‘led astray’ by his nasty-minded white constituents in Wolverhampton is one of the biggest myths that must be demolished. From the 1940s onwards, the section of British society that was most obsessed by black and Asian immigrants was the white political elites. During the Second World War, the War Cabinet was alarmed that ordinary white people welcomed black American soldiers. Indeed, one West Country farmer was reported as saying: ‘I love the Americans but I don’t like those white ones they’ve brought with them.’ Pubs during this period displayed signs saying ‘for white Britons and coloured Americans only’ (7). Racial ill-feeling was much more the property of politicians than of the mass of the population. In 1948, for example, when nearly 500 West Indians arrived in London on a former troopship, the Empire Windrush, a Labour MP told the Commons: ‘I hope no encouragement is given to others to follow their example.’ (8)

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Labour politicians in particular said they were simply speaking ‘on behalf’ of their white working-class constituents when they raised concerns about immigration. This attempted to give a fig leaf of legitimacy to the resulting 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which put race and immigration at the centre of national political life. Even though there was cross-party support to stoke up fears about immigrants, ordinary people were not singularly preoccupied with the effects of immigration as Powell and his critics claim, then and now.

The leader of the Conservative group on Wolverhampton Corporation told the late radical journalist Paul Foot that black immigrants had not been a major issue until Powell took it up. As the historian Dominic Sandbrook points out, ‘even though Powell always claimed that he was simply speaking up for the common people of Wolverhampton, it is striking how little immigration seemed to matter to his electorate’ (9). As Foot argued at the time: ‘Powell never had a reputation for being very interested in local issues, he was rarely mentioned by the local paper and he infrequently mentioned Wolverhampton in his Commons speeches.’ (10)

All of this was borne out when journalists attempted to back up Powell’s wild claims in his April speech. The old lady who supposedly had excreta posted through her letterbox? ‘She was never found, and probably never existed.’ Newspapers also searched in vain for the Wolverhampton school where there was only one ‘harassed’ white child in her class. Powell finally admitted ‘that no such class existed’. Far from being the ‘tribune of the plebs, the mouth-piece of the Molineux crowd’, as Foot satirised, Powell was simply repeating the stock racist fables of the far right. And yet, both champions and critics of Powell are still intent on rehearsing notions that his white constituents goaded Powell into action.

Nevertheless, Powell’s speech did attract some backing from some sections of the white working class. In the context of residual Britain-is-Best, imperial ideology, there is no doubt that notions of racial superiority informed the ‘Don’t Knock Enoch’ banner-wavers down in the Tilbury docks. But it is grossly misleading to suggest that the white working classes were any more racist than any other section of British society. As previously outlined, racial thinking was the property of the political elites who targeted immigrants as scapegoats for national decline and blamed them for the effects of a liberalised society. Some middle-class voters were also increasingly anxious and hostile to black immigrants because they feared that property prices would plummet if they moved nearby. The demise of working-class political independence since the Second World War meant that sections of the working class were more susceptible to elite ideology than ever before.

There were other reasons for some white working-class voters to support Powell besides expressions of race hate. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the traditional Labour Party voter felt excluded from the modernising project of the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson. Labour’s managerial and bureaucratic approach to social policy meant that decisions affecting millions, such as those concerning housing and urban regeneration, were done without any real democratic input from working people. So when the same political class fell over themselves in apoplectic frenzy at Powell’s speech, he unwittingly became an identifiable ally against them. The Guardian’s commentator Peter Jenkins correctly suggested at the time that Powell attracted some support because he exploited the feeling that ‘politicians are conspiring against the people, that the country is led by men who have no idea about what interests or frightens ordinary people’ (11).

Today, when white constituents in Barking or Preston vote for the far-right British National Party, it is often cited as proof of how irredeemably racist and awful the white working classes are. But as when some dockers ‘backed Enoch’ in 1968, today, too, the electoral support for far-right organisations is a protest vote against the mainstream parties who studiously ignore or express open contempt for the working class.

There are other striking parallels on race and immigration between then and now. While politicians and other public figures are hounded for expressing ‘insensitive’ comments about ethnic minorities, leading politicians and newspapers still routinely present immigrants as a threat to Britain’s social fabric. In October 2007, UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron claimed that our million-plus foreign workers are causing a ‘demographic crisis’. Not long afterwards, one commentator expressed concern that immigration would undermine ‘social cohesion’ and result in an ‘identity crisis’ for British values (12).

At last year’s Labour Party conference, UK prime minister Gordon Brown even revived the old National Front slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’. Is all this in any way different from the content of Enoch Powell’s ‘unacceptable’ speech some 40 years ago? Is complaining about lack of resources, lack of social cohesion and lack of national identity that far removed from the meat and bones of Powell’s foreigner-bashing? It seems the lesson to be learned from the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is that blaming immigrants for all sorts of social problems is fair game, just so long as you’re careful with your words and avoid stirring up the crazed bloodlust of the ‘white natives’.

Elsewhere, the liberal habit of comparing immigrants more favourably with white Britons was also being aired back then as well. In 1956 the Wolverhampton Express & Star welcomed a new contingent of West Indians as ‘British citizens (with) a perfect right to come here and try to earn a living… Many are better behaved than some of their white cousins in this country’. Wolverhampton’s medical officer said at the time said that he was ‘surprised and pleased how minor a problem the immigrants present’, and thought that some were ‘above the standard of our own people’ (13).

Such malign sentiments against ordinary Britons were more recently echoed by the comedian, broadcaster and supporter of the Socialist Workers Party, Mark Steel. Talking about ‘current British passport holders’ he said: ‘A group of eight blokes from Kent had travelled to France for the day to get paralytic, and were burping their way through the departure lounge… I thought: “These blokes must agree the country is full up. So why don’t we suggest they sod off back to France to be banged up in Sangatte, and in their place we take eight asylum-seekers, who will be more pleasant all round and sure to ease the overcrowding as they’ll be a lot skinnier than these fat twats?”’ (14) If there is cross-party support for anything it is that, in some way or other, the masses are a social problem in need of ‘sorting out’ – and frequently, anti-masses sentiment is expressed through promoting the virtues of immigrants.

Powell’s speech 40 years ago was undoubtedly a crude attempt to scapegoat immigrants for Britain’s imperial decline and make appeals to cross-class ‘all-white’ national unity. It was one amongst a number of incidents, alongside the passing of countless Acts restricting non-white immigration, which made ethnic minorities’ lives in Britain harsh and difficult. But if the fortieth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech reveals anything else, it is that immigration is also a blank canvas on which to project anti-‘natives’ sentiments. Powell’s speech expressed a hostility towards the white working class similar to that held by many liberal commentators today. The political distance between 1968 and 2008 is not so great after all.

Neil Davenport is a politics lecturer based in London.


UK immigration minister Liam Byrne has become the pin-up boy for New Labour’s ‘tough-minded but fair’ approach to immigration. When announcing proposals to ‘strengthen visitor visas’ in December, he stated: ‘Tougher checks abroad mean we keep risky people out. By next spring we’ll check everyone’s fingerprints when they apply for a visa.’ Should these ‘risky people’ outstay their welcome or slip through the net, they’ll become cage-fodder for the government’s shiny new fleet of immigrant detention vans.

Byrne cynically talks up the dangers of ‘dodgy foreigners’. But who are these ‘risky people’? If Byrne is alluding to the threat of terrorists, then he should be reminded that the 2005 bombings in London were carried out by born-and-bred Brits, not Afghanis. It’s easier to blame it on the foreigners than to take a hard look at what has gone wrong in Britain itself, but it’s a poor justification for the heavy-handed measures the government plans to introduce.

Along with the enhanced powers of detention and identification, there will be a Points Based System (PBS) for those wishing to come to the UK. This system determines which skills the UK requires, and then filters out those migrants who are not deemed desirable. ‘Most people would be pretty relaxed about 100 millionaires coming in but less relaxed about 100 low-skilled people coming in. It’s time we ended low-skilled migration from outside Europe full stop’, says Byrne.

New rules will also make life difficult for such ‘risky’ events as arts festivals. Performers from outside the European Economic Area will have to find sponsors willing to pay for them to come over, a prospect made even scarier by the imposed ‘record-keeping, reporting and compliance’ requirements. Performers will also have to apply at the British Consulate in their own countries for the right to enter the UK – a nightmare for multinational performance companies.

Byrne was recently described by the Sunday Telegraph as New Labour’s Essex Man: ‘Raised in Harlow, and educated at a comprehensive school, he keeps a gigantic bottle of HP Sauce in his office. “I’ve just about lost the Ford Escort but I do still occasionally wear white socks”, he says.’ Byrne often cashes in on the trendy concern for an apparently disappearing cultural group – the white working class – to justify authoritarian measures. And he paints himself as the very man to look into the heart of the working class and tell us what lies within.

Liam Byrne’s cultural touchstone seems to be Alf Garnett, the caricature of bigoted racism brought to life by Warren Mitchell in the long-running sitcom Till Death Do Us Part. In a speech to the London-based think-tank Demos in December 2007, the same month that the new PBS proposals were announced, Byrne’s line was that we may not be a nation of Alf Garnetts just yet, but the government must respond to the ‘very tough-minded fairness’ of ordinary folk who are suspicious of the motives of immigrants.

But that is not the full story because New Labour’s empathy/risk pendulum so easily and readily swings back the other way. For all Byrne’s appeal to the supposed concerns of the white working class, the risk Byrne fears the most is the spectre of these people turning to the British National Party (BNP). In this, New Labour’s immigration minister is barely a stone’s throw away from Enoch Powell’s. In his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Powell also expressed fears that the white working class would grow ‘mad’ with a ‘sense of alarm and of resentment’.

Byrne is Enoch Powell with a Ford Escort, sharing Powell’s view that working-class people – of whatever nationality or ethnic group – are the riskiest of them all.

Shirley Dent is communications director at the Institute of Ideas.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild explained why we need an open-door policy, denounced government proposals to educate British immigrants about the British way of life, and awarded the Migrationary Parliamentary Group nul points. Dr Liz Frayn called for the British government to let foreign medics in. Neil Davenport said we should welcome Eastern European workers. Brendan O’Neill suggested the anti-trafficking industry provides the greatest threat to migrants. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

(1) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p677

(2) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p681

(3) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p681

(4) The Silent War, Frank Furedi, Pluto, 1998, p222

(5) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p681

(6) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p681

(7) Under Siege, Keith Thompson, Penguin, 1988, p60

(8) Under Siege, Keith Thompson, Penguin, 1988, p61

(9) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p673

(10) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p673

(11) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p673

(12) The left can no longer afford to bury the migration debate, Guardian, 31 October 2007

(13) White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook, Abacus, 2006, p671

(14) There is another way of dealing with immigration, Independent, 27 June 2002

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Topics Politics


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