The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Notes And Comments

“Rivers of Blood” Revisited

Christopher Sandford

Enoch Powell, 1987, by Allan Warren; Wikimedia Commons.

Taking another look at Enoch Powell.

Enoch Powell, the great contrarian of twentieth-century British politics, seems to have richly fulfilled the judgment he made on that party-hopping statesman of an earlier era, Joseph Chamberlain, when he wrote, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream, at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Appointed in January 1957 to what he called “the best job in government,” financial secretary to the Treasury, Powell resigned a year later when he found himself at odds with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s notions of state intervention and public spending. In 1960 Powell was brought back to the top table as minister of health, only to quit once more when Alec Douglas-Home replaced Macmillan in 1963. When Douglas-Home stood down as head of the Conservative Party in 1965 (Labour had won control of Parliament the preceding year), Powell decided to contest the party leadership but lost to Edward Heath, who appointed him shadow defense spokesman. During his three-year tenure, Powell vocally blamed “American imperialism” for having dislocated Western Europe at the end of the Second World War and was reluctant to visit Washington when invited to do so in 1966. Asked near the end of hislife what his greatest regret had been, Powell, who had served in the British army in World War II as its youngest brigadier, replied, “I wish I had been killed fighting for my country.” 

Powell reached the apogee of his lifelong political brinkmanship, or, conversely, committed professional suicide—in either case, instantly establishing his personal legend—on April 20, 1968. In what came to be known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, he addressed the issue of increased immigration to Britain, the primary sources of which were its erstwhile colonies in the West Indies, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. In what has become a muchquoted passage, he recounted the sentiment of a parliamentary constituent who had expressed the view that “in this country, in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Such remarks were not uncommon in the streets of Britain, as opposed to its legislative corridors, in the period leading up to enactment of the Labour government’s Race Relations Act, which was to be debated in Parliament three days later.

“Here is a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman,” Powell told his audience, 

who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that the country will not be worth living in for his children…. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and thousands are saying and thinking—not throughout Great Britain, perhaps, but in the areas that are already undergoing the total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousandyears of English history.

Almost immediately, Powell’s speech was greeted by intense criticism. In the uproar that followed, he was sacked from his position and in time exiled as an MP for Northern Ireland. He was excoriated in the Times of London as evil, racist, and disgraceful. Powell’s speech left a legacy so enduring in the public mind that the media cheerleading that greeted his death in 1998 left many in Britain bewildered at the ferocity of the daily press.

Clearly a protean figure, Powell presents something of a challenge to those who prefer to see their leaders either as paragons of high-minded rectitude, on one hand, or as proponents of war, torture, environmental ruin, and wholesale social dislocation, on the other. On the debit side, it seems fair to say that he was a man of calculation and ambition reasonably well pronounced even by today’s political standards.

Powell himself claimed that his dismissal from the shadow cabinet following his 1968 speech came as a particularly hard blow. “I felt,” he said, “like one innocently walking down a street who is hit on the head by a tile falling from a roof.” This was surely disingenuous on his part. Powell was a politician, and one who never shied from articulating the prejudices of the saloon bar. There is no evidence in the speech that he was making any particular effort to initiate a wider civic debate on immigration, nor to offer any practical suggestions as to how the immigrant population might better be assimilated into British society. Indeed—and this may have been his most destructive legacy—Powell’s intervention probably made it harder for the matter to be discussed constructively in the nation at large, let alone to be debated in Parliament. Even those MPs who may have shared his views promptly disowned him. They did not wish to be accused of racism.

It was all very well for Powell to couch his speech in cultured tones, with its sly allusions to Virgil, but it’s perhaps worth remembering the context in which he made his remarks. In April 1968 Powell had been an MP for almost twenty years, during which time he had had little to say on immigration or on race relations in general. He did, however, make no attempt to disguise his mounting contempt for Edward Heath, whom he regarded as a negligible figure suitable only for “some modest technical role” within the Tory party. Powell’s speech may well have been motivated by a genuine if hitherto-unexpressed concern at the future direction of British society. But it’s equally possible, even probable, that it was meant as the opening salvo of a campaign to galvanize the Conservative base and in turn unseat the feckless Heath as party leader.

Powell was that rare politician who combined elements of the abstract intellectual and the hardheaded realist. He graduated from Cambridge with a starred first-class degree in Latin and Greek, spoke numerous languages, and was a talented poet. For all his wonderfully anachronistic appearance, stern and thin lipped and invariably clad in a funereal three-piece suit at a time when many of his parliamentary colleagues had abandoned themselves to polyester slacks and safari jackets, Powell was also a sentimentalist who shamelessly celebrated humanity’s interconnectedness. “We are all members of a great human society, which fosters our material and spiritual needs from the cradle to the grave,” he wrote, in something of a reproach to his critics. Powell always insisted that he spoke in 1968 from a position not of “ethnic superiority…indeed I feel that in many ways the Indian is a higher being to the European,” but from concern that unbridled immigration would fatally alter the “historical and social cohesion” of the United Kingdom, to no one’s ultimate benefit. “I have, and always will, set my face like flint against making any difference between one citizen of this land and another on grounds of his origins,” he told the Times.

Half a century after “Rivers of Blood” and twenty years since his death, the verdict on Powell seems to be that he was broadly right on what we now call multiculturalism, which at least in Britain in its most doctrinaire form carries with it a cross-party requirement to tolerate attitudes the majority of citizens reject, and which abjures interference in those minority cultures for fear of accusations of racism. Even Labour prime minister Tony Blair came around to the view that dogmatic multiculturalism had weakened Britain’s civic culture and given a free pass to the violent provocations of radical Islamists on British soil. All this, of course, does not absolve Powell of the crudeness with which he addressed the challenge to Britain’s cultural coherence, including the speech’s undeniably racist overtones.

Powell died on February 8, 1998, having spent the last years of his life engaged in campaigns as diverse as his insistence that Earl Mountbatten had been murdered not by Irish nationalists but by the CIA, and that fox hunting, “a much-loved part of our island life,” should be preserved at all costs. A memorial service in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, drew many public figures, as well as some hecklers. It was a cold, fresh day of the kind that fosters a certain exhilaration of spirit whatever the occasion. Outside the church, an ad hoc honor guard stood in the pale winter sunshine bearing a ragged St. George’s flag and a hand-made sign saying simply “Enoch was a prophet.” But if indeed he was a prophet, Powell was ultimately a destructive one, who delivered his prophecy in such inflammatory terms that he foreclosed a more reasoned discussion of its important implications.