Rivers of Mud : Legacy of Britain's most infamous political speech still unclear
Updated: Nov 16
Fifty years on from one of the most infamous and significant post war British political speeches, Enoch Powell is still a name that conjures up outrage and hand wringing. What makes the so called “Rivers of Blood” speech so incendiary?
Before 'That Speech'
Enoch Powell was the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West. He was, without doubt, an extremely intelligent individual. His name is now associated with an image of declining Empire and racism, an anachronistic hangover from the Victorian age. He came from a modest background to become a Professor in ancient Greek by the age of 25. This was a disappointment to him as he had failed to best Nietzsche's record of achieving that post by the age of twenty four. When the war with Germany (that he boldly predicted) began, he quit his post, to enlist as the youngest professor in the army and finished the war as a Brigadier. He was also awarded the MBE for his service. He had continued to study Urdu in pursuance of his ultimate ambition, to be Viceroy of India. This lofty ambition faded in 1947 with the independence of India and led to his absolutist anti Imperialist position, his logic being if India was to be relinquished, then so should the rest of the British possessions.
He entered Parliament in 1950 and in 1959 delivered a speech on the topic of the murder of eleven Mau Mau in a work camp in Kenya. Considering the vitriol and accusations to be thrown at him later in life, the position he took on this issue may surprise many as he sounds like the exact opposite of the standard characterisation of him. Other members of the chamber had described the eleven as "sub human", a position that Powell vehemently dismissed, he powerfully rejected the proposition that because the events transpired in Africa that different methods were acceptable.
"We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility"
A man of unquestionable intelligence, drive, principle and a defender of the rights of all men, how has this man been cast as a racist monster?
As the sixties wore on, Powell started to express concerns about the levels of immigration into Britain and often called for limits or temporary visas on those populations that moved to Britain. On the evening of April 20 1968, Enoch Powell delivered his now infamous speech to a meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre. It is referred to as the "Rivers of Blood" speech, although Powell never used those words but alluded to a classical reference of the Tiber river foaming with blood. He knew the speech would be incendiary, and have a long lasting impact, he confessed to his friend Clement Jones, the Editor of the Wolverhampton Express & Star "I'm going to make a speech at the weekend and it's going to go up 'fizz' like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up." The speech was delivered as Parliament was considering the Race Relations Bill as the Conservative Party had tabled amendments that would weaken the provisions severely.
Powell recounted conversations he had had with constituents, one man who confessed that if he had the money he would leave the country as he feared in twenty years time "black man will have the whip hand over the white man" Powell used this anecdote to build the following point of concern:
"Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, 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 hundreds of 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 thousand years of English history. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre."
He continued with a further contribution, from a letter received from a woman who rented a house in Wolverhampton where she was the only white resident. She complained that she was verbally abused and intimidated and felt that the new law and social direction would have her castigated as a racist.
The language used feels awkwardly and painfully of a previous age and is difficult for modern ears to hear. The referral to the "whip hand" , "negroes" and the line on "charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies" are unquestionably problematic. Furthermore, critics have often argued that there was no evidence for these communications and they were simply a construct to help build his case. Powell argued that anonymity for the individuals he cites was key, especially considering the fear they had of being ostracised or punished. Liberal Party Leader Jeremy Thrope believed there was a case for Powell to be charged with incitement.
Powell proposed financial assistance in repatriation of immigrants and an immediate and strict control over the numbers. His conclusion is where the heart of the relevance of his speech still lies. He warned the Race Relations legislation would lead to discrimination against the native population which would breed resentment and hostility. He stated that while he felt a great number of immigrants wished to integrate, many also had no intention of doing so, and would utilise racial and religious differences "with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest of the population". He concluded by referencing the prophecy of Sybil in the Aeneid of horrible future conflict:
"As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood". 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 our own neglect. 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. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal."
The weeks after the speech would seem curiously familiar to modern day Brits. Politicians toured studios condemning the tone of the speech as potentially damaging to race relations. Race attacks were reported as on the rise in Newspapers, The Times headline on april 30th 1968 read "Coloured family attacked", maybe helping to put some of the terminology used by Powell and those he quoted into historical context. The Times was strong in it's condemnation of the "evil" speech and of Powell, stating "This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our postwar history". Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet but his popularity soared. Dock workers went on strike, marching through London, the organiser, Harry Pearman said "we are representatives of the working man, we are not racialists". It would seem that politics, like history, may not repeat, but it certainly echoes.
The arguments still rage today as to whether he was right. A speech which sets out a controversial prophecy is, by it's very nature, one that will retain relevance if it is anywhere near close to being realised. Many point to the islamic terror and bloodshed on Britain's streets, the huge number of acid attacks in London and the alarming phenomenon of interracial grooming and abuse that seems endemic across the country as evidence of Powell's fearful prediction being right. His critics reject these parallels and dismiss him as a racist who has no place in modern Britain. The BBC made the choice to mark the occasion of the anniversary with a performance of the speech by an actor, intersected with critique and analysis. Media commentators were outraged and claimed the words should not be broadcast. The 'brand' of Enoch Powell is so toxic that even commentators who wish to see immigration controls in place have to distance themselves from Powell as a racist dinosaur as an article of faith before embarking on their treatise.
There was an enormous and concerted outpouring of optimistic opposition on social media in the wake of the BBC broadcast as people shared inspirational photos of their mixed race families claiming 'Rivers of Love' had been the the outcome of Britain's progressive journey and that Enoch Powell was wrong. In general, there is a lot of truth to their belief, but to deny the clear tension that exists in not just modern day Britain, but across Europe, caused by unbridled immigration, is unwise.
It is interesting to note some commentary by political heavyweight figures in later years had been more circumspect than vindictive. Edward Heath, the man who sacked Powell for the speech said 30 years later that Enoch Powell's observations on "economic burden of immigration" had been "not without prescience." Margaret Thatcher commented in 1990 that Powell had made a legitimate argument in albeit "regrettable terms". Once leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot is reported to have said that it was "tragic" that such an "outstanding personality" had been condemned for predicting widespread violence when he used a classical quote to transmit his own sense of foreboding. Yet, the slogan "Enoch Powell was right" is a one way ticket to condemnation. The Conservative candidate for Halesowen was forced to resign after using those words in 2007. Nigel Farage, a man who has his own legacy of division to contend with, was scorned as a "Poundshop Enoch Powell" by TV presenter and cultural commentator Russell Brand and during the Brexit debate, his critics said that the MEP was evoking the ghost, or shadow of Enoch Powell. In January 2014 Farage stated he believed the basic principles of the speech were right when he was quoted parts of the speech before being told where the statements had come from. He told the Daily Mail "Well, what he was warning about is that if you have a large influx of people into an area that changes an area beyond recognition, there is tension, that basic principle is right".
Rivers of Brexit?
Powell had worked in the Ministry of Health before the speech, he had frequently been asked about the NHS employing immigrant workers, a position he did not agree with but stated was a local decision not to be mandated from above. He spoke in the speech of the increasing frustration and bewilderment that would be felt as the native population found themselves lower down waiting lists or unable to get their children into school. To this day a relentless battlefield in the political debate on immigration is still on the belief that immigration places pressure on services at the disadvantage of native populations. Those who decry the arguments of Powell and Farage say that immigration has provided much more benefit to the Health service and to the diversity of culture and society than any negative impacts that could be referenced. To those who feel differently, it is often said the frustration is not directed at immigrant populations but toward political leadership who have allowed such changes to take place. The Brexit vote was a seismic outpouring of this frustration toward the political and metropolitan elite that was quickly branded as foolhardy, racist and ignorant. This enthusiasm to label Brexit as a racist act quite possibly only serves to bring Powell's speech back into sharp political focus. He did, after all, set out the frustrations of the ordinary workers and voters who spoke to him, those who felt ignored by the political direction of travel, those who expressed concern as to the result. Powell himself likened the behaviour of the media and political leadership to heaping wood on the funeral pyre of the country or lighting a match over gunpowder, it is often overlooked that he was critical of leadership failure to read the tea leaves.
Powell said he was giving a warning, and felt that not speaking would be "a betrayal", he paid for his words with his career and his reputation. It seems the warning was misunderstood and Brexit, it could be argued, is a direct consequence of the wilful denial of Powell's words. In 1977 he observed that he felt his prediction was an underestimation of the impacts of mass immigration. His speech will live longer in the cultural memory than anything else he said or achieved and perhaps the very fact that it still generates so much intense derision and anger doesn't mean he was right or wrong, but certainly suggests he understood that this issue would become a dominant force in the politics of his future, our today. The rocket that would fizz up, and never come back down again.
An audio recording of the speech is available here
The transcript can be read here
A video of excerpts of the original delivery is on youtube here: