Like the Roman I seem to see 'the river Tiber foaming with blood'.

I'm going to make a speech this weekend and it's going to go up 'fizz' like a rocket.

The Speech

On the 20th April 1968 Enoch Powell, the shadow defence spokesman for the Conservative Party, stood up in a small upstairs room of the Midland Hotel in Birmingham and delivered what would turn out to be arguably the most explosive speech ever delivered by any British politician of the twentieth century.

The subject of his speech was immigration, which in this context meant the postwar settlement of immigrants of African and Asian origin from Britain's former colonies in the West Indies and India. Powell's view was that this influx of immigrants was changing the character of many areas in England, including his own constituency of Wolverhampton South-west as well as much of the West Midlands. As Powell explained;

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. 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 future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.

His solution to this problem was straightforward; controls should be implemented to halt the inflow of immigrants and a voluntary repatriation programme introduced to encourage the resettlement of former immigrants in their country of origin.

Powell did not belive that he was saying anything new. The speech was simply a summary of what he had been saying for a number of years, and was similar in content to a speech that he had earlier delivered at Walsall. But it was not so much what he said, but the way he said it. During the course of his speech he referred to one of his constituents who had resolved to leave the country as he believed that eventually "the black man will have the whip hand over the white man" and also to another elderly woman from Wolverhampton who found herself the last white person left on the street, and subjected to harassment from her black neighbours2. And being a classical scholar, Powell could not resist ending his speech with an allusion to the prophecy of the Sybil to Aeneas contained in Book VI of the Aeneid; Et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno - 'And the Tiber foaming with much blood'; thus conjuring up an apocalyptic vision of future racial conflict in Great Britain.

This was a speech that was calculated to create controversy, but then Powell wanted to have an impact, as he was determined to place the issue of immigration on the political agenda. The impact of the speech was also heightened by the fact that it had been circulated to the press beforehand1, and that the local ATV television station had sent a camera crew round to record Powell delivering his speech, thus guaranteeing that suitable sound bites would appear in news bulletins.

Of course it didn't help that Enoch Powell had, apparently inadvertently, chosen the 20th April to deliver his speech; that date being the birthdate of Adolf Hitler.

The Reaction

The leader of the Conservative Party, Edward Heath, was quick to condemn Powell's speech. On the evening of Sunday 21st April Edward Heath sacked Enoch Powell from the shadow cabinet, as he later explained "because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations." Heath was joined by a long queue of public figures from across the political spectrum who similarly condemned Powell, sentiments that were echoed in the national press; The Times referred to it as 'An Evil Speech'

There were many who called for Powell to be prosecuted under the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1965 which made incitement to cause racial hatred a criminal offence, but on the 2nd May, the Attorney-General Elwyn Jones declined to prosecute, citing the difficulties of proving intent. (Threats of prosecution under this act and its successor were to become a regular occurrence for Powell over the following years.)

However, Powell's own constituency party in Wolverhampton South West stood by him; they deplored his "unjustified dismissal" and praised his "courage to express the true facts which exist in his constituency and in other parts of the country". Powell himself was deluged by tens of thousands of letters in support of his position. (Whilst Edward Heath found himself in receipt of a similar deluge of hate mail.) On the 23rd April 1,000 London dockers went on strike and marched to Westminster to lobby their Labour MPs in support of Powell. This was followed by a spate of similar walkouts across the country; in the West Midlands the workers of the Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery marched on the town hall. As the Labour Party politician Richard Crossman noted in his diaries, Powell had "stirred up the nearest thing to a mass movement since the 1930s", "stimulating a real revolt of the masses ... the illiterate industrial proletariat who have turned up in strength and revolted against the literate".

A Gallup poll held at the end of April showed that 74% of the electorate agreed with Powell, with 15% in disagreement; 69% felt that Heath had been wrong to sack him, with only 20% supporting Heath's decision. Whereas the political establishment might condemn him, he had clearly struck a chord with the "illiterate industrial proletariat".

The Consequences

The major consequence of the speech was that it transformed Enoch Powell into a national political figure and marked the birth of Powellism as a real political force in Britain. Despite being relegated to the position of a mere member of parliament, Powell retained a high public profile, and the media coverage devoted to Powell during the 1970 General election campaign exceeded that of the entire Liberal Party. It is widely believed that it was his appeal to working class voters that delivered victory in the 1970 election to Edward Heath, and that his later call to his supporters to 'vote Labour' that relegated Heath to defeat twice in 1974.

Before 1968 the questions of race and immigration had largely been ignored by the major political parties for fear of exacerbating racial tensions within the country. After Powell's speech they became public issues, and have never gone away.

Powell always denied that he was racist or driven by any racist motives; he argued that it was his public duty to speak out on behalf of his constituents and that what he said was entirely consistent with Conservative Party policy. He believed that the issue was not one of colour but of culture, and would have taken the exact same position had it been a question of German or Russian immigrants. However, it has been argued that by speaking out as he did that he was responsible for encouraging racist attacks on immigrants and that by making such anti-immigration views respectable he was therefore responsible for the rise of the National Front in the 1970s and its successor the British National Party. He thus became a favourite hate figure for the left who condemned him as a racist and a neo-Nazi and mounted demonstrations whenever he appeared on one of his many public speaking engagements.


NOTES

1 But not distributed via Conservative Party Central Office, hence the likes of Edward Heath got no forewarning of the storm to come.
2 Naturally efforts were made by many in the media to identify the elderly lady from Wolverhampton. When the media failed to do so this led some to suggest that either Powell or someone else (such as perhaps the National Front) had invented her. It was however later confirmed by a local solicitor that she did indeed exist, although he declined to name her, citing the requirement to maintain client confidentiality.


SOURCES

  • Simon Heffer Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)
  • http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/powell_press.htm

The full text of the Rivers of Blood speech can be found at; http://www.sterlingtimes.org/powell_speech.doc

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