Remembering “Rivers of Blood”

Issue: 158

Shirin Hirsch

On 20 April 1968 Enoch Powell gave a talk in a small upstairs room to 85 Tories in Birmingham’s Midland Hotel. The words of this Conservative shadow minister and MP for nearby Wolverhampton South West were not directed towards these individuals alone, however. Powell was intent on reaching a mass audience; he had already delivered advanced transcripts to the press and there was a news crew present to film the speech. Unleashing a ferocious attack on black immigration, Powell’s words reverberated across the country.

To bring this enemy to life, Powell let it be known that he had recently fallen into conversation with a constituent, a “middle-aged, quite ordinary working man employed in one of our nationalised industries”. The man, Powell explained, was desperate to leave his own country for fear of the increasing immigrant numbers. Yet the words of this “decent, ordinary fellow Englishman” began to blur into the words of Powell. “In this country in 15 or 20 years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”, said Powell, or the man, or perhaps they had become one and the same. Throughout the speech Powell presented himself as the voice of these white Wolverhampton people, speaking for and through the crafted characters of his constituency, their words now articulated in the ventriloquism of Powell’s public voice. In contrast, immigrants entered the narrative as voiceless, threatening figures, removed from any sense of decency. In Wolverhampton these immigrants had been breeding rapidly, spreading noise and confusion, breaking windows and pushing excreta through the letterboxes of white residents. The immigrant children, “charming wide grinning ­piccaninnies”, were known to terrorise elderly white women for enjoyment; they knew no other English except the word “racialist” which they eagerly chanted. Against the background of Martin Luther King’s assassination and black risings in the United States, Powell ended with a prophesy that would come to informally entitle the speech and define his career: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding, like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.1

Now, 50 years since the speech, struggles over the memory of Powell have re-emerged. Many of those who attempt this canonisation of Powell suggest that his legacy must be detangled from a politics of race. “Erudite, scholarly, a poet and philosopher, a brigadier in the army during the war and prominent politician, there is much to celebrate in Powell’s life and work”, as one Conservative politician put it.2 Quoting particular statements of Powell’s is now seen as a slightly distasteful reflection of the time. Yet his name is often invoked in more coded debates as a politics that was first able to establish “magical connections” and “short-circuits” between the themes of race and immigration control, while evoking the images of the nation, the British people and the destruction of “our culture, our way of life”.3 This article traces the memories of this speech as a way of exploring racism as an ideology which has often coalesced around the symbolism of Powell. To understand these memories, the article first outlines the context in which Powell’s speech was made.

The transformations of Enoch Powell

Powell’s outburst in 1968 was most shocking because it did not come from the far-right fringes but from the heart of the establishment. Others have since speculated on his feelings of being an “outsider”, but Powell came from a comfortable middle class background and in his own words was “born a Tory”. Grammar school led to a place in Cambridge to study classics, and then a stint in Australia as a professor of Greek. He had grown up with a strong loyalty to imperial Britain, but it was his experience of the Second World War that developed this passion for empire as he cut his career in academia short and enlisted into the army. Rising up the ranks of the military and removed from combat, Powell served in India, which allowed his love of empire to blossom. Empire, for Powell, was a world system deeply enshrined in his very being, interwoven into what it meant to be an Englishman. When the war ended, Powell harboured dreams of returning to colonial India in the role of Viceroy. One way to protect the empire, Powell calculated, was a career in politics. He was elected in 1950 as MP for Wolverhampton South West.

Powell’s election was framed by the post-war boom. It was also a time when industry in Britain was met with serious labour shortages. The king’s speech on the opening of parliament in 1951, the first written by a Tory government since the war had ended, declared: “My government views with concern the serious shortage of labour, particularly of skilled labour, which has handicapped production in a number of industries”.4 Responding to this gap, the government at first focused on the recruitment of white migrants, but numbers from Europe were not sufficient to satisfy the labour hungry demands of industry. For a short time it looked as though the British economy would be throttled by a shortage of labour.

What saved it was, in Paul Foot’s words, a “historical accident of imperialism”.5 Drawing from the resources of the Commonwealth, immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent would have to be recruited to Britain. Powell was certainly not part of any anti-immigrant campaign in this period and during his time as health minister he was keen to recruit Caribbean migrants into the NHS. As late as 1964 Powell wrote: “I have set and I always will set my face like flint against making any difference between one citizen and another on grounds of his origin”.6 The framing of immigrants as an undesirable burden on the nation, something that must be halted, was not part of Powell’s language at this stage. This could be explained by the simple reason that British capitalism had become increasingly reliant on black migrant labour.

In the early 1960s the economic boom began very gradually to come to an end. Immigrant workers were still needed, but not with quite the same urgency and scale that had determined the labour market of the 1950s. In 1962 restrictions were introduced by the Conservative government on the admission of Commonwealth settlers, permitting only those with government issued employment vouchers to settle, a major turning point in the state implementation of immigration controls. The Labour Party opposed these controls but once in power, they introduced new legislation that imposed stricter restrictions on the migration of black and Asian migrants from the Commonwealth. In Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s words, racism was given the sanction of the state and was made “respectable and clinical by institutionalising it”.7 The passing of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, with cross-party support, gave Powell the confidence to raise the stakes of his new anti-immigrant politics and he made the “Rivers of Blood” speech the following month. With the increased racism spurred on by the speech came yet further controls. As Foot argued: “the tiger of racialism, once unleashed, knows no master. It devours its liberators and its prey with equal ferocity”.8

It was in this period that Powell developed an intense disillusionment with the realities of the British Empire as he bitterly observed its dramatic decline. Once a jewel to be protected with every fibre of his body, the empire was now dead to Powell and he turned abruptly against his past fixation. By 1964 Powell’s politics were associated with a new free market approach, and with opposition to state ownership, price fixing and taxes on big business. In this sense what was now dubbed Powellism was leading the calls to break with the consensus of the post-war period. “What we as a party ought to want to say and do today should be as fresh in spirit and as different as the world of 1965 is from the world of 1951. We cannot be tied to statements, attitudes and policies which Conservative governments and ministers happen to have espoused in years gone by just because they were Conservative” Powell argued.9 This economic position would come to influence Thatcherism in later years, but at this stage it was still supportive of migration. Expanding his attack on Conservative timidity, Powell stated in 1964 that the Tories needed to move away from their “fears and anxieties about the changes which rapid economic progress brings… We are fearful of the big movement of population and of industry without which industrial progress is not possible”.10

Powell’s new anti-Keynesian politics made converts among young Tories wanting to break away from the “semi-socialist web woven by expediency in three Tory administrations” and revived in older Tories a hope that Conservatism could again be what they had always thought it was: economically liberal.11 Yet as The Times noted, while Powell’s contributions to the political debate were important, they were not electorally seductive, particularly in the “austere garments” he presented them in.12

In 1965 Powell suffered a public defeat, losing the leadership of the Conservative Party to Edward Heath and achieving only a distant third place in this internal election. To stand any serious possibility of leading the party and the country, something dramatic had to change in his appeal. Following the failures of his leadership bid, Powell made a sharp transition in his political focus. In an interview given just two weeks before his “Rivers of Blood” speech, and published months later, he acknowledged: “I deliberately include at least one startling assertion in every speech in order to attract enough attention to give me a power base within the Conservative Party”.13

Powell’s shift in 1967 towards a new anti-immigrant politics was made within this context of individual ambition as well as national crisis. In the late 1960s British capitalism was forced to cut real living standards, begin to increase unemployment and raise rents and prices. David Widgery recalled how a real fear had begun to spread within ruling class circles that the rule of law was no longer guaranteed now that the mass complacency of the 1950s and early 1960s had dissipated.14 Powell’s speech was born out of this class conflict. He devised his new political direction as a way of speaking to these problems, engaging both with the fears of the elite and those within working class communities. Powell’s relationship with a segment of workers was in part aided by a prevalence of racist ideas inculcated by centuries of imperialism. Yet Britain’s imperial legacy was not in itself an adequate explanation. For Powell’s new racism to resonate with working class lives, his words had also to speak to the fears and disillusionment with established politics that had emerged in 1968, connecting with new material anxieties within sections of the working class.15 The “Rivers of Blood” speech offered both a superficial confrontation with the establishment and a focus on a new black threat.

Reverberations from the speech

The response was immediate. Just as Powell had planned, his words secured front page news and national attention. The following day he was sacked from the shadow cabinet for a speech that the Conservative leader Heath described as “racialist in tone” and that was clearly an attempt to seize the leadership of the party.16 Support continued, however, and in the national news the actions of the dockers in London attracted most attention when two days after the speech a thousand London dockers stopped work and marched to the House of Commons in support of Powell. Outside Parliament they chanted “We want Enoch Powell” while a protester explained that Powell was “the only man with the guts to say what he thinks”.17 The left within the docks seemed suddenly paralysed, although there were individual voices of resistance. One London docker in the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party), Terry Barrett, together with a small group of students, attempted to dissuade the ­dockers from marching by distributing a leaflet which read:

Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his class. He is a director of the vast National Discount Company (assets £224 million) which pays him a salary higher than the £3,500 a year he gets as an MP. He lives in fashionable Belgravia and writes Greek verse. What does he believe in? Higher unemployment… He wants higher health charges, less council houses, charges for state education and lower unemployment pay.18

The very presence of the leaflet was important in future struggles in the docks. Yet in this case it was a failed effort; in the London docks, 25 ships were idle and 4,402 dockers did not work during the action, according to the Port of London Authority.19 Among the celebratory scenes, however, there was real demoralisation within the London docks; the workers had lost a nine-week strike only a few months before Powell’s speech and had just accepted heavy redundancies. In response to these scenes, the trade union leadership were noticeably quiet. The Trades Union Congress general council met soon after the speech yet decided they were “keeping clear of the Powell question”.20 Responding to the speech, Mr Jagmohan Joshi, general secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association, believed the present trend of events in industry and employment showed that separate unions divided by race now had more chance of coming into existence in the near future and that this would be bad for the “principle of trade unionism”.21 The significance of the speech was sharply perceived by the minuscule and recently formed fascist organisation the National Front. They pointed out that their election prospects had grown enormously since the speech. “Of course”, said a spokesman “we had been saying for donkeys’ years what Powell has at last belatedly come out with, but he has given it an air of respectability. We expect to do better in the elections as a result”.22 For a fleeting moment the speech seemed able to capture the support of large sections of the British population and in Powell’s constituency of Wolverhampton there was a wave of racist attacks in the weeks that followed.


Just as politics in Britain seemed at their most bleak, across the Channel students and then workers erupted into action in the events of May 1968. The action gave a glimpse of resistance that would take place in Britain, in a more delayed form. By 1970 Heath had been elected prime minister and Powell was left severely isolated within his own party. Meanwhile, the pockets of workers’ support displayed for Powell had now dissipated. Instead workers’ action had transformed into concerted trade union struggle. An organised fascist, who had worked in Smithfield meat market and led a walk-out of workers in support of Powell following the speech, explained: “it was just that mood of the moment—like storming the Bastille I suppose”, admitting that it was a mood that lasted no longer than a few weeks.23 Simultaneously, the immigrants that Powell had talked of in such negative terms were also developing a newfound confidence in Britain and were beginning to organise against the racism that had been unleashed.

In 1973 a TV interviewer inquired: “many people are asking where does Enoch Powell go from here?” With little chance of a future cabinet position, the interviewer accused Powell of being a “voice in the wilderness” to which Powell responded that the wilderness was a good place for voices to reverberate.24 Powell shocked many in 1974 when he stood down as MP. Instead he called for a national vote for Labour, in opposition to Conservative support for the European Common Market. Abandoning his constituency of Wolverhampton South West, Powell moved to Northern Ireland to be elected MP in the South Down seat, representing the Ulster Unionists in the snap election of October 1974.

Despite the retreat, Powell’s racism still lingered within Britain. In 1976 the musician Eric Clapton declared to a huge audience in Birmingham that Powell was right and there were too many foreigners in the country. “Send them back”, he shouted to the crowd, “keep Britain white!” Clapton’s outburst illuminated the growing influence of the National Front. They had prominently used Powell’s words to push the language and arguments of fascism into the mainstream. The outburst spurred on the birth of Rock against Racism in 1976. The carnivals and protests that followed, with shows headlined by the Clash and Buzzcocks and hundreds of local groups and activities across the country, were all part of a mass anti-racist movement that defiantly challenged the parameters and legitimacy of a new racism Powellism was attempting to strengthen and widen.25

Margaret Thatcher, however, pulled the anti-immigrant politics of Powell back into the mainstream when, in the run-up to the general election, she commented on the fears of the British people that the country might be “rather swamped by people with a different culture”. Thatcher added: “So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay people’s fears on numbers”. These immigrants were carefully highlighted as those from “the new Commonwealth and Pakistan”. Those magical connections between race, the nation and immigration restrictions that Powell had developed were now being drawn upon by Thatcher. Moreover, Powell’s earlier critique of Heath’s Keynesian economic policies were now taken up under a new Thatcher government. It was this “rich mix” (as Stuart Hall put it) that Powell had pioneered—economic liberalism in combination with traditional themes of nation, family, authority and race—that became Thatcherism.26 It was not coincidental that Powell remained a reference point for Thatcher who was heard to refer to him privately as “that golden-hearted Enoch”.27

Despite this influence, Powell remained a representative for the Ulster Unionists under Thatcher’s rule. Still conceived of as somewhat embarrassing by ex-Conservative colleagues, he survived outside the political mainstream, reflecting the success of the anti-racist movement in Britain. When Powell lost his seat in 1987, his exile from mainstream politics seemed complete and while there were rumours of Powell receiving some form of peerage by Thatcher, it did not materialise. Powell would never again receive the same attention and he was left a dwindling figure ruminating on the significance of failure. He referred to himself as “dead” in political terms.28


On the radio show Desert Island Discs in 1989 Powell was asked how he would like to be remembered. “Others will remember me as they will remember me”, Powell responded before finally adding: “I should like to have been killed in the war”.29 The brigadier in uniform, fighting for his country, the man who had made a sacrifice for others, became central to Powell’s invention of himself. The myth of Powell’s self-sacrifice for the national good would be a recurring one following his death. Of course, Powell did not die on the battlefields of war, but in 1998 aged 85 in a private London hospital.

Powell’s funeral was carefully planned to project this image of sacrifice, as well as revealing the significant connections he had cultivated. Despite protests, Powell’s coffin lay overnight in Westminster Abbey and would be blessed the following morning. Its location served as a testimony to Powell’s relationship with powerful British institutions.30 After receiving these honours from the Church of England, Powell’s body was moved on to his two funerals, the first in St Margaret’s Church in London and the second in Warwickshire. Before his death Powell had requested a military funeral and to be buried with the regiment he had been part of 50 years previously. He was buried—dressed in his brigadier uniform—near to where three former members of the Royal Warwickshires were also buried.31 The coffin was draped in the Union Jack. Here was the brigadier Powell remembered in all his wartime glory.

Now that one of the most “brilliant” figures in British political life was dead, The Telegraph called for the adjournment of parliament and argued that Powell’s wife should be given a peerage.32 While neither suggestion was taken up, the obituaries that poured in displayed a public reverence for the once isolated man. This was reflected almost unanimously across the political spectrum and it was the Labour prime minister Tony Blair who led the voices of mourning. Blair stated that “however controversial” Powell’s views were, “he was one of the greatest figures of 20th century British politics, gifted with a brilliant mind. However much we disagreed with many of his views, there was no doubting the strength of his convictions or their sincerity, or his tenacity in pursuing them, regardless of his own self-interest”.33 This image of Powell’s sacrifice, bravely pursuing political ideas to the detriment of political career, neatly mirrored how Powell himself had asked to be remembered.

Blair was not the only politician to mourn Powell’s death and a long list of prominent politicians all paid their respects. Baroness Thatcher stated that there would never be anybody else so “compelling” as Enoch Powell, describing him as “magnetic” and listening to his speeches as an unforgettable privilege. Powell “was one of those rare people”, she argued, “who made a difference and whose moral compass led us in the right direction”.34 At the funeral the “old order” was in attendance; John Major, Lord Parkinson, Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo, William Waldegrave, Nicholas Budgen, Alan Clark, Ann Widdecombe, Sir John Nott and even Tony Benn were all there to mourn their parliamentary friend.35 The unanimity was complete and everyone who wrote about Powell following his death was certain of one thing, Enoch Powell was not a racist. This was all very odd, Foot noted in his obituary, because the most important thing by far about Powell was that he was a “racist pig of the most despicable variety”.36

A gradual rehabilitation

The lavish send-off suggested a deep, if uncomfortable, relationship between the heart of parliament and Enoch Powell. Yet, in the years that followed Powell’s death there was at first a quiet forgetting of his name; it seemed unpalatable. By 2005 a new politics was developing, however, around a “crisis in multiculturalism” and challenging “establishment” ways of thinking on race. Powell’s name began to emerge more frequently in these discussions. This was not led by the far-right or even Conservative groupings, but instead emerged from a network of centrist political figures, many of whom were associated with the ruling New Labour government. The turn in focus was most prominently expressed by Labour’s Trevor Phillips. While chairman of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights in 2005 Phillips famously declared that Britain was “sleepwalking” into segregation. He continued publicly to warn of an increasing “race segregation” which would bring “civil strife” and “fire” to the streets of British society. There were murmurs within the press that Phillips was transforming into a new Powell.37

On the 40th anniversary of the “Rivers of Blood” speech, Phillips decided to delve further into Powell’s past, theatrically returning to the hotel where the Conservative politician had once made his notorious speech. Phillips stressed that Powell’s speech had made it virtually impossible for Britain to have a proper policy on immigration for nearly half a century. If Powell represented paralysis, Phillips clearly viewed his choreographed return to the site of origin as an attempt to move beyond this moment, allowing for a new dialogue on the “immigration debate”. Phillips paid tribute to David Cameron for being the first Conservative leader able to talk about race and immigration by adopting a more reasonable tone; Cameron had, in Phillips’s eyes, been right to call for a debate addressing issues of overcrowding and pressure on public services.38

Phillips was by no means a lone voice within New Labour. Debates on immigration, separation and the “white working class” began to evolve and crystallise in this period. David Goodhart best encapsulated this politics with his public calls for liberals to “get their act together over immigration”. In 2004 he was one of the early voices to push this line. In an essay for Prospect magazine, entitled “Too Diverse?” he argued that sharing and solidarity now conflicted with mass immigration and diversity, what he called the “progressive dilemma”. He wrote “to put it bluntly—most of us prefer our own kind”.39 While Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech was significant in part for making it “slightly indecent” to talk about immigration, Goodhart argued that he was attempting to move beyond this moment in pursuing a much needed conversation on immigration. Rather than silencing the issues Powell had raised, they needed to be addressed in a more refined manner.

In 2008 Powell was brought back into the open when the BBC broadcast a series provocatively entitled “White Season”. The series intended to shine a spotlight on the “white working class” in Britain, interrogating why some people felt “under siege” and how their very sense of being had been “brought into question”. To visualise this, the trailer for the series showed a number of brown hands scrawling messages in foreign languages on the face of a balding white man. In the background Billy Bragg sings a call for the building of a New Jerusalem. Eventually the white man’s face is covered in so much ink that he can no longer be seen against the black background.40 Central to this series was the documentary “Rivers of Blood” which attempted to understand Powell’s speech in a new light, reassembling the surviving fragments of the tape to recreate the whole speech. The speech is repeated over and over again in the film, while footage shows us the dockers marching in support of Powell, then the 1981 riots and finally the 7/7 attacks and the wreckage of the London bus bombed that day. At the start of the documentary, the narrator states: “in the wake of riots and terror attacks, many are now asking, was Enoch Powell right to predict disaster in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech?”. These anonymous supporters of Powell reappear throughout the documentary in the narrator’s voice, and the programme concludes that “ten years after his death, many believe that Powell’s arguments were often prescient”.41 There was no evidence or examples of who these many people believing in Powell were, but the programme seemed designed to suggest that Powell was right and that he was speaking up for the white working class who had been excluded from political debate. Tellingly, the most glowing review of the documentary was given by the leader of the BNP Nick Griffin, who gloated that if the BNP had made a documentary on Powell: “it wouldn’t have differed too much from this”.42 The political ostracism that Powell had suffered was thus openly challenged in a documentary broadcast to the nation, with a more sympathetic mainstream account presented of the politician. Powell had been rediscovered.

There was now no holding back those who had first tentatively introduced Powell’s name into wider discussions on immigration. Raging against the liberal elite, Phillips argued: “We maintain a polite silence masked by noisily debated public fictions such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’”. “Rome may not yet be in flames”, he continued “but I think I can smell the smouldering whilst we hum to the music of liberal self-delusion”.43 These words echoed those of Powell, almost 50 years on, and the reverberations were not coincidental. Phillips explained that Powell too had summoned up echoes of Rome. The impact of Powell’s speech, according to Phillips, was that “everyone in British public life learnt the lesson: adopt any strategy possible to avoid saying anything about race, ethnicity (and latterly religion and belief) that is not anodyne and platitudinous”. Phillips, however, intended to break the silence, calling for a frank and open discussion of the possibility of a link between rape and the perpetrators’ “cultural background”. Powell was now not something to be ashamed of and there could be no shying away from those “difficult conversations” that Powell had first initiated.44

Phillips has therefore done much work on the road to Powell’s rehabilitation. Of course, Powell has always had ardent supporters alongside this. Simon Heffer is the most vocal of these as Powell’s biographer and friend, writing prolifically in his defence and railing against his removal from mainstream politics. For The Telegraph, having once mourned Powell’s death, their interest has only emerged again more recently. In 2010 a journalist for the newspaper complained that it was almost as rare as a graceful tango from Ann Widdecombe to hear a “good news story about Enoch Powell”. It was a “regrettable consequence” of his infamous speech in 1968 that it “overshadowed his other achievements”.45 By 2014 the Conservative politician Daniel Hannan was writing in The Telegraph that Powell’s “monstrous reputation” was hiding the real man who, on the two big issues of his day (immigration and the EU), was “dead right”. It was therefore sad that what remained of Powell’s legacy was a name with which to, if not quite frighten ­children, at least bludgeon opponents.46

Brexit, race and Wolverhampton

Despite this longer history, some argued that Powell has re-emerged in connection only with Brexit; “it was Enoch wot won it” as the Financial Times put it.47 Discussing the Brexit bill following the referendum, the pro-EU Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke noted:

I feel the spirit of the former colleague who I rather respected, apart from one or two of his extreme views, my former colleague Enoch Powell. The best speaker of the Eurosceptic cause I’ve probably ever heard in this House of Commons. If he was here he probably would find it amazing to believe that his party had become Eurosceptic and rather mildly anti-immigrant in a really strange way in 2016. Well I’m afraid on that I haven’t followed them and I don’t intend to do so.48

Invoking Powell’s spirit, Clarke was careful to stress his respect for his “former colleague” and his abilities, while removing himself from “one or two” of his views. Powell is instead situated as simply one wing within the party, a wing which has now, to Clarke’s shock, become dominant. Yet the turn to Powell cannot simply be framed by a right wing Brexit position. Echoes of Powell could also be heard within sections of the Labour Party that had campaigned most vigorously to remain within the European Union. At the Labour Party conference of 2016, for example, the New Labour and pro-EU MP Rachel Reeves argued that her party needed to “wake up”. In the speech Reeves argued there were “bubbling tensions in this country that I just think could explode” if immigration was not curbed after Brexit. Reeves noted that the reality of this could be observed in her constituency of Leeds West. Since the referendum there had been three alleged racist attacks in the constituency, the most serious of these when a Polish man ended up in hospital after being assaulted by a group of 20 youths. To stop these attacks in future, Reeves urged her party to end freedom of movement in Europe and to tighten immigration controls. Removing the presence of immigrants, in Reeves’s logic then, would both alleviate the fear immigrants had of racism, since presumably they would no longer remain within the country, while also meaning racists would have no need to act on their hostility. In her most dramatic line, Reeves stressed the urgency of further immigration controls, warning that her own constituency was “like a tinderbox”. The selection of such incendiary words echoed those of Powell. In Reeves’ violent prophesy she was accused of “channelling” Powell.49 This was not an isolated intervention, but represented the thoughts of a section of the party, once dominant, who had made strict immigration controls a central component of Labour policy. Powell’s speech was drawn upon to articulate this politics.

Yet Powellism has also begun to be explicitly challenged by opposing forces within the Labour Party. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, recently explained at a speech on immigration how as a school girl she heard of the “Rivers of Blood” speech:

I wasn’t following it in huge detail but I do remember how I felt. People were talking about it even in school and I felt frightened. I didn’t quite know why, I didn’t know exactly what had been said, but I felt frightened. And of course, one of the issues around immigration in some political quarters is that immigration is a euphemism for race, and you can’t have a serious debate about immigration unless you are prepared to face up to that.50

The immigration policy of Labour is ambigious and yet the question of Powell continues to re-emerge within these debates. For example, in 2017 Eleanor Smith was elected as Labour MP for Wolverhampton South West. Smith is a trade unionist and nurse and the first Afro-Caribbean MP to represent the West Midlands. This was a swing seat presented as a likely Conservative win. Instead Smith won with a 6 percent swing from the Labour incumbent who had won the seat in 2015. There was much political commentary on the fact that Smith had won in the former seat of Enoch Powell. Following her election victory, she explained: “He was making the speech when my parents and many others came to this country. Now we can actually put that to rest. Wolverhampton South West is a very mixed, diverse, multicultural community”.51 Interestingly, Smith’s win was in a constituency which had produced an unexpectedly high vote to leave the European Union, with 62 percent of Wolverhampton voting to leave. It is also a city with a 36.5 percent ethnic minority population. The two votes together suggest that simply equating Brexit with a rise in Powellism is untenable in this case. A vote for Brexit did not directly translate into a vote for the Conservatives.

Despite Smith’s attempts to move on from Powell, struggles over his legacy have re-emerged in his old constituency. Most recently it was reported that a proposal had been submitted for Powell to be honoured with a blue plaque in Wolverhampton. A poll was initiated on the proposal by the local right wing newspaper, with two thirds voting in favour, framed by the editorial of the paper which stated that it was “worth remembering that this intelligent and complex man represented Wolverhampton for nearly a quarter of a century”.52 Meanwhile the blue plaque secretary for Wolverhampton, Barry Hodgson, explained to the paper: “My own view is that plaques should reflect our history, warts and all”.53 The worry, Hodgson acknowledged, was that there would be no place in Wolverhampton safe enough for the plaque, with fears that it would be defaced: “We normally place plaques three metres high, but this would probably have to go four or five metres up,” he explained.54 The newspapers did not clarify that Hodgson was also the UKIP candidate for Wolverhampton South East in the 2017 general election. In response, Black Country Stand up to Racism have launched an open letter opposing the honouring of Enoch Powell, with trade unionists, local Labour MPs and the bishop of Wolverhampton all signing. In addition, on the anniversary of the “Rivers of Blood” speech, Birmingham Stand up to Racism have booked the room where Powell made his speech, and in contrast to 50 years ago, this event will discuss a history of racism and resistance. The following day in Wolverhampton a range of events under the title “Wolverhampton Welcomes the World: Many Rivers to Cross” continue this opposition.

Powell’s legacy is therefore a live issue once again, as the right attempts to resurrect him through a commemorative plaque. Their justification is framed around a neutral history, in which Powell is simply an intriguing element of our heritage, now ready to be part of a cultural attraction for visitors and residents alike to reflect on a completed past. Yet the prophesy of “Rivers of Blood” is still drawn upon across the country in much more violent ways. Less than two weeks after Finsbury Park Mosque was targeted in a racist attack and a Muslim man was murdered, the mosque reported that it had since received numerous threatening letters. The mosque’s chairman Mohammed Kozbar said the severity of the threats in the letters had left him concerned that another attack could take place soon. An anonymous letter read: “There will be rivers of blood flowing down the streets—I will make sure of this”.55 Powell’s calculated words and particularly the insistency of the image of blood-filled rivers have remained a call to arms for implementers of Powell’s vision intent on a war between races. Rather than Powell being a harmless historical figure, memories of him are still drawn on by racist supporters to provide direction and a sense of tradition to their action. Powell remains a rallying point for these far-right groupings.

However, as this article has shown, the memory of Powell has only survived because of more mainstream figures intent on his rehabilitation. As Paul Gilroy notes, it is a peculiar feature of race politics that many of the most powerful, influential people and institutions in Britain cannot leave the memory of Powell alone.56 Truly to reckon with his legacy therefore means acknowledging the range of political voices that have drawn from the anti-immigration politics of his past. This is not simply a phenomenon of the far-right, but has also been pushed by supposedly liberal voices, who have attempted to sanitise Powell’s words, to translate them into more palatable, mainstream ones. Reviving the memory came as much from elements of liberal Britain as from the brazen admiration of Nigel Farage. Saying Powell’s name was not always needed, but appeared unavoidable at other moments as a sort of periodic ritual in exposing the undercurrent realities of British politics. On the 50th anniversary of the speech we need to return to a tradition of anti-racist resistance rooted within working class organisation. It defeated Powell then, and it can defeat him again today.

Shirin Hirsch has just completed a short book, In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, Locality and Resistance.


1 Powell, 1992, p161.

2 Hastilow, 2018.

3 Hall, 2017, p185.

4 Foot, 1965, p124.

5 Foot, 1965.

6 Powell, Express and Star, 10 October 1964, cited in the classic by Foot, 1969.

7 Sivanandan, 1976, p354.

8 Foot, 1965.

9 Heffer, 1998, p373.

10 Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1964.

11 “Powellism”, The Times, 15 July 1965.

12 “Tories in a New World”, The Times, 28 December 1964.

13 Sunday Times Magazine, 29 December 1968.

14 Widgery, 1976, p411.

15 See Bonnett, 1998.

16 “Powell out of Shadow Cabinet”, The Times, 22 April 1968.

17 “Mixed Motives of ‘non-racialist’ Dock Marchers”, Guardian, 24 April 1968.

18 Cliff, 2000.

19 “Unions, MPs and Dockers Line up”, Guardian, 27 April 1968.

20 “TUC Keeps Clear of the Powell Question”, Guardian, 25 April 1968.

21 Perrot and Haworth, 1968.

22 “Unions, MPs and Dockers Line up”, Guardian, 27 April 1968.

23 Walker, 1977, p110.

24 “Enoch Powell Interview”, ATV Today, 17 April 1973.

25 Huddle and Saunders, 2016.

26 Hall, 2017, p180.

27 Heffer, 1998, p847.

28 Heffer, 1998, p914.

29 “Enoch Powell Desert Island Discs”, BBC Radio 4, 19 February 1989.

30 Vallely, 1998.

31 BBC News, 1998.

32 Telegraph, 1998.

33 Independent, 1998.

34 Independent, 1998.

35 BBC News, 1998.

36 Foot, 1998.

37 Evening Standard, 23 Oct 2006.

38 Kite, 2008.

39 Goodhart, 2004.

40 “White Season”, BBC Online, 20 November 2008.

42 Street, 2008.

43 Telegraph, 2016.

44 Telegraph, 2016.

45 Power, 2010.

46 Hannan, 2014.

47 McTernan, 2017.

48 Walker, 2017.

49 Williams, 2016.

50 Elgot, 2018.

51 BBC News, 2017.

52 Express and Star, 2018.

53 Madeley, 2018.

54 Bird, 2018.

55 Parker, 2017.

56 Gilroy, 2008.


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