Fifty years ago this month, the British conservative Enoch Powell gave his “Rivers of Blood” speech about immigration, which has become as legendary as it is infamous. A classics professor who once aspired to become viceroy of the British Raj, Powell was one of postwar Britain’s most intelligent conservatives. Romantic about British traditions and deeply skeptical of the emerging European superstate, he would become a mentor to the young Margaret Thatcher. But instead of forcing immigration onto the agenda and propelling Powell toward Conservative Party leadership, the Rivers of Blood speech pushed the issue to the fringe and Powell’s career into the ditch. Powell’s fall became a rallying cry for racists and immigration a wedge issue for Europe’s populist “new right” parties, thus preventing candid discussion of policy.

In April 1968, Britain’s Labour government enacted the Race Relations Act, making illegal racial or religious discrimination in housing, employment, or public services. In response, Powell attacked the cross-party postwar consensus, not just on race relations but also on broader questions of national identity. Two decades of mass immigration, he warned, had started a “total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history.” British society was “on the verge of a change”—and risking the kind of inter-ethnic violence that had stymied Powell’s ambitions to run India.

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding,” Powell said, and “like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood”—a classical allusion to the Sybil’s prophecy of civil war in the Aeneid. Less stylish was his description of immigrants’ children as “wide-grinning piccaninnies.” In response, the pro-European Conservative Party leader Edward Heath removed Powell from his position as Shadow Defence Secretary. In the East End of London, though, dockworkers marched under the slogan “Enoch was right.” Powell’s stance won working-class votes for Heath in the 1970 election. Many white Britons still mutter that “Enoch was right” behind closed doors whenever the subject of immigration comes up—which it does whenever people talk politics today.

But how right was Enoch?

He was spot-on about demography. He calculated that, by 2000, immigrants from the Commonwealth and their descendants would number “five to seven million, approximately one-tenth of the whole population.” The 2011 census found 4.4 million Asian British, 1.9 million black British, and 1.25 million British Mixed, making up roughly 10 percent of the total British population of 63 million. No parallel exists for such rapid demographic transformation in the history of Britain or any other European state. 

Powell was not entirely wrong about the politicizing of race. The Race Relations Act created a Community Relations Commission for the settling of discrimination suits, which Powell saw as a collectivization of grievance, inimical to British tradition, that would likely produce communal hostilities resembling the “tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic.” It has certainly produced a widely resented morality police—an unelected class of left-leaning lawyers and civil servants that exacerbates ethnic and racial tensions by creating institutional incentives for what the French call communitarianism but is better understood as the Balkanizing of the population into competing ethnic groups.

Powell was wrong, however, in many other ways. His race-baiting exemplified the collectivizing hostility he purported to warn against and the opportunistic populism he professed to despise. His proposed answer, the “encouragement of re-immigration,” or voluntary repatriation, was impractical and inhumane. He underestimated the tolerance of his countrymen. The French shunned their Arab immigrants, and the Germans dehumanized their Gastarbeiter as second-class citizens, but the British married their immigrants, especially Caribbeans. The Enoch-was-right parties of the 1970s never won a parliamentary seat. The British have largely kept calm and carried on as their society has been transformed over a generation. That tolerance was disturbed only recently, with the acceleration of Muslim immigration and the eruption of domestic jihadism. It is ironic that Powell insulted Caribbeans and Sikhs in his speech but never mentioned Muslims.

Finally, Powell got his history wrong, and not just because the Sybil, who worked at a Greek colony in Italy, was an immigrant to Rome. Powell should have cited a later Roman, Juvenal: “It seems as if the Syrian Orontes flows into the River Tiber.” As the recent exodus from Syria to the EU shows, the course of history runs from east to west. Government’s task is to manage its human ebbs and flows.

The post-1968 refusal of British politicians to listen to voters’ concerns about immigration, and the European-wide failure to enforce border security, produced a populist backlash with the Brexit referendum of 2016. Angela Merkel’s grandstanding acceptance of 1 million “migrants” in 2015 backfired at the German polls in 2017, making a racist party her official opposition. And French resentment of failed immigration policies has carried the National Front from the fascist fringe to near-respectability. When mainstream politicians fail, populists step in.

Last week, BBC Radio broadcast the Rivers of Blood speech for the first time. Historians, activists, and even an actor who has played Powell on stage debated each section of the speech. The broadcast did not cause the collapse of British civil society. The past cannot be ignored, and the visceral politics of belonging cannot be wished away. Monocultural European countries can begin to solve their dilemmas of immigration and identity only when they talk honestly about their fears and hopes for the future. Wrong in many ways, Powell was right about that.

Photo by Colin Davey/Getty Images


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