Great mistakes in politics (No26) Enoch Powell and the Rivers of Blood speech

As mistakes go this was a huge one.

Britain in the late 1960s was still coming to terms with the influx of immigrants in the aftermath of World War Two. There seemed to be a general split in the country between those who thought that immigration was a natural result of Britain being a former imperial power, and greater diversity was a good thing, and those who thought that immigration was a blight on society that would lead to nothing but trouble.

Enoch Powell had been a Conservative MP for the West Midlands for several years by 1968 and hadn’t said much on the subject of immigration. When he gave what he referred to as his ‘Birmingham’ speech he released the text to a group of journalists beforehand to make sure it would get maximum coverage. In it he railed against immigration as destroying Britain from the inside, quoting several examples from his own constituents. He finished the speech by paraphrasing the Aeneid:

‘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’

This was incredibly strong stuff, and regardless of whether he intended it to be or not, came across as incitement to violence to a significant number of people listening. If Powell wanted the speech to be controversial and make a splash in the press then he certainly got his way. Worse yet several racist attacks occurred in the aftermath of the speech by people inspired by it.

In the short-term the speech boosted his popularity amongst part of the population, and it certainly raised his media profile. However by giving it Powell effectively alienated a huge chunk of parliament and a large section of the media. The Times was hardly a bastion of social-liberalism and even they referred to it as an ‘evil speech’. In the long-term it destroyed his wider political career. The Conservative Party leader Edward Heath sacked him from his position of Shadow Defence Secretary the day after, and although he remained an MP until 1987 he never again held office.

He spent the rest of his life involved in politics in one way or another, speaking out on a whole range of issues from nuclear weapons to Britain’s role in the EU. His anti-establishment credentials were reinforced when he urged the electorate to vote Labour at the 1974 election and he eventually left the Conservative Party altogether.

Enoch Powell was considered by some to have many fine qualities as a politician but because of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech he will forever be remembered as the man who predicted a coming race war and encouraged the far-right. Far from expanding the debate Powell only helped to make objectionable positions mainstream. To the end of his days he always protested that he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, which for someone as clever as he was strikes me as disingenuous at best.

For a full list of great political mistakes please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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2 Responses to Great mistakes in politics (No26) Enoch Powell and the Rivers of Blood speech

  1. William Hall says:

    Enoch Powell sounds like he’s of the same political caliber as Senator Joseph McCarthy. The primary differences being McCarthy going after “Communists” instead of immigrants. It is interesting to read about British Politics beyond what little we learn on Churchill.

    • A lot of historians view Enoch Powell’s speech as an attempt to get the upper-hand over Edward Heath to replace him as Conservative Party leader. However it backfired and essentially cast him into the political wilderness in the same way that McCarthy eventually went too far and was censured by the Senate.

      I think the thing both politicians have in common is that they both took an issue where there was room for genuine debate and used rhetoric, fear and classic scare tactics for their own ends. I think there was a possible debate to be had in the 1960s about immigration and the nature of Britishness but it should have taken place in a grown up and civilised way, which became much harder to do once Powell started rambling on about “Rivers of Blood”. To any sane person listening it just came across hateful rhetoric. One of the cheering things about the whole episode is that so many people in politics and the media called him out on it and pointed out that this sort of talk was unacceptable.

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