The legacy of Enoch Powell

The following is just a little rejoinder to something that David Osler wrote in his post about UKIP and the legacy of Powellism. While I agree with most of what Osler wrote, he did argue:

In more recent years, any hint of sympathy for the proposition that ‘Enoch was right’ has been a hanging offence in what was supposed to have been a detoxified brand. One Tory prospective parliamentary candidate in a winnable west Midlands seat after was forced to step down after making just that claim only a few years back.

I disagree with this and think Jenny Bourne had it right when she talked about the ‘beatification of Enoch Powell’ back in 2008. I thought I would post this excerpt that was cut (due to space) from this book chapter published in 2010 on the negative legacy that Powell has had  upon the discourses on ‘race’ and immigration in contemporary Britain.


Since the 1960s there was a growing consensus that non-white immigration from the Commonwealth was a ‘problem’ that required strict immigration control to limit numbers and an emphasis on integration and assimilation in the domestic sphere. The remedy pursued by Labour Governments from 1964 to 1970, then 1974 to 1979, was to enforce tight immigration control procedures, alongside the introduction of legislation to curb racial discrimination. With the Race Relations Act, it was possible to prosecute against the most overt forms of racial discrimination and harassment, but its connection to the strengthening of immigration control reflected the Government’s emphasis on migrants integrating into British society. The Labour Government believed that this process of integration would help ‘stamp out the evils of racialism’,[1] but it allowed the anti-immigrationists, inside the Conservative Party, as well as in extra-parliamentary organisations and in the popular press, to dictate the agenda towards further restrictions. As Paul Foot wrote in his 1969 book, The Rise of Enoch Powell: ‘One of the most constant rules in the history of immigration control is that those demanding controls are encouraged, not silenced, by concessions’.[2]

Although concerns over the social impact of non-white immigration had been expressed in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary discourses since the 1940s, a major turning point in the discourse was Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in April 1968. Speaking at a local Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, Powell launched a tirade against non-white migration, stating:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, 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…

We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population… Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of 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…

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.[3]

Powell’s speech alluded to the views of the ‘ordinary British citizen’ on race relations, immigration and ‘alien cultures’, appropriating the ‘crude and inconsistent racism expressed in the factories, shopping centres and pubs… endorsed by a politician who had the authority of education, political office and a position in the Shadow cabinet’.[4] Powell attributed one of the most controversial remarks of the speech to an anonymous constituent, ‘a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man’, exploiting the anxieties of a large section of the British population in his declaration: ‘In this country in fifteen of twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip over the white man’.[5] Although dismissed by Edward Heath for the shadow cabinet, Powell’s exploitation of popular racism generated much support for him with a Gallup Poll in May 1968 revealing that ‘74 per cent of those questioned agreed in general with his views and 24 per cent said they would like him to be leader of the Conservative Party if Edward Heath retired’.[6] In the week following Powell’s speech, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst the London dock workers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech.

The ‘ultimate impact’ of Powell on the discourse on immigration and ‘race relations’ in Britain was ‘to shift it further to the right’.[7] Also taken up by Margaret Thatcher in her 1978 statements on immigration on Granada TV’s World in Action, Powell’s remarks have provided a rudimentary framework for attacks on immigration and multiculturalism ever since. As Jenny Bourne outlined, these are:

First: integration is impossible…; Second: lack of integration will naturally lead to race hatred…; Third: whites are the real, effective victims…; Fourth: immigration was a grand conspiracy…; Fifth: the answer had to be reducing numbers.[8]

In 1981, Powell spoke in Parliament of how his declarations in the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to be vindicated by the riots that broke out across Britain’s inner cities in 1980 and 1981. Speaking of the riot in Bristol in April 1980, Powell remarked:

[W]hen what happened did happen in Bristol at the beginning of April last year, I remembered how, 10 or 12 years earlier, I had received from that precise area of Bristol a mass of information expressing fear and anxiety as to what might occur because of the change in that area and the local concentration of New Commonwealth population.[9]

Since then, the slogan ‘Enoch was right’ has been raised on numerous occasions when confrontation has erupted within Britain’s ethnic minority communities and has been increasingly used by Conservatives and their supporters in the twenty-first century. In 2007, former Conservative MP Michael Portillo commended Powell for ‘discussing’ immigration and a few months later, Nigel Hastilow, a Conservative candidate, resigned after writing in a column for a local Wolverhampton paper that Powell ‘was right’.[10]

One of the oft-repeated parts of what Jenny Bourne has described as Powell’s ‘rehabilitation as an authoritative political figure’[11] has been the commendation of Powell for speaking on the issues of immigration and ‘race’, giving the impression that there is no public discourse of immigration. Portillo lamented in The Sunday Times that ‘immigration is a subject rarely even mentioned by politicians’, adding that the wider British public also missed out, ‘It is not just that there is never an opportunity to vote on it, there is rarely a chance even to discuss it’.[12] However, there a large and widespread discourse on immigration and ‘race’ in Britain, and a very significant portion of this discourse is negative. The Powellite/Thatcherite anxieties over the ‘integration’ of ethnic minorities in Britain and the establishment of ethnic communities from the descendents of the original Commonwealth migrants still loom large over the discourse of immigration and ‘race relations’, with multiculturalism portrayed as a divisive influence upon mainstream British society.

Socialist Worker poster (probably from 1976)
Socialist Worker poster (probably from 1976)

[1] David Ennals, ‘Labour’s Race Relations Policy’, Institute of Race Relations Newsletter, November/December 1968, p. 437

[2] Paul Foot, The Rise of Enoch Powell: An Examination of Enoch Powell’s Attitude to Immigration and Race, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1969, p. 111

[3] Enoch Powell, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, in Enoch Powell (selected by Rex Collings), Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell, Bellew Publishing, London, 1991, p. 375; pp. 378-379

[4] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics, Pluto Press, London, 1984, p. 64

[5] E. Powell, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, pp. 373-374

[6] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 64

[7] Anthony M. Messina, Race and Party Competition in Britain, Clarendon Press, New York, 1989, p. 107

[8] Jenny Bourne, ‘The Beatification of Enoch Powell’, Race & Class, 49/4, 2008, pp. 85-86

[9] Hansard, 16 July, 1981, col. 1413

[10] Michael Portillo, ‘Immigration, the Taboo Word that will Cost Cameron Dear’, The Sunday Times, 2 September, 2007,; ‘Tory Candidate Quits over “Powell was Right” Comments’, The Guardian, 4 November, 2007,

[11] J. Bourne, ‘The Beatification of Enoch Powell’, p. 82

[12] M. Portillo, ‘Immigration, the Taboo Word that will Cost Cameron Dear’

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