Enoch Powell and the immigration “challenge” to Thatcher (1985)

Thatcher and Powell in 'happier' times at the 1969 Conservative Party conference
Thatcher and Powell in ‘happier’ times at the 1969 Conservative Party conference

In the file on the Scarman Report and the 1985 Handsworth riots that has been recently released by the National Archives, there is a series of documents concerning a challenge made by Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher to clarify her position on immigration. Speaking to the Birkenhead Conservative Women’s Association in September 1985 (two weeks after the Handsworth riots), Powell declared:

What sort of country will Britain be when the capital city and major cities and areas of England consist of a population of which at least one-third is of African or Asian descent?…

My answer, upon my maturely considered judgment, is it will be a Britain unimaginably wracked by dissension and violent disorder, not recognisable as the same nation as it has been, or perhaps as a national at all. Let those in positions of responsibility who disagree with my judgment declare their own in equally unequivocal terms.

If the Prime Minister of this country holds a different judgment – I am not sure that she does – let her publicly say one of two things. She can say: “Mr Powell’s figures and his picture of the factual future are substantially right, but I believe it will be a happy and peaceful Britain, which we and I shall be proud to bequeath to the next generation”.

Alternatively she can say: “Mr Powell’s figures and picture are mistaken: the true population proportions will be lower”. If she says that, however, she cannot stop there. She must tell the country what she believes those lower proportions will be and why; and having done so she can then, if she wishes, go on to make the same asseveration about a happy and united Britain.

The time of truth is coming at last for those who sit in the seats of authority… The nation will insist upon knowing what they intend to do.

Thatcher’s Chief Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, wrote a memo to the Prime Minister, warning her not to be drawn in by Powell’s challenge:

It seems likely the press will ask you to react but there are dangers in doing so on this scanty basis. I would refuse to be drawn.

From documents published by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, we know that the press asked Thatcher about Powell’s comments at a press conference in Aqaba, Jordan, the same day:


To change the subject for a moment, Prime Minister, you may be aware that in England today Mr. Enoch Powell has spoken following the Handsworth riot and he has suggested that the African and Asian population of Britain should be reduced by a Government programme of repatriation. Do you regard that as a helpful or unhelpful statement at this time?

Prime Minister

I have heard that Mr. Powell either has or is going to make a speech. I do not know what he said and should not dream of commenting on a speech I have not seen

This was not the first time that Thatcher had been quizzed by the press about crossover between her ideas about immigration and Enoch Powell’s. Since becoming leader of the Conservatives in 1975, the spectre of Powell had lingered over Thatcher and many scholars have emphasised the continuities between Powellism and Thatcherism. Probably the best known example of Powell’s idea about immigration (also expressed by the National Front) and the challenge they presented for Thatcher was the 1978 interview with Granada TV’s World in Action. Thatcher was asked about overlap between herself and Powell and herself and the National Front. She infamously answered:

I shall not make it a major election issue but I think there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this and sometimes, you know, we are falsely accused of racial prejudice. I say “falsely accused” and that means that we do not talk about it perhaps as much as we should. In my view, that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems. Now, we are a big political party. If we do not want people to go to extremes, and I do not, we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened…

And on the similarities between the Tories under herself and Powell, Thatcher said this (but did not say that she didn’t agree with Powell ideologically):

Mr Powell is an Ulster Unionist. In Ulster there is no Conservative Party; it is the Ulster Unionist Party and the question therefore is whether the Ulster Unionists would get closer to the Conservative Party. When I first came into Parliament in 1959 they took the Conservative Whip—you are familiar with the phrase —Conservative and Ulster Unionists went to the same back-benchers’ committees and tended to vote together. Then, as you know, there were differences and they have not. So, it is not a question of Mr Powell being Conservative. There is no Conservative Party in Ulster; it is the Ulster Unionist Party. It may well be that their views on the main things in politics are far closer to ours than to socialism and that, I think, is going to be the ultimate question at the next election.

But while Powell and Thatcher had similarities in their ideological outlook on many key issues, Powell was still a political liability and Thatcher dismissed (at least in public) any suggestions that Powell could be re-incorporated into the Conservative Party. Powell occupied a space on the political right in between the Conservatives and the fascist far right of the National Front and was able to vocalise many of the new right’s frustrations with the parliamentary Tory party. But as an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party, Powell was unable to capitalise upon the apparent popularity of his opinions and after the downfall of the NF at the 1979 general election, the right-wing vote had nowhere to go but to the Tories.

This seems very different from the challenge that Nigel Farage and UKIP present to David Cameron and the Conservatives in 2015. The media fascination and the apparent momentum that UKIP seem to currently enjoy means that Cameron cannot simply publicly dismiss Farage in the same way that Thatcher publicly ignored Powell. Maybe the archival documents released in 2035 will tell us more…




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