Enoch Powell had long been known as a firebrand politician, unafraid to speak his mind and be provocative. A former classical scholar, few doubted his intellect, and his military service during World War II spoke to his bravery. Margaret Thatcher herself even dubbed him "the best parliamentarian I ever knew."
And yet, after one extremely controversial speech he gave in 1968, this British politician had any chance he had of a successful mainstream political career destroyed. In fact, throughout much of Britain his name became synonymous with racism and prejudice.
Now, almost 50 years later and with Europe in the grips of a new crisis which intertwines immigration, integration and violence, some in Britain are asking the question: What if Enoch Powell was right?
The comments that ended Powell's career were contained in what is now known ominously in Britain as the "Rivers of Blood" speech. Speaking at a General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre on April 20, 1968, Powell suggested that Britain's acceptance of high levels of immigration from Commonwealth nations was like building its own funeral pyre.
"As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood,'" he warned, adding that British workers who would find themselves "strangers in their own country" and that immigrants should be sent back to their home countries.
The speech also quoted crude, malicious language to describe recent immigrants to Britain from the Commonwealth and suggested that these immigrants were harassing his British-born constituents – even pushing "excreta" through one woman's letter box.
Powell was no fringe politician. He had previously served as the government minister for housing and had only recently been defeated by Edward Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party. At the time of his speech, the party was in opposition and he was in charge of its defense policy. His comments came just as Britain debated the Race Relations Act 1968, which sought to end discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or national origins.
While reports say that his speech was received warmly by those in the room with Powell, it caused outrage when it appeared in the press. The Times of London called it an "evil speech," adding that it was "racialist" and "disgraceful." Powell was fired from frontline politics after several high-ranking Conservative colleagues threatened to quit if he stayed on. Powell remained in the Conservative Party until 1974, when he made an unorthodox move to become an Ulster Unionist Party MP for a Northern Ireland seat (he turned down calls to join the far right National Front). He remained a polarizing if marginal figure until 1987, when he stepped back from politics to pursue his own pursuits, eventually dying in 1998.
Despite Powell's dramatic fall from grace, after recent attacks by extremists left 130 dead in Paris, his ideas appear to be receiving attention once again. To those who sympathize with Powell, it appears that the "Rivers of Blood" are finally here. There have been floods of comments in support of him online. One Conservative researcher in Wales recently suggested on Facebook that Powell was a "visionary" for his speech (the researcher later said he hadn't understood the speech and apologized).
Bill Etheridge, a Member of the European Parliament for the anti-immigration U. K. Independence Party, gave a speech last week that praised Powell, adding that "the creed of multiculturalism is in fact a creed of surrender and it will lead to rivers of blood." A multicultural Britain was "diversive [sic] not just diverse," he added.
Meanwhile, writing in the newspaper the Telegraph this weekend, columnist and Powell biographer Simon Heffer argued that the Paris attacks had indeed proven Powell right. "If you seek the monument of Powell’s critics, look about you," Heffer wrote. "We are a prosperous, decent country that normally embraces many faiths and outlooks within a strong common culture. Yet we have this malignancy eating away at a part of us: and our political class still fears to take the lead necessary to deal with it."
These arguments aren't necessarily surprising. While many British politicians expressed disgust with Powell's speech at the time, his anti-immigration views were far from uncommon. One Gallup poll from 1968 found that 74 percent of the population agreed with his comments. It's even suspected that his decision to pull his support from the Conservatives in 1974 due to their stance on European integration cost them that election. His views on immigration and nationalism have had an undercurrent of support in Britain ever since.
In fact, almost half a century later, his eloquent, intellectual style of anti-immigrant nationalism looks something like a model for populist far right candidates all across Europe (and perhaps America too). And in Britain there have been a growing number of attempts to rehabilitate or at least reevaluate Powell's image in recent years – the Paris shootings are just the latest opportunity.
Powell's supporters argue that he showed prescience in foreseeing the problems that immigration would entail. There are certainly some signs this is true: His suggestion that by the year 2000 around 10 percent of Britain's population would be made up of immigrants and their offspring is in line with reality, for example. However, other predictions he cited were plainly inflammatory. In his speech he quoted one man who said that in "15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man." (It goes without saying that that didn't happen.)
To his supporters, the terrible attacks in Paris and the broader European problems of immigration and integration seem to serve as further proof that Powell was right about the violence that was coming. However, there's a powerful counterargument to that; that perhaps Powell's own speech and the actions of those who sympathized with it actually helped to create the problems of integration that it predicted.
Paul Boateng, who would later become Britain's first mixed-race Cabinet minister in 2002, has recalled how he was shouted at and spat on in the streets after the speech. Pakistan-born journalist Sarfraz Manzoor says that his father would use Powell's reputation to warn him against integrating too much with British people. "Powell's name was regularly cited whenever my father wanted to remind me how easily Britain could turn against us." Manzoor wrote in 2008. Many other tales suggest that there was a rise in intolerance after the speech was made.
For all the talk of his ability to look in the future, Powell's mindset often appeared to be very much of his own era, if not before it – he was obsessed with the British Empire, for example, even suggesting that Britain re-invade India in 1950. That brings up a possibility: Perhaps rather than being ahead of his time, his supporters are simply looking to the past.
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