Imperial historians, and inhabitants of places colonized by Britain, know that much of England’s history happened beyond its borders. As decolonization whittled away imperial possessions, empire became an embarrassment within Britain itself.
But while many sought to forget empire, the migration of former colonial subjects to Britain raised the problem of what Britain’s postcolonial society would be. There have always been colonial subjects and people of African and Asian descent in Britain. In the years after World War II, these migrants, or Commonwealth Citizens, possessed the legal right to enter Britain, to seek work, and to seek state welfare services on the same basis as native Britons. These migrants worked, married, raised families, and became ordinary as they settled into life in Britain. But, because of their colonial status and racial difference, many in Britain would never acknowledge them as citizens. For many white Britons, tolerance towards the newcomers marked a betrayal by the political elite to guard the interests of natives.
Fifty years ago last week—on April 20, 1968—Enoch Powell, a Conservative Member of Parliament, warned that the country was on the verge of irrevocable change due to migration. He told a friend and news editor, “I’m going to make a speech this weekend and it’s going to go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to earth, this one is going to stay up.”1 Newspaper reporters and a television news crew attended the event, and a portion was broadcast on national television that Saturday night. The content of the speech was in line with the policy of the Conservative Party, which favored immigration restriction and voluntary repatriation. The rhetoric of the speech, however, flamed controversy, as Powell cataloged the social evils of immigration: transformed streets, strained welfare services, hostility towards whites. Powell evoked Vergil’s Aeneid to claim, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
Powell’s Birmingham Speech—or “Rivers of Blood,” as it came to be known—exceeded Powell’s expectations of notoriety. He sought leadership of the Conservative party, but by Sunday morning, the Party’s leader, Edward Heath, dismissed him from the Shadow Cabinet. On Monday and Tuesday, 4,000 East London dockworkers and Smithfield Meat Market porters abandoned work and marched to Parliament to protest Heath’s action. The bodily support for Powell was matched by the mail he received: 110,000 people wrote letters to Powell expressing earnest gratitude for saying what they felt they couldn’t.
Powell took these fictions as fact and denied the possibility of an expansive and inclusive Britain.
The unsayable thing that Powell said was that citizens had the right to discriminate. The dockworkers and meat porters marched not only in defense of Powell but against the Race Relations Bill under debate in Parliament. In 1965, the Labour Government made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origins in places of “public resort,” such as pubs, hotels, public transport, and other public services. The law also made incitement to racial hatred illegal. On the left, many detractors said the 1965 Act was too weak, and the 1968 Race Relations Bill further outlawed discrimination in private employment, housing, credit, and insurance. The Race Relations Act 1968 eventually passed in Parliament, but Powell’s words marked a crisis of authority—a wide segment of the white population claimed that the state was no longer protecting their interests.2
Powell’s speech made waves because it effectively marshalled resentment and betrayal at the state’s action. Generally, his speeches were marked with classical allusions and rhetorical flourish, and this speech contrasted Powell’s learning with the plainspoken laments of his constituents.3 Powell related how one constituent told him that he would emigrate if he could afford it, because “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” This man’s fear of the inversion of a racial hierarchy was matched by a sense that England would never be the same as a result of this immigration.
The main figure to which Powell referred in his speech was an older white woman, a pensioner who had made great sacrifices for her country, including the sacrifice of her husband and sons during World War II. In return, she saw her economic standing decline and needed to rent rooms to earn money. As migrants moved to her neighborhood, she witnessed the social decline of her street and faced personal abuse because she refused to rent to the newcomers. She was made a stranger in her own country. Powell defended her right to discriminate and her right to live on a street with people who looked like her, in a country with a shared sense of identity and purpose.
However, the old woman of Powell’s speech was less a real person and more a figure who captured the resentments of white Britons.4 Powell’s speech was rooted in social facts that Britons might recognize—a lack of good jobs and housing, strained welfare services—but through his words, these appeals to lived experience took on a larger meaning. He used these concrete examples to make a broader claim that something had gone wrong in Britain’s recent history.
As Camilla Schofield argues, Powell had a strong sense that there was a natural order in which every person had their place in an ordained hierarchy. He held a romantic view of England, shaped by his early love of A. E. Housman poems, walks in the countryside, ancient churches, and importantly, Britain’s constitution as represented by the “Crown in Parliament.” In his mind, migrants posed a threat to the nation by bringing different ways of life and eroding the organic social relations rooted in Britain’s history.
Powell’s view of the nation was shaped by his sense of its deep history, but also by its recent experience of war and common sacrifice in World War II. His supporters had a powerful sense that their sacrifice in the war was in service of a material promise. The postwar welfare state was brought into being, in this narrative, as recognition of ordinary people’s contributions to the war effort. Their reward for hardship was economic and social security. However, by the mid-1960s people from across the political spectrum saw the limited reach of economic planning and welfare. And they blamed migrants for taking advantage of services for which native Britons should receive priority.
The letters to Powell revealed the sense that the government had failed its citizens in delivering the transformative benefits of welfare. Writers frequently asked, “Is this what we fought the war for?” The answer for these writers was obviously no, but the following question was how could the scarcity of welfare resources be mitigated? How could the urban transformations of the postwar period be reversed? The answer offered by Powell and shared by those who came to be called Powellites was simple: the migrants should go home.
In supporting the voluntary repatriation of migrants, Powell shared the views of his party. “Rivers of Blood” became infamous not for its content, but its tone and rhetorical imagery. Powell ended his speech with the lines, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” He alluded to Vergil’s Aeneid to warn of the political turmoil to come, but Powell the classicist got the quote wrong.
Powell studied Greek and Latin at Cambridge, and, before World War II disrupted his academic ambitions, was the youngest professor in the British Empire. He might have been a celebrated linguist and translator, but he misinterpreted the context of the quote in the poem, the meanings of the epic, and how that meaning might sit in his own time. As classicist Emily Greenwood argues, individuals do not passively “receive” ancient texts whose meaning is fixed, but instead actively engage with them in order to create new meanings for the old works.5
In the Aeneid, the line quoted by Powell is uttered by the Cumaen Sybil, a priestess possessed by Apollo in order to deliver his prophecies. Aeneas, a Trojan prince, lost his wife, friends, and family in the Greek destruction of his city. He escaped and travelled west, because he was told that the small band of Trojans he led would find a new home in Latium and help build a great empire. After the death of his father, Aeneas journeyed to Cumae, and asked the priestess if it would be possible for the Trojans to establish a home and honor the gods in the Latin lands (that is, Italy). The priestess told Aeneas that although he had faced difficulties, there were more troubles to come, as the Latins would not easily accept the newcomers. Aeneas, a migrant, would face hostility from the natives of the land in which he hoped to settle.
Powell’s biographers claim he was a brilliant scholar, but Powell misread Vergil. Powell’s quote has two obvious inaccuracies. First, it was the Sybil who saw the vision of the River Tiber foaming with blood, and neither she nor Aeneas were Roman. Second, Vergil argued that Rome’s founding was violent, but the end of the violence was a polity in which different groups came together to create a great empire. Vergil celebrated Rome’s diversity and heterogeneous origins.
Academics have long memories. Herbert H. Huxley, a classicist and former student of Powell’s at Cambridge, felt so strongly about the misuse of Vergil, that after Powell’s death, he criticized Powell’s lectures on Greek history of 60 years before and called his use of the quote “singularly inappropriate” and “astounding.”6 Huxley wrote, “the opening words of the epic (‘I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile’) make clear to any Latinist that the hero is himself an immigrant, fleeing with his father, his son, and the wife he is soon to lose, the horrors of defeat in battle, looting, burning and massacre.”
Powell looked to Vergil for the right quote, but he got the lesson wrong. He willfully disregarded the experience of migration and settlement for migrants themselves. The poem communicates the horrors of war and the tragedy of exile, the difficulty of leaving home and the hostility of strangers. In his own time, Powell elevated the grievances of white Britons over concern for his constituents who arrived from the Caribbean, South Asia, and elsewhere in the former empire. Many of these migrants had also shared in the sacrifice of World War II. They found themselves in a country that refused to acknowledge a shared history of empire. And as that history was refused, so were the rights of Commonwealth Citizens after 1962.7
At a moment of perceived crisis and disorder, Powell called forth memories of an ordered and peaceful time. In Britain, as decolonization brought independence to former colonial territories, “empire” became something that could not be spoken of. And yet colonial sensibilities—of racial hierarchy, authority, and the heroic duty of the white man in the world—continued.
In a folder labeled, “The Thing,” Powell collected news reports of student protests, industrial conflict, racial violence in the US, and the beginnings of the Troubles in Ireland. Although he could not define “The Thing,” he strongly felt a sense of disorder and anarchy; that social relations in Britain, and perhaps the nation itself, were on the verge of dissolution. Bill Schwarz argues that the tremendous popular support for Powell represents his ability to make private memories and intuitions a public force.8 Powell provided a vocabulary and framework for many white Britons to express their sense of loss, to demand the restoration of a world organized through white authority.
Between his Birmingham speech in 1968 and his final break with the Conservative party in 1974, Enoch Powell was the most important political figure in Britain. His speech was a significant event that realigned British politics. He garnered support from people across the class spectrum. What brought his supporters under the banner of “Powellites” was not their positions on the welfare state, economic theory, or foreign affairs, but their feelings regarding race in Britain.
The rising fascist movement in Britain embraced him, and often referred to Powell in banners proclaiming “Enoch is right.” Hanif Kureshi, the writer of My Beautiful Laundrette, remembers being taunted as a child, “Enoch will deal with you lot,” and “Knock, Knock, it’s Enoch.”
But, Powell also faced a backlash to his words, in addition to his loss of position within the Conservative Party. University students protested his speaking engagements on and off campus, and he was the spark for “no platform” policies among student groups. For many in Britain, Powell and his popular appeal was a keystone event in mobilizing a concerted and unapologetic campaign against racism and fascism and in support of a nation that embraced difference.
Powell’s biographer Simon Heffer claims that Powell was misunderstood both by his fascist supporters and his critics, because people did not share his “titanic intellect or his subtlety of mind.” Powell might have possessed “towering integrity” and “conspicuous moral greatness,” but he actively cultivated an intellectual persona that was rooted in misogyny, racism, and the arrogance of reason. Powell was a critic of social democracy, and Margaret Thatcher embraced many of his economic (and race-related) ideas. Thatcher commended Powell as the best parliamentarian she had ever known, who combined “impeccable and implacable reason, from first principles.”
Powell could not return the praise. He claimed that Thatcher never grasped the “doctrine” of the economic policies to which she gave her name. A misogynist for much of his life, when asked in a BBC documentary what he thought of women while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he replied that he wondered why they were there; he could not imagine they were serious students. Why? “Because the analytical faculty is underdeveloped in women.” Powell seems to have held Aristotelian ideas about the capacity for reason in women, which extended to the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister in Britain.
Powell did not predict Brexit, he helped shape popular antipathy to Europe by reinforcing an exclusive vision of England.
Powell was an elitist, but that also produced in him a paternalistic condescension towards the people he claimed to represent. He found a role in expressing views he felt the political establishment ignored. Powell was adamantly opposed to Britain’s entry into the European Union in the 1970s. In fact, this was the issue that caused his final rift with the Conservative Party in 1974, leading him to become an Ulster Unionist MP for the last 13 years of his political career. He argued that joining Europe and the Common Market would erode British sovereignty.
In the wake of Brexit, many have claimed that Powell was right, and the Brexit voted represents an effort to reclaim British sovereignty over its laws, economic policy, and significantly, conditions of entry for migrants. But, Powell did not predict Brexit, he helped shape popular antipathy to Europe by reinforcing an exclusive vision of England.
Similarly, he was neither right nor wrong about the condition of Britain today. Rather, his narrow view of the nation contributed to the “hostile environment” for migrants that is the current policy of the British government. Landlords, employers, health care workers, and teachers are all charged with confirming the immigration status of their tenants, employees, patients, and students. Asylum seekers are detained indefinitely. And citizens, who arrived legally as children in the 1960s and early 1970s, are asked to provide up to four pieces of documentation for every year they have lived in Britain. Unable to comply, they have lost benefits, jobs, and some have been forcibly deported. This hostile environment was created by policy in 2012, but it has existed in practice and feeling for much longer.
Enoch Powell was less a prophet and more someone who sensed, like so many others in 1968, that the world was changing. 1968 was a year of movements by young people, some of whom were college students, all over the world. They protested racial injustice, the Vietnam war, capitalism, and the failures of democratic government. They believed that a better world was possible, that overturning paving stones would reveal the beach.
But while these movements saw possibility, others saw the protests as disorder. These movements were met with repression, as colleges brought in police, the Soviet Union rolled tanks into Prague, and—more quietly and slowly— conservatives built a backlash against new mores regarding sex, drugs, and diversity. The cultural counterrevolution was also conducted against the foundations of the welfare state, leading to an individualist market ethos alongside white communitarian values. In Britain, the campaign against the perceived dissolution of the nation brought about “law and order” politics that disproportionately targeted people of color.
Powell turned away from the chaos of a world that was coming into being in order to defend a world that had been. But his memory of that world was selective. The past and the sense of organic community it promised was a mirage, constructed from poems and imperial pageantry that were themselves trying to create the world, not merely represent it. Powell took these fictions as fact and denied the possibility of an expansive and inclusive Britain.
History is never a fixed object, but always grounds for debate about the present and the future. In the US, the struggle to remove the Confederate flag and take down Confederate Monuments reveals that the meaning of the nation and who can belong to it remains provisional. In this year, as we mark the struggles of 1968 and debate the legacy of that year, we might look beyond the question of who got it right, and who got it wrong.
Instead, we might think again about how individuals all across the world recognized that they were at a crossroads, at a moment when some saw the possibility of transforming the world, and others sought to preserve a world they saw slipping away. They tried to make sense of their past in order to shape their future. Our moment is a different one, but the struggle to claim the future continues.
- Simon Heffer, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), p. 449. ↩
- Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2015). ↩
- William Wootten, “Rhetoric and Violence in Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and the Speeches of Enoch Powell,” Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1 (2000), pp. 1–15. ↩
- Powell refers to a letter from a constituent who describes the elderly woman’s situation. Recently, some have claimed that the woman might have been Drucilla Cotterill, who did have a husband who died in the war, but no children. Schofield, pp. 232–4. ↩
- Emily Greenwood, Afro-Greeks: Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 7. ↩
- Herbert H. Huxley, “John Enoch Powell and Vergil, ‘Aeneid’ 6. 86–87,” Vergilius, vol. 44 (1998), 24–27. ↩
- Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Cornell University Press, 1997). ↩
- Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Vol. 1: The White Man’s World (Oxford University Press, 2012). ↩