Enoch Powell – the Rivers of Blood speech 50 years on

Brexit’s ever-present spectre of Enoch Powell


One only has to Google ‘enoch powell brexit’ to see the relevance of Enoch Powell to today’s political climate. There are some fifty references. An astonishing number for a politician who died in 1998, long before Brexit was a movement, or even a word. But not perhaps surprising when his extreme and controversial ideas on immigration and the European Union (then known as the European Community) are taken into account. Most renowned for his racist diatribe against Commonwealth immigration in 1968, labelled the Rivers of Blood speech, Powell was also vociferously against Britain’s entry into “a European State,” as he alluded to it.


Interestingly, the 1975 decision to enter the European Community was the result of a referendum, the first national referendum ever to be held throughout the entire United Kingdom. The result was that 67% were in favour of entry. The referendum result was not legally binding, as Powell himself clearly and entertainingly outlined in the first part of a later speech, which, ironically, would delight today’s Remainers seeking a reversal of the recent referendum decision (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SIxxEON5KdY.) However, it was acknowledged that, as in 2017, the vote would be, not only accepted by the government, but also politically binding on all future Westminster Parliaments.


Before Partition of British India, Powell held a burning ambition to be Viceroy. He eventually recovered from the crushing disappointment that he never would be, but he held on to the outdated image of Imperial Britain, alone yet strong, “her face towards the oceans and the continents of the world.” Not unlike Brexiters today, who cling tenaciously to the delusion that Britain was once a lone force in the world and can be again. Today’s lack of plundered Empire riches, which enabled Britain’s dominance in the 19th and 20th century, doesn’t seem to be taken into account.


In the 1960s Powell was supportive of the idea of a European Community. At that time he indicated it was necessary to accept a certain loss of sovereignty as a necessary requirement of membership. But, in typical flip-flop style, he later became rabidly opposed. During the 1975 pre-referendum campaign, Powell, in his typical exaggerated and fear-mongering style, warned of a renunciation of “national status for Britain” should we unite with Europe. Not unlike today’s Brexiters, a large part of his campaign against membership was to exaggerate, or misrepresent, the extent to which the European parliament would hold sway over Westminster. Powell described Britain as “giving up its parliamentary self-government and national independence.” He cleverly implied overarching power to the European Community when he alluded to it as the “West European State.” He compared the E.U. to ‘tyrannies” and “empires,” in order to denigrate it. And, of course, as happened recently, no mention was made of the multitude of advantages to membership. His words after the decision to join were often quoted during the Brexit debate and are still alluded to, “The British people still think they will be a nation. They still think they will govern and tax and legislate for themselves. They are mistaken … but they will learn.” Or, as the Brexit camp might claim, “they have learnt.”


Whatever one thinks of Powell’s methods or doctrine, it has to be acknowledged that he was a knowledgeable, forceful, and articulate orator. So is it little wonder that today the likes of Nigel Farage et al, who have nothing near the intelligence, education, or eloquence of Powell, constantly quote him when it suits their purpose? And, unfortunately for the Remain movement, much of what he espoused fitted perfectly — if not always accurately — into the Brexit debate.


One can’t help but wonder what Powell would have thought about the fact that most people who voted Leave, probably did so less out of concern for nationhood, and more from xenophobia. The issue of freedom of movement and the perception of European workers as unwanted immigrants probably played a larger part in the Brexit referendum decision than any other. Despite his insistence in his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech that immigration be stemmed and immigrants sent ‘home,’ Powell barely mentioned immigration in relation to British membership of the European Community in 1975. One might assume he’d be as opposed to European freedom of movement as he was to Commonwealth immigration in 1968. Except, of course, that the immigrants he objected to so emphatically in his infamous speech were Asian and Afro-Caribbean — not white-skinned Europeans.