2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. The speech that is seen by many as a landmark in terms of post-war race relations in Britain, and is regularly returned to by those who hail the modern multi-cultural society and – conversely – those who condemn the idea of a “failed experiment” of the mix of ethnicities and religions. The weight and worth of Powell’s speech is a theme often returned to in post-war British history; back in my degree a decade ago I concentrated on it for an essay, and in this very same academic year have taught an Access to HE module that engages in this very debate. The anniversary itself makes it all the more relevant, coupled with the rise in racial and xenophobic violence in the wake of 2016’s EU referendum.
I returned to my earlier essay whilst preparing for the current Access to HE module and found myself re-engaging with the debate, in the light of a decade’s worth of reflection, reading, and discussion. Back then, my central argument was that Enoch Powell was proved wrong due to the enacting of legislation and the change in society in late twentieth century Britain. That despite violence – and sometimes riots – post-war immigration did not end in blood being spilt on the streets, between “indigenous” white and migrant black communities. On the whole, such an argument is in line with the consensus in the country, in terms of the mainstream academic field, politics, media, and society. This is clearly evident when listening to the excellent Radio 4 documentary that was recently released (in April 2018); the speech in its entirety was performed and dissected by a string of different voices. Powell was condemned, and multi-culturalism triumphed.
However, historians regularly refer to the element of hindsight that allows patterns to form and greater understanding to flower. Perhaps seventy years of post-war immigration from the former colonies is still too short a time and distance to adequately formalise a clear response. Powell’s stock does not seem to be disappearing, but rather re-emerging with the rise of the internet. Various web-based chat-groups and forums have given greater importance to the likes of Holocaust Denier David Irving, who in return has seen sales of his publications start to rise once again. By many on the right Powell is a Godfather type figure: someone who prophesised an impending race war. There are plenty of areas in which the refrain ‘Powell was right’ can be found. As such, the debate itself is not resolved, but rather still being waged.
In my decade-old essay I concluded by arguing that “rivers of blood” was avoided due to a combination of anti-racist responses, and how a stable economy ultimately stunted the rise of extremist forces such as the National Front. It is a well-told argument (although one not regularly heeded, it seems) and can find its best example in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s; they obtained votes not for their anti-Semitic rhetoric, but rather because the people of German were suffering from an economic depression. Such conditions are needed for the far right to take root and to make electoral gains, something that was not present back during the premiership of Tony Blair. However, here we are, over ten years later, and we have seen the rise of extremist and divisive politics in the wake of another economic crisis. I once concluded that Powell’s prophecy was not fulfilled, but now in 2018 such a judgement does not seem so certain.
I’m considering returning to this essay in order to re-write it, with a view of using the exercise as gaining experience with Kindle Direct Publishing; the end result – no matter how many words – could be “printed” online in the form of an eBook. The 50th anniversary adds greater weight to the enterprise. Even more interesting will be my conclusion in 2018; it could well prove to be bleaker and more cynical than the one from many years ago.