I recently posted about how 2018 marks fifty years since Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. Coincidentally, I had also planned an Access to Higher Education module surrounding the speech whilst unaware of the approaching anniversary. I had toyed with the idea of re-engaging with an earlier degree essay to see if I could return to the debate with a view of publishing more widely. However, instead, I thought I would return to edit in order to utilise in the Access classes with the students. This resulted in an hour or so of editing of references to change the citation layout (to be in-line with a Harvard style). In terms of my central argument, I believe it holds up today in 2018, just as it had in 2009. But perhaps the post-Brexit reality – in terms of the increase of racist crimes and anti-immigrant feeling – suggests that an appraisal of Powell’s speech half-a-century on is a tad premature?

Why did post-colonial immigration into Britain not result in “rivers of blood”?

On the turning of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, the scholar Gilbert Murray made a prediction of what the future would bring:

‘We may be fairly sure that the English democracy will never allow coloured labourers to be imported in any large numbers into this country… the opposition of the working classes would be furious’ (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.223).

Yet within fifty years of this statement boats were docking at British ports filled with such large numbers of people from across the globe. Their arrival over the following two decades would influence another, more famous prediction from Enoch Powell. He believed the British were ‘heaping its own funeral pyre’ by admitting so many, giving the comments of his ‘middle-aged constituent’ that within a matter of years the black would have ‘the whip hand over the white man’, the result of which would be his foreboding thoughts of ‘the River foaming with much blood’ (Powell, 1969, p.213-219).

Despite evidence of racial tension in the years that followed Powell’s speech it can be confidently stated that his apocalyptic visions have not come true. There are a series of factors for this reason: the establishment of anti-racist voices (in the form of campaigns and movements), and increased governmental legislation that protected minority rights. This essay will also assess the reasons behind British racism, including the impact of decolonisation, and triggering factors such as socio-economic conditions.

Heaping the funeral pyre

Although James Walvin – amongst other commentators – states that precise numbers of immigrants in the period ‘remains unclear’, a fair number of estimates have been published in the last 50 years; from wild to conservative estimates (Walvin, 1984, p.110). The pre-war immigration population of the New Commonwealth is said to be almost negligible; for instance the 1930s Indian community was eight-thousand at most (Marr, 2008, p.40). As Andrew Marr states, this world was one in which the people ‘were sparser and whiter’ (2008, p.40), with 95 per cent of people having been born in the British Isles before the Second World War; this would have made a non-white face ‘unusual’ (Walvin, 1984, p.182). However, this picture changed dramatically within the space of two decades, when from 1948-1962 there was an “open door policy” into Britain from the Commonwealth and colonies. The Home Office has estimated there 427,000 came between January 1955 to June 1962; giving a New Commonwealth population of close to 700,000. Even after tighter immigration laws were passed in the 1960s, an influx of immigrants arrived at a rate of 75,000 a year. The New Commonwealth population had reached one million by 1971, rising to four million by the turn of the twenty-first century (Migration Watch, 2008).

These new arrivals offered a number of beneficial uses to British society and its economy: there were workers to help maintain the newly established National Heath Service, a rise in catering outlets, as well as a boon to the transport industry; Edward Pilkington states that by 1958 London Transport alone employed 8,000 West Indians (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.8). However, these immigrants caused resentment from a significant amount of the population. Writing in 1974 Butler and Stokes stated that the 1960s witnessed a ‘strong and overwhelmingly hostile attitudes’ that were ‘quite general in the country’ (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.94); whilst throughout 1960s and 1970s public opinion polls consistently revealed an ‘overwhelming national antipathy’ (Walvin, 1984, p.182).

Sir Grantly Adams, a West Indian statesman, once asked: ‘Can a coloured population of less than 1 per cent destroy this great country?’ (cited in Judd, 1997, p.377). Yet this one percent was not evenly spread across the whole of the country, but rather settled in concentrated urban areas: London, the West Midlands, South East Lancashire, Merseyside, Tyneside and West Yorkshire. Glasgow’s Nicholson Street became known as ‘Burma Road’ and Moss Side as the ‘Black Belt’ (Holmes, 1988, p.242); whilst in some areas, such as various boroughs in London, the newcomers came to outnumber the natives. Immigrants faced regular discrimination; from insults of “Paki” and the belief that West Indians were ‘uneducated, lazy and corrupt’ (Pilkington cited in Panayi, 1996, p.176), to firmer institutionalised anti-immigrant feeling, as found in public places, trade unions and local authorities (Marr, 2008, p.193). This resentment flared up into outbreaks of violence in the period, the most significant in this period was the Notting Hill riots of 1958 in which hundreds of men (up to 700 strong) attacked blacks ‘armed with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains’ (Marr, 2008, p.198-199). Such was its severity, Pilkington has called it ‘some of the worst rioting’ Britain experienced in the twentieth century (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.178).

Yet it was not the only significant incident of ‘nigger hunting’ and ‘black-burying’ throughout the period (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.188). In Birmingham in May 1948, a mob of between 100-250 white men besieged and stoned a hostel where Indian workers were living (Holmes, 1988, p.256); whilst in August of the same year black sailors were attacked in Liverpool. July 1949 saw the ‘siege’ of a black men’s hostel by a white mob in London, what Holmes says over several nights, 1000 crowd (Holmes, 1988, p.144); whilst 1954 witnessed two days of violence in Camden Town, London, in which a black family’s home was petro-bombed (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.187). Furthermore, post-1958 saw other incidents, notably the stabbing of the West Indian Kelso Cochrane by a gang of white youths in 1959; Marwick adding that at his funeral ‘racist slogans were shouted’ (Marwick, 1996, p.261). Following this were incidents throughout the 1960s; in Middlesbrough August 1961 in which thousands of whites chanted ‘Let’s get a wog’, smashing windows of black homes and setting fire to a café owned by a Pakistani family (Holmes, 1988, p.144); in Dudley (West Midlands) in 1962 a 300 strong crowd ‘gathered to hunt for, and beat up, black people’ (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.192); along with small – yet significant – riots in Accrington and Leeds (1964) and Wolverhampton (1965). Whilst perhaps most worryingly was a British version of the Ku Klux Klan which ‘made a brief, fiery’ appearance in the mid-1960s (Holmes, 1988, p.264).

The immediate years following Powell’s speech may have confirmed such fears of “rivers of blood”, Benjamin Bowling believing that violence escalated in the 1970s and 1980, with such incidents – noted as “Paki-bashing” as the serious assaults of 150 people in the East End over a 3 month period in 1970 (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.196), whilst the 1981 Brixton riots saw what Walvin deems the ‘worst urban disturbances Britain had experienced for two centuries’– in which one of the horrific incidents was a family killed by petrol sprayed through a letterbox and set alight (1984, p.128).

Such violent incidents completely changed political opinion. The Notting Hill riots, notes Marr, gave Britain ‘its first orgy of national introspection about its liberalism and its immigration policy’ (2008, p.199). More people were speaking openly on the issues; George Sanders (Labour MP) told the press: ‘For years the white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.189). The issue of immigration gradually seeped into Westminster politics, the ten year period from Notting Hill to Powell’s speeches in 1968 was, in Bowling’s words, one ‘in which ‘in which British political debates became “racialised” and in which “race” became politicised’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.190).

A series of anti-immigration laws were pressed through (1962, 1968, 1971), the purposes of which were implicit: to keep out non-white colonial citizens, whilst making it possible for white colonials to return home. Walvin notes the initial Act ‘and its implementation were blatantly discriminatory’ (1984, p.119). Writing in the heat of controversy (in 1969), political writers Michael and Ann Dummett blamed the Wilson government entirely for the Powell ‘phenomenon’; stating that the 1968 Immigration Act heightened prejudice and respectability of discrimination more ‘than either of Powell’s two 1968 speeches’, continuing that at least: ‘An outrightly racialist Government would at least have made it possible for people to see easily what was going on’ (cited in Husband, 1987, p.115).

The escalation of this issue can be seen in the Smethwick election result of 1964, in which a Tory candidate surprisingly won his seat ‘by playing on the fear of white voters over continuing black immigration’ (Judd, 1997, p.375), and the formation of numerous anti-immigration groups, culminating in Powell’s 1968 Birmingham speech (these groups include the Immigration Control Association and the Racial Preservation Society). Although it lost him his place on front-bench politics, the support for his words can be clearly seen in the demonstrations in his support; Marwick notes that a Gallup polled showed 75 percent sympathetic to the sentiments expressed (1996, p.165). The controversy of “Powellism” caused led to greater demands on anti-immigration policies resulting in moral panics and, in Bowling’s words, providing ‘the political space for the emergence of new and explicitly racist political forces’ – namely, the National Front (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.193).

The National Front incorporated elements of earlier extreme right wing organisations – namely, the anti-Semitic British Brothers League of pre-First World War period and Moseley’s more popular British Union of Fascists of the 1930s – such as extreme nationalism. It tried to reassert Britain’s identity and power at a time of identity crisis and fading international power and humiliation (Suez Crisis). As the leader John Tyndall stated:

‘We must undertake a revolution of ideas within the British people which will lead to the abandonment of liberal softness and to the recapture of National Pride. Willpower, Sense of Destiny and awareness of race’ (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.38).

The National Front reacted to Powell’s speech and were able to capitalise on the “racialisation” of British politics with their ability in linking in the perceived decline of Britain’s international standing.

The resistance from a racial Dunkirk

Yet with so much evidence of anti-immigrant feeling, why was it that Powell’s predictions were never wholly realised? Two key factors must be taken into account: the rise of anti-racist organisations/campaigns and more powerful legislation.

If Notting Hill radicalized the right, it too, put the immigrants and anti-racist circles into action; the riots in 1958 serving in what Marr calls ‘a racial Dunkirk, the darkest moment after which the real fight back would start’ (2008, p.200). Many immigrants banded together in various organisations to help promote their cause, with black citizens finding influence from the civil rights movement in the USA. In 1965 the Racial Adjustment Action Society was formed and later dominated by Michael de Freitas; restyled in the mode of America’s Malcolm X as “Michael X” (Holmes, 1988, p.241); whilst in 1968 came the Black People’s Alliance, leading to Black Power marches. Though, as Holmes (1988, p.242) admits, ‘most of these organisations were short-lived’, it shows a dynamism that was born of these years; that a new generation from immigrants, born British, yet black, would not accept a second class status.

Catherine Jones highlights the efforts of individuals and public figures who helped immigrants via imperial bonds of ‘colonial brethren’ of ‘our mother-country maternalism’, or through a guilt-complex of the exploitation of empire; taking the form of local friendship councils and committees (Jones, 1977, p.146-147). This follows the somewhat utopian visions of commentators of the 1950s who believed a multi-cultural British nation could be achieved on the lines of the Roman Empire of past: one based on a common culture and language rather than distinguished on the colour of skin (Boyce, 1999, p.242). But on the whole, such initiatives did not find wide-based support with the British public, and remained limited within smaller social circles.

In his study of social history of modern Britain, Marwick dismisses any governmental drives for multi-culturalism, insisting ‘the real heart lay in that universal popular language of the sixties, rock/pop’, noting in particular the effects of such songs as Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin in the Wind’ (a civil rights theme) and the emergence of black icons such as Jimi Hendrix (2000, p.261-262). This cultural revolution gave birth to firm and committed counter-cultural groups that resisted racist stereotypes and attacks. This can be seen in the formation of the group ‘Rock Against Racism’ in the 1970s, as well as the Anti-Nazi League, and other prominent campaigns (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.198). Significant events in this struggle was the protest by 7,000 people to Hyde Park due to the murder of the Bengali Altab Ali in May 1978, and the demonstration by 4,000 Anti-Nazi League and local Asians to prevent the holding of a National Front meeting in Southall in April 1979 (where reportedly 10,000 anti-fascists against a meeting of 50 National Front supporters (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.201).

Such actions brought influence to bear upon the government (helped with the lobbying of MPs by black organisations and anti-racist groups), which by the late 1970s and into the 1980s began giving recognition to the problem of racial attacks. There was an improved and more substantial Race Relations Act in 1976 (replacing the earlier 1960 versions); the formation of the Joint Committee in 1977, which included a plethora of cross-party support: ‘Labour, Conservative, Liberal parties, British Council of Churches, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the National Union of Students, the British Youth Council and leading immigrant organisations’ (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.200); whilst in the late 1970s the Scarman Report clearly outlined ‘the inequalities’ suffered by black people and hostility of whites (Marwick, 2000, p.323). By the 1980s the government was prepared to address such issues with constantly improving legislation, taking firmer action in the issue – rather than shying away – denouncing racist attacks as ‘wicked crimes’ (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.210).

The question of racism

Yet the rise of anti-racist organisations and improved legislation is not the whole story and reason behind the quashing of Powell’s bloody predictions. The extent and genesis of racism itself must be questioned. The following pages will discuss some of the possible causes of resentment: decolonisation and the fall of empire; biological theories of racism; and socio-economic conditions.

One possible explanation put forward regards the loss of Britain’s empire; the shock was so great as to leave ‘a vacuum at the heart of Britain’s national international identity’ (Judd, 1997, p.427). This ‘great watershed’ led Britons to ask the question: what was it to be British in the post-war society? (Kahler, 1984, p.3). Walvin (1984, p.5) believes the arrival of black and Asian faces ‘provided the evidence and proof of Britain’s demise; that it was evidence of Britain’s decline – a ‘human reminder of this process’ – and this was a reason, that it was ‘a comfort’ to attack the new faces for Britain’s misfortunes. ‘Perhaps’, Walvin writes in the light of such an argument, it ‘becomes clearer why immigrants aroused such powerful and often irrational feelings and animus’ (1984, p.137).

Yet if linked solely to the fall of empire this thesis fails. MacKenzie (1990, p.11) and others may argue of the strong links of empire (notably in the formation of the League of Empire Loyalists and mass media coverage), yet the extent of its impact is still under open debate. Denis Judd believes that ‘full employment, full pay packets and full stomachs seemed infinitely more important’ than far-flung colonies of which many had little knowledge (1997, p.366). It is a theme continued by Lawrence James (2007, p.588-596), who writes that the young had more cash to spend and cared little of Britain’s imperial decline – this being, after all, the time of MacMillan’s boast that the British had “never had it so good” – adding that voters were ‘largely indifferent to the loss of colonies whose names were probably only known by stamp collectors’. He believes the withdrawal from empire was not as traumatic as the French experience (in Algeria), thus sparring Britain’s blushes and maintaining her dignity (if we discount the Suez crisis). James concludes by saying that ‘Britain’s advance into Europe was more painful in terms of national pride than its retirement from empire’. Empire was never a strong issue: the flurry of activity and patriotism attached to the Falklands War in 1982 must be seen as an odd epilogue, rather than as any sort of revival or even hint of continued resistance.

However, there remains a certain imperial legacy that did influence race relations in Britain: For so long – for centuries – the British had believed that had a destiny to rule and subject peoples from around the globe: the globe itself had been painted red in the lifetimes of many of British citizens alive in the 1950s. As Paul Foot noted: ‘All great men, they were led to believe, were white men, and all uncivilized, weak, backward peoples were black’ (1979, p.94). This – believe many, including Hartmann and Husbands – was the reason for the racism and its sporadic violence. Britons now had to treat as an equal people who for generations they had pierced as ‘ignorant and illiterate’; of which many, it appears, would or could not accept (Bowling cited in Panayi, 1996, p.187). There is plenty of evidence to present an argument as to how immigrants were perceived as being inferior to British-stock: an attacker who slashed a West Indian across the face with the knife in the Notting Hill riots dismissively told police: ‘So a darkie gets chivved. Why all the fuss?’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.180); in 1975, a National Front member who was jailed for having shot dead a West Indian in Glasgow is reputed to have said: ‘Niggers mean nothing to me. It was like killing a dog’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.197); whilst in 1980, a murderer of a Pakistani blasted the authorities when hearing his jail sentence with the words: ‘All for a fucking Paki’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.204). All of this supports a biological view of racism: that the attackers devalued and dehumanised the lives of immigrants because of the difference in skin colour.

Yet despite such views it is my conclusion that this was not colour-based racism but rather resentment of the host population fearing the new, strange arrivals. As Marwick states: ‘The British, at the best of times, are a xenophobic people’ (1996, p.164). This is shown most clearly in poor, working class urban areas in which immigration was most strong; the influx of immigrants being related, in Phizacklea and Miles’ words, to the ‘socio-economic decline of the area’ (1979, p.94). Following on from the research of Stokes & Butler and Mackenzie & Silver (all of whom stated that anti-immigrant resentment was strongest among unskilled manual workers), Phizacklea and Miles’ study of workers in the heavily immigrant populated borough of Willesden in the 1970s confirms just this. Two-fifths of a sample believed blacks were the cause of local problems; 58 percent believing they were responsible for at least one of the local problems (housing etc) or were a problem in themselves; that only 19 percent of a factory sample and 37 percent of the residential sample made no negative reference to black immigrants; confirming that 75 percent in total featured negative comments. Amongst those in the study, the feelings that whites were ‘forced out of the area’ was common, along with a feeling of betrayal from the government (‘It’s not right, they should put people from this country first’), as well as the moral panic of blacks taking control, with one stating: ‘I reckon if you’re black, you’ll get a place. If you’re not, you just have to wait until one comes along’ (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.109-112).

Willesden perfectly fits this theory: it faced heavy job losses in the period – between 1966-1972, 217,000 redundancies – was heavy in manufacturing sector (77 percent of jobs); suffered serious housing problems (shortage and low standard); all in a long decline which appeared to coincide with the arrival of a large black population. This, then, supports the argument that hostility was not connected to a simple hatred of skin colour, but rather what Phizacklea and Miles call ‘competition over scarce resources’ (1979, p.112).

Similarly, Michael Banton (1979, p.245) notes that: ‘the sentiment of “It’s our country”, interacting with economic interest, could prove an explosive mixture’. This is illustrated in the way in which fear was utilised by the extreme right; as early as the 1950s Mosley’s Union movement decreed in a pamphlet: ‘Take action now. Protect your jobs. Stop coloured immigration’; whilst the far-right National Labour Party warned: ‘Look out…your country is steadily being taken over by the triumphant alien’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.179). It was a theme enthusiastically taken up by the National Front in the 1970s, with headlines from issues of its newspaper in June 1977 proclaiming: ‘Immigration: Whites face horrific disease risk’, ‘Blacks Now Better off than Whites – Official’, and ‘Make Whites Clean Toilets Say Asians’ (Nugent & King, 1979, p.44). The message was clear: the immigrants were taking control and the British were becoming Second Class citizens in their own country; the only way to prevent this was by taking strong action.

Such scare mongering tactics clearly worked in the National Front’s popularity: membership dramatically increased to a peak of 14,000 during the Ugandan Asian affair in 1973 (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.131). This was reflected in the comments of supporters in this time, one stating: ‘When you think of it, we virtually used to rule the world. Now we don’t even rule our own country: spades rule our country’; whilst another said:

‘I don’t have anything against the coloureds, I even have a couple of coloured friends and they agree with me about the way things are going now. You’ve got to see to your own before you see to anyone else and they’ll have no chance, our kids. They are outnumbered now, especially if they stay in this area. I’d go if I could tomorrow’ (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.115-116).

The National Front’s support followed the pattern of the Willesden survey: its best support was ‘the least educated and the working class’, whilst its strongest support was in inner city local elections where these social and economic problems (such as the decline of traditional industries) were most fervent (in Leicestershire the support high as twenty percent of the total vote) (Taylor cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.137-138). As a National Front organizer stated in June 1976: ‘The Front does best when an immigrant problem is in sight nearby. We find this creates the better prospects” (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.159). Christopher Husbands likens this perceived threat of invasion to the ‘Seventh Cavalry mentality’; the desperate barricades of a frightened besieged people (cited in Miles & Phizacklea, 1979, p.149).

The escalation of this issue brought these ideas into the majority of British homes. Many historians (notably Bowling) contend that due to the effects of Powell ‘racism was made respectable and institutional’ (cited in Panayi, 1996, p.209). The reason for such escalation was a culmination of factors: the moral panics of the media, growing extreme right support (in forms such as the National Front); resulting in the emergence of a new, racist youth culture (notably the skinheads). The moral panic nature of such politics is shown most clearly in the demise of the National Front in a relatively short space of time. From fielding 54 candidates in the 1974 election (all of which lost their deposit), the party were able to field 303 candidates in 1979. Such a rise could have spelt greater trouble and political fragmentation in the 1980s, however, the party itself splintered due to conflicting voices and were unable to continue to build on the momentum of the 1970s. Of course, this decline was aided by a more stable economy under Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership (1979-1990), thereby adding further weight to the argument of socio-economic tensions.

Marr insightfully writes: ‘Having once acquired an Empire in a fit of absent-mindedness, the British have become multi-coloured in much the same way’ (2008, p.324). There was nothing planned about immigration and its consequent events. These were years marked by great confusion, from the government down to all layers of society; all of which enabled, believes Banton, for conflicts to become ‘more fierce…because of the lack of common understanding’ (1979, p.226). The mass influx of numbers caught those in the affected urban areas completely unprepared. Yet although much resentment was caused, the majority were not primed to engage in acts of violence that would result in the much fabled “rivers of blood”. Many reasons prevented this from happening – from anti-racist responses to government legislation – yet the key element was the nature of racism itself. Of course, much race-hatred existed – and continues to exist – yet its core support is a minimal one and dependant upon other factors such as economic conditions and an explosive press. Without such features, right-wing groups such as the National Front were unable to amass and maintain political support. Powell’s prophecy would not be fulfilled, and this once possible future prime minister ‘would spend the rest of his life far from the fringes of power’ (Marr, 2008, p.321). But it is much too soon to completely dismiss Powell’s warnings, and further friction is entirely possible if – and when – socio-economic tensions are to surface again.



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