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Enoch Powell - Rivers of Blood

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 3426 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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What impact has Enoch Powell’s speech had on British citizens, then and now, in relation to how we distinguish ourselves from immigrants?

Enoch Powell’s passionate ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech about the concept of integration and how he felt about British tradition being eroded had a deep impact upon society at the time it was made and in modern times. It has shaped how British citizens distinguish themselves from immigrants both in historical and in contemporary terms. This essay will look at what impact Enoch Powell’s speech made when it was given and its longer term impacts. The essay will begin with a look at why race was such a divisive issue after the Second World War and during the 1960s. It will also look at the problems which arose in the social structure of Britain before Powell made the speech. The essay will detail how the law distinguishes between citizens of Britain and immigrants (both directly and indirectly), and the particular focus of the essay will be how it has done so since 1948. Conversely, the essay will comment upon how British people have expressed their views on immigrants through non-legislative channels such as through the media and through political parties. This discussion will be aligned with an examination of how immigrants have contributed to the fabric of British society, before the 1960s and between the 1960s and the present day. Therefore the essay will address the question of whether Powell’s assessment of the immigration situation still has resonance today. This exposition will incorporate a critical examination of the ideology of the BNP and an assessment of the general success/or failure of their organisation. This exposition will run simultaneously with an examination of the role and ideology of those who campaign in opposition to the BNP.

Racism and Fascism

The Second World War marked a turning point in the campaign to ensure that racism was eradicated. However, in Western Europe the issue of immigration has always been a divisive one, and this divisiveness has continued. Extreme forms of racism such as that practiced with regard to Jews in Nazi Germany were largely eradicated with the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 and with the downfall of Mussolini and Hitler. However, racist tendencies have persisted since this time in varying degrees and these tendencies have found many means of expression (Ifekwunigwe, J. (2004), p301). This lexicon of racial prejudice has been used to communicate many forms of objection to the presence of immigrants in Britain. Those who adopt the view that desperate immigrants have a right to be treated with respect and compassion regardless of whether they have a right to enter Britain are constantly at odds with those who argue that the entry of immigrants to Britain should be more stringently restricted and discouraged.

Britain Pre-1960s

Pre-1960s Britain was regarded as having quite a liberal attitude to policy in regard to immigration and political asylum. Economic uncertainty produced mass unemployment and the housing conditions of most British people in this era were not of a very high standard. During this period Anti-Semitism was widely accepted, as was racial prejudice towards Irish people, Black people, Travelers and other minority sectors in Britain. As Moore, R (2000, p1) points out, this racism was particularly prevalent in the working classes, as the Trade Union movement openly blamed the poor working and living conditions of the working classes on migrant workers and other immigrants.

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The Aliens Act 1905 was introduced against this racist backdrop by Balfour’s Conservative government. It has been widely accepted that this Act was aimed mainly at restricting the influx of Jews from Eastern European countries into Britain. This 1905 Act transferred the responsibility for immigration decisions to immigration officials and the Home Secretary. The Aliens Act was revised in 1914, and was given a wider scope. Other legislation in the form of the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act of 1914 ensured that only those immigrants of good character could apply for entry into Britain. In August of 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War the Aliens Restrictions Act imposed further restrictions of immigrants resulting in widespread deportation.

Racism continued to be widespread during the post Second World War period. The 1950s saw huge labour shortages which British employers sought to remedy by recruiting many workers from abroad. Employers saw this as advantageous as they did not have to fund the cost involved in educating or indeed bringing up these workers. In spite of the fact that immigrants were in a large way addressing the problem of labour shortages in Britain the government introduced a law which required immigrants to declare that they had no dependents and that they were single. This ensured that the British government could abrogate responsibility for the maintenance of dependents of immigrants.

Post 1960

As Blackstone et al. (1998) have posited, since the 1960s there has been many legislative attempts by successive British governments to reverse the racial tension which has been seen to build up towards immigrants through the influence of characters like Enoch Powell. These legislative attempts were fuelled in many ways by the success of the civil rights movements in America, and have taken the form of The British Nationality Act 1968, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968, the Immigrant Act 1971, the British Race Relations Act 1976, the Nationality Act 1981 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002[1]. Arguably the most important of these measures was the Race Relations legislation, which will be explained in detail in this section.

In 1965, the first Race Relations Act was introduced. This Act included a definition of what racism was and it made it unlawful for a person to be treated less favourably than another person on account of their race or ethnic origin (www.cre.gov.uk, 2006). This Act was however, somewhat restrictive in its scope and it is widely accepted that the first Race Relations Act made discrimination very difficult to prove.

In 1968, the British Government accepted this critique of the first Race Relations Act, by introducing a second race Relations Act which widened the scope of the legislation. The 1968 Act legislated against discrimination in the areas of employment, goods and services as well as in the area of employment and trade unions. A Race Relations Board was set up to supervise the implementation of the Race Relations legislation, and this body was expanded in the late 1960s, giving it more power and credibility. However, it is important to note that the Race Relations legislation was still very limited as it did not apply to small businesses or to most government actors. Also, as the 1968 passage of this piece of legislation coincided with Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the impact of his speech can be seen an having possibly restrained the scope of this particular piece of legislation. Powell’s speech also may have had the effect of countering the progressive approach which the passage of Race Relations Legislation had on the general public’s perception of immigrants.

The 1970s witnessed further incremental change in the Race Relations legislation, with another Race Relations Act being introduced in 1976. Whilst remaining limited in many ways, this legislation outlawed two separate forms of discrimination defined as: ‘Direct’ and ‘Indirect’. The idea of victimisation was also introduced by this Act and this concept was incorporated into what was recognised by the Act as Direct Discrimination. It can be argued that Powell’s well publicised dismissal from his government position after his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech changed the conception that British citizens had in terms of distinguishing themselves from immigrants. The racism that had been endemic and widely accepted was largely replaced with a more moderate approach. This more moderate approach saw British people distinguishing themselves from immigrants in less extreme ways. Examples of this include the donated blood of black and a white person was no longer separated, and immigrants had more rights in the workplace. Therefore while Powell’s speech had the effect of cementing support from radical proponents of strict immigration rules, it also catalysed intolerance within government towards open displays of racial hatred.

However, the British government was also aware of the support which Enoch Powell and others who shared his opinion had, and thus were anxious to placate both sectors by adopting an approach to race discrimination legislation which was arguably more strategic than substantive. Therefore, perhaps, in retrospect it can be argued that the appearance of a serious approach to racism was more important to the government than actual substantive measures, aimed at the problem. A less cynical viewpoint could of course be that the government, were aware that their progressive approach to the issue of race discrimination had to be tempered by the knowledge that there was still a lot of opposition and racial tension within society at large and accordingly any changes to the law had to be both pragmatic and incremental.

During the 1990s the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent accusation that the police were guilty of institutionalised racism can be seen as a legacy indirectly attributable to Powell and the generation of people whose influence he solicited with his dramatic speech. Also, in recent times the terrorist threat which has been seized upon by some to propel racist hatred on the grounds of public safety can be indirectly linked to the ideology espoused by Powell and his supporters. More recently, the Menezes shooting at Stockwell tube station has given rise to speculation that shots would not have been fired at a white person in equivalent circumstances, leading one to the possible conclusion that the hatred Powell engendered can be seen today in the way British people distinguish themselves from immigrants. The subsequent failure of the justice system to deal appropriately with this matter, and the fact that no senior officers have been made to account for the decisions they took on that day only serves to produce further evidence that Powell’s viewpoints are harboured not just be people, but by institutions as well, making Powell’s potential legacy more potent.

The political situation in the 1990s created problems in terms of racial prejudice which resulted in the resurgence of right wing political parties in Britain, like the BNP, whose ideology openly permits discrimination against immigrants. These parties had experienced a downturn in support which corresponded to the social impetus created by the Race Relations legislation. However, the 1990s with its ‘boom and bust’ economy, the high interest rates and high inflation that Major’s Conservative government could not seem to control brought about disillusionment which in many ways led to racism in the same ways that poverty and disillusionment led to racism in the 1960s. These problems were exacerbated by the media who articulated the widespread disillusionment and in some ways blamed this poverty on the presence of immigrant workers.

After the advent of Major, Blair made some inroads towards dealing with the problems which stagnated the 1990s, by raising the profile of Black and Asian politicians and by using positive discrimination to ensure that these sectors were adequately represented in Parliament and in Local Councils. Active campaigns were undertaken by Labour to shift support away from the BNP and back to more mainstream liberal pluralist parties and ideologies, thus moderating the extreme influence which the BNP encouraged in terms of how a British person should distinguish themselves from an immigrant. In many ways this is an approach advocated currently by David Cameron who has recently been quoted in the media denigrating the ideology and role of the BNP. However, it is important to note that these campaigns had and continue to have the effect of reducing but not eradicating support for the BNP.

Indirect Discrimination and Legislative Distinctions

Basic rights such as those conferred by the minimum wage legislation and the Employment Rights Act on all workers in the UK are not always extended to those working illegally in Britain. Therefore immigrant workers in Britain continue to be taken advantage of by ruthless individuals, and their vulnerability is compounded by the fact that, even though the work they do, albeit illegally, contributes to the British economy, they are still not afforded the basic employment rights that they could enjoy the protection of.

Therefore, if one talks of the legislative distinction between immigrants and British citizens in contemporary terms, one must be prepared to admit that a gulf exists between the rights that immigrants enjoy in rhetorical terms and the rights that they actually enjoy. The Menezes shooting and the recent case of the Chinese cockle pickers whose vulnerability was exacerbated by the fact that the continued plight of Chinese immigrant workers is ignored by the Labour government are prime examples of this. This ‘legislative distinction’ persists and it has been seen to invade other areas of society, albeit indirectly.

It cannot be denied that black and other minority immigrants are represented disproportionately among those who are poor, unemployed and imprisoned in Britain. Yet, no legislation has been put in place to try to address this fact. Immigrants continue to be disproportionately present in those areas of society that contemporary sociologists regard as being socially excluded. Again no legislative proposals have been forthcoming to address this problem substantively.

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Equally as the under-representation of immigrants in the education system and in the professional sectors (particularly the area of the practice of law) continues, no effective legislative efforts have been proposed or put in place to deal with this problem. Therefore it can be argued that while a legislative distinction between the rights of immigrants and the rights of British people has ostensibly receded with the advent of Race Relations legislation and the further integration of Europe, no efforts have been made to positively address the disadvantageous situation of many immigrants which remains as palpable today as it was in the 1960s. This could led one to argue that while overt legislative distinctions have been in some ways addressed by the British government, the endemic problem of immigrant exclusion on an indirect basis remains problematic and unaddressed, giving rise to a deep legislative distinction between the rights enjoyed by British and the rights afforded to immigrants in Britain.

This continues to happen in spite of the great contributions that immigrants have made to British society. The importation of skilled immigrants where equivalent skill cannot be found amongst British people is an area where immigrants have contributed greatly to Britain in terms of augmenting their economy and international reputation. The fact that the FA wished to appoint a Brazilian to coach the national football team can be seen as an example of this, as can the multi cultural composition of British football, tennis and other national sporting teams. Also, the fact that National British universities frequently recruit talent from abroad is a testament to the many sound contributions that immigrants have made to the culture and economy of Britain. Why therefore does society view immigrants with suspicion?

The Media and Other Non Legislative Channels

The negative perception of immigrants in Britain has been largely propelled by the portrayal of immigrants by the media and through non legislative channels such as through parties like the British National Party. The perception of immigrants presented to society is shaped by how government and media actors deal with and respond to the problems of racist prejudice manifested directly and indirectly within contemporary British society. As Jacobs (2000, p141) has argued:

‘The outcomes of public communication depend in large part on the communicative geography of civil society — that is, the extent and the quality of interactions between different publics……[2]‘.


In conclusion, the problems which Enoch Powell described in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech remain the subject of bitter division with British society, both in legislative and non legislative terms and also in how British people distinguish themselves from immigrants. These problems or at least the perception which validates the existence of such problems can be seen as very much alive today. The fact that the British National Party has just been elected to a seat in the Barking constituency and that they have found wide support in poverty stricken areas of Britain evidences the continued resonance of the matters raised in Powell’s speech and how this has influenced how some continue to distinguish themselves from immigrants in a negative way. Equally, however the legacy of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech has in many ways been negated through the efforts of liberal pluralist parties such as the Conservatives and Labour. Therefore, while the success of methods of addressing the problems associated with racism in Britain are still the subject of debate, it cannot be disputed that much remains to be done to counter the racist hatred that Powell inspired. This means working to solve the problems associated with poverty and social exclusion and also addressing the problem of institutional racism which can still be seen today. Only when these problems have been addressed effectively will the extremism and racial prejudice that Powell propagated truly be marginalised.


Books and Articles

Blackstone, T., Parekh, B. and Sanders, P. (1998) Race Relations in Britain: A Developing Agenda. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London.

Clayton, G. (2004) Textbook on Immigration and Asylum Law. Publisher: Blackstone Press. Place of Publication: London

Ifekwunigwe, J. (2004) Mixed Race Studies: A Reader. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: New York.

Jacobs, R. (2000) Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King. Publisher: Cambridge University Press. Place of Publication: Cambridge, England.

Moore, R. (2000) Race, Class and Struggle: Essays on Racism and Inequality in Britain, the US and Western Europe. Journal Title: Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Volume: 26. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 2000. Page Number: 372.





[1] A good and detailed description of this legislation and other related legislation can be found in Clayton, G. (2004) Textbook on Immigration and Asylum Law. Publisher: Blackstone Press. Place of Publication: London.

[2] p140. Jacobs, R. (2000) Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King. Publisher: Cambridge University Press. Place of Publication: Cambridge, England.


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