Powell ‘was much too pessimistic’ about the positive role of UK migrants

Conservative politician Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech caused nationwide debate in 1968 (Photo by: Getty Images)
Conservative politician Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech caused nationwide debate in 1968 (Photo by: Getty Images)


Sunder Katwala

ENOCH POWELL’S infamous Rivers of Blood speech dominated the headlines in Britain in 1968 – but not everyone in India seemed to get his “keep out” mes­sage. Only a fortnight later, my dad, hav­ing completed his training as a doctor, got on a plane to Heathrow and soon landed a job with the NHS.

Powell wanted immigration to stop – though he made clear that his biggest priority was not just to minimise immi­gration but to “maximise the outflow” of over a million Commonwealth migrants already living in Britain.

The April 1968 speech was provoked by his hostility to the principle of a Race Relations Act outlawing discrimination in jobs and housing because of the col­our of someone’s skin.

Powell spoke too about the dangers posed by people, like me, who had yet to be born. Each of us was cast as just one more stick on the funeral pyre marking the suicide of a nation.

“Sometimes people point to the in­creasing proportion of immigrant off­spring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate so­lution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an English­man. In law he becomes a United King­dom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.”

This was the biggest thing Powell got wrong. His speech caused so much fear and loathing in its day, and “send them back” became a street slogan for those more inclined to make their points with their fists than with classical Latin. What we can almost all agree on now is he was much too pessimistic about Britain.

Powell’s argument was presented as a defence of British identity and culture. Yet he was falsifying British history – and his own life story too, in which In­dia had played a very prominent role. He had been in India, during the Sec­ond World War, when my dad was born in Gujarat in 1944. Powell wrote home to his parents that he “soaked up India like a sponge soaks up water” – and that he even felt as Indian as he did British!

Yet losing his love of India was key to Powell’s transformation into a prophet of doom. He had gone into politics dreaming of being viceroy. He experi­enced Indian independence as a spirit­ual amputation and responded to grief with denial. If Empire had gone, then it had never mattered at all. The English had “come home again after years of distant wandering,” he said; historical amnesia necessary to cast those arriving in Britain as an “alien” intrusion.

Powell was deeply hostile to the Commonwealth. He even launched an extraordinary attack on the Queen, when her 1983 Christmas message fea­tured images of her meeting Indira Gan­dhi at the Commonwealth summit in Delhi. Powell accused the Queen of put­ting those in other continents “ahead of our own people” and, at home too, be­ing “more concerned for the suscepti­bilities and prejudices of a vociferous minority of newcomers than for the great mass of her subjects.” That could bring the monarchy down, he warned.

Another false Powellite prophecy – as Britain shows by hosting the Common­wealth summit this week, before putting out the bunting for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle this spring.

Half a century on, the passions sparked by Powell have long faded, as British Future found in talking to people in Wolverhampton and Birmingham over the months before the anniversary for our new report Many Rivers Crossed. Most people over 45 know the story of Rivers of Blood; most of those under 45 have never heard of it. There is a stark generation gap among British Asians – between the first generation who felt the impact of that speech and those who have grown up confident of our place in Britain.

Avoiding the ethnic civil war that Powell predicted is hardly ambitious enough. For all the contemporary anxi­eties we still face – securing confidence in immigration, dealing with Brexit and eradicating racism and terrorist extrem­ism – the contact forged in our class­rooms, our workplaces and in our rela­tionships go far too deep for anybody to seriously think we could turn the clock back to the Britain of 1968.

Powell was wrong to argue that inte­gration was all but impossible. Our challenge in 2018 is to show what more we can do together to make it work.

  •  Sunder Katwala is director of the thinktank British Future. Its report, Many Rivers Crossed: Britain’s attitudes to race and integration 50 years since Rivers of Blood, is published this week.