The Rivers of Blood speech: what was it and how did it divide Britain?

Tory MP Enoch Powell's inflammatory rhetoric sees him axed from Cabinet in 1968, for but his words - decried by politicians as thinly veiled racism - resonate with ordinary Britons

Photo of Enoch Powell being escorted by police

On 21 April 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell was removed as shadow defence secretary by party leader Edward Heath after making a now-infamous racially charged speech.

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Immigration into Britain from across the Commonwealth had boomed in the wake of World War II. At one stage, the NHS solely recruited from Jamaica and Barbados to boost its workforce. A new Race Relations Bill had been proposed in parliament to amend the earlier Race Relations Act of 1965 – additions included making it illegal to refuse housing and employment to a person on the grounds of race, colour or ethnicity.

During a meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham, Powell – a prominent member of the Tories for more than 20 years – took a stand against the growing numbers of non-native citizens in Britain and an immigration policy that had been in existence for decades.

He quoted members of his constituency, who voiced concerns over immigration: “They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth … at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker.”

One of the more controversial suggestions was that continuous immigration would lead to violence as well as prejudice towards ‘native’ British citizens. He called for voluntary repatriation for those who would be happy to return to the countries of their birth.

It became known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, as Powell quoted from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid :“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

Politicians clamoured to condemn his divisive rhetoric and many threatened to resign. The next evening, Heath sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet over the phone – though he remained an MP – calling his speech “racialist in tone”.

The reaction of the public and parts of the media was pointedly different: strikes went on across the country in protest at Powell’s sacking. A poll suggested that 74 per cent of the British population agreed with aspects of his speech, and a peak in violence towards British Asian communities during the 1970s is often attributed to it.

The Conservatives, with Heath at the helm, went on to oust Labour in the 1970 General Election – and it’s held that popular support for Powell’s views on immigration played a part in the victory.

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This content first appeared in the February 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed