The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

“Rivers of Blood” Revisited

Christopher Sandford

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

Enoch Powell, the great contrarian of twentieth-century British politics, seems to have richly fulfilled the judgment he made on that party-hopping statesman of an earlier era, Joseph Chamberlain, when he wrote, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream, at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Appointed in January 1957 to what he called “the best job in government,” financial secretary to the Treasury, Powell resigned a year later when he found himself at odds with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s notions of state intervention and public spending. In 1960 Powell was brought back to the top table as minister of health, only to quit once more when Alec Douglas-Home replaced Macmillan in 1963. When Douglas-Home stood down as head of the Conservative Party in 1965 (Labour had won control of Parliament the preceding year), Powell decided to contest the party leadership but lost to Edward Heath, who appointed him shadow defense spokesman. During his three-year tenure, Powell vocally blamed “American imperialism” for having dislocated Western Europe at the end of the Second World War and was reluctant to visit Washington when invited to do so in 1966. Asked near the end of his life what his greatest regret had been, Powell, who had served in the British army in World War II as its youngest brigadier, replied, “I wish I had been killed fighting for my country.”

Powell reached the apogee of his lifelong political brinkmanship, or, conversely, committed professional suicide—in either case, instantly establishing his personal legend—on April 20, 1968. In what came to be known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, he addressed the issue of increased immigration to Britain, the primary sources of which were its erstwhile colonies in the West Indies, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. In what has become a much-quoted passage, he recounted the sentiment of a parliamentary constituent who had expressed the view that “in this country, in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Such remarks were not uncommon in the streets of Britain, as opposed to its legislative corridors, in the period leading up to enactment of the Labour government’s Race Relations Act, which was to be debated in Parliament three days later.

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Christopher Sandford is the author of, most recently, Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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