Fifty years ago this month, the British conservative Enoch Powell gave his “Rivers of Blood” speech about immigration, which has become as legendary as it is infamous. A classics professor who once aspired to become viceroy of the British Raj, Powell was one of postwar Britain’s most intelligent conservatives. Romantic about British traditions and deeply skeptical of the emerging European superstate, he would become a mentor to the young Margaret Thatcher. But instead of forcing immigration onto the agenda and propelling Powell toward Conservative Party leadership, the Rivers of Blood speech pushed the issue to the fringe and Powell’s career into the ditch. Powell’s fall became a rallying cry for racists and immigration a wedge issue for Europe’s populist “new right” parties, thus preventing candid discussion of policy.
In April 1968, Britain’s Labour government enacted the Race Relations Act, making illegal racial or religious discrimination in housing, employment, or public services. In response, Powell attacked the cross-party postwar consensus, not just on race relations but also on broader questions of national identity. Two decades of mass immigration, he warned, had started a “total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history.” British society was “on the verge of a change”—and risking the kind of inter-ethnic violence that had stymied Powell’s ambitions to run India.