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FactCheck: Enoch Powell's 1968 speech

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 April 2008

Forty years ago, Conservative politician Enoch Powell made one of the most controversial speeches in British history - and effectively ended his political career.

The 'Rivers of Blood' speech outlined his fears at the numbers of immigrants coming into Britain, and their impact on society as he knew it.

FactCheck looks at some of the claims in his speech, and how they compared to the wider picture then and now.

All quotes are from Enoch Powell's speech to the Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham, 20 April 1968.

The elderly widow

"'Eight years ago in a respectable street in Wolverhampton a house was sold to a Negro. Now only one white (a woman old-age pensioner) lives there. This is her story...'"

Powell tells the story, which he quoted from a letter, of one of his constituents - a widow whose sons had died in the war. The unidentified woman had taken boarders in at her seven-bed house, but gradually her white tenants had left, and she refused to let rooms to immigrants.

Powell recounted how "negroes" abused her at 7am when she refused to let them use her phone. "She is becoming afraid to go out," quoted Powell. "Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox."

The emotive tale touched a nerve, but who was the woman? Powell steadfastly refused to identify her, writing to a Labour MP: "I never disclose ... particulars likely to assist in the identification of constituents ... whose cases I may use to illustrate circumstances."

When grilled on television in January 1969 by David Frost, Powell was repeatedly asked whether he had verified the story. He deflected the questions, saying instead that he had "verified the source" and hadn't the slightest doubt the story was true, and typical.

Had Powell got his facts right or could he have fallen prey to National Front propaganda?

So had Powell got his facts right or could he have fallen prey to National Front propaganda? Local and national press at the time tried to track down the elderly widow, but to no avail.

Last year, the Radio 4 programme Document enlisted a historian to help sift through the paper trail. They narrowed it down to around 200 women who matched criteria such as having lived in the same street for years, being widowed during the war.

The search narrowed down to one woman: Drucilla Cotterill, a homeowner in Brighton Place, then aged 68, who had been taking in lodgers for some years.

Most of the pieces fit, although Cotterill didn't match up completely: she didn't have a telephone, or lose sons during the war.

The BBC interviewed former child residents of Brighton Place, who remembered excrement being put through a letterbox, and a dead dog being put through a window. However, other evidence suggested that things were far more friendly.

"It is hard to know exactly what his constituents were saying to him at the time," said Robert Pearce, a former professor of modern history and author of Enoch Powell, a biography out later this year. "But if it were a real person, it seems unlikely that it was all accurate."

Party policy?

"The answers to the simple and rational question are equally simple and rational: by stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and by promoting the maximum outflow. Both answers are part of the official policy of the Conservative party."

Although some quarters of the party welcomed Powell's speech, he took things a fair jump further than the official party line in calling for the "maximum outflow" of immigrants.

As the 1966 election manifesto shows, moves to allow immigrants to go back were strictly voluntary: the party would, it said, "help immigrants already here to rejoin their families in their countries of origin, or to return with their families to these countries, if they so wish".

As party leader Edward Heath in his statement on Powell's dismissal from the shadow cabinet:

"I have repeatedly emphasised that the policy of the Conservative party is that immigration must be most strictly limited and that immigrants wishing to return to their own countries should be financially helped to do so. But everyone already in the country must be treated as equal before the law."

Migration numbers

"In 15 or 20 years, on present trends, there will be in this country three and a half million Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants. That is not my figure. That is the official figure given to parliament by the spokesman of the Registrar General's Office."

As we'll see in the next claim, if anything Powell seems to have underestimated the numbers of immigrants that would come to Britain. But at the time, his three and a half million figure was the kind of dubious statistical representation that gets FactCheck's calculator burning.

As Bill Smithies and Peter Fiddick pointed out in a 1969 analysis of Powell's speech, the 3.5 million estimate was given in a parliamentary answer to the anti-immigration MP Sir Cyril Osborne.

He had asked in June 1967 for the government's estimate of the present and likely future coloured population of Britain if the current rate of immigration and immigrant fertility continued - both of which were unlikely to happen owing to newly imposed controls on immigration, and because fertility rates were expected to decline as an immigrant group got more settled and grew older.

Still, on this basis, the government gave estimates of one million in 1966, 1.75 million in 1975 and 3.5 million in 1985, although these needed to be taken with caution.

If anything Powell seems to have underestimated the numbers of immigrants that would come to Britain.

According to official statistics, it's estimated that 472,500 new Commonwealth immigrants entered Britain between 1955 and 1962, when Commonwealth citizens became subject to immigration control and counting procedures were tightened up. There were then around Commonwealth 60,000 immigrants a year throughout the sixties.

In 1968, there were a total of 84,470 immigrants in 1968, 64,380 of them from the Commonwealth. In 1969, the number declined to 48,090; in 1970, 42,380, before peaking at 72,510 (when laws changed).

"There is no comparable official figure for the year 2000, but it must be in the region of five to seven million, approximately one-tenth of the whole population, and approaching that of Greater London."

Never mind dependants born in the UK: according to 2001 census data, 4.9 million of the UK's population was born overseas, more than double the 2.1 million in 1951.

The decade up to 2001 saw the biggest increase in the post-war years in foreign-born population: 1.1 million, nearly double the 600,000 increase between 1961 and 1971.

However, the majority of immigrants nowadays come from Europe, rather than the Commonwealth. And what Powell didn't anticipate was the rise in short-stay migration: just over a third of foreign-born migrants who came to the UK in the nineties left the country within four years of arrival.

According to the 2001 census, 87 per cent, or around seven in eight, of England's population described their ethnicity as white British.

Rivers of blood

"As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood'."

Just as no one in Casablanca actually says "Play it again, Sam," this is the closest the "Rivers of Blood" speech actually gets to its common title. What's the story behind the line that cemented Powell's reputation for racist rhetoric?

Powell is quoting a prophecy from Virgil's Aeneid, a Roman epic telling the mythological tale of the founding of Rome.

On arriving in Italy after many trials and tribulations, the Trojan warrior Aeneas consults a priestess, the Sibyl, to find out how his plans to create the new empire will turn out.

Her reply includes the line quoted by Powell: she tells Aeneas that in the process of creating Rome, she saw wars and the River Tiber foaming with blood.

'If it was any old person, you might think they'd just picked a line they liked the sound of and used it, but Powell was one of the best classicists of the twentieth century ... He'd have been well aware of the meaning of the line.'
Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge

"She was saying that you're going to found a multicultural, cosmopolitan state - and in the eyes of the Romans, Rome was the greatest civilisation - but it will be a painful process," said Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge.

Could this suggest a slightly more measured view of immigration - which may bring necessary problems in order to achieve a greater end - than the rest of Powell's speech?

There are other examples of rivers being used in Roman literature as a metaphor for mixed nationalities, giving the idea of a flood of new people coming in - although Powell's quote comes specifically from the Aeneid.

"If it was any old person, you might think they'd just picked a line they liked the sound of and used it, but Powell was one of the best classicists of the twentieth century," said Beard. "He'd have been well aware of the meaning of the line."

Either way, any nuances of the Latin were lost on Powell's audience.


The woman who never was? Radio 4's Document
Document transcript
Express and Star: Secrets of Old Brighton Place
Control of Immigration: statistics, Table 5.8 Grants of settlement - Commonwealth citizens and foreign nationals, 1960-2006
Population and migration trends, ONS
Census 2001 - Ethnicity and religion in England and Wales
Conservative party 1966 election manifesto

Links are unavailable for the following sources:
The Times, Powell out of Shadow Cabinet, Monday, Apr 22, 1968
The Times, Powell refuses to comment, Wednesday, May 08, 1968
The Times, Immigrants not to be forced out Monday, May 20, 1968

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