Enoch Powell on the Immigration Crisis

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Enoch Powell on the Immigration Crisis

Book excerpt

By: Enoch Powell

Date: November 16, 1968

Source: Powell, Enoch, and Rex Collings. Reflections of a Statesman: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell. London: Bellew Publishing, 1992.

About the Author: Enoch Powell (1912–1998) was a Conservative Party Minister of Parliament (MP) in Great Britain between 1950 and 1974, and subsequently an Ulster Unionist MP. He held controversial, extreme right-wing views on issues such as race and immigration, and on the United Kingdom's entry into the European Union.


This speech was given by the British Conservative MP Enoch Powell in November 1968, as a follow-up to his controversial "Rivers of Blood" speech made in Birmingham earlier that year, in which he had warned about the adverse consequences of further immigration on the United Kingdom. As a result, Powell was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet for expressing racist views.

Powell's 1968 speeches were a response to the rapidly increasing immigration into Britain from its former colonies during the 1950s and 1960s. Up until 1962, New Commonwealth immigrants from the West Indies, India, and Pakistan were allowed to enter and settle freely in the United Kingdom, having acquired the status of full British citizens under the 1948 British Nationality Act. During the post-war years, both European and New Commonwealth immigrants had been encouraged to come to Britain by both Labour and Conservative Governments, in order to help solve a labor shortage problem, especially in the textiles and steel industries. The numbers of immigrants from the New Commonwealth increased from an estimated 2,000 in 1953 to around 58,000 in 1960, and to 231,000 during eighteen months between January 1961 and July 1962.

In recognition that the numbers were spiraling out of control, in 1962 the Conservative Government of the time passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which required Commonwealth citizens to obtain labor vouchers in order to enter the United Kingdom and reduced the number of immigrant workers from approximately 50,000 during the first six months of operation of the scheme, to around 13,000 for the entire year 1965. However, the Act also allowed entry of the family dependants of immigrant workers. This reduced its impact on overall numbers of immigrants to the United Kingdom and had the effect of increasing levels of permanent settlements, because families were more likely to stay in the United Kingdom than single migrant workers. The majority of immigrants settled in London, Birmingham, and other main cities, and some city neighborhoods became heavily populated with specific ethnic groups, leading Powell to emphasize, in his "Rivers of Blood" speech, the threat to the native white British population of immigrants taking over their communities.

By the late 1960s, racial tension was increasing, and in 1968 riots broke out in the Notting Hill area of London between West Indian immigrants and groups of right-wing locals. The Labour Government then in power introduced a Race Relations Bill intended to ensure equality of opportunity in British society and to address the increasing problems of racism and discrimination.

Enoch Powell and his extreme right-wing followers were opposed to this policy strategy, which favored the integration of immigrants, and put forward their own radical proposals to control immigration to Britain and to reduce the number of immigrants in the country. Particularly radical were the proposals to stop allowing dependents to join immigrants already in the country and to implement an assisted repatriation scheme for those who decided to return to their home countries.


Seven months ago I made a speech in Birmingham which attracted some considerable attention. I discussed in it the present and prospective consequences of the immigration of Commonwealth citizens into this country during the last fifteen years which took place because, until 1962, this country, alone of all the nations in the world, had no definition of its own people, so that for all purposes an Englishman born in Birmingham and a tribesman from the North-West Frontier were indistinguishable in the law of the United Kingdom. It was a subject on which I had spoken and written on a number of occasions over the preceding months and years. The immediate occasion was the imminent Second Reading of the Government's Race Relations Bill, which the Conservative Shadow Cabinet, then including myself, had decided, and publicly announced its decision, to oppose, on the ground that the Bill would do more harm than good. My speech was made in support and in defence of that decision from the point of view of a Member representing a constituency in one of the areas most affected; and it was so understood both by those to whom it was delivered and by the party officials who, in the normal course, were aware of its contents in advance.

In the seven months which have elapsed since I spoke I have been the target of endless abuse and vilification. No imputation or innuendo has been too vile or scurrilous for supposedly reputable journals to invent or repeat. On the other hand, I have been borne up by an astonishing manifestation, from among all classes of people and from all areas of the community, expressing relief and gratitude that the speech was made….

The reaction to that speech revealed a deep and dangerous gulf in the nation, a gulf which is I fear no narrower today than it was then. I do not mean between the indigenous population and the immigrants. On the contrary, over the months and years the pressure upon me to oppose the growth in the number of immigrants has come as much from my immigrant constituents as from the rest, if not more so: in this matter I was convinced of speaking for and in the interest of all my constituents. Nor do I mean the gulf between those who do, and those who do not, know from personal experience the impact and reality of immigration. Knowledge of the facts and concern about them has been spreading rapidly in parts of the kingdom where a Commonwealth immigrant is never seen. I mean the gulf between the overwhelming majority of people throughout the country on the one side, and on the other side a tiny minority, with almost a monopoly hold upon the channels of communication, who seem determined not to know the facts and not to face the realities and who will resort to any device or extremity to blind both themselves and others….

In the context of a Bill which the native inhabitants of this country were bound to see as directed against themselves, an important part of my argument at Birmingham was the fact of reverse discrimination—that it is not the true immigrant but the Briton who feels himself the 'toad beneath the harrow' in the areas where the immigrant population is spreading and taking root. This indeed was the background against which the opposition were justifiably claiming that the Race Relations Bill would do more harm than good. To illustrate it I described the typical situation of the last and usually elderly white inhabitants of a street or area otherwise wholly occupied by immigrants, and I did so by citing an individual case from Wolverhampton in a correspondent's own words.

The outcry which followed illuminated like a lightning flash the gulf between those who do not know or want to know and the rest of the nation. Here were circumstances which those who know the facts now are being repeated over and over again, at this very moment, in the towns and the cities affected by immigration—often with aggravations more distressing than in the case I cited. It was ordinary, not extraordinary. Yet all at once the air was filled with denunciation: I was romancing; I had picked up a hoary, unverified legend; I had no evidence; nobody could find the old lady—no more than the class with the one white child! Where do these people live, who imagine that what I related was so remarkable and incredible that they had to conclude it was apocryphal? What do they suppose happens, or has been happening, or will be happening, as the growing immigrant numbers extend their areas of occupation? They must live either a long way off, or they must live with their eyes tight shut….

The issue is not, as some people appear to imagine, one of being nice to the immigrants or strangers in our midst, however diverse their race or culture. The issue is an issue of numbers, now and especially in the future. And so I come to the question of numbers, and of the increase in numbers; for it is the very heart of the matter. As Lord Elton once put it: 'If it were known in my home village that the Archbishop of Canterbury were coming to live there, we should undoubtedly ring a peal on the church bells. If it were known that five archbishops were coming, I could still expect to see my neighbours exchanging excited congratulations at the street corners. But if it were known that fifty archbishops were coming, there would be a riot.'

First, let us get our sense of perspective. Let us look at present numbers. There are today in this country about 1-1/4 million Commonwealth immigrants, though the basis of the statistics is far from perfect and the number is likely to be more rather than less. Suppose that any Government fifteen years ago had declared: it is our intention that by 1968 1-1/4 million Afro-Asians shall have entered this country and settled in it. People would not have believed their ears. Of course, no government, no party would have dared to put forward such a proposal; if they had, they would have been hissed out of office. Yet the thing is no less absurd or monstrous now that it has become a reality than it would have seemed to everybody beforehand. It never was proposed or argued on grounds of supplying labour or skill. Indeed, it could not be; for that has nothing to do with immigration. The doctors, aliens as well as Commonwealth citizens, who have made it possible, by getting a few years of post-graduate experience in Britain, to expand the hospital service faster than would otherwise have been possible, have no more to do with immigration than have the au pair girls admitted for a year or two to give domestic help or the workers moving temporarily from one Common Market country to another. Those who still talk about needing immigrant doctors, dentists and teachers, are not really talking about immigration at all. As for unskilled labour, the mere attempt to justify mass importation of it would have been exploded by economists and trade unions alike: the remedy for shortage of labour in a developed economy is more capital and better organization. In short, it is only now that this has happened and the people of Britain are faced with a fait accompli, that all sorts of excuses are invented and we are told in terms of arrogant moral superiority that we have got a 'multi-racial society' and had better like it.

Yet if that were all, it could be endured. With their almost incredible tolerance the English—it is virtually only England which is affected—would settle down to live with what they neither asked for nor wanted nor were warned of nor understood. But the present, this 1-1/4 million reality—however inconceivable it would have been in prospect—this is not all. People look to the future, as, as they do so, they remember that they have been betrayed and misled in the past. It is our duty not to betray or mislead them again.

It is easy to understand how enormously strong is the temptation for all politicians to baulk at this vision of the future, and not least for my own party, the Conservative Party, which formed the Government of the country during the crucial years and would fain close its eyes and ears to the wholly unnecessary and avoidable havoc its own inaction wrought—a tragedy which need never have been enacted. If Britain had provided herself in 1956 instead of 1962 with what every other nation under the sun possesses—a law defining its own people—what a world of anguish past and future would never have been! Even those of us who inveighed against the British Nationality Act 1948 from the outset and who from inside and from outside Government urged legislation over the years, feel an oppressive sense of guilt and humiliation. The temptation to close our eyes to the future is correspondingly strong. But it is a temptation that has to be conquered.

Even more dangerous is the too common taunt: 'You did the wrong; you have no right to talk about it now.' Woe betide the nation that will not let its rulers admit their errors and try to remedy the consequences: there is no surer way to persist on a disastrous course until it is too late than to attach the penalty of mockery to those who say: 'We have done wrong.'…

On grounds—the prospective growth of numbers with its physical consequences, and the unacceptability of those consequences—rests the urgency of action. We can perhaps not reduce the eventual total of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population much, if at all, below its present size: with that, and with all that implies, we and our children and our children's children will have to cope until the slow mercy of the years absorbs even that unparalleled invasion of our body politic. What I believe we can do, and therefore must do, is to avert the impending disaster of its increase.

There are two, and, so far as I can see, only two measures available to this end. Both are obvious; one is far more important, and far more difficult, than the other. If further net immigration were virtually to cease at once, that would reduce the prospective total for 1985 by a further half million, and would have a somewhat more than proportionate effect on whatever is to be the rate of increase after 1985; for, as I have pointed out, the inflow, consisting as it does mostly of dependants, forms the basis for new family units in the future. I say 'virtually cease', because of course no one would wish an absolute veto on the settlement of individual Afro-Asians in this country in future, any more than of other aliens. But let there be no prevarication about what is meant. What is meant is that we would cease to admit not only new settlers and their dependants but the dependants or remaining dependants of immigrants already here. The first half of this presents no human difficulty: if we admit no new settlers, there is no problem about their dependants. The problem attaches to the reservoir of dependants who have not yet joined immigrants already here. In this case we have to decide between two evils, the denial of entry of an immigrant's dependants and the consequences of the prospective growth in numbers. But here the minor issue merges into the major one, that of repatriation.

I have argued that on any prudent view, quite apart from any subsequent immigration, the future prospect is unacceptable. Hence the key significance of repatriation or at any rate re-emigration. A policy of assisting repatriation by payment of fares and grants is part of the official policy of the Conservative Party. It is a just, rational and humane policy; it accepts that a wrong has unintentionally been done to the immigrant by placing him in a position where the future is as pregnant with trouble for him as for the rest of the population, and it accepts the duty of reinstating him as far as possible. As my colleage, Mr Boyd-Carpenter pointed out in a speech at Blackpool recently which has received too little attention, it would provide the fair answer for the immigrant here whose dependants were not permitted to join him. The question is what would be the practical scope and application of such a policy.

I believe that ignorance of the realities of Commonwealth immigration leads people seriously to underestimate the scope of the policy and thus to neglect and despise the chief key to the situation. Perhaps it is the historical associations of the world 'immigrant' which create in those remote from the facts the picture of individuals who have left their homes behind for ever to seek a new future in a far-off land, rather in the mood of those Victorian pictures of the immigrants' farewell.

Of course, there are many cases where individuals have uprooted themselves to come here; but in the mass it is much nearer the truth to think in terms of detachments from communities in the West Indies or India or Pakistan encamped in certain areas of England. They are still to a large extent a part, economically and socially, of the communities from which they have been detached and to which they regard themselves as belonging. As a recently published study of one of the West Indian islands put it thus:

Migrant communities in Britain are linked to their home societies by an intricate network of ties and obligations. There are strong social pressures for members of a community to send back money to their families in the island, where most of them expect to return eventually … the ideology of migration and the social networks formed around it are so closely connected that it is rare for migrants to abandon one without leaving the other. Thus migrants who decide to stay permanently in Britain often cut themselves off from the others.

This description could apply, even more strongly, to the communities from India and Pakistan, whose total numbers now exceed the West Indian, and whose links with their homes are kept in being by a constant flow not only of remittances, amounting to many millions of pounds a year, but of personal visits and exchanges, the scale of which would astonish anyone not closely acquainted with the actual phenomenon of Commonwealth immigration in this country. The annual holiday 'back home' in the West Indies or in India or Pakistan is no rare feature of life in the immigrant communities.

Against this background a programme of large-scale voluntary but organized, financed and subsidized repatriation and re-emigration becomes indeed an administrative and political task of great magnitude, but something neither absurdly impracticable nor, still less, inhuman, but on the contrary as profoundly humane as it is far-sighted. Under a agreement between Ceylon and India for the repatriation of more than half a million Indians over fifteen years, 35,000 return to India each year with their assets. The Government of Guyana is anxious to promote the re-emigration to that country of West Indians and others who can help to build up its economy and develop its resources. A cursory survey carried out by a national newspaper six months ago indicated that over 20 per cent of immigrants interviewed would contemplate availing themselves of an opportunity to go home. It need not even follow that the income from work done here in Britain would be suddenly lost to the home communities if permanent settlement of population were replaced by what may countries in Europe and elsewhere are familiar with—the temporary, albeit often long-term, intake of labour.

The resettlement of a substantial proportion of the Commonwealth immigrants in Britain is not beyond the resources and abilities of this country, if it is undertaken as a national duty, in the successful discharge of which the interests both of the immigrants themselves and of the countries from which they came are engaged. It ought to be, and it could be, organized now on the scale which the urgency of the situation demands, preferably under a special Ministry of Repatriation or other authority charged with concentrating on this task.

At present large numbers of the offspring of immigrants, even those born here in Britain, remain integrated in the immigrant community which links them with their homeland overseas. With every passing year this will diminish. 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. Unless he be one of a small minority—for number, I repeat again and again, is of the essence—he will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded—to he benefit of nobody—in reproducing 'in England's green and pleasant land' the haunting tragedy of the United States.

The English as a nation have their own peculiar faults. One of them is that strange passivity in the face of danger or absurdity or provocation, which has more than once in our history lured observers into false conclusions—conclusions sometimes fatal to the observers themselves—about the underlying intentions and the true determination of our people. What so far no one could accuse us of is a propensity to abandon hope in the face of severe and even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Dejection is not one of our national traits; but we must be told the truth and shown the danger, if we are to meet it. Rightly or wrongly, I for my part believe that the time for that has come.


Although Powell's extreme proposals to cease all immigration to the United Kingdom and to offer assisted repatriation to New Commonwealth immigrants were never implemented, British immigration controls were progressively tightened during the following years. The 1971 Immigration Act eliminated the preferential status previously enjoyed by New Commonwealth immigrants and made them subject to the same controls as immigrants of other nationalities. Nevertheless, immigrants from the former colonies continued to enter the United Kingdom in substantial numbers during the 1970s, by an estimated 535,000 per year until 1978.

Race relations problems continued to threaten social stability during the 1970s, with the rise of the extreme right-wing National Front organization, who organized violent demonstrations throughout the decade, while Enoch Powell continued to enjoy a high level of public support for his views on immigration.

In the 1980s, however, immigration levels declined, particularly after 1988 when legislation came into force that eliminated the right for the dependants of pre-1973 immigrants to enter the country. Moreover, the 1983 Nationality Act clarified the law on entitlement to British citizenship and made it easier to enforce the immigration rules. As a result, immigration was no longer such a high profile political issue, and race relations improved.



Paul, Kathleen. Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.


Messina, Anthony M. "Immigration as a Political Dilemma in Britain: Implications for Western Europe." Policy Studies Journal (23) (4) (1995): 696-698.

Schnapper, Dominique. "The Debate on Immigration and the Crisis of National Identity." West European Politics (17) (2) (1994): 127-139.