Rivers of Blood speech

Enoch Powell (1912–1998)

On 20 April 1968, British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell addressed a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham, UK. His speech strongly criticised Commonwealth immigration to the United Kingdom and the then-proposed Race Relations Bill, and became known as the "Rivers of Blood" speech, although Powell always referred to it as "the Birmingham speech". The expression "rivers of blood", which did not appear in the original speech, is an allusion to a line from Virgil's Aeneid quoted by Powell ("As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood"). [1]

The speech caused a political storm, making Powell one of the most talked about, and divisive, politicians in the country, and leading to his controversial dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath. [2] According to most accounts, the popularity of Powell's perspective on immigration may have played a decisive contributory factor in the Conservatives' surprise victory in the 1970 general election, and he became one of the most persistent rebels opposing the subsequent Heath government. [2] [3]

Background

Powell, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, was addressing the general meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre. The Labour government's Race Relations Bill 1968 was to have its second reading three days later, and the Conservative Opposition had tabled an amendment significantly weakening its provisions. [4] The Bill was a successor to the Race Relations Act 1965.

The Birmingham-based television company ATV saw an advance copy of the speech on the Saturday morning, and its news editor ordered a television crew to go to the venue, where they filmed sections of the speech. Earlier in the week, Powell said to his friend Clement (Clem) Jones, a journalist and then editor at the Wolverhampton Express & Star, "I'm going to make a speech at the weekend and it's going to go up 'fizz' like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up." [5]

In preparing his speech, Powell had applied Clem Jones' advice that to make hard-hitting political speeches and short-circuit interference from his party organisation, his best timing was on Saturday afternoons, after delivering embargoed copies the previous Thursday or Friday to selected editors and political journalists of Sunday newspapers; this tactic could ensure coverage of the speech over three days through Saturday evening bulletins then Sunday newspapers, so that the coverage would be picked up in Monday newspapers. [5]

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