According to C. Howard Wheeldon, who was present at the meeting in which Powell gave the speech, "it is fascinating to note what little hostility emerged from the audience. To the best of my memory, only one person voiced any sign of annoyance." The day after the speech Powell went to Sunday Communion at his local church and when he emerged there was a crowd of journalists and a local plasterer (Sidney Miller) said to Powell: "Well done, sir. It needed to be said." Powell asked the assembled journalists: "Have I really caused such a furore?" At midday Powell went on the BBC's World This Weekend to defend his speech and he appeared later that day on ITN news.
The leading Conservatives in the Shadow Cabinet were outraged by the speech. Iain Macleod, Edward Boyle, Quintin Hogg and Robert Carr all threatened to resign from the front bench unless Powell was sacked. Margaret Thatcher thought that some of Powell's speech was "strong meat", and said to Heath when he telephoned her to inform her Powell was to be sacked: "I really thought that it was better to let things cool down for the present rather than heighten the crisis". The Conservative leader, Edward Heath, sacked Powell from his post as Shadow Defence Secretary, telling him on the telephone that Sunday evening (it was the last conversation they would have). Heath said of the speech in public that it was "racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions". Conservative MPs on the right of the party—Duncan Sandys, Gerald Nabarro, Teddy Taylor—spoke against Powell's sacking. On 22 April 1968, Heath went on Panorama, telling Robin Day: "I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife ... I don't believe the great majority of the British people share Mr Powell's way of putting his views in his speech."
The Times newspaper declared it "an evil speech", stating "This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our postwar history."The Times went on to record incidents of racial attacks in the immediate aftermath of Powell's speech. One such incident, reported under the headline "Coloured family attacked", took place on 30 April 1968 in Wolverhampton itself: it involved a slashing incident with 14 white youths chanting "Powell" and "Why don't you go back to your own country?" at patrons of a West Indian christening party. One of the West Indian victims, Wade Crooks of Lower Villiers Street, was the child's grandfather. He had to have eight stitches over his left eye. He was reported as saying, "I have been here since 1955 and nothing like this has happened before. I am shattered." An opinion poll commissioned by the BBC television programme Panorama in December 1968 found that eight per cent of immigrants believed that they had been treated worse by white people since Powell's speech, 38 per cent would like to return to their country of origin if offered financial help, and 47 per cent supported immigration control, with 30 per cent opposed.
The speech generated much correspondence to newspapers, most markedly with the Express & Star in Wolverhampton itself, whose local sorting office over the following week received 40,000 postcards and 8,000 letters addressed to its local newspaper. Clem Jones recalled:
Ted Heath made a martyr out of Enoch, but as far as Express & Star's circulation area was concerned, virtually the whole area was determined to make a saint out of him. From the Tuesday through to the end of the week, I had ten, fifteen to twenty bags full of readers' letters: 95 per cent of them were pro-Enoch.
At the end of that week there were two simultaneous processions in Wolverhampton, one of Powell's supporters and another of opponents, who each brought petitions to Clem Jones outside his office, the two columns being kept apart by police.
Earlier that day, 1,000 London dockers had gone on strike in protest of Powell's sacking and marched from the East End to the Palace of Westminster carrying placards with sayings such as "we want Enoch Powell!", "Enoch here, Enoch there, we want Enoch everywhere", "Don't knock Enoch" and "Back Britain, not Black Britain". Three hundred of them went into the palace, 100 to lobby the MP for Stepney, Peter Shore, and 200 to lobby the MP for Poplar, Ian Mikardo. Shore and Mikardo were shouted down and some dockers kicked Mikardo. Lady Gaitskell shouted: "You will have your remedy at the next election." The dockers replied: "We won't forget." The organiser of the strike, Harry Pearman, headed a delegation to meet Powell and said after: "I have just met Enoch Powell and it made me feel proud to be an Englishman. He told me that he felt that if this matter was swept under the rug he would lift the rug and do the same again. We are representatives of the working man. We are not racialists."
On 24 April 600 dockers at St Katharine Docks voted to strike and numerous smaller factories across the country followed. Six hundred Smithfield meat porters struck and marched to Westminster and handed Powell a 92-page petition supporting him. Powell advised against strike action and asked them to write to Harold Wilson, Heath or their MP. However, strikes continued, reaching Tilbury by 25 April and he allegedly received his 30,000th letter supporting him, with 30 protesting against his speech. By 27 April, 4,500 dockers were on strike. On 28 April, 1,500 people marched to Downing Street chanting "Arrest Enoch Powell". Powell claimed to have received 43,000 letters and 700 telegrams supporting him by early May, with 800 letters and four telegrams against. On 2 May, the attorney-general, Sir Elwyn Jones, announced he would not prosecute Powell after consulting the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Gallup Organization took an opinion poll at the end of April and found that 74 per cent agreed with what Powell had said in his speech; 15 per cent disagreed. 69 per cent felt Heath was wrong to sack Powell and 20 per cent believed Heath was right. Before his speech Powell was favoured to replace Heath as Conservative leader by one per cent, with Reginald Maudling favoured by 20 per cent; after his speech 24 per cent favoured Powell and 18 per cent Maudling. 83 per cent now felt immigration should be restricted (75 per cent before the speech) and 65 per cent favoured anti-discrimination legislation. According to George L. Bernstein, the speech made the British people think that Powell, "was the first British politician who was actually listening to them".
Powell defended his speech on 4 May through an interview for the Birmingham Post: "What I would take 'racialist' to mean is a person who believes in the inherent inferiority of one race of mankind to another, and who acts and speaks in that belief. So the answer to the question of whether I am a racialist is 'no'—unless, perhaps, it is to be a racialist in reverse. I regard many of the peoples in India as being superior in many respects—intellectually, for example, and in other respects—to Europeans. Perhaps that is over-correcting."
The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen. If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene racialist propaganda ... the forces of hatred will mark up their first success and mobilise their first offensive. ...
Enoch Powell has emerged as the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is a far stronger character than Mr. Heath. He speaks his mind; Heath does not. The final proof of Powell's power is that Heath dare not attack him publicly, even when he says things that disgust decent Conservatives.
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, although Powell became one of the most persistent rebels opposing the subsequent Heath government. In "exhaustive research" on the election, the American pollster Douglas Schoen and University of Oxford academic R. W. Johnson believed it "beyond dispute" that Powell had attracted 2.5 million votes to the Conservatives, but nationally the Conservative vote had increased by only 1.7 million since 1966. In his own constituency at that election – his last in Wolverhampton – his majority of 26,220 and a 64.3 per cent share of the vote were then the highest of his career.
Powell's reflection on the speech
Powell reflected on the speech in an interview in 1977 when the interviewer asked him, "nine years after the speech, are we still in your view on a kind of funeral pyre?":
Yes, I've been guilty I suppose of, I've said this before, of under-estimating rather than over-estimating. And I was just looking back at the figures that I was then talking about in 1968 for the end of the century. Do you know my estimates which were regarded with such ridicule and denounced, behold the academics forgive me, they are less than the official estimate which the Franks reported at the beginning of this year are thought. So upon the whole I have leaned, perhaps it's a fault, towards the under-estimation of the magnitude and of the danger.
And then asked him, "what do you see as the likely prospect now? Still the 'River Tiber foaming with blood'?":
My prospect is that, politicians of all parties will say "Well Enoch Powell is right, we don't say that in public but we know it in private, Enoch Powell is right and it will no doubt develop as he says. But it's better for us to do nothing now, and let it happen perhaps after our time, than to seize the many poisonous nettles which we would have to seize if we were at this stage going to attempt to avert the outcome." So let it go on until a third of Central London, a third of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, are coloured, until the Civil War comes, let it go on. We won't be blamed, we'll either have gone or we'll slip out from under somehow.
Polls in the 1960s and 1970s showed that Powell's views were popular among the British population at the time. A Gallup poll, for example, showed that 75% of the population were sympathetic to Powell's views. An NOP poll showed that approximately 75% of the British population agreed with Powell's demand for non-white immigration to be halted completely, and about 60% agreed with his inflammatory call for the repatriation of non-whites already resident in Britain.
The Rivers of Blood speech has been blamed for leading to "Paki-bashing", violent attacks against British Pakistanis and other British Asians, which were unleashed shortly after the inflammatary speech in 1968; however, there is "little agreement on the extent to which Powell was responsible for racial attacks". These "Paki-bashing" attacks later peaked during the 1970s–1980s.
Powell was mentioned in early versions of the 1969 song "Get Back" by the Beatles. This early version of the song, known as the "No Pakistanis" version, parodied the anti-immigrant views of Enoch Powell.
On 5 August 1976, Eric Clapton provoked an uproar and lingering controversy when he spoke out against increasing immigration during a concert in Birmingham. Visibly intoxicated, Clapton voiced his support of the controversial speech, and announced on stage that Britain was in danger of becoming a "black colony". Among other things, Clapton said "Keep Britain white!" which was at the time a National Front (NF) slogan.
In November 2010, the actor and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar recalled the fear which the speech instilled in Britons of Indian origin: "At the end of the 1960s, Enoch Powell was quite a frightening figure to us. He was the one person who represented an enforced ticket out, so we always had suitcases that were ready and packed. My parents held the notion that we may have to leave."
Whilst a section of the white population appeared to warm to Powell over the speech, the author Mike Phillips recalls that it legitimised hostility, and even violence, towards black Britons like himself.
In his book The British Dream (2013), David Goodhart claims that Powell's speech in effect "put back by more than a generation a robust debate about the successes and failures of immigration".
Just when a discussion should have been starting about integration, racial justice, and distinguishing the reasonable from the racist complaints of the white people whose communities were being transformed, he polarised the argument and closed it down.