“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.” So said Tory MP Enoch Powell, quoting Virgil in a speech given to the Conservative Association in Birmingham on 20 April 1968.
Britain was in a state of flux. What was left of the empire was fast evaporating – Mauritius went it alone just the previous month. But it wasn’t just the empire. Many feared that Britain was disappearing too. And the blame for that was laid squarely at the door of immigration.
Following the Second World War, thousands of West Indians had answered Britain’s call for workers. But more often than not, they were greeted with prejudice, while many white Britons complained they were becoming, as Powell put it, “strangers in their own country”. Racial tensions were mounting.
For Powell, America offered an example of what Britain could expect. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior had been assassinated at the start of the month, and violent race riots erupted in many cities across the States.
Britain was “busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”, and Powell blamed the press for encouraging the government to pass anti-discrimination laws – the Race Relations Bill was already in its third reading.
The answer, said Powell, was in “stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and… promoting the maximum outflow”. That, to be blunt, meant sending migrants back.
To say the speech was divisive is putting it lightly. The Times, in particular, called it “disgraceful”, and applauded Conservative leader Ted Heath for dismissing Powell as shadow defence secretary. Others, however, including within the party and trade unions, were more supportive.
In the years that followed, the slogan “Enoch was right” became a familiar political refrain for those who argued that multiculturalism in Britain had failed – a topic that is as contentious today as it ever was.