Powell’s Predecessors: The British Radical Right and Opposition to Commonwealth Immigration in Britain, 1952-1967

Ahead of Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Liam Liburd, at King’s College London. On 1 December 2020, between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Liam will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on the British Radical Right and opposition to Commonwealth immigration. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Enoch Powell (1912-1998) by Walter Bird (1965) CC NPG

On 20 April 1968, Conservative MP and Shadow Defence Secretary, Enoch Powell (1912-1998), rose before the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham to deliver a speech that would become infamous in British political history. His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech set forth a racist and apocalyptic vision of Britain ruined by Commonwealth immigration. In what was intended as a frightening picture of the future, Powell raised the spectre of a nation in which ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’.

The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech saw Powell swiftly dismissed by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath. However, Powell’s racism, his rhetoric and his message were not new. What was new and shocking, even at the time, was that such sentiments came from the mouth of a Cabinet member. In the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Powell put the racism of the gutter into parliamentary prose.

Conservative MP for Louth, Cyril Osborne (1898-1969) articulated extreme opposition to immigration long before Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Photograph by Walter Bird (1962) CC NPG

My paper analyses the articulation of an extreme opposition to immigration, long before Powell’s infamous intervention and beyond parliamentary politics, by those on Powell’s right – the ‘Radical Right’. Before Powell, the issue of immigration featured in parliamentary politics largely as the preserve of lone critics like Conservative MP for Louth, Cyril Osborne (1898-1969), or as a controversial feature of secret Cabinet discussions on Commonwealth relations.

Beyond Parliament on the streets of Britain, a series of radical right-wing groups – such as A.K. Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists, the White Defence League, and the National Labour Party – voiced their opposition to immigration in the kind of strong language later employed by Powell. In analysing the opposition of Powell’s predecessors to immigration, my paper also sets their views in the context of the British experience of decolonisation and demonstrates how, like Powell, they employed a metaphorical language of inverted or reversed colonisation.

Liam’s full-length seminar paper, ‘Powell’s Predecessors: The British Radical Right and Opposition to Commonwealth Immigration in Britain, 1952-1967’, is available here.

Liam will be responding to your questions about his research between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 1 December 2020. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

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