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Events from History: 20 April 1968

Stirring the Waters: Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” Speech

On April 20, 1968, British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell delivered one of the most controversial speeches in UK political history, famously dubbed the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Speaking to a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham, Powell fiercely criticised mass immigration from the Commonwealth nations and the proposed Race Relations Bill, which aimed to address racial discrimination. He evoked the Sibylline prophecy, warning of “rivers of blood” as a consequence of failing to control immigration, predicting dire social and cultural impacts on Britain. The speech sparked an immediate uproar, drawing both fierce condemnation and support across the country, reflecting deep divisions in British society on issues of race and immigration policy.

Powell’s speech led to his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath. This action marked a significant moment in British politics, highlighting the contentious debate over race relations and immigration. In the aftermath, Powell became a polarising figure; vilified by many as a racist demagogue, he was also championed by others who shared his concerns about immigration and its effects on national identity. The “Rivers of Blood” speech had a lasting impact on British political discourse, intensifying the debate over immigration and integration policies. It remains a reference point in discussions on race, multiculturalism, and national identity in the UK, symbolising the ongoing struggle to balance diversity with social cohesion.

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