On 1 December 2020 Dr Liam Liburd will be answering questions on his paper: ‘Powell’s predecessors: the British radical right and opposition to Commonwealth immigration in Britain, 1952-1967’. The paper is available to view now.
On 20 April 1968, Conservative MP and Shadow Defence Secretary Enoch Powell rose before the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham to deliver a speech that would go on to become infamous in British political history. The ‘Rivers of Blood’ 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 speech saw Powell swiftly dismissed by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath. 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.
This 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 immigration featured in parliamentary politics largely as the preserve of lone critics like Cyril Osborne MP 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 Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, 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, the 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.
Dr Liam Liburd is a lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial British History at King’s College London. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd
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