In a 1968 speech protesting the Labour government’s introduction of the Race Relations Act, Enoch Powell predicted that “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Powell argued that the race riots in America – in which Black people fought for equality before the law, and were met with teargas and truncheons – were in Britain’s future, too, should formerly colonised peoples continue to arrive on our shores. In the face of the melanated horde, civilisational collapse was but a generation away.
Of course, Powell’s downfall came sooner than that, as the explicit racism of his speech got him sacked from the frontbench by Ted Heath. But though the River Tiber never did foam with much blood, and Powell never ended up holding a senior political post again, his removal from the shadow cabinet was not the defeat of Powellism.
The response to ‘Rivers of Blood’ revealed an uncomfortable proximity between the common sense of the country and the logic of the extreme far right: a Gallup poll conducted a few weeks after Powell’s speech found that 74% of respondents agreed with it. London dockers and Smithfield porters, covertly organised by the fascist Dennis Harmston and the fundamentalist anticommunist group Moral Rearmament, poured onto the streets to chant “Enoch was right.” Margaret Thatcher, who had advised against Powell’s sacking, echoed his doom-laden prophecies when she came to power a decade later, warning that Britain was on the verge of being “swamped” by Commonwealth migrants.
Powell’s narrative of demographic apocalypse has since become lodged in our political imagination. As Stuart Hall wrote in The Great Moving Right Show, ‘Rivers of Blood’ deftly wove “magical connections and short-circuits … between the themes of race and immigration control and the images of the nation, the British people and the destruction of ‘our culture, our way of life’.” From complaints about not hearing enough English accents to outright appeals to the Great Replacement, there remains a keen sense among Britons that the changing complexion of our country is a symbol of its degradation.
Today, the far right’s interest in Muslims has curdled into an obsession with demographic replacement, immigrant birth rates and the superiority of white European and “Judeo-Christian” culture. On both sides of the Atlantic, these themes have developed a sharper focus through a backlash against Black Lives Matter, articulated primarily as a defence of history and cultural artefacts, from Churchill and Colston to the Confederate Flag. Thanks to the conveyor belt trafficking talking points from far-right social media to mainstream national broadcasters, small boats crossing the English Channel are embedded in the national psyche as an embodiment of the nation under siege.
The right’s demographic panic is symptomatic of a political system which can’t shake off the sense of its own imminent demise. Caterwauling about the West’s cultural resilience and suchlike is an outgrowth of the growing crisis faced by a 40-year-old neoliberal settlement. That voter coalition of white property owners, which served and were served by the political custodians of the rentier economy, will be ageing out of the electorate in the next two decades. In Britain, the voter cohorts which could deliver a progressive majority – the young tenant class and communities of colour – are concentrated in cities and safe seats. First past the post rewards the geographic spread of older voters; at least for now, the power to shape the future is being kept well out of the hands of those who will inherit it.
America is being transformed, kicking and screaming, into a multiracial democracy – in spite of its electoral system, rather than because of it. As the Clinton and Biden campaigns have demonstrated, the Republican Party no longer has a path to the White House that includes winning the popular vote. The swing states of Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin were only ever close because hundreds of thousands of voters, disproportionately people of colour, were struck off the rolls.
The combination of demographic ageing and ethnic minority birth rates presents a challenge to political systems – our former empire and America’s declining one – never designed to accommodate those it had deemed racially inferior as citizens with equal rights to political participation. Powell was able to stoke fears of the whip hand precisely because Britain had never known race relations without it.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.
The Demographics Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).