People are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

Enoch Powell gave his infamous Rivers of Blood speech on April 20, 1968. Here’s how the BBC reported it:

The Conservative right-winger Enoch Powell has made a hard-hitting speech attacking the government’s immigration policy.

Addressing a Conservative association meeting in Birmingham, Mr Powell said Britain had to be mad to allow in 50,000 dependents of immigrants each year.

He compared it to watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.

The MP for Wolverhampton South West called for an immediate reduction in immigration and the implementation of a Conservative policy of “urgent” encouragement of those already in the UK to return home.

“It can be no part of any policy that existing families should be kept divided. But there are two directions on which families can be reunited,” he said.

Mr Powell compared enacting legislation such as the Race Relations Bill to “throwing a match on to gunpowder”.

He said that as he looked to the future he was filled with a sense of foreboding.

“Like the Roman, I seem to see the river Tiber foaming with much blood,” he said.

He estimated that by the year 2000 up to seven million people — or one in ten of the population — would be of immigrant descent.

How did that prediction pan out?

The Census in 2001 showed 4.6 million people living in the UK were from an ethnic minority, or 7.9% of the population.

Here’s the opening to the actual speech:

The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature.

One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing: whence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future.

Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: “If only,” they love to think, “if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.”

Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical.

At all events, the discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician. Those who knowingly shirk it deserve, and not infrequently receive, the curses of those who come after.

(I’ve mentioned this speech before.)


  1. Lu An Li says:

    “He estimated that by the year 2000 up to seven million people — or one in ten of the population — would be of immigrant descent.”

    “How did that prediction pan out?”

    “The Census in 2001 showed 4.6 million people living in the UK were from an ethnic minority, or 7.9% of the population.”

    NOT that far off. His estimate probably based on the situation as presented itself at the time.

  2. Viewer says:

    Hmmm. Yes, the timing may be a little off but the ethnic increases are happening. Go to any industrial (or post-industrial) town in the midlands — Powell’s constituency area — or the north of England (and you can add south Wales, too) and you will see schools where there are very few non-ethnic children. This pretty much means that in ten or a dozen years’ time those kiddies will be young adults and young adults tend to enjoy, er, practicing making children. Given that practice makes perfect (plus the whole business of arranged marriages) the numbers will increase dramatically.

    Also when Powell gave this speech the year 2000 was seen as being on a distant horizon (in much the same way in the ‘fifties the prediction was we would all have out own personal helicopters in 50 years) so it was a dividing line. Once you get there however, you realise it wasn’t so distant after all. Powell was more right than wrong, as we will see.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    It’s like with mass surveillance, it was all don’t be paranoid, nothing to see here, which simply turned into yeah so what, got a problem? Back in 1968 it was still a choice between rivers or oceans of blood, that’s now settled.

  4. Graham says:

    I find it noteworthy that even Powell made that comment about the importance of keeping families unified. What a wet.

    Britain’s settler dominions never made “family reunification” a priority in selecting immigrants.

    [They didn't even exclusively prioritize Britons- Canada famously even within the empire maintained immigration controls against it, including against the UK. As a self-governing dominion it was just exercising the normal controls also held by any colonial governor, oddly. It did take and want a lot of Britons, just selectively. It also sought out other Europeans.]

    Within those categories, it was labour value only and subject to health and morals examination typical of the time. Don’t know about early on for Canada, if the wife and kids didn’t come with you. By the mid-20th century, you could bring over wife and minor kids. Not grown kids, and no siblings, cousins, parents, etc. Nor did any of these people expect such a thing. My maternal grandparents probably would have thought it insane to expect to follow their daughter out when she married a Canadian.

    Nowadays of course ‘family reunification’ is practically untouchable. As though extended families never broke up before in the process of settling the world.

  5. Abelard Lindsey says:

    Powell made his speech in 1968 with the “year 2000″ being little over 30 years off. Today as I type this, 2050 is about the same time away as 2000 was in 1968.

    So we have to ask ourselves what the demographics of, say, France, UK, or Germany will be like in 2050? Or that of the USA? My understanding is that serious demographic replacement is ongoing in certain areas of Europe (e.g. the majority of London proper’s population is no longer English). I was in a small town in Sweden for 2 weeks in ’15 and saw significant Muslim immigrants even in that small town. I can’t imagine what Stockholm would be like (although Goteborg was not too bad).

  6. Sam J. says:

    I know how to solve this problem. Make all the immigrants that come serve the same purpose as most immigrants that came to the US, or Australia, let them be slaves (they called them servants but most of them died so I call that fiction) like most of us in the US came here.

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