From Imperialism to Transnational White Nativism: The context of the Radical Right reaction to the “Rivers of Blood

Four days after Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, The Timesquoted A.K. Chesterton, chairman of the National Front (NF): ‘What Mr. Powell has said does not vary at all from our views’.[1] In his speech Powell railed against Commonwealth immigration and indicted those who he believed responsible for the situation. While the NF were attempting to capitalise on the furore around Powell, there was truth in Chesterton’s remark: the content of Powell’s speech was not new. For years before 20 April 1968, a number of small radical right groups with a gift for garnering publicity had been campaigning against ‘coloured immigration’ in similar terms.

The radical right’s reaction to Powell’s speech highlights some of the significant shifts that had taken place within the radical right since 1945 as its activists responded to the collapse of the British Empire and Commonwealth immigration. The inter-war radical right had been enthusiastically imperial; Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), thought in terms of grand imperial alliances.[2] With the Empire collapsing, the radical right distilled imperialism down to its white supremacist essentials.

Decolonisation was a central issue in the post-war politics of the radical right as its activists and ideologues dedicated themselves to the preservation of white rule at home and abroad. They also wanted to completely halt immigration, and repatriate immigrants and their dependents. While these groups were beset by schisms, these were mainly due to personality clashes and tactics. Overall, they shared an unwavering commitment to white supremacist principles.

The League of Empire Loyalists (LEL) was founded in 1954 by A.K. Chesterton, formerly a prominent member of the BUF.The National Labour Party (NLP) was a splinter from the LEL, founded in 1958 by John Bean and John Tyndall who accused the LEL of being backwards-looking and nostalgic. In 1960, the NLP merged with another white supremacist organisation, the White Defence League, to form the British National Party (BNP). After leaving the BNP for a brief spell in Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement, Tyndall founded the Greater Britain Movement (GBM) in 1964.

In his speech, Powell spoke of a future Britain in which ‘the black man’ had ‘the whip hand over the white man’.[3]  Here, and in the speech more generally, Powell’s projected a nightmarish vision in which the colonial order was reversed.[4] The radical right’s anti-immigration stance during decolonisation, too, contained lingering traces of imperialism.

All of the above groups saw immigration and decolonisation as part of the same process; the loss of colonies accompanied by what they perceived as colonisation in reverse. They regarded Commonwealth immigration as a ‘Black invasion’.[4] Austen Brooks of the LEL argued that unless immigration was stopped Britain risked being submerged ‘in a black – or khaki – sea’.[6]Similarly, in the first issue of the GBM’s Spearheadjournal, Tyndall described immigration as an attempt by ‘the Black man… to impose the rule of the jungle on Britain’.[7]

Further, the discussion of immigration in radical right periodicals was regularly framed withina broader discussion of the struggles of beleaguered white supremacists in the rapidly decolonising post-war world. What was happening Kenya during the fifties and early sixties with the Mau Mau Uprising, the Congo Crisis, and in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia was discussed with direct reference to immigration in Britain. Every scrap of reportage dealing with crimes perpetrated by immigrants, particularly when white women were concerned, was circulated in the BNP’s Combatand the GBM’s Spearheadpapers, alongside tales of racial strife in the colonies (or former colonies in the case of South Africa and, from 1965, Southern Rhodesia).

The grisly rumours about the oaths of Kenyan Mau Mau rebels were wielded almost as a weapon by activists from these groups, especially the LEL. The LEL distributed and read aloud from copies of the Mau Mau oaths when counter-demonstrating against groups like the Movement for Colonial Freedom.[8] The ‘Mau Mau’ became a movable metaphor exposing what they believed to be the “true” nature of people of colour: the savage beneath a thin veneer of civilisation. The radical right believed that with immigration, these ‘savages’ had been admitted into Britain thus inviting the potential for the restaging of colonial violence in the metropole. One writer in Combat wondered ‘how long it will be before we see examples of Congo antics enacted here[?]’[9]

Powell had renounced his imperialist faith years in the mid-fifties and embraced a romantic English nationalism. As Shadow Defence Secretary, he had argued for the end of Britain’s role ‘east of Suez’ and similarly argued that Britain owed no debt to former imperial subjects now Commonwealth immigrants.[10] He came to attack those politicians he saw as gripped by a ‘persistent imperial hallucination’.[11] The radical right experienced a similar disillusionment with the imperial ideal.

As early as 1959, John Bean was writing in Combat that the Empire ‘no longer exists’.[12] While the LEL and the GBM were never as blunt as this, one can detect across the radical right during this period a growing note of disillusion with the remains of Britain’s imperial project. There was a sense that all the Empire had left Britain with was a Commonwealth of nations hostile to Britain and hordes of black bodies with the right to enter and settle in Britain. As Colin Jordan put it in an early issue of Combat: ‘The Commonwealth’s greatest contribution to Britain today is the Coloured invasion.’[13]

Increasingly, they moved away from the Empire as it actually existed and towards new global configurations based on whiteness. The LEL, BNP and GBM came to reject the ‘multi-racial’ Commonwealth, instead favouring a new ‘white’ alliance composed of the ‘White Dominions’ and including South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.[14] Imperialism had been trumped by a transnational white nativism which aimed to ‘Keep Britain White’ and defend white rule in former imperial territories and beyond.[15]

All of the ingredients that later went into the policy of the NF were in place long before the BNP, GBM and LEL joined together with the Racial Preservation Society to form the NF in 1967.[15] That by 1968 they found themselves largely in agreement with Powell’s post-imperial racism reflects what had changed on the radical right since 1945. These changes left the radical right looking closer to something we would recognise today: an obsessively nativist but nonetheless transnationally-minded movement.[15]

[1] ‘The Jordans and Mosleyites are rejoicing’, The Times(24 April, 1968), p. 10. There was also a note of distrust, and sometimes paranoia, in their stance on Powell, see A.K. Chesterton, ‘The Mystery of Enoch Powell’, Candour, 19, 476 (May, 1968), pp. 49-50.

[2] Mosley’s failed political revival centred on the idea of united European re-conquest of Africa, see Graham Macklin,Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism after 1945(London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007).

[3]‘Text of Speech by Enoch Powell, 20thApril, 1968’, in Enoch Powell: The Man and his Thinking, ed. T. E. Utley (London: William Kimber, 1968), p. 180.

[4] Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia(New York: Colombia University Press, 2004), p. 101. For a more recent consideration of the colonial context of Powell’s politics, see Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Volume 1: White Man’s World(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 4-6.

[5] ‘Views at a Glance’, Candour, 1, 12, 15 (January, 1954), p. 4.

[6]Austen Brooks, ‘Coloured Invasion of Britain’, Candour, 2, 1 (29 October, 1954), p. 7.

[7] ‘Global Race War Looms Nearer’, Spearhead, 1 (August-September, 1964), p. 1.

[8] ‘White Settlers Championed’, Candour, 3, 106 (2 December, 1955), p. 8.

[9] ‘Whites Under Attack’, Combat, 7 (July-August, 1960), p. 1.

 [10] Simon Heffer, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), p. 335.

 [11]J. Enoch Powell, ‘Imperial sickness’, The Spectator(12 September, 1968), p. 14.

[12] John Bean, ‘Political Coelacanths’, Combat, 3 (April-June, 1959).

[11] Colin Jordan, ‘Union Movement & League of Empire Loyalists’, Combat, 9 (December, 1960), p. 4.

[12] John Bean, ‘Them or Us?’, Combat, 2 (January-March, 1959), p. 1;‘Why Wilson Opposes Investment in Dominions’, Spearhead, 12 (July, 1966), p. 2.;‘Principles of the N.L.P.’, Combat, 1 (Autumn, 1958); ‘The British National’, Combat, 6 (May-June, 1960), pp. 4-5; A.K. Chesterton, ‘Tomorrow – A Plan for British Society’, Candour, 14, 390 (14 April, 1961), pp. 113-116; John Tyndall, ‘The Meaning of Greater Britain’, Spearhead, 8 (July 1965), p. 6.

[13] ‘National Labour in Action’, Combat, 1 (Autumn, 1958).

[14] ‘Objectives of the National Front’, Combat, 40 (Spring, 1967), p. 7.

[15] In terms of very recent examples, see Trump’s message of solidarity to white South African farmersthen echoed by Nigel Farage.

Mr Liam J Liburd is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral candidate at the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. See his profile here.


© Liam J. Liburd. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).