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  • Memories of Empire. Volume 1: the white man’s world by Bill Schwarz
  • David Johnson (bio)
Bill Schwarz ( 2011) Memories of Empire. Volume 1: the white man’s world. Oxford: Oxford University Press

On Saturday 20 April, 1968 at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, Enoch Powell, the Tory MP for Wolverhampton South-West, addressed the annual general meeting of the West Midlands Area Political Centre. In the words of historian, Bill Schwarz, Powell’s speech wove ‘together a lurid brew of rumour, anecdote, and myth, [unleashing] a ferocious attack on the black immigrant in Britain’ (Schwarz 2011: 34). Powell argued for racial segregation and tougher policies of racial exclusion, concluding with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid that should his warnings be ignored, ‘Like the Roman, I seem to see “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”’ (34). His words were widely reported, with ‘rivers of blood’ entering Britain’s political lexicon as shorthand for Powell’s racist credo. Seven of the national newspapers were initially critical of Powell and two sympathetic; in the succeeding weeks, however, there emerged a more equivocal pattern of ‘deploring his tone or style, while surreptitiously conceding on fundamentals’ (36). More remarkable than the press coverage was the flood of letter-writing precipitated by Powell’s speech. In addition to many letters-to-editors (the Wolverhampton Express and Star, for example, received some 5,000 letters in favour of Powell and 300 critical of him), Powell himself received spectacular numbers of letters, the vast majority supporting his views. In the year following the speech, there were at the very least 50,000 letters addressed to Powell, and in all likelihood, double that amount. Opinion polls at the time also attested to wide public support for his anti-immigrant message, with Gallup recording 74 per cent in favour of Powell and 15 per cent opposed to him, OCR 82 per cent for and 12 per cent against, NOP 67 per cent for and 19 per cent against, and the Express 79 per cent for and 17 per cent against. [End Page 145]

In Memories of Empire Volume 1: the white man’s world, Schwarz sets out to explain Powell’s speech and its remarkable impact on the British public. In the process, he develops bold arguments about the interconnectedness of metropolitan and settler racisms; of the deep imprint of the colonial past upon the Britain’s domestic present; and of the advantages of reading historical texts through the theoretical lenses of literary-critical theory. His main argument is that for Tory ideologues like Powell, the disorder of the 1960s contrasted painfully with memories of an ordered past, which ‘were driven by a powerful, if displaced, recollection of forms of authority which had been deeply shaped by the experience of empire’ (9). For Powell and his millions of sympathisers, the nostalgia for past order and the threat of present disorder were racially encoded. Order was identified with whiteness, as ‘[t]he imagined geographies of empire, particularly of the white settler societies, operated close to home. … [D]omestic Britons [became] participants of empire, such that they would learn to narrate their own lives as imperial men, women, and children’ (10). The formal end of empire coincided with an increase in black migration to Britain, and ‘the proximity of black migrants worked to activate memories of the imperial past – memories of white authority, in particular – which [brought] the empire’s past back into the field of contemporary vision’ (11). The ‘rivers of blood’ speech therefore exemplifies how the disorder of the 1960s was underwritten by ‘the unappeased memories of the imperial past’ (32).

To set out the connections between memories of empire and Powell’s fears for white Englishness, Schwarz returns to Victorian and Edwardian Britain in the opening two chapters, ‘Ethnic Populism’ and ‘Colony and Metropole’. Weaving together cultural history, theoretical reflection, close reading of primary texts, and personal anecdote, he analyses in roughly chronological sequence the biographies, the contexts, and the writings of white men prominent in colonial politics and letters from the mid nineteenth century onwards, including Charles Dilke, JR Seeley, JA Froude, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Milner, Lord Cromer...


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pp. 145-152
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