Enoch Powell at Exeter University

On 23rd October 1968 the Conservative politician Enoch Powell was invited to speak at the University of Exeter. Just six months earlier he had delivered his controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech criticising Commonwealth immigration and anti-discrimination laws in the UK. The speech created a political storm that subsequently led to his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet.

Powell had apparently come to the University of Exeter to speak on economic policy not on the issue of immigration, nonetheless, granting the politician a voice at the campus proved to be a contentious issue within the student population.  You can see what happened during the interview in the below archive clip from the South West Film and TV archive.


Amongst an increasing barrage of heckling and outbursts of violence, Powell eventually abandoned his speech and vacated the stage. Jeff Coates, who studied economics at the University from 1967-70, was seated in the front row of the Great Hall. He remembers the experience in the audioclip on the sidebar.

As tensions increased in the Great Hall, the conflict developed into an argument between those who supported Powell's right to put his case, and the rights of those who many believed Powell was trying to undermine through his stance on immigration. Within a wider context, it should not be forgotten that 1968 was also the year of student political protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights, across the United States and Europe. The ‘Powell demonstration’ suggests these global movements in student activism were also part of Devon’s history.

Certainly, the events that transpired made enough impact to be recorded in the national press, including the Daily Telegraph, which reported:

‘Student uproar stops university speech’ […] ‘fighting broke out, banners were torn and Mr Powell was pelted with paper darts and marbles.’

In contrast, local newspaper the Express and Echo, took a more reflective stance, reassuring its readers:

What Exeter should remember, when the din has died down, is not that 40 students turned their backs on British fair play and free speech but that something like 1,900 took no part in the foolish 40’s freak-out.’

Over to you!

What do you think? Is it right or wrong that Enoch Powell was given an opportunity to speak at the University of Exeter? Join in our discussion below!

We’d especially like to hear from you if you were there. Please join in the discussion below or Contact Us directly.

  • Allan Warren (CC BY-SA 3.0) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
  • Listen to Jeff Coates, committee member of the University’s Conservative and Unionist Association, discuss what happened at Powell's speech

It seems that the University of Exeter Debating Society has listened to a few controversial figures over the years. It has hosted an array of prominent personalities, a few of whom are pictured on its website: http://www.exeterunidebsoc.co.uk/#!past-speakers/cft0I wonder if there were any other raucous evenings?

A fascinating video. Interestingly, there was a great deal of discussion at the time about the conduct of meetings. This 1966 BBC film gives a striking perspective on the issue- http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/adamcurtis/2010/02/do_people_heckle.html

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