Enoch Powell’s Secret Formula

In 2009, the American journalist Christopher Caldwell published his book “Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.” The title is, of course, an allusion to Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, a founding text of modern Conservatism and a classical critique of the French Revolution that first appeared in 1790.

Caldwell’s book is well-written and might seem persuasive to a casual reader.  But as I will show in this and further posts, once you start to look into them more closely, many central claims fall apart. The main technique that Caldwell employs is framing the story early on. If you buy into his grand vista of what is going on in Europe, you hardly need arguments, just illustrations that reinforce what you already think you know.

The framing technique starts right in the very first chapter which is entitled “Rivers of Blood.” Readers from the UK will immediately understand the reference. On April 20, 1968, the Conservative politician Enoch Powell delivered a speech which became known as his “Rivers of Blood” speech. I am German, and I have to admit that I had never heard of it until I read Caldwell’s book. But then I would have recognized April 20 as Hitler’s birthday, you have to give me that.

Enoch Powell describes a dark future for the United Kingdom, with burning ghettos, whole cities taken over by nonwhite immigrants, or as Powell put it:

“It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Towards the end, Powell quotes the Roman poet Virgil to express his pessimistic outlook, and this quote has given the speech its colloquial name:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

Christopher Caldwell, of course, taps into this sentiment. But then this was just a prediction in 1968 that at first glance turned out to be totally wrong. Maybe I missed something, but I am not aware of burning ghettos, cities being taken over, or the Thames foaming with blood, much of it. So why would Caldwell want to start off with something like this?

Well, as I said, this is about framing. Once you have absorbed Powell’s gloomy view, you don’t need an argument that the UK really is in a state of civil war, or that there are burning ghettos and massacres. All you need are a few tidbits that show you that something was not perfect over the past 40 years. But still, why should you buy into such a deluded vision?

The main argument is that Powell made one prediction that turned out to be very accurate, and that has baffled a lot of people ever since. So if he could make one astonishing forecast that was right on, he probably had some deep insight into the situation. Maybe “Rivers of Blood” and all the rest have not yet materialized, but then Powell might have been just a little off, and it is still in store, perhaps in a few years or so.

Now my point is that Enoch Powell did not have any deep insight into anything to make his famed prediction. Here is the relevant part in Christopher Caldwell’s words:

 “Although at the time Powell’s demographic projections were much snickered at, they have turned out not just roughly accurate but as close to perfectly accurate as it is possible for any such projections to be: In his Rotary Club speech, Powell shocked his audience by stating that the nonwhite population of Britain, barely over a million at the time, would rise to 4.5 million by 2002. (According to the national census, the actual “ethnic minority” population of Britain in 2001 was 4,635,296.)”

At first glance, this is impressive and comes out of nowhere. But Enoch Powell was no clairvoyant. He, or whoever he relied on for his prediction, simply did his homework. Maybe this was somewhat harder to do in 1968 when computations still mostly meant paper and pencil. But then I will explain how I could obtain exactly the same forecast in Excel, which goes to show that there is no rocket science behind it.

What are the assumptions that Enoch Powell starts from?

Christopher Caldwell writes that there were “barely over a million” nonwhites in Britain at the time. In the respective footnote, he gives the exact number as 1.25 million. As is also clear from another quote from Enoch Powell, he assumed net immigration of nonwhites at a level of 50,000 a year. I have no idea where the non-metric horizon of 34 years from 1968 to 2002 comes from. But anyway, how many nonwhites would you expect in 2002 with those assumptions?

If you tried a naïve forecast, you would arrive at 1.25 million + 34 * 50,000 = 2.95 million, which is, of course, too low. And maybe that was also Christopher Caldwell’s and many other people’s first guess. So against this benchmark, Powell’s forecast was remarkably good. It looks like magic. Enoch Powell must have known something that is not obvious, a deep insight that let him come up with such an accurate figure.

However, you don’t have to have any special insight. The reason is that the naïve analysis is false for a reason. If you have read my previous posts (cf. “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations” and “Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible”), you might guess what it is: It’s the momentum effect, stupid.

The momentum effect means that if you have 1,000 immigrants, they are usually young people who will start families soon. So after only a few years, there will be 1,000 children or a doubling of the population even if you assume only replacement fertility. After some time there will be another 1,000 grandchildren. But since some of the initial immigrants will have died by then, the population comes out somewhere below 3,000, or with the assumptions in my other posts: at about 2,760. And after that, it levels off. So a population of 1,000 immigrants grows to about 2,760 descendants (and to stress it: this is assuming replacement fertility!).

Now, this growth from 1,000 initial immigrants to 2,760 descendants is the case for one-time immigration in a single year. However, Enoch Powell assumed immigration of a fixed number each year. I have done the calculations for this in my post “Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible” (assuming stylized mortality and birth patterns, immigration at age 25). The result is that with 1,000 adult immigrants each year, the whole population including descendants will grow to about 65,000 people after 34 years. There are 34,000 (= 34 * 1,000) immigrants, and the momentum effect almost doubles this number.

And now I take my magic wand, and make my forecast: Since there were 1.25 million nonwhites already in 1968, and assuming 50,000 immigrants a year, my prediction for 2002 is: 1.25 million + 50,000 * 65 = 4.5 million. That’s exactly what Enoch Powell had, and my prediction would have been just as accurate as his.

But then I could have delivered my own “Rivers of Champagne” speech in 1968. Only I would have combined my forecast with the prediction of a peaceful, prosperous, and vibrant country that’s powering ahead. And if the argument is correct that someone who can get the figure for 2002 right must have very deep insight into what’s going on, you would have to believe my other predictions just as much as those Enoch Powell made. That can’t be right, so the claim is false for both of us.

What’s interesting: there are some inaccuracies in the above calculation. The actual figure should be higher at least  for the following reasons:

  • There has to be a momentum effect also for the initial 1.25 million nonwhites because most of them immigrated in the 1960s.
  • Probably fertility was above replacement as it also was for the native population at the time. This might have gone on for some time afterwards.
  • Actual immigration from the relevant countries was somewhat higher than the 50,000 in the calculation.

 Or it could also be lower:

  • There was perhaps also emigration: some went back home and others moved on to other countries.
  • Over two or three generations, there must have been some mixing with the general population. So maybe some people could not find the racial checkbox for “Caribbean-Irish-Pakistani-Welsh” or “Nigerian-Scottish-Indian-French” on the census form and just lied about it and claimed they were “British.”

The interesting thing is that those other effects mostly cancelled out, and so the forecast was pretty accurate. As I claimed in my post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations”, the momentum effect is almost all it takes to explain such developments, and common explanations (chain immigration, brides from back home, extreme fertility, diaspora dynamics, etc.) are at best second-order effects, or often simply besides the point.

There is only one thing that truly baffles me, namely how close I come: the exact figure I got was 4499,9757 which is off by only 243!

Bonus track

Enoch Powell’s speech made history also in another way. The Beatles recorded “Commonwealth” on January 9, 1969, which poked fun on Powell. The song morphed into “Get Back” over the following sessions which originally had some rather different lyrics.


Hansjörg is a mathematician by training with a doctorate from the University of Bonn, Germany. After a year at Stanford University as a guest scientist, he went on to work in the financial sector and managed corporate bond funds. Currently, he is building his publishing company Libera Media.

See our blog post introducing Hansjörg, or all blog posts by Hansjörg.

2 thoughts on “Enoch Powell’s Secret Formula”

  1. Crickets. I don’t think you’re very popular.

    It’s very hard to see rivers of blood when either the media doesn’t report them (see Cologne attacks), or the police don’t investigate them lest they appear racist (Rotheram).

    I think the rapid rise in violent crime rates post-third world immigration in the 1960s/1970s suffices. What’s the correlation coefficient on those rates math genius?

    1. Thanks for your reply.

      Last I looked the homicide rate for the UK was 0.9 per 100,000, a lot less than for the US (I gather you’re not from the UK as you misspell Rotherham). That’s close to historical and worldwide lows. And it makes it hard to argue a “rapid rise in violent crime.” Did the UK have no homicides before the 1960s or even negative rates? Actually, for Germany, homicide rates have been going down since the 1960s. So if you are interested in the correlation coefficient, it is negative. (BTW, the German press did report.)

      But anyway, that is not what the post is about. Enoch Powell could have been 100% correct about everything else (mostly this was dramatizing what happened in the US at the time). That would have to be discussed on its own merits. But his rather precise forecast does not prove anything about it because you don’t need any deep insight to come up with it.

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