The great replacement theory: a historical perspective
Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech has infamously seared itself into the British public's mind for its apocalyptic hyperbole and guttural prejudice but less so for its conspiratorial nature. Powell warned of the demographic change brought about by immigration which, if not dealt with, would lead to irrepressible damage and the destruction of Britain itself.
He speaks of ‘positive forces’ and ‘vested interests’ exerting undue power and control. He railed in particular against white oppression, facilitated by the state through equal-rights legislation, which would enable immigrants to ‘organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest’.
Powell’s speech, which was denounced as extreme by the Tory leadership at the time but struck a chord with millions, remains more relevant than ever over half-a-century-later and demonstrates the importance of 'demographic conspiracies’ – especially when it comes to immigration and the far right.
Demographic conspiracies argue that immigration and multiculturalism are not merely negative influences on society which should be slowed, stopped or reversed, but the product of an intentional plan by elites to weaken or even eradicate national (or European) identity. The origins of these ideas are difficult to pin down and come from multiple sources dating back to early 20th century eugenics and Nazi Germany, such as the 1934 pamphlet produced by the Research Department for the Jewish Question entitled ‘Are the White Nations Dying?’.
More recent incarnations include Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia: The Arab-Euro Axis (2005), which argues that European and Arab elites have collaborated to ensure the Muslim domination of Europe as well as Renaud Camus’ The Great Replacement (2011) which similarly posits that elites are seeking the replacement of white Europeans through mass migration and subsequent demographic change. The phrase ‘white genocide’ which can be found in more extreme circles, and particularly amongst the ‘alt right’ (as well as on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed), reflects the same ideas in a more hyperbolic fashion.
The three most deadly far right terror attacks this decade (with two occurring this year) have all made explicit reference to demographic conspiracies. Anders Breivik focused heavily on the alleged ‘Islamisation’ of Europe in his manifesto, inspired by Eurabia conspiracy theories. Patrick Crusius, who killed 22 in El Paso in August, rationalised his attack targeted at the local Hispanic population by arguing that he was ‘defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion’. Brenton Tarrant, responsible for the Christchurch mosque shootings in March which killed 51 (who entitled his own manifesto ‘The Great Replacement’) similarly argued that the attack was to show ‘the invaders that our lands will never be their lands, our homelands are our own and that, as long as a white man still lives, they will NEVER conquer our lands and they will never replace our people’.
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Yet, demographic conspiracies should not be seen as fringe enterprises restricted to gullible extremists – they have an increasingly mainstream appeal. Crucially, they feed into wider ‘decline of the West’ narratives promoted by mainstream right-wing and conservative writers who argue that nefarious elites are purposefully undermining the majority’s ‘way of life’. Indeed, conspiratorial language has become an important rhetorical style for populists and their supporters more generally.
Take The Times columnist Melanie Phillips’ book Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State from Within (2006) as an example. In the book, written in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, Phillips describes multiculturalism as an ‘attack on the nation’ which had been 'imposed by ‘the revolutionary left’. Multiculturalism has become, she argues, ‘the driving force of British life, ruthlessly policed by a state-financed army of local and national bureaucrats enforcing a doctrine of state-mandated virtue to promote racial, ethnic and cultural difference and stamp out majority values’.
With such a dystopian presentation of immigration and its outcomes, it is perhaps no surprise many seek to explain it through grandiose and farfetched conspiracies. When Britain is described by Phillips apocalyptically as a ‘decadent society, weakened by alarming tendencies towards social and cultural suicide’, again, many are likely to ask questions about how such a status has emerged which cannot be answered through conventional means.
Such language is likely to strike a chord with a British public seduced by conspiratorial thinking (Opinium found in a survey that three in five Brits believe at least one conspiracy theory). Evidence that the country has become increasingly concerned about demographic changes brought about by immigration is well documented and played a key role in the vote to leave the EU in 2016 (although sentiment has become more positive towards immigration since the vote). It is, however, clear that the public is becoming more mistrustful and suspicious of the government’s role in immigration policy which has lent currency to far right demographic conspiracies.
In a 2018 report by Sophia Gaston published by the Henry Jackson Society, polling indicated that 58% of the UK believe the government is ‘hiding’ the true cost of immigration from the public and 51% believe that the government has ‘deliberately’ sought to make British society more ethnically diverse through immigration over the past 20 years. Such views rocket to 75% and 70% amongst Leave voters and 64% and 63% amongst Conservative voters. It is therefore clear that conspiratorial thinking relating to immigration is widespread and appears in both moderate and extreme forms.
Debates over immigration and demographic change are an inevitable part of the democratic process and are likely to become sharper over the coming decades as white majorities decline. Yet, there is a worrying tendency towards viewing such processes as being dictated by shadowy elite plots. This is always likely to play into the hands of the far right, for whom conspiracy theories are presented as reasoning for extreme solutions.