The BBC will tonight broadcast Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in full for the first time in its Archive on 4 series. The speech, which will be read by actor Ian McDiarmid will be topped, tailed and interspersed with academic and expert commentary aiming to give it context.
This has caused predictable controversy in many corners with Lord Adonis, among others, demanding that the broadcast be binned. I confess that my initial instinct was along the same lines. We live in febrile times. The Leave EU/Faragist camp are delighted and if Arron Banks’ mob think something is a grand idea it’s a fairly good indicator that it is not. But now, having read the speech and a host of comments and commentaries around it I feel that the BBC is doing exactly the right thing – and here’s why.
It would be an understatement to say that Enoch Powell was and remains a controversial and divisive figure. Scholastically gifted he was awarded a double starred first in classics at Trinity College Cambridge and following a distinguished academic and military career went into politics as a Conservative MP.
Powell’s views and record in parliament were often at stark odds with his later caricature as a rabid racist. In 1959, at the height of the ‘Mau Mau’ insurrection against British rule in Kenya he delivered a furious speech in the House of Commons in which he condemned the British government for forcibly relocating thousands of Kikuyu tribes-people and lambasted fellow Tory MP John Peel for calling the Mau Mau ‘subhuman’. In this case at least – Enoch was right.
As Minister for Health he oversaw the recruitment of thousands of Commonwealth citizens into the NHS – but his period of office was marred by controversy over the thalidomide catastrophe and his unsympathetic handling of the victims of it. The mid to late 1960s saw the Conservatives in opposition and an increasingly frustrated Powell serving as the Shadow Minister for Defence.
By 1968 – he was a late middle aged man in a hurry. His childhood ambition to be Viceroy of India had been replaced by a burning desire to lead the Conservative party and make his mark as Prime Minister. With two years to go until a general election he needed to raise his profile and seize the reins of the party from the lacklustre Edward Heath and while the context (great thread here) of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ is important, at the time, many saw it as a bold and unambiguous bid for the leadership.
Powell delivered the speech on April 20th 1968 – on what incidentally would have been Adolf Hitler’s 79th birthday. The packed hall at the Birmingham Conservative Association included members of the press and an ATV camera crew who had been tipped off in advance. The address caused immediate controversy and was broadly and depressingly popular with the general public. A Gallup poll found that 74% of the British public ‘agreed’ with his sentiments. The Times and Guardian lambasted Powell who, in turn, threatened to sue The Sunday Times for branding him a ‘racialist.’
Until this week I had never read the speech. You can view it in full here and whatever your preconceived views, left right or Adonis, I would recommend it. What is striking is just how obnoxious, unpleasant, inane and brutally racist it is. The most famous and oft repeated lines about the ‘River Tiber foaming with much blood’ have leant lie to the accepted notion that Powell’s words are somehow infused with his classical scholarship. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Over the course of several thousand words Powell lurches from unconvincing yarn to unfounded hypothesis and back again. Most striking are the two anecdotes. The first tells the story of a curiously anonymous constituent who takes our Enoch by the arm in the street one day and without a shred of irony starts to bang on about immigrants and how he won’t rest until his children have er…. settled overseas…. ending with the prediction that:
“In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
The second story relates to a mysterious correspondent in Wolverhampton; a war widow who in the passing of just eight years has found herself the last white resident in a street full of black people. This woman has made a living out of renting rooms – but now discovers that the only tenants she can get are ‘negroes’ and rather than do that she opts instead to leave her home empty and get no rent.
“When she goes to the shops” Powell continues “she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. “Racialist,” they chant.”
Powell dots the speech with statistics, cheap racist epithets and predictions along lines similar to far right tropes today. He predicts essentially that eventually there will be more descendants of (specifically black) immigrants than white ‘indigenous’ Britons – before making his chilling ‘Rivers of Blood’ prediction.
For a man supposedly gifted with academic brilliance and oratory power it’s a dog’s whistle dinner of a speech. A contemporary Times leader summed it up thus:
“This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our post-war history.”
The speech is ugly in every way; ugly in tone, ugly in language and ugly in intent. These are the words of a racist mug who has calculated that the braying mob will rally to him if he plays on their fears.
Decent people judged his words disgusting in the day and the passage of time has not been any kinder.
2018 is not 1968. The country has moved on and moved on considerably. Most British people in 2018 are not racist in the way that most British people probably were in 1968. Most British people (one hopes) can distinguish virtuous political sentiment from evil intent. But more importantly – Enoch has been proven utterly wrong. There has been no racial war. On the contrary, British multi-culturalism has been a success. Those of us who live in thriving multi-cultural neighbourhoods have friends and colleagues from all races and my black neighbour is more likely to help me change a flat tyre or lend me some hedge clippers than ever cast his whip hand over me. The dark foreboding prophecies have been invalidated and as such, suggestions that the speech should be removed from the airwaves simply add fuel to the small but vociferous far right mob and cries of ‘snowflakes.’
Banning things is counter-productive. In the case of Rivers of Blood, I say do the opposite. Broadcast it far and wide, read it, teach it in schools, show it up for what it is and in so doing show us all how far we have travelled. Mr Farage in particular views Enoch Powell as an inspiration – perhaps in reflecting on the ideological font of the modern far right anti-migrant movement – the true rancidity of that crusade will be exposed for what it is.