The decision by the BBC to broadcast Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech on Saturday was always going to be controversial.
The speech, made by Powell 50 years ago on 20th April, had a long-term impact on British politics, and transformed the climate on race relations in Britain.
In the speech, Powell spoke out against Britain’s liberal immigration laws, predicting dire consequences for the country if immigration was to continue unchecked.
He also attacked the race relations legislation that the Labour Government was bringing before Parliament, designed to outlaw discrimination on racial or ethnic grounds. He used highly offensive language to describe the impact of immigration on society.
As a result of the speech, he was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet and was labelled a demagogue and a racist. He became one of the most popular, and also one of the most feared and hated, politicians in Britain.
No full recording exists of the original speech. Instead, it was read out by the actor Ian McDiarmid, who was recently cast as Powell in Chris Hannan’s play What Shadows. The BBC defended the programme on the grounds that there was ‘rigorous journalistic analysis’ of the speech and denied endorsing Powell’s views.
The prospect of Powell’s words being aired on national radio inevitably caused great upset.
Andrew Adonis tweeted that Powell’s speech was ‘the worst incitement to racial violence by a public figure in modern Britain. The BBC should not be broadcasting it on Saturday.’ Since the broadcast, he has promised to refer the matter to Ofcom.
As someone who has spent many years researching Powell’s career, I shared some of the misgivings about the broadcast. Hearing his words from 50 years ago is still shocking. Dramatizing the speech in this way was also playing a slight trick on the audience.
The fact that the speech was never previously broadcast in full is historically significant: there is no recording of Powell delivering his most famous line ‘I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”’ (famously misquoted as ‘Rivers of Blood’).
Powell later claimed that he wished he had left this phrase in the original Latin, though this was only a half-acknowledgement of the taboo surrounding the speech.
However, the voicing of Powell’s words in the context of a serious radio programme should not be seen as a celebration or endorsement of the speech. It is important to understand why it is still being talked about fifty years later.
Amol Rajan’s robust concluding remarks could leave no one in any doubt as to his views on Powell or the speech. ‘It is impudent to ask whether the speech was racialist or racist’, he said, ‘Make no mistake. It was both’.
For some of Powell’s defenders, his reputation is unfairly associated with this single speech. But he himself regarded immigration as the defining issue of his career, and he refused to temper his comments or moderate his position in later years.
He embraced the role of an outsider in British politics, and relished being at odds with mainstream opinion on this subject. He made many more speeches on the subject, repeating the sentiments and some of the language used in the original speech.
Even in the 1990s Powell was still defending his position.
Powell’s contribution to the debate on immigration has had a massive impact on the debate on immigration in Britain.
Although he criticised successive governments in their approach to the matter, he also helped to give political cover to their policies of increasingly restrictive immigration controls, though it was the Conservatives, rather than Labour, that were mostly associated with his legacy.
Despite leaving the party in 1974 – when he called for a Labour vote – in the longer term he helped to establish the Conservatives’ reputation as the ‘nasty party’. Today the party is keen to distance itself from Powell’s legacy.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s tweet endorsing his father’s 1968 editorial calling ‘Rivers of Blood’ an ‘evil speech’ is an important reminder that there is no desire to rehabilitate Powell in the modern party.
If it is right to say ‘Enoch was wrong’, it is important to recognise that he was a hugely complex figure. As someone who had served during World War II, Powell was particularly hurt by the charge of being a ‘fascist’ – and indeed he had strong credentials as an anti-fascist.
It is also important to note that he was not a populist in the manner of some politicians today, even if some of his anti-establishment rhetoric belongs to the populist tradition.
His opposition to British membership of the EEC was regarded as a fringe issue at the time, while his endorsement of Labour in 1974 – and subsequent decision to join the Ulster Unionists – was thought to be politically suicidal.
(Powell, however, had taken an interest in the subject of Northern Ireland since the outbreak of the Troubles. He also raised the question of Irish immigration to Britain, arguing that the special status enjoyed by Irish citizens in the United Kingdom was a ‘contradiction’ in British nationality law.)
Although the recent decision to leave the European Union, encouraged in part by concerns about immigration, has reminded people of Powell once again, the two issues are now linked in a way that they weren’t during his lifetime.
Enoch Powell raised important questions about national identity, and made a lasting impression on the political landscape, but his legacy will remain controversial.
Twenty years after his death, and fifty years after the Birmingham Speech, it is appropriate to acknowledge Powell as a significant historical figure, without resurrecting his politics for our times.
David Shiels is a College Research Associate at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge and is writing a book on Enoch Powell, The Outsider (forthcoming, IB Tauris). Follow him on Twitter at: [twitter-follow screen_name=’dcshiels’]
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