No more ‘Enoch was right’
Attempts to ban BBC’s Rivers of blood programme were totally misplaced, writes Eddie Ford
Last week the BBC came under some criticism for airing a recitation of Enoch Powell’s infamous, 45-minute ‘rivers of blood’ speech, delivered 50 years ago to a gathering of Tories in Birmingham’s Midland Hotel.1 The text was read by the Scottish actor, Ian McDiarmid, who had played Powell previously in Chris Hannan’s acclaimed play, What shadows.
This was the first time that the full speech has been broadcast in the UK - something that the show’s presenter, Amol Rajan, was maybe just a bit too overeager to promote. On the other hand, Rajan was also keen to emphasise that the recital would be interspersed with critical commentary by various ‘experts’ and others, such as the rightwing Labour MP, David Lammy - who recalled the effect that the speech had created amongst his family at the time and how it became an unwanted part of the “wallpaper” of his childhood. Clearly then, the programme was not an advert for Powellism or an act of historical rehabilitation - quite the opposite. Not that this writer expected anything else from the institutionally anti-racist BBC, which reflects the consensus of today’s establishment that Powell’s speech was dangerously divisive.
Of course, at the time the then Tory shadow minister and MP for Wolverhampton South West had a mass audience in mind - he wanted to make big waves, having already delivered advanced transcripts of the speech to the press and made sure there was a news crew present to film the occasion. Giving the talk a few days before the second reading of the 1968 Race Relations Bill, Powell launched a furious assault on what he saw as a tide of immigration that would destroy the fabric of the nation and advocated a ‘voluntary’ scheme of repatriation based on “generous grants and assistance” that would reduce the level of immigration to “negligible proportions”.2 Referring to the ‘Windrush generation’ of new Commonwealth immigrants in parts of the inner cities, Powell said “we must be mad, literally mad, as a nation” to permit an “annual inflow” of some 50,000 dependents - which for him was “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. Indeed, he continued, “so insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancées whom they have never seen” - licentious barbarism beyond comprehension.
Powell went on to claim that if the Race Relations Bill were to be passed it would bring about “discrimination” against the native population, which would generate a “sense of alarm and of resentment” - meaning that parliament was at risk of “throwing a match onto gunpowder”. Especially notoriously, he mentioned talking a few weeks earlier to a “decent, ordinary fellow Englishman” who worried that in 15 or 20 years time “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” - doubtlessly a truly dreadful prospect for his audience. He also treated his listeners to the story of a “respectable” white pensioner who gets “excreta pushed through her letter box” and when she goes to the shops is “followed by children - charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies” who “cannot speak English, but one word they know: ‘Racialist,’ they chant” - the poor lady was “convinced” she would go to prison once the dreaded bill had been passed, with Powell rhetorically asking: “And is she so wrong?” Er, I think so.
All of this led to his equally notorious conclusory crescendo about being “filled with foreboding”: the MP for Wolverhampton South West, “like the Roman” in Virgil’s Aeneid, sees “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” - that is “coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect” unless “resolute and urgent action” is immediately taken to avert the oncoming national tragedy - which obviously needed a saviour like Enoch Powell to alert us to our collective follies.
Needless to say, in what is arguably a defining act of official state anti-racism, Powell was immediately sacked as shadow defence spokesman by the Conservative Party’s leader at the time, Edward Heath - who described the speech as “racialist in tone” and, even worse, a clear attempt to seize the leadership of the party.
However, sacking aside, Powell found supporters elsewhere. Possibly most famous of all, two days after the speech a thousand dockers stopped work and marched to the House of Commons - some bearing placards saying “Back Britain, not black Britain” and chanting outside parliament: “We want Enoch Powell”. A docker explained to the BBC that Powell was “the only man with the guts to say what he thinks.” One Gallup Poll conducted that year found that 74% agreed with Powell’s comments on race and immigration, with other polls coming out with higher percentages still.
Neither was his appeal limited to the inner cities: 327 out of 413 Conservative constituency associations, many in leafy suburbs, voted to stop all “coloured immigration”. Maybe just as alarming, in 1976 Eric Clapton declared to a huge audience in Birmingham that “Powell was right” about there being too many foreigners in the country - “Send them back!” he shouted to the crowd. “Keep Britain white!”
Even right up to this day, 50 years later, ‘Enoch was right’ is a phrase you regularly hear muttered almost conspiratorially in pubs across the country - especially in particularly backward places like south Devon. Wait for the red glint in the eye if you express disagreement. There is now a simmering political row about whether to erect a blue plaque simply informing passers-by in Wolverhampton that “Enoch Powell, 1912-1998, Conservative MP, lived here” (though actually in 1974 he left the Tory Party in opposition to Heath’s backing for Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community and returned to the House of Commons as the Ulster Unionist Party MP for the Northern Irish constituency of South Down until he was defeated at the 1987 general election).
Nominations for a plaque have been received by the Wolverhampton Civic and Historical Society, which will consider them this year. Supporters of the idea include Nigel Hastilow, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate who was dropped in 2007 after writing a newspaper column arguing - yes, you guessed it - that “Enoch Powell was right” and “arguably one of the greatest politicians of the last century”. A poll was initiated on the proposal by the local rightwing newspaper, The Express and Star, with two thirds voting in favour and framed by an editorial stating that it was “worth remembering that this intelligent and complex man represented Wolverhampton for nearly a quarter of a century”.
Horrified, the bishop of Wolverhampton, Clive Gregory, has declared that such a plaque would be “widely interpreted as honouring Enoch Powell’s racist views” - something he could never countenance. In the opinion of Dr Shirin of the University of Wolverhampton, plaques are “intended to celebrate a notable figure”, but the ‘rivers of blood’ speech “was not an interesting curiosity” - rather, “it was a powerful and threatening message whose impact is still being felt”.
Notwithstanding the innocent, anti-racist protestations of the BBC and Amol Rajan, some people were not at all happy with the Powell programme. The Labour peer, Lord Andrew Adonis, asked the watchdog, Ofcom, to intervene and instruct the BBC not to broadcast the speech on the grounds that it was “incendiary and racist”. Ban it. Indeed, a furious Adonis called the show “an incitement to racial hatred” and even suggested that the BBC had become a “custodian of [Powell’s] racism” - not that he had a chance of stopping the broadcast, given that Ofcom is a post-transmission regulator which advises viewers to complain to the BBC in the first instance.
But Hirsch too was “disgusted” by how the programme was promoted and now viewed her participation as a mistake, admitting she had “been sick with worry since seeing the way this is being presented”. Others thought that, whilst the BBC was right to mark the anniversary of the speech because of its contemporary impact, a “theatrical rendition” of the whole speech was not the appropriate method - as it might “imbue what was effectively a racist rant” with “the status of an intellectual endeavour deserving close textual analysis”.3
However, most of these criticisms are misplaced - Lord Adonis’s comments being particularly absurd and ultimately irrational. As pointed out in The Guardian by former Revolutionary Communist Party member, Kenan Malik - “To claim that it is racist to broadcast Powell’s speech in full, rather than provide snippets, to place it in context and question its assumptions is seemingly not to understand what it means to put something in context” (April 15). Did the German government become a “custodian” of Nazism when in 2016 it finally permitted the publication of Mein Kampf - doubtlessly upsetting our Socialist Workers Party comrades who seem to think that only duly-accredited students and academics should be allowed to gaze upon the evil tome - otherwise you will be instantly corrupted by its supernatural emanations. Or is this a book “you would wish your wife or your servants to read?”, as the prosecuting counsel asked during the 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover - similarly, do you really want the masses to listen all over again to Powell’s “incendiary and racist” rhetoric?
Having said that, the BBC’s dissection of the speech was very tame stuff and not especially enlightening. For all of its stated aims, it did not fully succeed in properly contextualising Powell’s address, nor was there any real depth of analysis or effective challenges to many of the glib anecdotes trotted out by Powell. For that, we had to wait until about three-quarters of the way through the programme for extracts from David Frost’s gloriously forensic examination and demolition of Powell in a 1969 interview that made this supposedly honest and truthful man - as his apologists never tire of saying - look shifty and evasive, if not cowardly.
But what was Powell’s contested speech actually about? In many ways, it was a lament for empire, to which he always felt total loyalty from an early age - coming as he did from a well-off, middle-class background. His experience during World War II, where he served in India, just developed this passion for empire and its values. For Powell, as for many others of his generation and background, the empire was a world system stitched into his political and ideological DNA - representing the very essence of what it meant to be an Englishman. By all accounts, when the war ended Powell harboured dreams of returning to colonial India in the role of viceroy - but a professional career in politics was another way to uphold and defend overseas possessions. Naturally, as the years progressed, he became dismayed by the steady retreat of the once glorious British empire - especially blaming, after the humiliating 1956 Suez debacle, the nefarious Unites States for its role in that decline, which he saw as neither inevitable nor justified.
Powell’s shift from 1967 onwards towards a new, stridently anti-immigrant politics was made within this context of late 1960s British capitalism - which felt compelled to counter an increasingly confident trade unionist militancy. The mass complacency of the 1950s and early 1960s disappearing, there was a palpable fear within ruling class circles that ‘the rule of law’ was no longer guaranteed - anarchy beckoned.
Powell’s speech comes out of this juncture of class conflict - developed as a means for engaging simultaneously with the existential fears of the ruling class elite and those deep anxieties within certain working class communities, and assisted by a prevalence of racist ideas inculcated by centuries of imperialism. As Shirin Hirsch writes in the latest issue of the SWP’s International Socialism magazine, Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech “offered both a superficial confrontation with the establishment and a focus on a new black threat” .4 He hankered for the certainties and rule of the patrician elite - which in the context of the time meant the aggressive promotion of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ values and anti-immigrant nationalism: Britain had to have a white face.
The ruling class today is still as nationalist as ever, of course, but it has adopted a form of anti-racism as part of its rearticulated post-World War II ideology - stressing that all of us, white or black, need to unite around the national flag against outsiders and all those who pose a threat to the ‘British way of life’.