We must understand Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, not bury it

Fifty years ago, Enoch Powell rose before a gaggle of Conservative Party activists to deliver his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech. Delivered at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, this polemic against mass immigration – particularly from the Commonwealth – and a proposed Race Relations Bill, is still one of Britain’s most controversial speeches, as Radio 4 discovered this week. Many have railed against the BBC’s decision to air the speech, one of these being Lord Adonis, who wrote to Ofcom to demand that it stop the BBC from broadcasting “the most incendiary racist speech of modern Britain.”

Powell, still something of a revered figure in the gloomy recesses of the far-right echo chamber, saw mass immigration as the social and political equivalent of a Faustian pact with the devil. His 3,014-word speech, delivered in 1968, talks of Britain’s decision to permit “the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents” as an act of collective madness, a policy enacted by “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. His main contention was that mass immigration would cause civil unrest and violence, an uprising fostered by those immigrants besotted with the “exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest of the population.”

In his demeanour and rhetoric, Powell was a populist prototype, portraying himself as a purveyor of common sense truths that others in the establishment refused to acknowledge. Dismayed by the crumbling of empire he saw opposing the European project and endorsing nativism as a sure-fire way of garnering votes and fuelling his prime ministerial aspirations.

For some, history should have an Instagram filter, any scars and blemishes hidden permanently from view

In the end, Powell failed spectacularly. These failings have not deterred many on the far-right from idolising him as an elegiac spokesman. In these circles, he is viewed as a man ahead of his time, a politician who was unafraid of railing against immigration and the potential dangers it might cause.

This kind of prophetic eulogising, combined with racist sentiment is currently doing the rounds on Twitter, labouring under the hashtags #Enochwasright and #riversofblood. For many, this kind of rhetoric is reason enough to ignore Powell’s legacy, ample evidence that his speech should be sheltered far away from public discourse, buried underground in some dusty archive to collect the cobwebs.

At the start of the Radio 4’s Archive on 4 episode ’50 Years On: Rivers of Blood,’ the singer Pauline Black said: “I consider that this speech should be buried. It shouldn’t fade into history, it should just be buried.” Black actor David Harewood tweeted that he didn’t need the speech re-read and analysed because he “felt” the racism it evoked during his youth in the late 70’s and 80’s. “I tried not to listen then, so I won’t listen now” he said.

A reluctance to engage with the speech is understandable, particularly from those who suffered because of it, but society has a duty to remember the past and, in turn, ask probing questions about the present. For some history should have an Instagram filter, any scars and blemishes hidden permanently from view in case they offend or provoke debate. And yet history is cyclical, old tendencies have a habit of recurring, often in dangerous and unexpected ways.

As today’s social media activity demonstrates, Powellism is alive and kicking and not just within the gloomy confines of chatrooms and underground fascist clubs. In its fusion of anti-immigrant sentiment with EU hostility, the purest and most tangible example of neo- Powellism is Nigel Farage’s “breaking point” poster. We might add to that Katie Hopkins’ description of migrants as “cockroaches.”

Society has a duty to remember the past and, in turn, ask probing questions about the present.

One of the most shocking things about Powell’s speech is just how much he got wrong. He vastly underestimated the number of immigrants that would settle in Britain, about 14% of Britain’s population is foreign-born, almost treble the number in 1968. He also drastically overestimated native hostility towards immigrants and the hostility of the immigrants themselves. This is not to suggest that there hasn’t been violence on both sides, but the widespread communal bloodshed that he predicted never materialised. His prediction that “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” now seems delusional at best.

Of all of his assertions, perhaps the most insidious and false claim he made was that being black and British are mutually incompatible. In an interview with BBC journalist Michael Cockerell in 1995 he said: “What’s wrong with racism?..Racism is the basis of nationality.” In today’s multicultural Britain this is no longer the case. Powell’s former constituency of Wolverhampton South is now represented by Eleanor Smith of the Labour Party, whose mother immigrated from Barbados in 1954 to work in the NHS.

Speaking in March about a potential vote to erect a commemorative plaque to Powell, Smith said: “The fact that I was elected in his old seat shows what a long way we have come. Powell is part of Wolverhampton’s history but he doesn’t represent who we are.” On the 50th anniversary of his “rivers of blood” speech, that is how Enoch Powell should be remembered.

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