This week sees the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech which took place on 20 April 1968. The BBC decided to recreate and broadcast it on 'Archive on 4' – read by actor Ian McDiarmid.
The speech has never been broadcast before in full, and this decision hasn't been without controversy, both before and afterwards. It was an extraordinary experience to hear this much-cited, even legendary, speech in its entirety – 45 minutes of powerful, passionate, and insensitive language – as it was delivered decades ago to Conservative party members in the Midland Hotel, Birmingham.
Powell, then Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West, and shadow secretary of defence in Ted Heath's shadow cabinet, made the case that immigration from the Commonwealth was irreversibly changing Britain for the worse. His language was a mixture of his classically-trained mind, combined with the confidence and arrogance of Britain's ruling class, and a populism which he felt was needed given the scale of problems the country faced.
It took place only days after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Powell had just visited the US and had become convinced that the US divisions on race provided a premonition of a horrendous British future. He believed that Britain was being destroyed from within – by a political class and set of orthodoxies which would not let concerns on immigration be discussed – and that because of this, in 15-20 years, in his words, 'the black man will have the whip hand' the length and breadth of the UK.
Throughout the speech, it is made clear that Powell thought the UK was going mad, that there was denial about this in the corridors of power, and that slowly and inexorably the country was committing suicide. The prospect of the UK was being reduced to a 'funeral pyre.' Powell gave voice to some of his Wolverhampton constituents to back up his anxieties.
Perhaps the most infamous example was that of a woman living alone in a seven-roomed house after her husband and two sons had died in the second world war. He told the story of the house losing much of its monetary value as a once 'respectable street in Wolverhampton' was changed when 'the immigrants took over.' He described how she was terrorised by verbal abuse and excrement being pushed through her letterbox, and was being followed down the street by children who he shamefully describes as 'wide-grinning piccaninnies.'
Damningly, Powell could never completely confirm the veracity of this account and whether he had checked its details. When Simon Heffer came to write Powell's official biography years later, neither he, nor Powell's wife, could find the letter, much to their embarrassment. Heffer hopes to this day that it will turn up, but so far it has stubbornly refused to do so.
The speech ended with Powell invoking Virgil's 'Aeneid', and the destruction of Rome with the river Tiber 'foaming with much blood.' In his final sentence he declared that if he did not speak out about these concerns, it would constitute 'the great betrayal.'
The BBC programme included numerous critical voices on Powell. But it did open with presenter (and BBC media editor) Amol Rajan describing Powell as a 'titan', and one of the great post-war politicians in Britain, alongside Clement Attlee, Roy Jenkins and Margaret Thatcher. Biographer Simon Heffer then called him 'a great national statesman.' Former Tory MP Matthew Parris thought that the speech was 'intemperate' and filled with 'evident racism.' Former Labour MP Peter Hain observed that the continual use of 'classical language' gave 'a cloak of legitimacy' to racism.
Simon Heffer did try to make the pro-Powell argument that he was 'not making a racist speech,' but everything evidence-wise pointed to the fact that this is exactly what it was. It was a racist speech, filled with hate and a lack of the most basic humanity for the people he was describing as the problem.
Much that was important was left unsaid. One such area was the extent to which Powell's 'othering' of fellow British citizens and racial paranoia had a distinctively English dimension. This seemed one of the great questions left untouched in the programme. Was Powell tapping into and articulating a very English story and one which had deep roots in the English imagination? If he was, there was a direct link between this and a yearning for not only the return of the nation, but empire and imperialism: Powell deeply questioning US intentions, as well as European.
This terrain and Powell's pursuit of dogmatic logic led him into blind corners, with him arguing in 1970 that West Indians and Asians could not be English, stating that: 'The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman.' This is even more of a race barrier than Norman Tebbit's cricket text of Englishness, and one explicitly about whiteness and, undoubtedly, a racist argument.
One defence of Powell at the time was that the views he expressed had popular resonance, with 1,000 dockers marching at parliament and 20,000 letters received within days. Reality pointed to a more complex situation. A 'Panorama' survey in 1968 of 'white voters' found 82% wanted further controls on immigration; 74% agreed with voluntary repatriation, but only 35% thought that repatriation should be compulsory; and 55% thought that Powell had worsened race relations.
This brings us to the 50 years that have transpired since this speech. Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' future of the UK has not come about, and his deep racial and cultural pessimism has been shown to be wrong. For all the divisions and injustices of contemporary Britain, we are much more at ease on race, ethnicity and multi-culturalism than his apocalyptic vision. A contemporary survey for British Future illuminated this, with 91% of people saying that they were comfortable if their work colleagues were of a different race, while 9% were not comfortable. 81% were comfortable if a boyfriend or girlfriend of one of their children was of a different race, with 19% uncomfortable. The highest 'Powellite' figure found that 79% of those asked were comfortable about a UK prime minister being of a different race, while 21% were uncomfortable about this.
Where Powell was a pioneering maker of the political weather and future, was in what became known as Thatcherism. On many occasions Margaret Thatcher acknowledged the debt and influence she owed to Powell as an intellectual, and in creating some of the wider climate which allowed her ideas to take root and revolution to succeed. Thatcherism in many respects was Powellism minus the incendiary language and obsession about race.
There is his greatest legacy: Brexit. Powell's worldview was of a self-governing UK, which expressed the maximum possible national sovereignty, and was divorced from the EU. In this, Powell was the father of the eurosceptic tradition that has produced Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan, Nigel Farage and others, who have articulated a mythical and unachievable interpretation of sovereignty. What the likes of Farage have done, more effectively than Powell, is to effectively marry the two parts of the message: sovereignty and paranoid anxieties about immigration, with the slogan 'Taking Back Control' and 'Breaking Point' poster.
Brexit supporters have sadly succeeded in their championing of a simplistic binary identity – either/or, British or European – with long-lasting detrimental consequences. It says much about contemporary Britain and its tensions and pressure points that the re-reading of the Powell speech caused such a furore and unleashed deeply-held passion and argument. Andrew Adonis, Labour peer, even went as far as to state that Ofcom should intervene and instruct the BBC not to broadcast the speech on the grounds that it is 'incendiary and racist.' Even if the programme were to be as Adonis described, would anyone really want to live in a country where the BBC could be told what to broadcast by a regulator?
The weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Powell speech have also illustrated the strength of reactionary, exclusionary Britain. A national scandal has exploded about Home Office intentions to deport people who have lived decades in this country. These are people who have lived two generations in the UK, and whose only failing is that they are the Windrush immigrants who came to the UK from Jamaica in 1948 and were subsequently given an automatic permanent right to remain. Now the Home Office has decided that people who have contributed all their adult working lives to the UK are not 'British'.
This has brought outrage from many people including 12 Caribbean Commonwealth high commissioners who signed a joint statement, asked for a meeting with Downing Street, and who have, as we speak, been publicly refused. Who would have thought that modern Britain and its government could stoop so low? Would Powell have objected to this amorality or embraced it as the logical consequence of his racial obsessions and lack of humanity?
Some of the rage against the BBC over its decision to profile this speech was misplaced, but there is a strange thinking in giving such airtime to one speech which turned out to be so wrong and to give it a special status which other more influential speeches haven't been awarded. Political speeches such as Nye Bevan on Labour setting up the NHS in 1948, Harold Wilson and 'the white heat of the scientific revolution,' and 'the new Britain' of 1963, or Margaret Thatcher and her 'the lady's not for turning' speech of 1981, are all if not more noteworthy, certainly more influential and succeeded in remaking the political mood.
The Britain portrayed by Powell in his 'Rivers of Blood' speech never came about or even near, but the debate about its anniversary and the 'Archive on 4' programme tells us that something is amiss which should concern us all. We have lost the ability to argue, debate and define the limits of permissible debate, with different sides trying to delegitimise political opponents: take the example of the heat both the BBC and Channel 4 News (and presenter Cathy Newman) faced over giving a platform to Canadian controversialist Jordan Peterson (as well as the sexist abuse Newman faced for daring to challenge Peterson).
While we like to think we have matured and are more attuned to sensitive language than the Britain of 1968, we still live in a culture which tolerates and excuses racism. Thus, the current UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson spoke of 'flag-waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles' which is still defended by his supporters; UK government minister Jo Johnson (brother to Boris) only last Thursday said on 'BBC Question Time' that his brother 'does not have a racist bone in his body' as the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland repeated these remarks. Such is the way we all are diminished by apologies for racism.
Powell's speech still touches on difficult issues and shows that we have changed, but not as much as some of us like to imagine. We still live in the shadow of Powell's racism and lack of humanity, and have to grow up and learn how to deal with difference and race. Maybe this is always so, but it feels like an uncomfortable and pessimistic truth. We are better than Enoch Powell, but not by as much as we think.