Enoch Powell's racist speech isn't a national treasure. Why is the BBC treating it like it is?

At the discreet hour of 2:30am, Amol Rajan, a BBC media editor, tweeted about the up-and-coming broadcast of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech to mark its 50th anniversary. The speech will be read in full for the first time in history. Rajan later clarified, after being highly criticised for the previous tweet, that:

  1. It would not be read out in one single go – as though breaking up a disgustingly racist and violent speech makes it in any way okay
  2. There would be voices ‘from across the spectrum’ commenting throughout, of which ‘of course some will still object’ [to Powell’s views] which leaves one wondering; who are the BBC bringing on that will in any way not object to Enoch Powell and his Rivers of Blood speech?

Why is this speech so problematic?

The Rivers of Blood speech strongly criticises mass immigration to the United Kingdom, particularly the immigration coming from Commonwealth countries.  It can be seen as a response to the Race Relations Bill of 1968 that was due to have its second hearing shortly after Powell gave his speech in the West Midlands Area Conservative Political centre. The Race Relations Bill proposed to make it unlawful to refuse housing, employment or public services to a person on the ‘grounds of colour, race ethnic or national origins’.  

The speech is said to have lasted about 45 minutes and is filled with vile racism and incitement to violence throughout. There are plenty of reasons why the speech shouldn’t be read out, not because of the contextual time that we are living in, but simply because it should not be placed on a pedestal as though it’s a national treasure.

Let’s explore just a few of the problematic parts of the speech.

Early in the speech Powell recounts a supposed conversation that he’d had with one of his constituents who had expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the UK. Ironically, he wanted his children to settle overseas. This conversation ended with Powell’s constituent telling him that “In this country in 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.

That sentence alone is enough to understand the horrendous nature of the speech, but let us continue just a little further.

Powell then explores the statistics of immigration stoking up fear that soon “whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England” would be “occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population”.  (Sound familiar? Only a few years ago a Fox news pundit claimed that Birmingham was a ‘total Muslim city’).

While saying that this situation cannot be fully prevented Powell calls on those hearing the speech to imagine the “consequences of an alien element introduced into a country”. For him, even if that “element” is only one per cent it will have negative consequences. This part of the speech so clearly shows the way in which Powell understood migrants as being ‘others’ as he cannot bear to call them people or human but just ‘elements’.

He then argues that the UK must be “mad”, comparing it to someone “busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”, as though immigration to the UK was literally killing it. Poignantly ignoring that very reason as to why commonwealth citizens could migrate to the UK was because they had been part of the British Empire. An empire which had very literally killed them.

Throughout his speech Powell references ‘decent’, ‘sensible’ and ‘working’ people who agree with his views but are terrified of voicing their opinions for fear of reprisals. One such example is a letter that he received from an elderly woman in Northumberland.

This lady had watched “with growing fear” as migrants moved in nearby. Apparently she saw a “quiet street” become on filled with “noise and confusion” and she was now the only white person left living on her street. She then applied to the council to get a rate reduction on her seven bedroom house as she could no longer afford to live there after losing her family in World War II. It should be noted that she previously had white lodgers renting rooms. When the council refused a reduction on the grounds that she could rent rooms out, she argued that she couldn’t as the only people to rent to were people of colour. This is just one of the examples of ‘decent’ people that Powell references throughout his speech.

The speech ends with the claim that “only resolute and urgent action will avert it now”. The ‘it’ that Powell is referencing is multifaceted and explained throughout his speech – all relating to the supposed dangers of immigration to the UK. What is particularly terrifying is how this statement leaves itself open to interpretation which could, in many ways, be read as incitement to violence. This allows one to decide what action they feel is urgent and should be taken while simultaneously giving Powell enough distance to maintain plausible deniability.

No matter how the BBC tries to structure the programme, it will be giving an excessive amount of uncritical time and coverage to a speech filled with racial hatred and incitement to violence. One top of this, the actor reading the speech does not think that Powell was racist, but rather, was just “stirring things up”. We can’t and we mustn’t forget the Rivers of Blood speech. Enoch Powell remains an icon for many on the far right today.

Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech is not just a thing of the past but continues to define how many people see immigration today. We must not, in any way shape or form give it uncritical time or celebrate it. But instead, fight the UK’s hostile environment towards migrants and challenge a culture that normalises this speech.



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