Criticality not Commemoration: responding to the BBC airing Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech

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By Chris Allen, Lecturer in Social Policy
Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, University of Birmingham

The decision by the BBC to air Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in full, in commemoration of its 50th anniversary, is nothing less than bewildering.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most provocative and racist public speeches in recent British history, the BBC has previewed the airing by praising the ‘amazing production job’ of the programme and the ‘significance of the speech’; both at the expense of any public recognition of the toxic effect and legacy the speech has had – and indeed continues to have – on attitudes towards race relations and immigration in this country.

The 20 April 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Powell’s speech. Addressing a meeting of Conservative Party members at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, the former Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South, vehemently criticised mass migration and the then-proposed Race Relations Bill. Quoting one of his constituents as allegedly saying that ‘in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’, Powell argued that while ‘many thousands’ of migrants from the former Commonwealth wanted to integrate, the majority did not on the basis that some had a vested interest in fostering racial and religious differences ‘with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest of the population’. While Powell never uttered the phrase ‘rivers of blood’, it was his alluding to Virgil’s Aeneid that the phrase was coined.

While the speech destroyed Powell’s political ambitions, the toxic nature of the speech remains evident in a whole raft of debates about ‘race’, multiculturalism, immigration and equality among others. It is easy to see this in a whole host of inflammatory and incendiary ways. The now banned radical right group National Action for instance routinely spoke about the need to ‘save’ ‘our’ country, race and generation by establishing a ‘white homeland’ in Britain. A recurrent staple of Britain First’s rhetoric about itself is, that it is a street ‘defence’ organisation, that provides the ‘frontline resistance’ necessary in defence of the ‘Islamic takeover’ of Britain. In the political mainstream, it is less than three years since then Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised for dehumanising migrants to Britain by referring to them as a ‘swarm of people’. Months before UKIP’s then leader Nigel Farage used the same term while the Conservative Defence Secretary at the time, Michael Fallon declared that ‘whole towns and cities’ in Britain were ‘under siege’ from migrants.

The BBC’s decision is even more staggering given the climate in Britain today; following the Brexit referendum, and record highs of racially and religiously motivated hate crime in Britain. In the year following the vote, Home Office figures confirm that hate crime levels increased by around a third across the country. And let’s not forget that just over a week ago, we were promised a day of religiously-motivated violence and hate on the basis of ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. Whilst that did not thankfully manifest itself, the fear and anxiety it generated among communities was palpable. We live in a time when a lot of minority communities are feeling increasingly vulnerable.

Of course, the full transcript of Powell’s speech can be easily found on Google and rightly so I hasten to add. Bewilderment at the BBC is not about suggesting access to the speech should be curtailed or censored: far from it. My bewilderment is instead twofold. First, in that the BBC is commemorating – officially remembering and thereby giving respect to – the speech which I find extremely problematic. Yes, the programme states that it will seek to reflect and criticise but by positioning the programme in the way it intends to, there is little doubt that the speech as opposed its legacy will emerge as being most important. Second, by platforming the speech the BBC is potentially normalising and legitimising what the speech had to say which in the current climate is extremely problematic. In this respect, it has the very potential to give those who are looking for it, ‘permission to hate’.

As a counter balance to the approach preferred by the BBC, I will be participating in an event at the University of Birmingham coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Powell’s speech. In critically reflecting on the legacy of the speech, there will be very little commemoration of either the man or the speech.


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