JOE SIMONS: Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers Of Blood’ 50 Years On
I was approached by the good folks at Kipper Central to write an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s groundbreaking Rivers of Blood speech, which was appropriate as I am currently partway through Robert Shepherd’s biography of Powell. Fifty years ago today the then-MP for Wolverhampton South West delivered a career-defining speech to a crowd of Birmingham Conservatives, a speech that has been credited as one possible factor for the Conservatives’ victory in the general election of 1970.
I’m sure you are all aware of the contents of the speech so I won’t be providing any rolling commentary of the speech, nor will I be proving him right or wrong; however, I must say that recent attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby, the Westminster attack, the Manchester bombing and even the Finsbury Park mosque attack do lend an overwhelming amount of evidence to Powell’s warning that unchecked mass migration would only lead to upset.
If you wish, you can listen to a reading of Powell’s speech here:
This article instead wishes to address two issues regarding the ongoing Powell debate – a debate that remains as prominent today as it was in 1968. The first issue regards freedom of speech and expression, a theme that Powell touches upon in his address. This is particularly important when it comes to any sort of debate; however, it is particularly poignant in the debate on Powell since – like with any debate on immigration – there is a trend of one particular side trying to shut down the other with phony, baseless accusations of racism or mischaracterisations. It is in this spirit of free speech and fruitful debate that this article will partake, with additional emphasis on how debates such as these should be conducted. The second issue regards how critical analysis of the Rivers of Blood speech has been lacking in quality, with huge chunks being misunderstood, misrepresented and generally taken out of context.
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Freedom of speech is something that Powell emphasises in his address – with particular regard to the discussion on immigration, namely ordinary people being afraid to discuss certain issues under fear of being mislabelled as racist. This is a feature of modern discourse in Britain that unfortunately still remains. Powell recalls the “hundreds upon hundreds” of letters he received regarding the subject and how there were an alarming number of letters with names and addresses omitted due to this fear of being mischaracterised as racist. With the bulk of public discourse taking place on social media now this can still be seen, with social media appearing to actively censor right wing or anti-mass immigration views, notably brought to light when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recently grilled on how Facebook had “purposefully and routinely suppressed conservative [views]”. While this aforementioned fear persists in society I’d like to be clear that I’m not afraid of discussing issues in a mature manner. I hope that any discussion that sparks off the back of this article follows this style: mature, critical and constructive.
As mentioned prior, the current state of debate over Powell is lacking in many areas. The BBC’s recent radio documentary analysing Powell’s speech, with the speech read in its entirety by actor Ian McDiarmid, was filled with mischaracterisations, misunderstandings, and cases of commentators taking passages out of context. For one thing, a significant proportion of Powell’s speech is made up of extracts of letters from or conversations with his constituents. BBC News recently promoted a video on their Facebook page regarding Powell, with the thumbnail image being his face next to a quote they have seemingly attributed to him: “In this country, in 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. This sounds like a rather worrying thing for a politician to say, doesn’t it? Of course, it does, that’s why these aren’t his words. These are the words of one of his constituents. In fact, Powell goes out of his way to label this sentence as a “horrible thing [to say]”. This was the caliber of mischaracterisation and disregard for context rife in this documentary. We can already see in this example alone that the public discourse over Powell is anything but honest or fruitful. This radio programme was filled to the brim with those who despise Powell, based purely on their largely left-wing political leanings. There was only one commentator who argued in favour of Powell’s speech – despite the fact that a huge proportion of the UK agrees with Powell’s argument that the future of multiculturalism cannot be a positive one. Only recently a YouGov poll found that 43% of people predicted a deterioration of relationships between different cultures in Britain, with only 14% thinking that relations would improve. Moreover, a poll run by a local newspaper in Powell’s former constituency found that 70% of people backed a plaque to commemorate Powell. Considering how many people are invested in this debate – on both sides – surely the British public deserves a better quality of journalism and discourse than the sort we’ve seen here?
If I could I would discuss Powell all day in the most academic, in-depth way possible. Luckily for you – the attentive reader who has made it to the end – this is not what Kipper Central is for! Powell was one of the most remarkable Britons to ever live, having become a world-famous scholar before he reached his mid-twenties and then serving in North Africa during the Second World War before the age of thirty. Of course, we all know the story of what he did in his political career afterward. The fact is that in his lifetime Powell was not just a prominent, rebellious politician but also a child prodigy – learning Ancient Greek by the age of five; one of the greatest scholars of his age, a war veteran, and a figure who – in his day – commanded respect from both the Conservatives and Labour. With this in mind, it is clear why he found his way onto the list of 100 Greatest Britons in 2002.
While many continue to spit at Powell, to them a clueless bigot, to me he is one of the most learned figures of his age and one of the greatest prime ministers we never had.