It is no surprise that the BBC’s announcement that Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech would be read on Radio 4 generated controversy. There have been calls for the BBC to pull the segment, given the incendiary nature of the address which Powell made at a Conservative meeting in Birmingham in 1968. Others think that the views expressed in the speech should be repudiated, but that it still holds historical and social value as an educational tool. A third minority, usually only vocal behind veils of anonymity on Twitter, would like the speech to be aired because they believe that Powell’s words were true.

The segment did air, with the speech cut into portions and commented on by various commentators across the political spectrum. Admittedly, the crass manner in which Media Editor Amol Rajan announced the reading (“the first EVER”) on Twitter was distasteful – a more reasoned method of promotion would have been preferable. However, the airing of the segment was the right thing to do.

The speech is a template for any would-be demagogue. It contains patriotic fervour, with Powell emphasising his “duty” to warn of Britain’s impending demise. It includes an anecdote, unverified and likely embellished, of a white pensioner being harassed by immigrants. Another statement, attributed to a constituent, makes the stark claim that “in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” A man of Powell’s intellect would not have used this phrase without realising the offence the word “whip” carries in this context. The speech is filled with urgency, citing the dangers posed to the NHS and to British jobs. Paranoid visions of immigrants exercising “domination” over the British population ramp the apocalyptic tone of the speech to a climax, where Powell quotes Virgil’s Aeneid, stating that “[he seems] to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

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This is a speech dripping with ill-disguised malice and xenophobia. I am sure there is more to the man than his address suggests, but there is no reading that absolves Powell from racism here. He fails to explain why an influx of darker-skinned migrants should be so alarming – it seems to be taken as a given that Commonwealth immigration is something that Britons should be duty-bound to rail against, an “evil” that is self-explanatory. A particularly unedifying portion of the speech discusses the “tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic”, referring to the civil rights movements and race riots occurring in the USA at the time. Consider what prompted this declaration of seeing Britain “heaping up its own funeral pyre”. Powell was responding to the 1968 Race Relations Act, an amendment to its 1965 predecessor that made racial discrimination in some businesses a civil offence. Essentially, his paranoia was sparked by racial parity becoming a law – he states that its supporters were akin to the appeasers of the 1930s.

Powell addressed a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in 1968

Against this backdrop, the controversy around the decision to air the speech is understandable. Powell shows disregard for the vital role immigrants played in post-war Britain and denies them any agency or credit for Britain’s standing. Yet, this speech had a deep and long-lasting impact. Tropes painting immigrants as burdensome, anti-social, and incompatible with British values rear their heads repeatedly in contemporary politics. The focus may have shifted to migrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, but the subject matter is broadly similar. Understanding Powell’s speech, analysing it, and laying bare the racism under the surface offers a greater insight into challenging demagoguery of a similar kind seen in the modern day.

A successful aspect of the Radio 4 segment involved commentators describing the impact of this speech on their families, both at the time and thereafter. It was a reminder that words like these have serious consequences. Racially aggravated violence cannot be fully separated from speeches that denigrate the humanity of those of foreign origin. Picking apart the words of Powell not only offers a historical understanding of the tribulations suffered by immigrants over the half-century, but also provides a deeper insight into the effects of similar language directed at other groups today.

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It is a myth that Britain is a post-racial society. Cases of serious, overt racism, as seen in film on social media, have occurred at universities in the last few months alone. Contrary to Powell’s premonition, the “whip” has not changed hands and institutional racism still exists in some quarters today. Challenging the words of Powell, whose words underpin modern-day xenophobia, is imperative if racism in society today is to be defeated.
Enoch Powell was a man of considerable academic and military achievement, yet the elaborate vocabulary in his 1968 speech masks racism of a simplistic sort. The Radio 4 segment analysed the speech in great detail, highlighting the pernicious racism, the half-truths, and the nationalistic fervour. It was a measured and cautious analysis rather than a mere recap of the speech. Rather than accusing the BBC of inciting racial hatred, we should instead be appreciating the educational value of deconstructing the speech’s sentiment, one which is so relevant to the current age.