BBC slammed for ‘Rivers of Blood’ broadcast

Career suicide: Powell’s famous speech did not actually contain the phrase “rivers of blood”.

Was the BBC right to dramatise Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech? Fifty years since the Tory MP changed Britain’s immigration debate forever, his legacy is still highly controversial.

Fifty years ago on Friday, Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party MP, gave a speech that would change the debate on immigration forever.

Speaking to party members, Powell referenced a comment made by one of his constituents that “in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.

Powell’s speech was a grim prediction about the results of mass immigration into Britain. He ended with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, when civil war in Ancient Rome is predicted with “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.

The speech caused a huge row. He was sacked from the shadow cabinet by Tory leader Edward Heath. The Times called it “evil”. Many immigrants remember receiving abuse in the streets afterwards. However, a poll found that 74% of the public supported Powell.

To mark the 50th anniversary, the BBC broadcast the speech in full for the first time. Powell was played by Ian McDiarmid.

The decision was criticised by Labour peer Andrew Adonis as an “incitement to racial hatred”.

But Powell was a fiercely intelligent and highly respected politician. His speech still looms large over Britain’s immigration debate.

Did the BBC make the right call?


Absolutely, say some. Whatever your think of Enoch Powell, the speech was an important moment in British history and deserves to be marked. The BBC put his comments in context with a full discussion. Some in Britain still think that Powell made some valid arguments; we must not be afraid to discuss them.

“The problem with airing Enoch Powell’s speech isn’t that it was racist — it’s that it was wrong,” writes Stephen Bush in The New Statesman. Britain is more at ease with diversity than almost anywhere in the world. Airing his speech gives the impression that Powell had a point. He did not.

You Decide

  1. Should the BBC have aired Enoch Powell’s speech in full?


  1. Write a response to Powell’s speech that begins: “Dear Enoch. Here is what Britain is like in 2018.”

Some People Say...

“All political lives… end in failure.”

Enoch Powell

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
At that time, annual migration to Britain was around 50,000, mostly from the Commonwealth. Now it has increased by a factor of 10.
What do we not know?
Just what effect the speech really had. Powell’s popularity may have helped the Conservatives win the 1970 general election. Meanwhile, many immigrants in Britain still remember the shadow that the speech cast over their lives.

Word Watch

Enoch Powell
Born in Birmingham, Powell was a classical scholar before entering politics, becoming a full professor of ancient Greek at the age of 25. During the Second World War, he rose through the British armed forces from the rank of private all the way up to brigadier by the age of 32.
Powell was an MP in Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands.
Virgil’s Aeneid
A Latin epic poem that tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy and became the ancestor of the Romans.
Ian McDiarmid
He played Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.

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