BBC slammed for ‘Rivers of Blood’ broadcast
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.
A conference centre in Birmingham is an unlikely place to go down in the annals of British political history. But it was there, 50 years ago this Friday, that a thin, pale 55-year-old stood up and gave a speech that, in his words, would ”fizz up like a rocket, but whereas all rockets fall to earth, this one is going to stay up”.
This was the moment Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party MP, gave his “Rivers of Blood” speech about immigration to the United Kingdom.
The speech was delivered to local Tory Party members just days before the second reading of the Race Relations Act 1968, which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to a person on the grounds of race or national origins.
During the speech, Powell quoted 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, which he described as “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. He argued that immigrants should return to their home nations, and ended with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, when civil war in Ancient Rome is predicted by “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.
The speech caused a political furore. He was sacked from the shadow cabinet. The Times called it “evil”. Many immigrants recall receiving abuse in the streets afterwards. However, a poll found that 74% of the public supported Powell.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the speech, the BBC broadcast it in full for the first time on Radio 4. Powell was played by actor Ian McDiarmid.
The decision was criticised by Labour peer Andrew Adonis as an “incitement to racial hatred”. Art historian Matt Lodder said, “we can study racists without… amplifying the racist things they say”.
But Powell was a long way from the stereotype of a bigot. He was fiercely intelligent and, until then, a highly respected politician. His speech still looms large over Britain’s immigration debate.
Did the BBC make the right call?
Absolutely, say some. Whatever you 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.
- Should the BBC have aired Enoch Powell’s speech in full?
- Is Britain a racist country?
- Read the speech, which you can find in Become An Expert. As a class, discuss whether you think Enoch Powell was racist.
- 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?
- This coming Friday marks 50 years since Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech about immigration to Britain. At that time, annual migration to Britain was around 50,000 and mostly comprised of people from the Commonwealth. Now that number has increased by a factor of 10.
- What do we not know?
- Just what effect the speech really had. According to some accounts, the popularity of Powell’s opinions on immigration may have played a decisive factor in the Conservatives’ surprise victory in the 1970 general election, even though, by that time, Powell had been out of the shadow cabinet for two years. Meanwhile, many immigrants — and children of immigrants — in Britain still remember the shadow that it cast over their lives.
- Enoch Powell
- Born in Birmingham in 1912, 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 also a published poet. He died in 1998.
- Race Relations Act 1968
- The act was an amendment to the Race Relations Act 1965, which was the first legislation to address racial discrimination in the UK.
- At the time Powell was MP for Wolverhampton South West. After leaving the Conservative Party in 1974, he became the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down.
- 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.
- A poll by Gallup at the end of April 1968 found that 15% disagreed. 69% felt Heath was wrong to fire Powell and 20% believed Heath was right.
- Ian McDiarmid
- Most famous for playing Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.