In one of the most tone-deaf displays of media hypocrisy, the BBC has decided that it is a good idea to broadcast a reading of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in its entirety on its 50th anniversary. The speech is widely recognised as one of the most provocative, racist public pronouncements in recent UK history, and will be read by the actor Ian McDiarmid, who has recently announced that he doesn’t believe Powell was a racist.
Sharing a link on Twitter, the BBC media editor Amol Rajan praised the “amazing production job”, with the BBC preview itself describing the “significance of the speech”, with little acknowledgement of its toxic effects.
Why the BBC would think to do this at a time when far-right nationalism and casual racism is on the rise in Europe and the UK is baffling. It’s a flamboyant party trick that masks the deadly undertones of racism in British society that still exist. Last month new figures showed that hate crime on London Underground has soared by almost a third in three years. ”Punish a Muslim Day” letters sent to addresses across the country, and widely shared online, promised that 3 April would be a day filled with racialised violence, and universities have been grappling with continuing accusations of racism at their institutions.
As a reminder for those of you lucky enough to have never read or heard Powell’s words, his infamous speech quotes one of his Wolverhampton constituents, who said “in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. The speech was highly effective in stirring up the notion that immigration would cause the degradation of society. “They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition,” Powell said, talking about the consequences of immigration on “native” UK citizens. Fascists from the BNP, EDL and Britain First have been modelling their language upon it ever since. The speech also condemned the race relations bill, which was to make it illegal to refuse housing or employment to someone on the grounds of their colour or their race.
The full speech itself is easily accessible on the internet, while anyone who wants to hear Powell read parts of it as a “primary source” of historical information only need type it into Google. The BBC does not need to be platforming this speech, and it’s been heartening to see an immediate backlash to its decision on social media.
The normalisation of Powell’s inflammatory rhetoric around immigration and race has come through in recent years, both subtly and overtly. In 2011, historian David Starkey proclaimed that Powell’s “prophecy” was “absolutely right in one sense”, and that “the problem is that the whites have become black”. He is still listed as an honorary fellow at Cambridge University, even fronting one of its videos in 2015, until there was an outcry from students who rightly proclaimed him as “aggressively racist”.
McDiarmid, who plays the role of Powell in the play What Shadows, has also tried to claim that the politician was not a racist. In an interview published in the Telegraph today, he states that Powell was right “in terms of the numbers” and that these days everyone accepts that “[immigration] can’t go on in an unlimited way because the results, as he said, would be catastrophic”.
Meanwhile, far-right racist groups such as the White Pendragons, who recently tried to arrest Sadiq Khan, share links (more than a dozen in 2018 alone) on their private Facebook pages and internet forums, citing Powell as an inspiration. For many people his words still have resonance. It’s they who will be most obviously pleased to hear his words rendered for the first time in full on BBC radio, who will share the links and soundbites of his sickening oratory as they continue to make life terrifying for immigrants and brown and black people in this country.
The resurrection of Powell’s hateful hyperbole is particularly jarring at a time when Caribbean migrants who came to the UK decades ago are being unceremoniously booted out of the country as a result of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. This year also sees the 70th anniversary of Windrush – the influx of black immigrants that came from the Caribbean Commonwealth countries in the mid-20th century, representing the first non-white mass immigration to the UK. Our government asked them to come to the country to help with infrastructure following the second world war. This is a time when we should be celebrating their contributions to British society against the odds, not having to fight to keep them in the country, against a backdrop of the BBC airing a speech that made their lives so hard in the first place. My grandmother and grandfather, who moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s and who were firmly a part of the Windrush generation, lived in Wolverhampton, where Powell’s constituency was, and so would have been particularly vulnerable to his lies.
The BBC needs to withdraw this programme and not give the weight, time or credence implied by getting an actor to voice his speech in full, to a man still seen as a prophetic hero by some on the far right. Powell was dismissed from the shadow cabinet after his inflammatory speech in 1968. We need to dismiss him now, too.