The 20th of this month marks a significant anniversary in Britain. For it is the 50th anniversary of what is probably the most famous — and certainly the most notorious — speech by any mainstream politician since the war.
On April 20, 1968, Enoch Powell gave a speech to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham on the subject of Commonwealth migration, integration, and possible re-emigration. It was a carefully chosen moment, and a carefully chosen intervention from a man who was then the shadow defense minister in the Conservative opposition of Edward Heath. Powell knew what he was about to do, telling a friend who edited a local newspaper, “I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket; but whereas all rockets fall to the earth, this one is going to stay up.” For half a century, Powell’s speech has certainly lingered in some fashion — whether by staying up or by rumbling away underneath Britain’s political debates.
The fact that the speech, which (although the phrase itself does not occur) became known as the “rivers of blood” speech, remains strangely alive in Britain was demonstrated again last weekend when the BBC chose to broadcast a program to reflect on the half centenary of the speech. The program included critical analysis, contextualization, and reflection. But most crucially, the BBC chose to have the actor Ian McDiarmid read the entire speech aloud — the first time this had been done on radio, apparently (only portions of the original speech having been recorded at the time). Although the BBC broadcast the speech in segments, with critical commentary interspersed, to go by some reactions, it was as though the BBC had chosen to go full Nazi on the British public.
The moment the program was announced, prominent figures such as Andrew (Lord) Adonis (a former Labour government minister) condemned the BBC, accusing the corporation of “an incitement to racial hatred and violence.” Surprisingly enough, Twitter did not in general react well to the announcement of the broadcast. And so once again Britain wound itself up into that specific lather Powell still manages to create even two decades after he went to his grave.
Of course, if anybody had stopped for a moment, they might have realized that the catatonic fury that Powell and his speech still provoke is itself highly suggestive. Had the BBC chosen to broadcast a speech by a leading member of the Flat Earth Society last weekend, it is unlikely that the reaction would have been like this. Amused, certainly. Contradicted by experts, for sure. But not the basis of days of organized hate and fury on social media and off it. Indeed the reaction to the broadcast of the full text of the “rivers of blood” speech proves once again that even after half a century, Britain has not reconciled itself to Powell or some of the specific points he was making in 1968.
For my own part, having read the speech last a couple of years ago, but never having heard the whole thing out loud, a number of points occurred to me after listening to it (the full text can be found here). The first is that the speech is both worse and better than I remembered. Worse in that some portions of it cannot but induce an intake of breath and a considerable wince or gulp. During the speech Powell quoted the words of a number of constituents who had complained to him about the upsurge in immigration. One made the famously inflammatory — and wrong — claim that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Towards the end of the speech Powell also quoted the now infamous female voter who wrote to him of her experience living in an area that has become predominantly immigrant. Her complaints culminate in a description of finding “excreta pushed through her letter box” and the claim that “when she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.” The fact that Powell is quoting what these voters have recently said to him — by letter and in person — in no way significantly distances him from the putridity of the remarks. Indeed as Ian McDiarmid’s excellent — and at times uncanny — reenactment of Powell’s voice proved, the voice of the complainants and the voice that gave them voice in Birmingham are hardly distinguishable.
So in these ways, among others, hearing the whole speech broadcast was a reminder of why some of the reaction at the time was as febrile as it was (the Times editorial the next day described the speech as “evil”). And yet the broadcast also demonstrated why there had been such an unusual fury when its broadcast was announced. Because while some of Powell’s claims have been proven wrong and some have proven to be exaggerated, other aspects of what he said are clearly with us still. And not because of his words, but because some of the issues he raised — however well or poorly — remain so pregnant.
As I wrote in my latest book, imagine you had been a speechwriter for Enoch Powell in 1968, or an adviser or friend. And imagine if you had said to him then, “I have an idea, Enoch. Why not use your speech to say that if immigration into the U.K. goes on at these rates, then in 2011 the official census will reveal that people who identify as ‘white British’ will be a minority in their capital city of London.” Had this been said, Powell would most likely have dismissed the person as an inflammatory madman. Yet that was indeed one of the things that the 2011 census showed. And the news came and went as though it was just another detail on just another day.
Over the years, the standard critique of Powell from the right — as well as portions of the center–left — settled on the claim that Powell made it impossible to discuss immigration for at least a generation. So lurid was his rhetoric, so outrageous his claims (so this argument goes), that nobody else could go near the subject for decades for fear of being accused of Powellism. Thus Powell was allegedly part responsible for the immigration situation of recent decades. There is a tiny grain of truth in this allegation, and a vast vat of cop-out. It was not only because people feared being called Powellite that politicians of left and right lost control of the immigration system. It is not due to fear of being tarred a Powellite that consecutive governments failed to deport people who had broken into the country illegally. These and many other factors came about because generations of politicians found it more restful to avoid the subject and leave the consequences for their successors (as Powell predicted they would) rather than tackle an issue that has consistently been shown to be of greatest concern to the British public.
And we are worrying about it still — even if our politicians daren’t address it. Particularly the issue of “integration.” Here is part of what Powell said on this question:
To be integrated into a population means to become for all practical purposes indistinguishable from its other members.
Now, at all times, where there are marked physical differences, especially of colour, integration is difficult though, over a period, not impossible. There are among the Commonwealth immigrants who have come to live here in the last 15 years or so, many thousands whose wish and purpose is to be integrated and whose every thought and endeavor is bent in that direction.
But to imagine that such a thing enters the heads of a great and growing majority of immigrants and their descendants is a ludicrous misconception, and a dangerous one.
There is just one aspect of Powell’s speech that makes it such an ongoing open wound. In Britain (as across the rest of Western Europe) in recent decades an uncomfortable, “acceptable” consensus has been arrived at. It recognizes that if a British person were to go to another country (say India, or China) — and especially if they were to go in their hundreds of thousands, or even millions — they would not be regarded as Indian or Chinese. At best they would be incomers in these places. At worst they would be branded “colonialists.” Perhaps that will be for a while longer (though not necessarily limitlessly) the fate of post-colonial Europeans. Yet at the same time we also hold to the dogma that anybody from anywhere in the world who makes it to our countries becomes part of our country and to say otherwise is to be racist. To demand integration is “racist.” To deprecate any lack of integration is to be “racist.” And in any case, there is no penalty paid by any immigrant (nor any immigrant group) that shows no desire to integrate nor any intention of integrating.
It does not take a great imagination to work out that such inequality might rankle, as well as throw up questions. And it was these questions that remained hanging in the air this week. The backlash against the BBC for what was a careful and balanced broadcast revealed many things. One of them is that Powell is still with us. And not just because of what he got wrong, but because some of the questions he addressed are questions that understandably gnaw away at us still.