Fifty years ago this month, Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered an infamous speech that has become known by the title ‘Rivers of Blood‘. It did not, in fact, include that phrase but he did spend the best part of half an hour lamenting immigration into the British Isles and predicting all sorts of terrible things that would result if the good, white natives didn’t sign up to support his opposition to it. It was racist drivel, historically short-sighted (both forward and back) and far from the most worthy piece of oratory this nation has ever heard but it was a speech that has gone down in history.
Now the BBC is drawing criticism for its decision to broadcast a reading of the speech (Powell’s original oration was not captured in full) as part of the Archive on 4 programme on Saturday evening. Is this an opportunity to make a reasoned evaluation of history or naïve opportunism which will only serve to stir up fresh tensions?
I think the plan is to broadcast the speech in full, uncut and uninterrupted, which doesn’t strike me as entirely wise. I remember stories of that other infamous radio debacle, when Orson Welles read from War of the Worlds with such conviction that radio audiences across America fell into a panic, fearing that the events evoked were actually taking place. However, it is part of the historical record and the very fact that the wires still seem to be live reminds us that we neglect our future if we ignore the need to reflect on what our past says about our present.
And, anyway, being on Radio 4’s Saturday evening history slot would almost certainly guarantee a relatively small audience of relatively well informed listeners. At least, that would be the case if it weren’t being made into a matter for debate! Part of me wonders if this is really a story at all or just a bit of free publicity? I think Enoch turned out to be as wrong about the future as he was about his present and past view of the effect of immigration on what has always been a strongly mongrel nation among many mongrel neighbours.