"the River Tiber foaming with much blood"
April 20, 2018 4:55 AM   Subscribe

On 20 April 1968, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered one of the most divisive speeches ever made by a British politician, in which he argued that by permitting mass immigration, the country was "heaping up its own funeral pyre". The speech caused an outcry, but 'Enoch was right' has been a racist dog-whistle for far-right politicians ever since. Fifty years on, the BBC explores the legacy of the speech for the immigrant communities in Wolverhampton, Powell's old constituency: Living in Enoch's Shadow. (Warning: offensive language)

A few more links:

Black Britain's darkest hour: writing in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of the speech, Sarfraz Manzoor recalls the impact on his family.

I am a classical scholar and you are not: for those unfamiliar with Powell's life and career, Peter Clarke provides some background.

Enoch Powell's troubling legacy: Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce on how Powell's ideas entered the political mainstream.

Note: I hesitated over whether to link to the full text of Powell's speech, but eventually decided there's no getting away from it: you have to read it in full if you want to understand how carefully Powell chose his words, and how poisonous they are. Recordings of the speech can be found on YouTube for anyone who wants to go looking for them, but I haven't linked to these, as many of them seem to be posted by far-right activists.
posted by verstegan (30 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Venomous ideas. A national disgrace.
posted by Fraxas at 5:11 AM on April 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

Reactions to the BBC:

Shirin Hirsch (@ShirinHirsch): Disgusted by the way the BBC are promoting this show. I made a mistake and was interviewed for this but I have been sick with worry since seeing the way this is being presented. https://t.co/ta03SRouUL

Leave.EU (@LeaveEUOfficial): People still listen to Enoch Powell half a century after his famous speech, while nobody cares what @Andrew_Adonis says about anything. No wonder he's so bitter about the BBC broadcasting the Rivers of Blood speech tomorrow! With a shiny infographic.

Ian Dunt (@IanDunt), quoting Leave.EU above: Yeah good work BBC, you've really done well here. [Thread] with more detailed thoughts.
posted by sourcejedi at 5:25 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Leave.EU not even bothering with a pretence any more, eh.

The Twitter hashtags #riversoflove and #enochwaswrong are a good counter to some of the utter poison floating round on there.
posted by Catseye at 5:33 AM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

"She worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age. Then the immigrants moved in. With growing fear, she saw one house after another taken over. She is becoming afraid to go out, windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letterbox. When she goes out to the shops she is followed by children ... "

The woman who never was? and the referred radio programme (BBC Radio 4, maybe UK only) Document.
posted by StephenB at 5:39 AM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

For me, the real story is what's been coming out about the extent of the effects of the evil, openly racist Hostile Environment policy. At the moment it's surrounding the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation, but it goes much deeper than that. For those of us who aren't of colour or immigrants it's been manifesting as the environment that our friends have to live in, and it's to my shame that it's only over the last weeks I've put all the bits together.

The policy is explicitly racist - anyone who has traits that might suggest they are an immigrant has to be able to prove they are not; such traits would be things like a brown skin or a foreign-sounding name; even if they have such documentation, the implied requirement that they have it available at all times makes them a second-class citizen. Teachers, doctors or anyone else to whom a person might want to turn for assistance are required at pains of prosecution to police the law, to do the actual persecution, to deny treatment to people with cancer, render them unemployed or homeless. What happens to people with a darker skin or an unusual name today befalls anyone from Europe tomorrow. That it happens to anyone at all, whatever their immigration status, is wholly unacceptable.

Because the law itself is racist - and the Home Office is enthusiastically imposing the law - since it became law, the United Kingdom has been a racist country. Not just a country that has racism in it, or one that is unwelcoming, but the country is itself racist, just as South Africa or Rhodesia were.

Powell has won. Theresa May is his acolyte - if you look at her record the one consistent trait, the one thing that seems to motivate her, is the abuse of "immigrants", by which we can infer people of colour. And people from Europe, because to a Tory - excuse the terminology, but these are literally the words they use when no one is watching - "Wogs start at Calais".

The rallying cry of the National Front in the seventies was "send them home". And that is exactly what this vile, racist government wishes to do.

At this moment, I don't think there is anything that can be done. There is no sign that, mealy-mouthed platitudes aside, the government will address the racism that is now at the core of our country. The P45s should be flying like confetti around the Home Office, but they point at the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister points back at them, nothing gets done, nothing will be done. The general public might get behind the Windrush generation temporarily, who are the poster children for the problems, without ever seeing the cancer that is everywhere, especially as they still respond positively whenever the government threaten "illegal immigrants". I am completely without hope. I just want someone to take this stinking, meanspirited, shitty little country behind the woodshed and put it out of everyone's misery.
posted by Grangousier at 5:41 AM on April 20, 2018 [44 favorites]

By the way, I've been wanting to do a post about the Hostile Environment scandal (better known as the Windrush scandal), but it makes me too upset and angry and all I can do is type furiously, as you can see.
posted by Grangousier at 5:46 AM on April 20, 2018 [14 favorites]

I've been gathering some links this week to make a separate post on the Windrush/hostile environment story, but Grangousier's comment preempts it, so I'll add them here shortly.
posted by rory at 5:46 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

And yes, my feelings exactly, Grangousier, which is why I hadn't made my own version of that post yet.
posted by rory at 5:47 AM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I should add: my feelings are more complicated, because although I'm a British citizen with British children, I'm an immigrant. A white, "CANZUK", "good" immigrant (hateful term that "good immigrant" is). So I don't feel I personally can call for someone to take my adopted country behind the woodshed. But upset, angry: yes, I can feel that.
posted by rory at 5:54 AM on April 20, 2018

One shocking and really disgusting part is that he is referring as “immigrants” to citizens who come from places the British Empire was happy to have rule over. It’s made abundantly clear he considered these places good enough to rule over and control, but not good enough to welcome.
posted by corb at 5:54 AM on April 20, 2018 [27 favorites]

An aside: the speech was broadcast in full on Radio 4 (read by Ian McDiarmid who apparently thinks Powell wasn't all bad) and the breathless enthusiasm of Amol Rajan (the BBC's media editor) is part of the background to Ian Dunt's tweet thread. Plenty of people on the right and the left foresaw the forthcoming programme as "finally you can hear the great speech that SJWs have been trying to ban", rather than the critical examination that it actually was. Rajan apologised a few days later.
posted by nja at 6:12 AM on April 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

EDIT: Ick, my phone displays things weird. I see now that my question is answered in the post title itself! Still, leaving this embarrassing gaffe out here because that's what CortexMcGeeMittens says we should do:

Travelling right now so I can't stop to read the all the links, which I will do when I get home in a couple of hours. But from the context, I am guessing that this is the same speech that has the infamous "rivers of blood" line in it? Or did he make two horrible speeches?
posted by seasparrow at 6:12 AM on April 20, 2018

This is that speech.
posted by Grangousier at 6:14 AM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

For years and years, I used to be amused, rather than frightened, when I read Powell's speech. It was funny to me to imagine someone thinking of my family's collective activities in this country--practising medicine, doing research, teaching, going to temples, attending elderly Diwali parties organised by the Indian Society of South West Wales, organising appalling Bollywood-themed student pub crawls and worse Bollywood-themed student pantomimes--in such apocalyptic terms what felt like so long ago. Of course, that was when it felt like everything had changed and the trajectory was safely away from Powell & Co for good and all. It feels very different, now, and I regret my complacency back then.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:27 AM on April 20, 2018 [17 favorites]

20th of April, you say?

Was Powell giving his speech on Hitler's birthday a dog-whistle to those who thought that Adolf had a point/Britain fought on the wrong side/&c., or just a coincidence?
posted by acb at 6:36 AM on April 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

I just want someone to take this stinking, meanspirited, shitty little country behind the woodshed and put it out of everyone's misery.

Yes. This. Frankly, I'm ashamed to be from this country. Say what you like about Peter Hitchens, but I can't help but agree with his advice to those young enough to do it - emigrate. For those who can't, I'm sorry that you don't have the option. I'm sorry that life is rarely that simple. The Windrush scandal is very sadly just another example of how those in power just do not think about people other than themselves (or people like them). Syria, Windrush, Grenfell, NHS, schools funding, benefits cuts, all the other cuts. They couldn't give a flying monkeys. It's par for the course now. People complain, the PM waves her hands and says there are many complex reasons why people use foodbanks. Whatever. But you know what, a government pushing an anti-immigrant agenda, and an anti-not-like-me agenda isn't the bit that worries me the most. It's that there were enough people out there to vote them in.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 7:18 AM on April 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

Just five years prior to Powell's speech, Oxford Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper made the statement
It is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.
Note that Trevor-Roper does the proper British hemming of bets to say that "perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach." Yet the thrust of his talk is to say that only European history, and by extension, European culture is worth exploring, because the rest of the world fails to live up to the standards which British imperialists have arbitrarily imposed. It is a high brow version of the tautological ehtnocentrism which Eddie Izzard would later lampoon in his "Do you have a flag?" sketch?

Trevor-Roper actually continues by denigrating a strawman ideal of all histories being objectively equal (which would necessarily imply some objective, quantitative, and universal measurement of historical events), by saying
If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped; or shall I seek to avoid the indignation of the medievalists by saying, from which it has changed?
Emphasis mine, and while there are a number of ways to approach the not-even-wrong blithering of an Oxford don which are now 55 years old, we have to (and this is the real approach of a historian) place them in context. The article above lays the context, a post-war Britain wherein the dissolution of Empire was accompanied by an influx of immigrants from those rapidly emancipating imperial domains. It was a crisis of faith, of culture, and of society which gave rise to abject racism of Powell, but also the more cloaked and erudite racism of Trevor-Roper.

We must keep in mind though, these men were preaching their hate in the 1960s, an era which is not only in living memory, but was in fact the formative era for many of the now dominant figures in the political life of Western countries. Whether they themselves were in their formative years during this period or would later find themselves captivated by these worldviews at an early age, political actors from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage came of age in a cultural milieu where the denigration of non-white culture, and by extension the non-white presence in societies they considered their own, was not only acceptable, but ostensibly based on a logical, rational, and intellectual consideration of the whole of human cultural history.

Though we may wish the outright and accepted racism of that time to be banished from our public lives, the idea that, to quote Powell, "in 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man," and that this represents an upending of a natural order of cultural superiority are inculcated into our society. The opinions of Powell and Trevor-Roper represented a non-significant at their time, have influenced many other developing minds, and still hold sway today.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:22 AM on April 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

Gently rebuff with "no, Enoch was Light" and repeat as needed.
posted by Shepherd at 7:22 AM on April 20, 2018

The main difference between Powell's speech and many made today is how clear and unambiguous his was. His hateful racism was intended to be clear and understood. Today the same ideas are expressed, with a thin cover of euphemisms and dogwhistles.
posted by librosegretti at 7:24 AM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Turns out Theresa May's former Chief of Staff wasn't quite telling the truth her role in the racist "go home" vans.

Or remember Theresa May's "the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat."

The Windrush thing isn't accidental, it just hasn't had the optics May was hoping for.
posted by threetwentytwo at 7:44 AM on April 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

I've turned my plethora of Windrush links into a separate post, so that we can keep this one for the Powell stuff (though there are obvious connections to be made between them).
posted by rory at 8:00 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Was Powell giving his speech on Hitler's birthday a dog-whistle to those who thought that Adolf had a point/Britain fought on the wrong side/&c., or just a coincidence?

He was making a point about legalizing weed, mannn...
posted by theorique at 8:36 AM on April 20, 2018

When we first moved here, the fact that we literally had to show our papers to open a bank account, rent a flat, sign up for mobile and internet service, open utility accounts, register for classes, etc. etc., felt fascist, in a word.

The fact that the various private service providers involved had been mobilized as agents of the state, and empowered to concretize the notion of a “hostile environment” sent a clear and unambiguous message to us. Beyond turning this into, willy-nilly, a nation of finks, what it told us was that we weren’t welcome here. Not really. That we were here on sufferance, that our permission to remain was acutely contingent, and could be revoked at any time. It still feels that way – and we’re the privileged ones, elevated high above those of similar status by virtue of our skin, nations of origin and good connections. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for anyone who doesn’t enjoy those advantages.

If nothing else, it’s no way to run a country that wants to retain its viability in a century of fierce global competition for talent and energy. It’s a damn shame, too, as we do so love it here.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:56 AM on April 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I've recently been reading some of Powell's speeches against the Common Market and it's astonishing how familiar they sound: it's obvious where the Brexiters have been getting their ideas from. Powell broke with Heath over the Common Market, and it's widely believed that by refusing to support Heath in the Feb 1974 general election, he threw the election to Labour. That led directly to Heath's fall and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. So there's a good case to be made that without Powell, there would have been no Thatcherism.

(Thatcher kept Powell at a wary distance but wasn't above the occasional dog-whistle herself: in 1990 she said that Powell had "made a valid argument, if in sometimes regrettable terms".)

It sometimes seems as though everything hateful in modern British politics can be traced back to Powell: Thatcherism and its long-term legacy in the degrading of public services; a Conservative government propped up by the Ulster Unionists (yes, Ulster Unionism was another of Powell's peculiar obsessions); and of course the slow-motion train-crash of Brexit. What a truly horrible man he was, far worse than any of the knuckleheads in UKIP: a man of great intellectual gifts who deliberately chose to use those gifts to stir up fear and hatred. Fuck him and everything he stands for.
posted by verstegan at 9:15 AM on April 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

Enoch Powell you say? I hear Nigel Farage is a big fan.
posted by valkane at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2018

When we first moved here, the fact that we literally had to show our papers to open a bank account, rent a flat, sign up for mobile and internet service, open utility accounts, register for classes, etc. etc., felt fascist, in a word.

Isn't that pretty normal in a lot of (most) countries? When I first moved to the US, I had to provide my new social security number for various credit / billing purposes. Generally speaking, for a recurring billing account like those you describe, companies like to know who their customer is. Which means showing ID - whether you're a citizen of where you are, or not.
posted by theorique at 10:52 AM on April 20, 2018

Isn't that pretty normal in a lot of (most) countries?

I didn't have to do it in Finland, nor, in nearly the same way, Japan.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:10 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Mary Beard pointed out that Powell misunderstood what Virgil was talking about.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:42 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

From Beard,

But what really struck me when I heard and read the speech again was how horribly modern it sounded. I had expected to find that it was all something that wouldn’t be said in open public debate now. But in fact most of it was uncomfortably like what we have heard in recent discussions about immigration  (the pressure on hospitals, or schools  and much more).  The awful thing is that we have not really moved on from this. 

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:08 PM on April 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Enoch Powell’s Altered World in the LRB.
posted by Grangousier at 1:55 PM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

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