This morning I listened to a discussion on the radio about a play based on Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood speech.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643823/Enoch-Powells-Rivers-of-Blood-speech.html The play is not about Powell or even racism directly but about the speech. I was prompted both to read the speech for the first time and to remember my ridiculous protest against it.
The speech was delivered to a Tory party meeting in Birmingham on 20 April 1968. It was prompted by a forthcoming bill on racial discrimination. That year saw “the summer of love,” the end of the criminalisation of male homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, and me being 16. I was a member of the Greenwich Young Communist League and was outraged by the speech even though I have never read it until today.
Reading the speech I’m struck first by the complexity and even beauty of the language and the classical references. I didn’t know then but I know now that Enoch Powell was one of the best educated and literary of politicians who had had a first class classical education. His book on the politics of the NHS, which I read 40 years after his infamous speech, is, I have argued, the best book on the subject. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/07/11/the-best-book-ever-written-about-the-politics-of-the-nhs/
Early in the speech Powell presents himself as the messenger who must say important but shocking things, and he asks his audience not to confuse the messenger and the message; in doing so he refers to an ancient belief:
“Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: “If only,” they love to think, “if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.”
Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical.”
Another classical reference comes soon after:
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
Then he refers to the Nazis, knowing that most of his audience would have fought in the war, and makes a colourful reference to appeasers:
“The same newspapers which year after year in the 1930s tried to blind this country to the rising peril which confronted it, or archbishops who live in palaces, faring delicately with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads.”
The centrepiece of his speech is the story of the “white widow,” the last white woman in a street filled with Negroes, as he calls them. She’s frightened to go out:
“She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.”
His reference to “wide-grinning piccaninnies” was the second most awful and widely remembered phrase from the speech.
He attacked the whole idea of integration. He didn’t refer to Apartheid, but it’s as if he approved of it. It was not his “solution” for Britain: rather he wanted immigrants to be encouraged to “go home.”
“The other dangerous delusion from which those who are wilfully or otherwise blind to realities suffer, is summed up in the word “integration.” To be integrated into a population means to become for all practical purposes indistinguishable from its other members.”
His speech didn’t actually contain the phrase “rivers of blood,” but journalists shortened his quote from Virgil’s Aeneid:
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Outraged, I set out from Kidbrooke, a suburb in South London where I lived, with a communist friend to join a protest against the speech. Unfortunately we neglected to find out where the protest was being held. So when we got into Central London we found a phone box (no mobile phones then) rang Challenger, the Young Communist League newspaper, and somebody told us that the protest was outside Powell’s house in Eaton Square. But where was Eaton Square and how did we get there? And which number did he live at? This was all decades before Google and Google Maps, so it took us a long time to find our way.
When we eventually arrived in Eaton Square it was empty but for two policemen and lots of bits of paper. [ The policeman were, of course, unarmed: now there would be 30 policeman with machine guns and the whole square cordoned off.] Shamefacedly we approached the policemen: “Excuse us, but have you seen a demonstration?”
“It’s over, mate. You’ve missed it. They’re in the pub round the corner.”
We went to the pub and continued our protest over pints of bitter.