50 years after the event, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is causing controversy, thanks to complaints by Labour Peer, Andrew Adonis about the BBC’s plan to play the speech as part of a documentary which will analyse it and discuss the subject matter.
Adonis does not believe the BBC should broadcast the actual speech. He has been told that the speech will not be played uninterrupted but will be interspersed by commentary. This does not satisfy him.
Adonis argues that if the speech were given now, it would amount to a criminal offence. A link to the full speech is included here. Section 19 of the Public Order Act 1986 (as amended) reads:
“A person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if—
(a)he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or
(b)having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby. “
Thus, one can be convicted of an offence under the Public Order Act for using “insulting words”, where racial hatred is likely to be stirred up, even without intending to stir up racial hatred or being reckless in this regard. Whilst I strongly believe this should not be the case, the above offence is drafted so widely, that I think Adonis is correct in his assertion, or at least one could not deliver such a speech now and not expect to at least be questioned by the police. This should give one cause to reflect, a speech delivered by a Parliamentarian, then a likely candidate for Prime Minister, which contained statistical predictions that proved to be remarkably accurate, would probably amount to a criminal offence if made today.
I normally avoid personal anecdotes for the purposes of supporting an argument, but I consider the following one to be important. I was about 17 and in public with somebody I knew, who said something along the lines of ‘Enoch Powell was right’. At the time I ‘knew’ that Encoh Powell was a racist politician who gave an infamous racist speech called the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and that racism was one of the most terrible evils imaginable. It did not occur to me that the subject may require further consideration. Consequently, I was very embarrassed by this person’s remarks, which drew attention, only in the form of disapproving looks. That was it, nothing else happened, an extremely trivial incident, one might think.
Only a week or so before the incident, a teacher of mine had referred to Enoch Powell as the paradigmatic racist, this was not asserted via any form of argument, it was simply pre-supposed.
My uncomfortableness at the above incident caused me to reflect and then to have a sudden epiphany; I had never read Powell’s infamous speech. I overcome my trepidation and read it; I was surprised. I did not find the derogatory references to ethnic minorities that I was expecting.1 . Whilst the speech was highly emotive, it was not vicious as I expected it to be. It did not seem to demonstrate animus towards ethnic minorities, nor describe them as inferior. The basic premise seemed to be that large-scale immigration would cause discord and violence, with no suggestion that one group was inherently more violent than the other.
Reading the speech gradually caused me to question many of the dogmas that had been instilled in me. It inspired me to discover more about the man that I had dismissed in one word, ‘racist’; I read a biography by Simon Heffer and considered other material. I found out that this supposed racist, had spoken out about the treatment of the Mau Maus in Kenya, had a love of India, was a Professor of Classics and at the time became the youngest Professor in the Western world.
Furthermore, whilst he could have avoided it, Powell fought in World War II with distinction, rising from the rank of Private to Brigadier. We are often told that this war was necessary to fight fascism and to preserve free speech. Most of Powell’s detractors would describe the NSDAP as the epitome of evil, yet Powell’s service record would probably not redeem him in their eyes.
Powell was accused of fabricating the story given in the speech about the old lady who felt under siege. The old lady existed but Powell had given his word not to reveal her identity. He kept his word despite the political cost; Powell had to abandon a libel action in order to keep his word, see here. How many of today’s, virtue signalling politicians, can claim the same level of integrity? I suspect the identity of their humble constituent would have been ‘accidently’ revealed.
The above trivial incident and epiphany were pivotal for my intellectual and ideological development; it was not just my newly found knowledge of Powell and his speech that were significant, this knowledge led me ask numerous questions that transformed my world view; for instance, what was the real definition of racism and why were people hostile to immigration?
Thus, when an idea is censored, whether through editorial decisions or by legislation, there can be immense and numerous repercussions, both direct and indirect.
Lord Adonis does not want Powell’s speech to be broadcast in full on the BBC, irrespective of whether it reflects the views of a large percentage of the public who are forced to pay the BBC licence fee. Nonetheless, he seems content to provide misleading references to the speech; see here for his letter to the BBC which he has published on his Twitter account. The reference to the ‘whip hand’ is misleading, as Powell was merely quoting a constituent. The famous reference to the “River foaming with much Blood”, is a quote from the Roman poet Virgil. On the above link you can see Adonis connect the ‘River Tiber’ quote with the ‘whip hand’ quote. Whilst he used inverted commas and not quotation marks, he creates a highly misleading impression in my view, as these things were not said consecutively in the speech and both were quotes.
If you look at the Twitter discussion on Adonis’ feed (and I have heard this heard this said many times before), a number of ethnic minorities living in Britain at the time, claim they were subject to abuse, harassment and violence as a result of Powell’s speech. Yet given that Powell was describing tensions that were already present, how do they know this? Even if one could prove causation, this does not make Powell culpable for such acts; there was no encouragement or endorsement, whether direct or indirect, of abuse, harassment or violence by Mr Powell in his ‘Rivers of Blood Speech’ and it would be defamatory if he were still alive, to say otherwise.
I cannot claim to know what is in the mind of another person, but I find it difficult to believe that Adonis thinks there will be a baying mob listening to BBC Radio 4, waiting for instructions to carry out violence against ethnic minorities. I even find it hard to believe, he thinks that otherwise emollient people will develop a sudden hatred towards ethnic minorities by hearing the speech.
His aim appears to be censorship, avoiding any perceived legitimacy of views he objects to and not wanting others to question their pre-conceptions as I did. Adonis’ distortions of Powell’s speech and his ad hominem attacks, make the case against censorship; one cannot make a fair judgement about Powell and his speech, without hearing the speech and having all the relevant information. In my opinion, Enoch Powell was an honourable patriot. Whilst he possessed a far greater intellect than I and was considerably more eloquent, he can no longer defend himself from beyond the grave and it appears that Adonis wants to denigrate his memory without allowing the public to hear his words and make up their own minds. He should not be allowed to do so; he should not be permitted to control the present by controlling the past. Furthermore we should reflect on what ideas we are being deprived of, through widely drafted legislation.
 The closest it came in my view was the use of word ‘Pickaninny’, which is commonly regarded as a slur. It may be that in using the term Powell was trying to create an image, of a scene that until recently, would have been entirely incongruous with his constituency of Wolverhampton. Perhaps he should not have used this word, although I recall Boris Johnson using the same word with relatively little controversy.