Ok, so. Let’s go back a few decades first. To the 60’s. It’s 1968, and the British Parliament has just passed the Race Relations Bill—an Act that made it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to any person on the grounds of their colour, race, ethnic or national origins.
The Act did not pass without opposition. Its most famous opponent was one Enoch Powell, then Conservative MP and member of the Shadow Cabinet, who delivered a passionate speech against the bill as it was winding its way through Parliament.
The speech would become one of the most infamous moments in 20th century British political history. It is popularly called ‘the Rivers of Blood speech’, although Powell ever only referred to it as his ‘Birmingham speech’, after the city where he delivered it, at a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre. The speech was to be a warning of dark times ahead should the Act pass. In it, Powell stressed the ‘mad’ nature of the government’s immigration policy, calling for a reduction in foreign arrivals, and urging those already in Britain to return to their native lands. Otherwise, if things continued on as they were going, he foresaw violence. The Act would be akin to ‘throwing a match on gunpowder’. Race war would surely follow, and the white man would find himself usurped from his position. The speech ended with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, which is where it gets its popular name from: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ The attendees of the meeting gave Powell a round of enthusiastic applause. Needless to say, it was a very divisive speech, and it has reverberated down the halls of British history since.
So, that’s us all caught up.
And now, 2018. The BBC. This Saturday, to mark the 50th anniversary of the speech (yay! birthday cake!), the BBC is planning a special airing of the full text of the speech. The speech has never been heard in full on British radio, so to make it pop a bit more the BBC have brought in Emperor Palpatine himself (Ian McDiarmid) to read it. The broadcast of the speech will be interrupted at key points for critique, reflection, and presumably segments on how mad racist we used to be but now everything’s totally okay and Britain is actually the exact opposite of racist.
Like the Race Relations Bill, the BBC’s plans have been met with some vocal opposition. No one making apocalyptic prognostications of race war and the white man’s subjugation, but still.
Academic Dr Shirin Hirsch, a contributor to the programme, tweeted this in response to the news:
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— Shirin Hirsch (@ShirinHirsch) April 12, 2018
Oh. Oh yeah. I forgot to say, this is how the BBC are promoting the broadcast:
On Saturday, for 1st time EVER, Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech will be read in full on UK radio (by actor Ian McDiarmid). Please join us @BBCRadio4 8pm. Super-brains Nathan Gower + David Prest have done an amazing production job. Great guests too: https://t.co/3XvDMSH16d— Amol Rajan (@amolrajanBBC) April 12, 2018
LIVE! THIS SATURDAY! FROM THE O2 ARENAAAAAAA! IIIIIIIIT’S FORMER GRAND WIZARD OF THE KU KLUX KLAAAAAN, DAVID DUUUUUKEEEEEEEE!
As I said, there’s been some backlash:
I don't believe in sanitising history, but there's a MASSIVE difference between educating people about Enoch Powell's horrific racism and literally broadcasting it word-for-word like it's the afternoon fucking play— Freddie Whittaker (@FCDWhittaker) April 12, 2018
Enoch Powell was my contemporary and he was a racist. Moreover many in the Tory party ascribed to his anti immigrant bigotry and still do. Unless the BBC says that it will negate the fact that #riversofblood is hate speech & to air it is simple sensationalism on the BBC's part.— Harry Leslie Smith (@Harryslaststand) April 12, 2018
Powell’s 1968 speech - ‘I see the River Tiber foaming with much blood; in 15 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ - is the worst incitement to racial violence by a public figure in modern Britain. The BBC should not be broadcasting it on Saturday— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) April 12, 2018
My letter to Sharon White, head of Ofcom, asking her to instruct the BBC not to broadcast Enoch Powell’s incendiary & racist ‘rivers of blood’ speech on Saturday pic.twitter.com/QXOZwR99bP— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) April 12, 2018
Ofcom, the broadcast regulator referenced above, responded to Labour Peer Adonis’ letter thus: ‘Ofcom’s powers, granted by parliament, are as a post-broadcast regulator. This means that we wouldn’t check or approve any broadcaster’s editorial content before transmission.’
The BBC has since defended themselves, with a spokesperson saying: ‘Many people know of this controversial speech but few have heard it beyond soundbites. […] Radio 4’s well-established programme Archive on 4 reflects in detail on historical events and, in order to assess the speech fully and its impact on the immigration debate, it will be analysed by a wide range of contributors, including many anti-racism campaigners.’
They also tweeted:
Naively, I assumed people would click on the link. So let me clarify, for @Andrew_Adonis and others, that the speech is broken up, and critiqued by voices from across the spectrum. Not just read out in a single go. Though of course some will still object https://t.co/ZTGNYHnNgt— Amol Rajan (@amolrajanBBC) April 12, 2018
Hey, BBC, I’ve got a suggestion. How about if, instead of breaking down a landmark bit of racist-empowering drivel—the legacy of which is still very much alive today but which you seem to be treating as a historical curiosity—you air something else. A different speech. How about if, as we find ourselves on the gloomy eve of yet another murderous imperialist war in the Middle East—a war which like all the preceding ones you seem so enthusiastically to support and which, also like all the preceding ones, will solve nothing and instead just lead to further death and misery—you instead air one of the most prescient speeches in modern British history. Motherfuckers, how about you air this shit instead:
War is an easy thing to talk about; there are not many people left of the generation which remembers it. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup served with distinction in the last war. I never killed anyone but I wore uniform. But I was in London during the blitz in 1940, living where the Millbank tower now stands, where I was born. Some different ideas have come in there since. Every night, I went down to the shelter in Thames house. Every morning, I saw docklands burning. Five hundred people were killed in Westminster one night by a land mine. It was terrifying. Are not Arabs and Iraqis terrified? Do not Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Does not bombing strengthen their determination? What fools we are to live as if war is a computer game for our children or just an interesting little Channel 4 news item.
Every Member of Parliament who votes for the Government motion will be consciously and deliberately accepting responsibility for the deaths of innocent people if the war begins, as I fear it will. That decision is for every hon. Member to take. In my parliamentary experience, this a unique debate. We are being asked to share responsibility for a decision that we will not really be taking but which will have consequences for people who have no part to play in the brutality of the regime with which we are dealing.
An I finish with this: On 24 October 1945—the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup will remember—the United Nations charter was passed. The words of that charter are etched on my mind and move me even as I think of them. It says: We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our life-time has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. That was that generation’s pledge to this generation, and it would be the greatest betrayal of all if we voted to abandon the charter, take unilateral action and pretend that we were doing so in the name of the international community. I shall vote against the motion for the reasons that I have given.
— Tony Benn MP, 1998