Immigration in UK: 50 years on, Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech riles many

April 20 marks five decades since Powell warned of the effects of mass immigration in the speech to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham in 1968, which saw him dismissed from the Conservative Party and his career blighted. 

world Updated: Apr 13, 2018 19:34 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Enoch Powell speech,River of Blood,Immigration
April 20 marks five decades since Powell warned of the effects of mass immigration in the speech to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham in 1968(Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

It is considered the “most incendiary racist speech of modern Britain” in the context of immigration from India and the Commonwealth in the 1950s and1960s, but 50 years after it was delivered, the enigmatic Enoch Powell’s words continue to divide and rile many.

April 20 marks five decades since Powell warned of the effects of mass immigration in the speech to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham in 1968, which saw him dismissed from the Conservative Party andhis career blighted.

But BBC’s decision to critique the speech on Saturdayand advertise it as the first time it would be broadcast in full on British radio has reopened divisions in the United Kingdom that many believe prove Powell was right, while others insist he has been proved wrong.

Facing a welter of protest against presentingthe speech in full, albeit voiced by an actor, BBC insisted the programme on Radio 4 – given the context, some say appropriately presented by Indian-origin presenter Amol Rajan – will go ahead. BBC also asked critics to hear it before formingjudgements.

Shirin Hirsch, an academic at the University of Wolverhampton who contributed to the programme, expressed her dismay, tweeting she "made a mistake"in being interviewed for it, and was "sick with worry since seeing the way this is being presented".

Andrew Adonis, Labour Party member of the House of Lords, wrote to regulator Ofcom and asked it to instruct BBC to cancel the programme: “As a special tribute to the 50th anniversary of ‘rivers of blood’, the BBC is broadcasting the full text of the most incendiary racist speech of modern Britain that was not even broadcast at the time.”

However, Ofcom expressed its inability to prevent BBC from broadcasting it on the ground that Parliament had granted it power “as a post-broadcast regulator”. It added, “This means that we wouldn’t check or approve any broadcaster’s editorial content before transmission.”

Powell’s speech often figures in the emotive discourse on race and immigration. It is known as the “rivers of blood” speech due to his making an allusion to a line from ancient Roman poet Virgil’s poem Aeneid: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

BBC said in a statement: “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.

“This is a rigorous journalistic analysis of a historical political speech. It’s not an endorsement of the controversial views and people should wait to hear the programme before they judge it.”

The 50th anniversary of the speech has prompted several seminars and events, including in Wolverhampton, fromwhere Powell was elected to the House of Commons from 1950 to 1974. One of the largest migration of Sikhs has been to Wolverhampton.

The Wolverhampton Art Gallery and artists Anand Chhabra and Jagdish Patel have been working on an exhibition on Powell’s speech and its impact in Wolverhampton, while other local events seek to draw out memories of resistance in response to the speech.

On Monday, author Sathnam Sanghera is scheduled to present a BBCRadio 4 programme recalling the context in which Powell made the speech, particularly in Wolverhampton, where a battle raged in the late 1960sover the right to wear the Sikh turban on buses in Powell's constituency.

Enoch Powell’s India connection

Born in 1912, Powell is most known for his anti-immigration “rivers of blood” speech, but heloved India and once aspired to become its viceroy. He was posted in Delhi for the Military Intelligence in 1945, and learnt Urdu during histime in India.

As minister for health (1960-63) in the Harold Macmillan government, Powell invited Indian doctors to work in the National Health Service. He laterreferred to them in his famous speech, saying he had no objections to such people coming to Britain.

“This has nothing to do with the entry of Commonwealth citizens, any more than of aliens, into this country, for the purposes of study or of improving their qualifications, like (for instance) the Commonwealth doctors who, to the advantage of their own countries, have enabled our hospital service to be expanded faster than would otherwise have been possible. They are not, and never have been, immigrants,” he said.

His wife Pamela shed new light on his India links in 2012 in a book to mark his 100th birth anniversary, seeking to defend him against accusations of racism and citing his friendship with India’s first army chief, Gen KM Cariappa.

To the accusation that “Enoch was a racist and didn’t like foreigners”, Pamela said in her interview published inthe book: “Well, I always think of his friend General Cariappa, when people say that. Nowadays, what I’m about to say sounds completely normal and unexceptional, but at that time in India, it certainly wasn’t.

“Enoch was secretary of the All Indian Army Committee, and he and the general were going around most of India – this was after the war, after August 1945 until he was demobbed in 1946, I think. They were stopping at various places to take note of whatever was going on in the Indian Army in those days.

“They stopped at the Byculla Club, in Pune (sic), and the club said that the Indian gentleman, who was General Cariappa, couldn’t come in because they didn’t have anybody except white people here. So Enoch said, ‘Take my baggage out of this club, I am going to stay with my friend GeneralCariappa’, and he did.

“One would expect nothing else today, but in those days in India the club’s rules were normal, accepted and to be obeyed. Subsequently, he came to see us in England and we had him to a meal at home and he had us to whatever club he was staying at in England. Very charming man,” Pamela, who died in November2017, said in the interview.

Until the rise of Margaret Thatcher, Powell, who died in 1998, was considered the most famous politician in Britain, mainly because of the infamous speech, which made him a poster boy for extreme right groups such as the British National Party.

First Published: Apr 13, 2018 19:28 IST