Echoes of Enoch Powell

Rivers of Blood, multiculturalism and the BBC - Martin O'Neill on a film that's part of the BBC's Wh

As part of its ill-conceived White season, the BBC on Saturday showed Denys Blakeway's 'Rivers of Blood' documentary, a film that attempts something of a critical rehabilitation of the reputation of Enoch Powell.

Powell is a fascinating, although thoroughly divisive, figure, and would make an excellent subject for a careful, balanced documentary examination. Far from being a one-dimensional right-winger, Powell was a cerebral polyglot (he read in a dozen languages), who was staunchly in favour of civil liberties and against the death penalty. Given his influence, both positive and negative, it is reasonable to think that a clear-eyed understanding of British politics during the past forty years can only be achieved if we are able to make sense of Powell's place within it.

But the BBC's 'Rivers of Blood' was not that careful or balanced examination of Powell. Instead, it was a disgracefully misleading, cowardly, manipulative and politically irresponsible programme, which brings great discredit to Denys Blakeway for directing it, and to the BBC for showing it.

I'll begin with the ways in which Blakeway's documentary is misleading. Despite trumpeting itself as an effort to get at the truth about "the most misquoted speech of the twentieth century", the film was selective in its attention and extremely telling in what it left out.

The most inflammatory parts of Powell's 1968 speech spoke of Black immigrants harassing a elderly white widow in Wolverhampton, who found "excreta pushed through her letterbox" and who, "when she goes to the shops is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies".

Blakeway's documentary attempts to some degree to exculpate Powell with regard to this offensive content by pointing out that Powell was simply quoting from a letter he received in his constituency postbag, rather than speaking in his own voice.

What the BBC documentary did not point out was that Powell's rhetorical device of placing the most inflammatory parts of his speech within the framework of a quotation from a correspondent may well have been no more than a cynical presentational technique. After Powell's speech, a number of national newspapers, as well as the Wolverhampton Express & Star, sent reporters to track down this elderly woman and none produced any results. Moreover, Powell withdrew a libel action against The Sunday Times, which had branded him a "racialist", when he was obliged to provide physical evidence of the letters from which he claimed to have been quoting.

It is hard to resist the judgement of Dominic Sandbrook, in his magnificent history of the Sixties, White Heat: "Powell's story about the old lady, the "excreta" and the "piccaninnies", seemed to have been borrowed from the stock racist fables of the far right. Very similar anecdotes were circulated in the late sixties by the National Front and others: it was the kind of story that most councillors and MPs regularly dismissed as extremist rabble-rousing." Indeed, Powell's persecuted old woman probably never existed.

But let us grant Enoch Powell the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that his correspondent really existed. Despite the BBC film's constant claims to be carefully examining the real content of the Rivers of Blood speech, it is curiously silent on the full setting of the story of the besieged widow. In Powell's speech, the old lady has become the subject of charges of "racialism" from the tormenting "picanninies" precisely because she has barred black people from her guest house.

Powell's argument was that landlords and employers should be free to discriminate against ethnic minorities as they wished. It is no coincidence that the most emotive part of his speech involved inviting his audience to identify with a racist landlady, who would like to run a business as long as she can exclude blacks from it. Powell's conservatism and commitment to a mystic British identity was a commitment to the Britain of signs saying 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish'; where vulnerable immigrants could be kept marginalized, impoverished and downtrodden.

Blakeway’s film is cowardly in that, like Powell’s speech itself, it seeks to make offensive political points not in its own words, but through quotations from unidentified third-parties. The film tells us, right at the start, that "in the wake of riots and terror attacks, many are now asking, was Enoch Powell right to predict disaster in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech?".

At the end of the film, these mysterious ‘others’ appear again – when Blakeway tells us that "ten years after his death, many believe that Powell’s arguments were often prescient." Who believes this? Well, the British National Party believe this, but not many others.

In my view, the film was manipulative. Its simplistic argument was that anti-racist reaction to Powell’s speech led to multiculturalism, and that multiculturalism led to violence, death and suffering. It made this tenuous argument not by reason, but by emotive appeals via arresting imagery. Here again we have an echo of Powell’s methods as with the vivid images of ‘grinning picanninies’ that, despite Powell’s cherished patina of logical argument, actually carry all the argumentative weight in Powell’s infamous speech. Blakeway’s film juxtaposed the use of the word “multiculturalism” with footage of the 7/7 Bombings. Are we supposed to think 7/7 was an inevitable consequence of not following Powell’s advice?

The thought that 7/7 was a direct product of multiculturalism, without making any reference to the broader context of British foreign policy, the Iraq war, and the ‘war on terror’, is insultingly facile. Equally preposterous is the suggestion that Powell’s policies, from advocating repatriation to removing any legal bars on discrimination in housing and employment, would somehow have made for a less violent or more cohesive Britain.

The real absence of Blakeway’s film gets to the centre of both its mendacity and its political irresponsibility. It is the absence of a balanced view of multicultural Britain, of any good news alongside the apocalyptic vistas of bomb damage and race-riots.

The truth, of course, is that Britain is a broadly tolerant, liberal and diverse society, with less racist violence today than it had in the late 1960s. A romantic conservative British nationalist like Powell would have wept at the thought that our national dish might have become chicken tikka massala, or that the Britain of class deference, Anglicanism and hierarchy should be submerged by a more modern Britain of equality and diversity. Reactionaries like Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, whom Blakeway’s film quotes so fully and uncritically, think likewise.

But the tolerant and liberal mainstream of this country – the very people who were outraged by Powell, from the radical student protestors who dogged him wherever he tried to speak after 1968, to the decent liberal Conservatives like Iain Macleod who demanded his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet – do not share Powell’s reactionary, oppressive politics. Macleod’s verdict in 1968 was that “Enoch’s gone mad and hates the blacks”, and therein do we hear the voice of the sane wing of British conservatism.

It is a shame indeed that Enoch Powell’s oppressive and reactionary politics should find their tinny echo in Blakeway’s morally and intellectually backwards piece of film-making. It is an even greater shame that the BBC should have committed the substantial error of judgement in airing such a muddled, mendacious film.

The political ostracism that Powell suffered is one of the glories of recent British politics: it shows that we as a nation decided that there would never be a British version of Jean-Marie Le Pen. If one wants to look for a sense of British identity worth celebrating, you can find it there.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood