Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
13 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

The problem with airing Enoch Powell’s speech isn’t that it was racist – it’s that it was wrong

British broadcasters are almost constitutionally incapable of covering unequivocal fact well.

By Stephen Bush

The BBC has come under fire for their decision to air a reading of Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, as part of an Archive on 4 documentary on Radio 4. (Although Powell’s speech was not recorded in full, the actor Ian McDiarmud, who played him on stage in What Shadows but is most famous for his role as the Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, will read it in the manner of Powell.)  It will be interspersed with commentary from “across the spectrum” on the issue.

One of the good things about British broadcasting is that it has a statutory requirement to be impartial, but the problem is that “impartiality” often means acting as if all opinions are equally valid, and that truth can be found somewhere in the midpoint between two people shouting at one another. That may be useful in a debate over what the correct trade-off between British sovereignity and economic prosperity is. Indeed, if there are speeches from the Powell back catalogue that deserve the Archive treatment they are surely his crisp and lucid arguments against British membership of the European Communities back in 1975. But the BBC approach to impartiality is less useful if the argument is whether chlorine-washed chicken is safe to eat (it is ) or if climate change is a hoax (it isn’t).

That’s why I am concerned that a BBC documentary is not the right way to look back at Powell’s speech. The problem is not that Powell’s speech is racist. It undoubtedly was: one of the characters who Powell presents as a sympathetic figure is a woman who has made a good living renting out the seven spare rooms of her home, now facing penury because she refuses to rent the rooms out to black people.

The problem is that his speech was wrong. There is not some grand truth to be hammered out halfway between competing views: Enoch Powell was wrong.

To understand that, the best place to start is the one thing that Powell got right: the proportion of the British population that would be non-white British by the year 2000. It was, as Powell feared, one person in every ten. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But as anyone with a passing recollection of the early Noughties could tell you, the black man did not “have the whip hand over the white man” as Powell approvingly quoted his constituents as fearing.  The United Kingdom had not, it turns out, been  “busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. The River Tiber did not foam with much blood.

The reality – one that is even more stark in 2018 – is of a country in which the fastest growing demographic is are mixed-race people, in which marriage across racial divisions is increasingly common, in which the United Kingdom is consistently the most at ease with miscegenation and diversity in western Europe Yes, the United Kingdom is far from perfect – nowhere is. But it is a hell of a lot closer to perfection than the grim future Powell predicted.

But the problem is that this is the kind of unequivocal verdict that British broadcasters struggle to reach, which is why I am deeply nervous about the BBC’s decision to air his speech in full.