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.