Rivers of Blood: the legacy of racism in the UK

January 29, 2016 3:00 pm

Growing up in the West Midlands in a time that lacked the ease of access to the internet we believed for a very short and delusional time that racism was something that had been conquered.

British Colonialism appeared to have vanished, legislature had been brought in to ensure that one was not treated differently on basis of skin colour or country of origin, and schools installed posters detailing Martin Luther King’s dream on the classroom walls. All that remained of that horrid past were the generations who happened to have been born in a much more ignorant time long before. And they were looked upon with the same expression of shame as we do now; much like how Germans born shortly after the Second World War must have squirmed at their parents with such profound embarrassment.

Of course, anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of scrolling too far down on a YouTube video has laid witness to the prevalence of racist speech in modern society. Regardless as to whether it is thoughtless and attention-seeking in motive or generated by genuine racial hatred – it is there.

But the reason I happen to situate this issue in my home region is because of its unfortunate history in relation to racism. Nowadays the West Midlands is home to large communities of ethnic minorities – Birmingham’s population, in particular is more than 25% non-White British – so a certain amount of racial tension in the city’s recent history is to be expected.

One of the most infamous examples of this comes from the 1964 by-election campaign in Smethwick, in which the unofficial (though hardly condemned) slogan of Conservative MP, Peter Griffith was: “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour.” The vicious statement did not cost Griffith the election however:  he took the seat from Labour with a 7.2% swing, prompting a visit to the area by civil rights activist Malcolm X.

And yet despite the horrid details of this incident, its notoriety pales in comparison to that of ‘the Birmingham Speech’ delivered in 1968 by Enoch Powell, which earned the infamous title of the ‘Rivers of Blood’.

Ever since, British politics as a whole has been haunted by the cartoonish villain that became the all-encompassing symbol of that old-fashioned sort of racism. Enoch Powell was MP for Wolverhampton West from 1958-74, and as a result his name, in Britain at very least, has become synonymous – justly or not – with racism and hatred.

‘Rivers of Blood’ was designed to be a sharp and memorable speech and, for better or worse, it is; a greater deal more than I imagine Powell would have ever predicated. The most provocative statement in the speech is the eponymous ‘rivers of blood’. In the allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, Powell places himself in the position of Virgil’s depiction of the Sibyl of Cumae who uses the imagery of “the river Tiber foaming with much blood” for what one might argue are two distinct meanings: the mixing of different races to form a multicultural city and the years of bloodshed that would proceed such an accomplishment. In isolation, the mere reference to Virgil doesn’t necessarily possess the negative association it has garnered, but it would be quite reasonable to assume that Powell’s reference has much more to do with the latter image of bloodshed than the pacified mixing of all races and breeds.

To Powell, we Britons are “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” He depicts Britain – the decayed empire – as akin to the declining years of the Roman Empire, and the immigrants from Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Afro-Caribbean communities are the ‘barbarians’ that ransack the city and, by extension, launch attacks on civilisation itself.

In hindsight it’s clear that Powell intended his speech to be prophetic rather than provocative, but with such an image it is understandable why one would assume that was the case. Just as the sacking of the intellectual capital, Baghdad, by the Mongols was said to have dyed the Tigris black with the ink of their scholarly works, the Tiber (or maybe the Severn?) flowing in a deep shade of red is quite a statement; violence is sown into such energised words.

Of course it wasn’t just the classicist in Powell that overstepped his mark in Birmingham. His speech is littered with various claims that were considered repugnant in his own day. These include the description of a woman in Wolverhampton who was verbally abused by her black neighbours and had “excreta pushed through her letter box,” a case study that – perhaps intentionally – could never be accurately followed up on. But it’s hard to imagine that such a speech would have been forgotten if it weren’t for the particular strength of Powell’s classical imagery.

‘Rivers of Blood’ has a certain aura about it that goes well beyond the crude depictions you might see of armoured knights with St George’s cross on populist far-right social media accounts. It is an elaborate work that lacks the usual bluntness of the usual racism that one normally encounters with what we might deem to be racist tirades and therefore requires much more analysing in order to understand why a man such as Enoch Powell would believe such a thing.

In spite of his reputation following ‘Rivers of Blood’, Powell was not among the likes of the dull, narrow-minded populist, Peter Griffiths: Powell was a professor of Greek at the University of Sydney at the age of 25 and published works on Herodotus in his late twenties. Not only was he extraordinarily intelligent but, politically, he often falls short of the extreme cartouche by which we typically imagine the man.

In stark contrast to what would occur in 1968, during his time as the minister of health in Harold Macmillan’s government, he was thought to have aided the immigrant population a great deal by encouraging them to take jobs in the health service.

After the Hola Massacre in Kenya in 1959, in which several Mau Mau were killed by British troops, Powell was one of the few members of parliament that condemned their actions and ordered for a consistency in policing by the British authorities around the world. His speech on the subject had such an impact that Labour MP and future Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, described it as “the greatest parliamentary speech I have ever heard.”

It is the curse of many politicians to be remembered for a single event in their career despite all of the good or bad that they may have done before and after it. Whether that is King John, William Gladstone, or Winston Churchill: all of the intricate details can be glossed over in favour of a much simpler depiction by which most people establish their feelings towards that person and their place in history.

The question as to why Enoch Powell would deliver such a speech is forgotten in favour of a thoughtless explanation; that some people are simply racist whilst others are not. But the more one learns of Powell the more confused one is by his motivation. Throughout all of his studies, did he never question Rome’s depiction of itself as the lone island of civility in a sea of barbarism? Did he honestly stand against the act of immigration into the country despite his knowledge of British history and anthropology as a whole? The only way of knowing with any certainty is by reading the transcript and interpreting it for oneself.

Nonetheless, he argued that the immigration that was occurring in the late sixties would be the downfall of British society. Nowadays the level of migration that Powell complained about was shockingly small: a mere 50,000 yearly. Comparatively, the ONS reported that in 2014, 583,000 people came to live and work in the UK with only 325,000 leaving the country; an additional 258,000 people. Since the late sixties the scales of immigration have changed dramatically and throughout the good and the bad that has come along with, Enoch Powell’s declaration remains in the fabric of government legislature, if only as a warning of what mistakes can be made.

The reason it still hangs over British politics well into the twenty-first century is not because of ‘Rivers of Blood’ itself, but because Powell seemed to have the support of the electorate in this claim. London Dock workers marched in support of him and against his dismissal by Ted Heath and a poll at the time suggested that 74% of British society supported what Powell had said. Considering that the speech is often misread as encouraging of violence rather than a warning of violence, its level of support appears all the more shocking to those of us looking back to that time.

Perhaps this is a clue as to why Powell stands out in political history: that his infamy is not reflective of Powell himself as much as it is a representation of British society. How profoundly embarrassed we are that so many of those we deemed to have been reasonable people could harbour beliefs that we now consider so poisonous.

  • Tony

    Very well written article, thank you for sharing it. I disagree though that previous generations were ‘ignorant’ or ‘shameful’; my Grandfather served two years in Benghazi just after WWII and his opinion of Arabic people’s has been coloured ever since. I object when younger folk label him insultingly having never experienced half of what he has experienced in life that’s given him those opinions. It’s utterly wrong to criticise past systems and say they were evil. Look at the British Empire. It had it’s faults but actually brought a stabilising force and culture to many parts of the globe. Unfortunately in school lessons today we’re taught it was all a huge evil empire akin to Nazi Germany!

    Sure, teach future generations tolerance and tell them the harm racism does. But it’s unwise to also teach them their ancestors were foolish, stupid people. It’s because of our ancestors we live in the country we do today.

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