The BBC was right to broadcast Enoch Powell’s speech

A piece about the importance of free speech, using the example of Enoch Powell's controversial anti-immigration speech.

Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf

The BBC always seems to be in trouble with someone. Tories think it’s full of liberal lefty bias, Lefties think it’s full of conservative bias, and others think it’s dominated by white old men and just isn’t representative enough. Consequently, when anyone talks about problems with the BBC, I very quickly get bored, and check out of the conversation. Everyone and their dog seems to complain about the BBC and its bias, and so complaints about the BBC have largely lost all meaning to me.

However, the BBC’s recently experienced flak for some thing that I think went largely under the radar, and I will break the mould and come to the BBC’s defence. The Beeb decided to air the full recording of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech on Radio 4, fifty years after he made it, and people are furious.

To those who don’t know about Enoch Powell, an explanation is needed. Enoch Powell was a post war Conservative MP and, in 1968, he gave a very contentious speech on immigration into the UK. He predicted that if the rate of immigration continued the “black man would have the whip hand over the white man”, and that Britain would descend into communal violence. With a sinister reference to Vergil’s Aeneid, he predicted race wars that would cause rivers of blood in the UK.

It was, of course, incredibly controversial at the time, and it ultimately got him sacked from the shadow cabinet. He was dismissed as a racist that yearned for the lost glory of Imperial Britain, and thus someone who was fundamentally wrong, dangerous, and unwelcome in modern Britain. So, one can understand why people are angry at the BBC’s decision to air the speech in its entirety, especially with the current government fiasco over the status of the so-called Windrush immigrant generation in Britain.

However, this does not mean that his speech should not be aired on the radio. Enoch Powell was an incredibly contentious figure, and he certainly held views that should be scrutinised, but that does not mean we should attempt to bury it in political history, or deny that it ever happened. Nowadays we seem far too eager to censor those who we disagree with, without seriously attempting to challenge what they believe. Not only is this lazy, but it’s fundamentally against the very basic idea in the West that people should have the ability to speak their mind freely. I understand that this is an increasingly unpopular opinion nowadays, but freedom of speech and freedom of thought are incredibly valuable liberties that should be defended. If you disagree with someone, fantastic! Disagree with them, but don’t refuse to engage with their argument. That reason alone is sufficient to broadcast Enoch Powell’s speech, at least in my estimation.

But as well as this, I think most people simply don’t understand Enoch Powell, the policies he advocated, or the context in which he advocated them, and thus advocate his censorship without full possession of the facts. What he did in 1968 was, with his usual combination of ruthless logic and his fearsome intellect, protest immigration, albeit in a clearly racist fashion. He bemoaned the fact that his constituents were seeing their communities change irreversibly and against their will, and warned that a lack of social cohesion would be disastrous for Britain. This is not to say that plenty of his followers weren’t racists (they were), but I do think calling for his censorship on the grounds that he was racist is a bit simplistic. He wanted to reduce immigration into the UK and repatriate immigrants not because he hated individual immigrants, but because he thought British immigration policy was damaging. If you think that this is wrong, don’t suppress it – engage with it, challenge it, and defeat it.

Not only this, but he is an incredibly interesting British political figure, and even if you disagree with him, he is worth learning about and his speeches are worth broadcasting. Much and more is said about his Rivers of Blood speech, but his often forgotten speech on the Hola massacre in 1959 was powerful, emotive, and persuasively urged British people to treat Africans with dignity and respect. (A practice that was, sadly, not that widespread back then.) This is particularly relevant as Mau Mau survivors of British concentration camps in Kenya recently won reparations from the UK government, which is still (sadly) widely unknown, as is Britain’s conduct during the Mau Mau rebellion. His speech should therefore serve as a powerful reminder of the more sinister aspects of our history, and so far from censoring Enoch Powell, we should be broadcasting more of his oratory.

I will never understand the desire to censor others. It’s contrary to Western values and, in my opinion, is the hallmark feature of the repressive, totalitarian regimes that we in Britain have worked so hard to destroy. Enoch Powell was a truly gifted parliamentarian, and he should not be swept under the rug simply because of a speech that he made. We can learn a lot from him and his career, and so, for once, let’s all stop complaining about the BBC and what they’ve aired.


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