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The sinister power of Enoch Powell’s speech

21 April 2018

10:37 AM

21 April 2018

10:37 AM

The BBC’s decision to re-broadcast Enoch Powell’s so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech in its entirety this week has excited just the shouting match that was to be expected. On the one hand, there has been liberal fury at the honour supposedly paid to a speech that endorsed and encouraged racial hatred. On the other, the standard defence of Powell’s line of argument: that he was not encouraging a race war, but predicting one and seeking to head it off. 

What’s striking on revisiting the speech is that, for better or for worse, Powell predicted and encompassed both those points of view in the speech. It’s customary, in the scheme of classical rhetoric, to put refutatio – anticipating and heading off your opponents’ arguments – somewhere in the second half of the speech. Powell begins with refutatio. This is a strikingly defensive performance.

Right at the very top of the speech, he announces that it’s the job of the conscientious politician (his ethos appeal is that he is such a one, as contrasted with the cowards who succumb to “temptation” and “knowingly shirk” the challenges of the future) to anticipate and see off “preventable evils”, and that “by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred”. Here, he writes himself a rhetorical blank cheque: he cannot be expected to produce evidence for his claims because by their nature the evidence for the catastrophe won’t arrive until the catastrophe itself.

Then he acquits himself of the charge of stirring up hatred:  

Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: “If only,” they love to think, “if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.” Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical.

That is the nub both of the objection to Powell’s speech and the defence of it. Was he inciting violence, or merely predicting it? He puts a thumb on the scales. Those who see him as “causing” or “desiring” troubles, he dismisses as the equivalent of primitive magical-thinkers. Logically, the proposition appears sound – though, again, he absolves himself of the need or even possibility of proof. We are required to take the speaker’s good faith on faith. We are also asked to take on faith the bad faith (or superstition) of his opponents.


He goes on to make the familiar sally that he speaks not because he wants to, but because honour compels him to. As an honest man, he is duty bound not to remain silent. Indeed, he simply gives voice to the concerns of his constituents. He begins by quoting “a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman…in broad daylight in my own town” to the effect that “in this country in 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.

Again, refutatio: “I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation? The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so.” Again, he partially absolves himself of responsibility in the speech by making himself – as so many demagogues do – no more than the mouthpiece for “ordinary people”.

But which ordinary people? That quotation establishes the slippery antithesis on which the speech is built: the immigrant and the native; “the decent, ordinary fellow” (or, later, “ordinary, decent, sensible people”) as against immigrants. This antithesis is expressly racial. Powell’s stated concern is not just with immigrants but with their “descendants”; “at this moment 20 or 30 additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week – and that means 15 or 20 additional families a decade or two hence”. Those families of second-generation immigrants remain Other for the purposes of the speech, and his vision of community cohesion expressly makes reference to “marked physical differences, especially of colour”.   

He talks of “Negroes” and “wide-grinning piccaninnies”. The associations – as against “daylight” and “decency” – are all negative. The second witness he brings to bear, an anonymous letter-writer, is complaining that a street substantially populated by immigrants is “taken over”, is full of “noise and confusion”, that the owner of a boarding house has “excreta … pushed through her letterbox” and that her right to discriminate against tenants (“she has always refused” to rent rooms to immigrants) is under threat from the Race Relations Bill. 

In this context he makes a cleverly Jesuitical little turn in affirming that though all citizens are rightly equal under the law, a law against discrimination is a threat to the right of individuals to exercise prejudice. It’s wrong, he argues, that a “citizen should be denied his right to discriminate in the management of his own affairs between one fellow-citizen and another or that he should be subjected to imposition as to his reasons and motive for behaving in one lawful manner rather than another.”

The sinister power of Powell’s speech is that little islands of logical exactness – be they calculations of statistics or arguments from principle about rights and obligations – float in a greasy river of innuendo and unevidenced assumption. Vivid and inflammatory material is sanitised by being attributed to (“ordinary”, “decent”, notably anonymous) constituents; and assumptions about the behaviour and intentions of immigrant populations are freely made and presented as no more than commonsensical. 

The speech does two things: it makes a numerical prediction about the scale of immigration (this turned out not to be so far wrong); and it makes a much vaguer prediction about the social consequences of that immigration (which turned out to be wrong).  

Yet in a speech that openly rests on unevidenced assumptions, some unevidenced assumptions are more equal than others. To assume that inflammatory rhetoric could bring about strife is to be “primitive”; to assume that most immigrants wish to co-exist peaceably with their fellow citizens is “a ludicrous misconception and a dangerous one”; those preaching anti-discrimination are (in a peculiar non-sequitur) associated with “those newspapers which year after year in the 1930s tried to blind this country to the rising peril which confronted it”.  

Yet to take the opposite view is no more, in Powell’s lexicon, than to acknowledge “realities”. Here is an anecdotal sketch of aggressive “picanninnies” with a firm grasp of race-relations legislation: “They cannot speak English, but one word they know: ‘Racialist,’ they chant.” Here is a portrait of whites as a “persecuted minority” and “strangers in their own country”, and of immigrants who need only the spur of anti-discrimination laws, in Powell’s ornate tricolon, “to organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow-citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and ill-informed have provided”. 

It’s fitting, then, that the celebrated peroration of the speech – “like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’” – invokes not a work of history, but a Sibylline prophecy. Powell’s rhetorical strategy was to arrogate the ineffable authority of a prophet, not aspire to the sober calculation of a realist. 


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