Damming the River…

20 04 2008

I am reliably informed by the BBC that today is the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood ” speech. Obviously I was aware of the speech, and the fallout from it, but, like many others I’m guessing, would not have been able to tell you when it was made. Incidently, the name given to the speech is something of a misnomer, as nowhere in the speech did Powell ever say “rivers of blood”, but merely alluded to a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid. But that’s neither here nor there.

As a Black Country boy, I feel almost happy that Powell put Wolverhampton on the map, although I wish it was in better circumstances. I remember the first time I heard the name of Powell. We were in a history lesson and had been asked to do projects on something that interested us. A classmate chose Powell, but it didn’t really register with me the significance of the man.

Obviously he has aroused a huge amount of controversy, both at the time, and since. I am amazed by the general feelings of support that still float around the place. Just a quick scan through the hits that Google provides indicates to me that the thoughts of Powell still resonate with many people. So was Powell really speaking for the people? Unfortunately I think that he was. At least in the 1960s. I’m not so sure that the views are as prevalent any more. That is not to say they no longer exist, far from it, the small but vocal support for the BNP serves to prove this.

The whole affair though serves to raise an interesting question from a political point of view. Should governments act on behalf of the majority which elected them (generally), even if the issues they are acting upon are morally and ethically flawed? I ask this in light of the “Commonwealth Immigrations Act” which was brought in around the same time as Powell was making his name in politics. The population, generally, responded positivey to the act, although it was, at least according to The Spectator, “one of the most immoral pieces of legislation to have emerged from any British Parliament”. Is this indicative of the government appeasing the voters against the tide of common sense? Or was it a necessary step to avoid unrestricted access to British infrastructure, something which, if remaining unchecked, could have collapsed Britain?

Finally to conclude this brief piece I think it is interesting to note how quickly reputations can be broken. Powell was a hugely intelligent, well-educated, respected man. That he has been portrayed as some idiotic racialist following the speech is, to me at least, wrong. Now I disagree with most of what he said in that speech, but I will not pretend that he was stupid. Which perhaps makes the whole affair worse.

For the moment, the jury remains out on Powell, some see him as an “enormous folk hero, a tribune of Britain’s silent white majority” (Racist Nation? BBC History, March), others see him as a repugnant character, representative of very distinctly right wing approach to immigration. For me, I see him as someone who proved to be ultimately miguided, but who’s head was in the right place.

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