Last Saturday, Enoch Powell’s speech dubbed ‘Rivers of Blood’ was aired by the BBC and they came under a lot of fire. However, airing it for the first time and listening to it within a modern context is important for studying far-right ideology and the power of rhetoric. It can help people understand. There will be those who agree or still disagree with the sentiment of the speech but, unfortunately, that is the society we live in with those ingrained racial bias that resides in English culture.

The then MP for Wolverhampton demonstrated the power of rhetoric and anecdotal evidence, but it also showed the subtle nature of the integration of the idea of racial superiority within English culture, economics and political discourse.

Rivers of Blood 50 years on

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the racist speech and there is still a lot to be learned from what Powell said. However, several aspects stand out of the speech. Firstly, it’s the use of the word ‘immigrant’ and term ‘immigrant-descended population’. The latter was cleverly played by Powell, he used a simplistic idea that could resonate with those who had similar feelings and he repeated it multiple times and this helps continue to cement the idea that they are different and not necessarily deserving because their heritage isn’t British or English. However, the hate and racial superiority felt from the words and his tone was intense and that feeling never dampened throughout.

The wording and the delivery is strong, it speaks to everyone and the usage of public testimony resonates with the idea that he is talking on behalf of the people.

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The first testimony used is about a working man who desires to move away from the country because he believes that “in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man." There are several points to make here because that same man said that his kids had a good upbringing and that they went to grammar schools, meaning they had a decent education. Which means, his life and his kids lives hadn’t been affected but interestingly, he wished he could afford to move away from England.

So, he felt that he had the right to move wherever he wanted but someone of a different colour shouldn’t be afforded the same right? Furthermore, the comment about the ‘whip hand’ is an obvious reference to slavery and plays on the idea that equality in the eyes of the oppressors would be the same as the atrocities inflicted on black people by white people, but then equality can feel like oppression when all you have known is unearned privilege. The blatant racial superiority within the testimony is just an example of the ingrained nature in English society that still resides today.

The second testimony is about a woman who owns a 7-bedroom house and after losing her sons and husband in the war, she turns it into a boarding house. As years go by, she does well for herself and puts aside a decent amount of savings for old age. But as soon as black people begin moving in the area and she claimed that the houses had been ‘taken over’, the use of words is important as it denotes an ‘invasion’ which is of course negative. But due to racial prejudices, the white people in her boarding house move out and she subsequently refuses to let any of her rooms out to black people purely because they are black. Her story is filled with racial superiority too.

Language is a powerful tool

Powell justified his view by using the literal definition of integration, without considering the real-world application and the potential nuances that the English language is full of, he fails to recognise that integration isn’t necessarily how he claims it to be which is that those who integrate become indistinguishable from the everyone else. Powell says it is not possible because they are a different colour and he also states something said by the Labour MP, John Stonehouse, and this underlines the inherent nature of racial superiority within English culture and that is isn’t solely on the right side but also on the left, although by all accounts it is less prominent on the left.

The speech was rhetorical and was powerful, it is something that still resonates today with certain people. But this is nought to do with the fact that they are racist by human nature, but cultural nature of the English or British identity. The language used was subtle and well written but full of fear and loathing, it was designed to give a feeling of being invaded and that your identity was being taken away. It was designed to make you think that your very freedoms would be taken away. However, this is coming from the perspective of an individual who grew up within an era of the British Empire, he grew up when the empire was still indiscriminately killing people for the economic benefit of Britain.