Sunday, March 09, 2008

Rivers of Blood

Rivers of Blood (BBC2) was an analysis of Enoch Powell's notorious 1968 speech. It tried so hard to be balanced and objective that both supporters and critics of Powell could watch it and find their views confirmed. So, balance achieved, you could say.
But I felt that some aspects of the Powellite agenda could have been examined and challenged a little more strongly.

It was extraordinary that the programme made no mention of the fact that Powell, when Minister of Health, had kick-started black immigration by running a recruitment campaign in the West Indies to encourage immigrants to come to Britain and work in the health service.
I also thought it absurd to include footage of the London bombings to illustrate the argument of some that Powell's prophecy had come true. The London bombings had nothing to do with immigration per se but arose from a potent mixture of fundamentalist religion and politics. The Iraq war would have made us a target for terrorism - as it did Spain - regardless of the level of immigration and if the bombers hadn't been 'home-grown', then they would almost certainly have been 'foreign-grown' and travelled here to carry out their attack.

The programme did make clear that it was the language employed by Powell that made his speech so nauseating and incendiary: the reference, for example to 'grinning piccaninnies' - the same phrase used more recently by Tory London Mayoral candidate Boris Johnson.
It's also highly significant that Powell was vehemently opposed to the Labour Government's Race Relations legislation which was to make illegal the 'No Blacks' signs that were commonplace in the windows of pubs and guest houses and in job advertisements. That makes nonsense of Powell's claims that he was not a racist - or 'racialist' as people seemed to say in those days. It was Powell's extraordinary argument that making it illegal to discriminate on grounds of race 'victimised' the white population.

Just as young people today are incredulous that gay men used to be sent to prison, it must be equally hard for them to grasp that in recent history it was legal to put up signs saying 'No Blacks' or 'No Coloureds'.
A mixed-race friend of mine, who had served in the RAF, met up with some old service friends in Earls Court in the sixties. At the first pub they went to, the barman explained that he would serve the white men but not my friend because he was 'coloured'. It was this practice that Powell wished to preserve. Yet there was a clip of him on The Frost Programme asserting that he believed in the equality and dignity of all races. So was Powell really the formidable intellectual and master of logic that his supporters continue to assert?

I was about 17 when Powell made his speech and it led directly to my first, very modest foray into activism. I wrote a letter to our then Conservative MP and sent a copy to my local authority. I was subsequently greeted as a hero by the Mayor at a local event (a man, it must be said, who was a working class factory worker) and it led to me doing some voluntary work for the local Community Relations Council.
I mention that the Mayor was working class because last night's programme seemed to imply that the working class supported Powell and it was the middle classes, students and the intelligentsia who rose up against him.
This is a flawed and simplistic interpretation of events and is part of a wider problem with the BBC's current 'White' season of programmes that focuses on the marginalised white working class.
I imagine that the black working class feel pretty marginalised too, so a series on the working class, and non-working classes, irrespective of colour, might have been more sensible.
Followed, perhaps, by a series on the middle classes, who have always been the most insecure and paranoid social class, going back to Victorian times. And there are enough programmes in the archives that show the middle classes voicing not just the same concerns over immigration as the white working class but also deep-rooted and vociferous racism. Remember Channel 4's The Dinner Party of a few years' back or The F***ing Fulfords, to name but two?

The predominantly white, middle class BBC may be patting themselves on the back for giving a voice to the white working class and allowing them to express 'politically incorrect' views but the whole enterprise is misleading, simplistic and divisive.
And, ever since earlier waves of immigration from Ireland and elsewhere, hasn't it always been the white middle class who, having the means to do so, have hot-footed it to the suburbs and villages, leaving behind the working class to manifest that much-vaunted British virtue of tolerance - or not, as the case may be?


At 7:10 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Sounds like a thought-provoking programme. I didn't see it, but did see an article commemorating the anniversary of the speech in the Observer. That was interesting for the fact that the speech seems to have marked a shift in Powell's attitude - he had actually been relatively receptive towards immigration and to non-whites in his own constituency. The article's author suggested the motivation behind the shift was largely political, and of course that's what makes it all the worse - people's lives were destroyed as a result of one man's opportunism.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

If it had a political motive, I'm not sure what that was because the speech effectively destroyed his political career.
I think Powell was slightly deranged, a view reinforced if you ever saw him get angry in TV debates. He could look quite terrifying.


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