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1968 - Myth or Reality?

Rivers of Blood, The Real Source

Enoch Powell in 1976 Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech forty years ago this spring was one of the most explosive in living memory by a British politician.

8.00pm, Monday 3 March 2008


Rob Shepherd, the presenter, gives his own views on that fateful speech by Enoch Powell:

Trying to fathom what was in Enoch Powell's mind when he made his explosive 'rivers of blood' on 20th April 1968 has been like reading a detective novel when one knows 'whodunit', but the motive remains a mystery till the very end. Along the way there are plenty of plausible theories, but the facts never quite fit.

While making BBC Radio 4's 1968: Rivers of Blood - the Real Source, I wanted to discover what suddenly drove a widely respected politician, such as Powell, to highlight lurid allegations about immigrants, repeat racist language and speak in apocalyptic terms? Was he genuinely voicing his constituents' concerns? Was he racist? Was he trying to do down his arch-rival, Edward Heath, the then Tory leader? Or was something else preying on Powell's mind?

I first tried to crack this mystery when, after Powell lost his seat in the Commons in 1987, I produced a television profile of him with Nick Ross for Channel 4. We filmed Powell for several hours in his small study at his London home one sultry July day. As the temperature from the TV lights soared, Powell, who was wearing his customary three-piece suit, remained as cool as a cucumber. 'I can take the heat', he assured us, because he had spent several years in India during the 1940s.

I was struck then by India's impact on Powell. He had returned to England in 1946 determined to become viceroy, but independence the following year shattered his ambition - after hearing the news, he wandered London's night-time streets in despair. But he was Delphic about any link with his 'rivers of blood' speech. (308)

The theory that Powell was motivated by racism was disproved when I again filmed Powell in 1993 for a Channel 4 series on post-war Britain, What Has Become Of Us, that I made with the historian, Peter Hennessy. Powell recalled on camera one of his finest parliamentary speeches, when he accused the Tory Government in 1959 of having failed African detainees who had beaten and murdered in British-ruled Kenya. Powell told us how, having savaged his fellow Tories, he sat down in the Commons and wept. As he spoke, we noticed the tears were flowing again, 34 years later. Powell's withering assault and his emotional reaction were not the behaviour of a racist.

A few years before Powell's death in 1998, I was commissioned to write an unofficial biography. He put no obstacles in my way, but did not allow me see his private papers. I discovered that before his fateful speech, Powell had confided in a journalist friend, telling him that 'the stars' from the 'rocket' he was about to launch would stay in the sky for a long time. This incident proved that Powell intended to shock people with his 'rivers of blood' speech. He had been frustrated that his constituents' concerns were being ignored, and by making the issue of immigration his own, so he thought, he would boost his chances of usurping Heath as Tory leader.

But a final piece of the jigsaw was missing. Then, a year or so ago, I was contacted out of the blue by a Cambridge historian, Peter Brooke, who was researching Powell's private papers, now held at the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge. He'd found evidence linking Powell's experience of India with the 'rivers of blood' speech. We met for lunch, and as Peter talked, I realised that the real source of the 'rivers of blood' had finally been traced.

My visit to Cambridge to examine this new evidence is the climax to BBC Radio 4's 1968: Rivers of Blood - the Real Source. As Peter Brooke and I leaf through Powell's papers, we find a strand that runs through his thinking from his days in military intelligence in India during 1943-46 and provides the missing clue to his motives in 1968.

In the days of the Raj, Brigadier Powell argued that India was not ready for independence, because of 'communalism', i.e. an overriding loyalty to a group that would prevent people being rational voters or accepting the majority decision when they were in a minority. The bloody, communal violence that accompanied Indian partition and independence confirmed his worst fears.

Powell feared that immigration would import communalism into Britain, eroding its homogeneous electorate and undermining its parliamentary system. In the early 1950s, Powell abandoned his imperialism, but he never discarded his fear of communalism and its potentially bloody consequences.

Robert Shepherd is a broadcaster and biographer of Powell. 1968: Rivers of Blood - the Real Source was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday 3rd March 2008 at 8:00 p.m. and is repeated on Sunday 20th April 2008 at 1:30pm.

Further Reading
Enoch Powell: a Biography, by Robert Shepherd.
Publisher: Pimlico; New Ed edition (4 Sep 1997)
ISBN-10: 0712673253
ISBN-13: 978-0712673259

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