Jonah Goldberg’s column in yesterday’s NRO reminded me of Enoch Powell’s famous “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. There have been other reminders of it recently — one of the commenters here at Gates of Vienna mentioned it, and, as a result, people searching for “Enoch Powell rivers of blood” often wash up here at the Gates and are detected by our site meter. Apparently Enoch Powell is making something of a comeback.
Like the designation of Churchill’s famous words as the “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” speech, the shorthand “Rivers of Blood” for Powell’s speech is something of a misnomer — the eponymous sentence is actually this: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”. But such are the vagaries of collective memory; people recall “Rivers of Blood”, so “Rivers of Blood” it is.
Enoch Powell was a Conservative member of Parliament when he gave the speech. I was living in England at the time, and I remember the occasion well. He was immediately reviled in the press and on the BBC, and lost his position in the Tory shadow cabinet as a result. The conventional wisdom loathed him, and he was depicted as a demagogue and a would-be Hitler.
But he was also ridiculed. I was a teenager in those days, and avidly read the satirical weekly Private Eye. In its pages he was mocked as a ludicrous throwback and a bigot. The editors enjoyed using file photos of him and adding silly graphics and speech balloons to make their points. Since he attracted a following among Sir Oswald Moseley’s heirs, all the derogatory labels tended to stick.
It is hard to look at the writings of people who have been declared beyond the pale. Presumably there are points worth noting in Mein Kampf and Das Kapital, but the verdict pronounced by history on their authors tends to prevent close scrutiny. Even so, it is worth revisiting what Powell said in the light of today’s events. His words were not those of a frothing madman, but an intelligent and carefully-chosen argument.
The key paragraphs of the speech were at the beginning:
|The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature. One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing: whence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future. 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. At all events, the discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician.|
There’s the rub for an elected politician who also feels a duty to posterity: how to identify and deal with those events which occur now but will have significant effect so far in the future that it is politically safe to ignore them.
He goes on to describe an encounter with a constituent:
|A week or two ago I fell into conversation with a constituent, a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man employed in one of our nationalised industries. After a sentence or two about the weather, he suddenly said: “If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country.” I made some deprecatory reply to the effect that even this government wouldn’t last for ever; but he took no notice, and continued: “I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas. In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”|
|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?|
Notice that even in 1968 the reign of PC thinking had already taken hold; Powell knew that his words constituted a heinous thought crime in the eyes of the enlightened.
Notice also that it was the black immigrants from Commonwealth countries who were considered to be the great danger. It was to be another decade before Elvis Costello sang, “London is full of Arabs” (in a song mocking the successors of Enoch Powell). In 1968 the Arabs weren’t a danger. Why would the Arabs come? They were not in the Commonwealth.
But come they did, seeking political asylum to avoid persecution by their own governments for their dangerous versions of Islam. And, in even greater numbers, Muslims from Commonwealth member nation Pakistan immigrated to settle in Britain.
Powell went on:
|What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking – not throughout Great Britain, perhaps, but in the areas that are already undergoing the total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history. In 15 or 20 years, on present trends, there will be in this country three and a half million Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants. That is not my figure. That is the official figure given to parliament by the spokesman of the Registrar General’s Office. There is no comparable official figure for the year 2000, but it must be in the region of five to seven million, approximately one-tenth of the whole population, and approaching that of Greater London. Of course, it will not be evenly distributed from Margate to Aberystwyth and from Penzance to Aberdeen. Whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England will be occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population.|
|…It is this fact which creates the extreme urgency of action now, of just that kind of action which is hardest for politicians to take, action where the difficulties lie in the present but the evils to be prevented or minimised lie several parliaments ahead.|
No matter how much it pains us to say it, we have to acknowledge that Powell was precisely right. Whatever his motivations, despite any racism or bigotry on his part, he was right.
And he hit other nails on the head:
|There could be no grosser misconception of the realities than is entertained by those who vociferously demand legislation as they call it “against discrimination”, whether they be leader writers of the same kidney and sometimes on the same news papers which year after year in the 1930s tried to blind this country to the rising peril which confronted it, or archbishops who live in palaces, faring delicately with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads. They have got it exactly and diametrically wrong. The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and of resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come and are still coming. This is why to enact legislation of the kind before parliament at this moment is to risk throwing a match on to gunpowder. The kindest thing that can be said about those who propose and support it is that they know not what they do.|
These words can only remind 21st-century Americans of the unchecked flow of illegal immigrants across our borders, and of the bedclothes pulled up over the heads of most of our elected leaders.
Demonstrating that he was not your typical racist, Powell said:
|Nothing is more misleading than comparison between the Commonwealth immigrant in Britain and the American negro. The negro population of the United States, which was already in existence before the United States became a nation, started literally as slaves and were later given the franchise and other rights of citizenship, to the exercise of which they have only gradually and still incompletely come. The Commonwealth immigrant came to Britain as a full citizen, to a country which knew no discrimination between one citizen and another, and he entered instantly into the possession of the rights of every citizen, from the vote to free treatment under the National Health Service.|
And then there is this, all too familiar to us in 2005:
|In the hundreds upon hundreds of letters I received when I last spoke on this subject two or three months ago, there was one striking feature which was largely new and which I find ominous. All Members of Parliament are used to the typical anonymous correspondent; but what surprised and alarmed me was the high proportion of ordinary, decent, sensible people, writing a rational and often well-educated letter, who believed that they had to omit their address because it was dangerous to have committed themselves to paper to a Member of Parliament agreeing with the views I had expressed, and that they would risk penalties or reprisals if they were known to have done so. The sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected is something that those without direct experience can hardly imagine.|
Plus ça change…
And this one is uncannily prescient:
|We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population — that they never conceived or intended such a thing, and that their numbers and physical concentration meant the pressures towards integration which normally bear upon any small minority did not operate. Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences, with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow-immigrants and then over the rest of the population.|
Powell concluded his speech with this:
|As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”… Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.|
Regardless of his racist motivations, regardless of any demagogic ambitions he might have had, Enoch Powell was right. He lived until 1998, long enough to see that much of what feared had already come to pass. In 1968 he was in the unenviable position of someone in 1931 warning of the danger that Hitler posed to the world.
But the timeline of Islamofascism is slower than that of the Nazis. It is not yet 1940 for us; it is still 1938 or 1939. There is still time. But is there any evidence that our leaders have the nerve and the wherewithal to deal with the preventable evils of our time?