BBC to Resurrect Full ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech, Spurring Outrage

Mr. Powell’s address, which he called “The Birmingham speech,” criticized immigration from Commonwealth countries to the United Kingdom and proposed a new policy in which migrants would return to their countries of origin.

He argued that the Race Relations Bill 1968, intended to ban racial discrimination in housing, employment, commerce and public services, would disadvantage “the indigenous population” and that it would be like “throwing a match on to gunpowder.”

The speech is rife with incendiary language:

• “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation, to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents [of immigrants already in the country] who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-dependent population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

• Referring to the consequences of immigration on the British-born: “They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighborhoods changed beyond recognition.”

• The speech ends by quoting a prophecy of civil war from Virgil’s “Aeneid”: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ”

What was the reaction, then and now?


Anti-racist demonstrators gathered in Wolverhampton, the English town where Mr. Powell had his parliamentary district, in 1970.

Leonard Burt/Central Press, via Getty Images

The 45-minute speech divided the nation in the 1960s and caused a political storm. Some Labour lawmakers threatened Mr. Powell with charges of inciting racial hatred, and the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, said in a television interview that he believed the speech was “inflammatory” and “liable to damage race relations.”

Mr. Heath ousted Mr. Powell from his position as defense spokesman the day after the speech.

But in the days that followed, about 1,000 London dock workers staged a protest in favor of Mr. Powell, and he received thousands of letters of support.

The speech is still widely remembered in Britain, and it is sometimes alluded to in debates over immigration. Some politicians who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum referred to Mr. Powell, who strongly opposed British membership of what became the European Union.

Mr. Powell left the Conservative Party in 1974 over that issue. He died in 1998.

The BBC’s announcement on Thursday that it would broadcast the entire speech on Saturday — with its media editor, Amol Rajan, presenting — prompted a widespread backlash. Thousands of people, including politicians and public figures, took to social media to demand that the broadcaster reverse its decision.

Many said the broadcast would normalize hatred.

Andrew Adonis, a Labour member of the House of Lords, described the planned broadcast on Twitter as “disgraceful” and said that the anti-immigration speech was “the worst incitement to racial violence by a public figure in modern Britain.”

Shirin Hirsch, a University of Wolverhampton academic who contributed to the program, expressed regret for participating and said she was “disgusted” by how it was being promoted.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, an opinions editor at, a magazine website written by women of color, said the BBC’s decision was “one of the most tone-deaf displays of media hypocrisy.”

“It’s a flamboyant party trick that masks the deadly undertones of racism in British society that still exist,” she wrote in The Guardian, noting the soaring number of hate crimes in Britain over the past three years.

Lord Adonis also wrote a letter to the head of Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, asking that the program to the scrapped.

Some social media users, however, not only backed the broadcast, but tweeted incendiary and sometimes discriminatory comments under the hashtag #EnochPowellWasRight.

What is the BBC’s defense?

In a statement, the BBC said, “This is a rigorous journalistic analysis of a historical political speech. It’s not an endorsement of the controversial views and people should wait to hear the program before they judge it.”

A spokeswoman for Ofcom said in a statement, according to local news outlets: “Ofcom’s powers, granted by Parliament, are as a post-broadcast regulator. This means that we wouldn’t check or approve any broadcaster’s editorial content before transmission.”

Mr. Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, defended the decision in a tweet to Lord Adonis and explained that the speech would be critiqued throughout the program.

Meanwhile, on the speech’s 50th anniversary next Friday, anti-racism campaigners and members of Parliament planned to hold an event to celebrate the multiculturalism of Birmingham.

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