by AMIT ROY
FRESH DOUBTS OVER WHETHER WHITE WAR WIDOW IN MP’s SPEECH EXISTED
THE BBC’s decision to broadcast Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech in its entirety for the first time last Saturday (14) has focused attention on what now seems to be the deliberate falsehood at the heart of his race thesis – the white pensioner who “finds excreta pushed through her letter box” by her black neighbours.
It is likely she never existed.
Despite calls for the programme to be pulled, the BBC went ahead with what it considered a legitimate journalistic exercise and aired Powell’s 45-minute speech, read convincingly by actor Ian McDiarmid.
Powell’s speech – “unedited for the first time” – was introduced by Sri Lanka-born announcer Viji Alles. It was fronted by the BBC’s Kolkata-born media editor, Amol Rajan, who tweeted: “On Saturday, for 1st time EVER, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech will be read in full on UK radio.”
Rajan added that the speech “is broken up and critiqued by voices from across the spectrum. Not just read out in a single go.”
Powell, who was then Tory MP for Wolverhampton South-West, made the speech on April 20, 1968, at a receptive meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham.
Reaction to the programme varied broadly – one group accused the BBC of lending respectability to Powell’s racist views, another did not want censorship and a third felt “Powell was right”.
The former Labour minister, Lord Adonis, who had lodged a protest about the programme with Ofcom and been told the media watchdog could only intervene after it had been broadcast, confirmed he would be registering a formal complaint now that transmission had taken place.
There must now be renewed doubts about whether the white war widow, on whom Powell based much of his argument – that non-white immigration should be halted and those already here repatriated – ever really existed.
In his speech, Powell said he had learnt of her case from an anonymous letter and painted this harrowing picture: “Eight years ago in a respectable street in Wolverhampton, a house was sold to a Negro. Now only one white (a woman old-age pensioner) lives there. This is her story. She lost her husband and both her sons in the war. So she turned her seven-roomed house, her only asset, into a boarding house.
“She worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age. Then the immigrants moved in. With growing fear, she saw one house after another taken over. The quiet street became a place of noise and confusion. Regretfully, her white tenants moved out.
“The day after the last one left, she was awakened at 7am by two Negroes who wanted to use her phone to contact their employer. When she refused, as she would have refused any stranger at such an hour, she was abused and feared she would have been attacked but for the chain on her door. Immigrant families have tried to rent rooms in her house, but she always refused. Her little store of money went, and after paying rates, she has less than £2 per week.
“She went to apply for a rate reduction and was seen by a young girl, who on hearing she had a seven-room house, suggested she should let part of it. When she said the only people she could get were Negroes, the girl said, ‘Racial prejudice won’t get you anywhere in this country.’ So she went home.
“The telephone is her lifeline. Her family pay the bill, and help her out as best they can. She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken.
“She finds excreta pushed through her letter box.
“When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. ‘Racialist,’ they chant. When the new Race Relations Bill is passed, this woman is convinced she will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder.”
Powell was not challenged at the time on whether children, who spoke no English, really used the word “racialist” – rather than “racist”.
But the case of the missing white woman is even more suspect.
David Frost, when interviewing Powell, drew laughter from his television audience by asking whether millions of white homes were really having excreta pushed though letter boxes.
“You had a duty to put more than quotation marks (round her story),” Frost told Powell. “Did you not have a fantastic duty to check that story to find out it was true?”
Powell’s answer was not entirely convincing: “I verified the source from where I had this information – it was true as it was typical.”
He was not asked how he verified the source since the letter had been anonymous.
The eminent journalist Simon Heffer, who has written a sympathetic official biography of Powell, told the BBC programme: “When I was writing Powell’s biography, his widow (Pamela) and I almost literally tore their house apart looking for this letter. I said to his widow: ‘This is going to cause me problems because many people believe this letter never existed.’ She – who was just as honest as he was, in other words, completely transparently honest – became very agitated and said, ‘I saw that letter dozens of times. He walked around with in it in his wallet for years just in case anybody came up to him and dared him to produce that letter.’ I have no doubt it existed. I just wish I could find it. I hope one day it turns up.”
Heffer is too seasoned a journalist not to be able to acknowledge there is another possibility – that the letter and certainly the woman never existed, that she was a figment of Powell’s imagination and he created her as a way of expressing his own views.
There must also exist the possibility that Powell’s widow became “agitated” because she realised that her husband had made it all up. Even if the anonymous letter turned up – unlikely after this passage of time – it would not prove the pensioner ever existed.
In the programme, Matthew Parris, as eminent a journalist as Heffer, produced the most withering assessment of Powell: “He wasn’t quite as brilliant as everyone said. He was actually a stupid person’s idea of an intelligent person. He was persuading his audience that here was a very learned man indeed and a master of logic and classical studies who had reached, by his own highly intelligent means, exactly the same conclusion as they had.”
Faced with an outcry, the BBC obviously made some changes to the programme.
The contribution from Shirin Hirsch, an academic in Wolverhampton, was dropped at her request. She had said: “Disgusted by the way the BBC are promoting this show.”
Apart from Heffer and Parris, others interviewed for the programme, made by Whistledown with Nathan Gower as producer, included two black Labour MPs – David Lammy in Tottenham and Eleanor Smith, in Wolverhampton South-West – as well as Guyanese-born academic David Dabydeen and one time anti-apartheid campaigner Lord (Peter) Hain.
Rajan, who must have been concerned he would be seen as ethnic cover for the BBC, denounced Powell on the programme: “I am from Tooting from south London, a hugely diverse community in which British Asians of all varieties have peacefully (unclear) with their white counterparts.
“My parents came over from India in 1986 when Margaret Thatcher, a student of Powell, was at the height of her powers. Listening back to Powell, the echoes of our own politics seem loud.
“Some forgive his repeated references to Negroes and aliens as common parlance for the time. That is generous. And in his references to ‘wide-grinning piccaninnies’ and ‘whip hand’ and his refusal to countenance any advantages to immigration, Powell crosses a line into ugly prejudice. It is impudent to ask whether the speech was racialist or racist. Make no mistake – it was both.”
Lord Adonis tweeted after the broadcast: “Big mistake, which BBC doubtless now regret, to broadcast Enoch Powell’s violently racist Rivers of Blood speech. Just look at energised racist response on social media. I will be referring it to Ofcom, which (wrongly) declined to intervene in advance.”
The BBC justified the exercise: “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 programme before they judge it.”
Many did precisely that.
From @blinkerdbritain came approval for the programme: “There was nothing remotely racist about it. Let’s face it the man was 100% correct.”
This was countered by Mark Hebden: “I can’t imagine a more naked, squalid attempt to stir up controversy and division. Whoever commissioned it should be thoroughly ashamed at their irresponsibility.”
Aman Thakar had another perspective: “The Rivers of Blood speech was given by Enoch Powell to warn about the danger posed by Indians fleeing from Kenya to the UK after being banned from working. Indians like my parents. I am disgusted the BBC are broadcasting this speech.”
And @Grouse_Beater wondered what other programmes the BBC might put out: “BBC to broadcast Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, read by Ian McDiarmid. Next week, Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ serialised, read by Dame Judy Dench.”