This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Sometimes the revolution is televised.
Way past the midnight hour on June 12th, 1987, the BBC cameras were in place at Haringey Town Hall to see Bernie Grant become MP for Tottenham. Shortly after their election coverage relayed the news that Paul Boeteng had triumphed in Brent South and to complete the hat-trick, Diane Abbott won her seat in Hackney North. History had been made as the first black members were voted into Parliament. For Grant, it was a particularly sweet moment as the experts in the studio watched on bemusedly at an impromptu celebratory dance being performed in his honour. A bona fide original had now entered the halls of power and British politics would be changed forever. In this blog we chronicle this unforgettable Parliamentarian and his contribution to modern Black Britain.
(Watch the election coverage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FtuLBkEAsk – Grant’s victory speech at 01.34.38)
Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1944. Both his parents were schoolteachers and he received what was considered a classical English education at the locally renowned St Stanislaus College. But his family decided to join a growing exodus of Guyanese leaving for London where they settled in the early sixties. Still a teenager, Grant attained his A-Levels at night-school and then went to Edinburgh to study engineering. However, disillusioned by a colour-bar in place for scholarships to South Africa meant that he left the course prematurely. These formative Commonwealth experiences and discriminatory apartheid practices were never truly forgotten as this Commons speech in 1987 highlights;
The tendency among Government Members is to blame black people and black nations for their plight. I do not think that black people can be blamed. I believe that the way in which the western world has dealt with black Commonwealth nations caused the problem. It is wrong for Government Members to blame the victims. References to kith and kin in South Africa are disgraceful, particularly since that was a major issue at the time of the Rhodesian troubles. Government Members should be careful about how they approach the issues.
While working at the telephone exchange department of the General Post Office (GPO) Grant found his vocation. When the GPO went on strike in 1970, he was fast-tracked to the front-line due to administrative diligence and an uncanny ability to stir up a crowd. His biographer, Mike Phillips recalled that before this period he spent most of his time at work flirting with the female operators. The Post Office Union was unique with a multi-racial membership and senior officials drawn across ethnic minority groups.
It was a natural progression for Grant to join the Labour Party and he built up a reputation leading anti-racist campaigns in Haringey against a resurgent National Front. By the decade’s end he was an elected councillor in the area as his love affair with Tottenham bloomed. A borough more famous for its football team now had a local leader whose civic pride also drew a devoted fanbase. Here’s an extract from his 1987 maiden speech in Parliament when he describes his constituency’s inner-city pressures.
I am pleased to be here representing the constituency of Tottenham and I am also pleased to follow my predecessor, Norman Atkinson, as Member of Parliament. For myself, as for Norman, local government and the needs of inner cities are of prime importance when representing a constituency such as Tottenham. Tottenham has almost 20 per cent. unemployment and almost half our citizens are from the black and minority ethnic communities. Such are the major characteristics of life in Britain today.
(Read the debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1987/jul/06/local-government-bill#S6CV0119P0_19870706_HOC_409 )
As the eighties progressed Grant continued to make great strides and in 1985, he became the first black council leader. He used this platform to give support to a broad church of causes which included feminist and gay rights. His unrepentant blackness and outspoken manner enticed negative right-wing opinion and he was given the disrespectful moniker of ‘Barmy Bernie’.
The autumn of 1985 saw fierce rioting take place in Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm Estate after the death of local resident Cynthia Jarrett. Amidst the tumult a police officer was killed, and in the aftermath, the borough was besieged by the national media. Grant found himself misquoted when he observed to the press that, ‘the youth think they gave the police a bloody good hiding’. When the comment was taken out of context the Labour Executive Council sought to distance themselves from the situation. But like-minded party colleagues such as Jeremy Corbyn came to his defence and he gave this speech in the Commons after the disorder that was positively Grant-esque;
Does the Home Secretary accept that his statement points to much greater suppressive action by the police and a serious lack of understanding of the problems that lie behind the riots? Will he tell the House whether, further to his statement, the issuing of water cannon and plastic bullets is now standard practice for the police force and Home Office policy? Secondly, have any police officers been suspended following the events surrounding the death of Mrs. Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham, and what inquiries have been made about that? Thirdly, is he prepared now to visit Tottenham seriously to examine that area's social problems, the background surrounding Mrs. Jarrett's death and other matters that led to the tragic events two weeks ago?
(Read the debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1985/oct/21/inner-city-disorders )
Despite the controversial public image there was no denying that Bernie Grant was ballot box-office. Hugely popular with his constituents it was inevitable that he would be nominated as Labour candidate for Tottenham at the 1987 General Election. Despite the use of unsavoury tactics by rival parties he won the seat with a substantial majority. With tongue firmly in cheek he sent a message of thanks to the local constabulary in his victory speech prompting much ironic cheering. In a celebration of Afrocentricity, he arrived at his Parliament induction resplendent in traditional tribal dress.
Once settled in his new surroundings he founded the Parliamentary Black Caucus to mirror the Congressional version in the United States. Its primary aim was to construct a unified cross-party approach on black politics and social policy. This first year in office coincided with the Government drafting Section 28 of the Local Government Bill prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality in education. Grant put his head above the parapet to vehemently oppose this proposal. In the Committee proceedings he stated, ‘The amendment is merely a device to attack the rights of the minority in society. The people who decide will all be heterosexuals. They will have a totally different interpretation of family life and of the so-called moral nature of the matter’.
Now established in the legislature Grant started to address the question of post-colonialism including African repatriation of cultural objects as this 1994 discourse illustrates;
Some artefacts have been stolen or acquired in very strange ways by British collectors, the British museum and other institutions. Some were stolen from Africa during the period of enslavement and colonisation. For example, the Ghanaians had to hide the sacred Ashanti stool from the invaders in case it was stolen and brought to this country; several obelisks are being kept here against the will of their owners in Africa; and the ivory mask of the Ino of Ife, which is a sacred object from Nigeria, is being held by the British museum which refuses to return it. I was once told that the nose of the Sphinx was in the British museum, so I contacted the curator who said that the museum did not have the nose but had part of the beard. I am sure that the Egyptians would like to display it and benefit from the revenue from students and those wishing to study it.
If political commentators thought Grant would mellow with age, they were to be proven wrong. At the 1993 Labour Party Conference he addressed a fringe event discussing the twenty-fifth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. To the astonishment of those present he called for the government to initiate a voluntary repatriation scheme for those of Caribbean and African descent who ‘have had enough of this lousy country’.
This placed him on a collision course with many within the black community most notably activist Darcus Howe who invited him onto his Channel Four show Devil’s Advocate. It began with the host offering Grant an opportunity to apologize for his comments but he wasn’t prepared to back down arguing that ‘black people in Britain have to link up with people in Africa and other countries to make sure that their future exists’. This fuelled Howe’s ire further and he responded by saying, ‘Bernie has offered us the defeatist position of abandoning ship with our pockets filled with silver’. Sadly, the two friends never spoke again, and Grant’s views were commended by Lady Jane Birdwood, a candidate for the British National Party. But this did not stop him motioning for a debate on the subject in the Commons chamber the following year;
Some people have said that even to mention this matter is to cause damage to race relations in this country, and that to argue for a resettlement scheme is to give in to racism. I have even been accused of adopting the agenda of fascists and racists. Even the Secretary of State for the Home Department told me recently that he feared that an enhanced resettlement scheme would make black people feel unwelcome here. That is rich, coming from someone who has set back race relations by at least 20 years in the relatively short time that he has been in office. I am not convinced by these arguments. This is about creating positive choices for black people, about setting our own agenda for once, and about remembering where we came from.
For most of his tenure in Westminster Grant suffered with diabetes which greatly limited his attendance at debates. To alleviate this, he frequently tabled Written Answers concerning racial discrimination to various Home Secretaries that were published in Hansard. One of the most publicised was drafted in 1989 after the Metropolitan Police included a photograph of World Champion boxer Nigel Benn in an identikit image parade of potential black criminal suspects. You can read the debate here.
When Tony Blair’s Labour Government came to power, they rewarded Grant for his championing of Third World issues by offering him a key position in the inaugural Select Committee on International Development. In his last year in Parliament he delivered one of his most emotive speeches as the House debated the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry recommendations and future race relations in the UK.
First, I want to pay tribute to the Lawrence family, their friends and supporters, for the stalwart nature that they have shown. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on sticking to his promise, made before the general election, that we would have a public inquiry, but may I also warn him about the situation? We have been here before. I remember being very optimistic in 1981, after the Scarman inquiry. We thought that it was a watershed and that things would change, but 18 years later—I have read both reports—we are back to almost the same recommendations that the Scarman inquiry made. This is a last chance for British society to tackle racism and to push for racial equality. The black community is giving British society a last chance. Although I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that institutional racism occurs throughout society, the police have the power to remove one's freedom and we have to be especially careful about how they operate.
In April 2000 Bernie Grant died of a heart attack. Michael White reported in The Guardian that an estimated three thousand people attended his memorial service held at Alexandra Palace. In a display of exuberance that befitted the man there was dancers, drums and even a Highland piper. Paul Boetang concluded his tribute by saying, ‘He didn’t want anything stuffy or anything churchy. Well Bernie this isn’t stuffy, and this isn’t a church – this is a palace’. He would be succeeded by twenty-seven-year-old David Lammy whose mother hailed from Grant’s homeland of Guyana.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol 23 – Bernie Grant biography written by Mike Phillips
The Oxford Companion to Black British History – Bernie Grant biography written by Lola Young
Hansard – Parliamentary Debates
HC/OF/SC/288 - 1988 Local Government Bill- House of Commons Standing Committee debate, 8th December 1987, Parliamentary Archives
Renegade – The Life and Times of Darcus Howe by Robin Bunce & Paul Field
Obituaries – Bernie Grant written by Mike Phillips, The Guardian, 9th April 2000 – Further reporting by Michael White, The Guardian, 18th April 2000
BBC General Election 1987 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FtuLBkEAsk