Turbulent Londoners: Bernie Grant, 1944-2000

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Bernie Grant, who devoted his life to campaigning for equality across various forums.

A plaque commemorating the work of Bernie Grant can be found on Tottenham Town Hall in London (Source: jelm6).

Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant, known to most as Bernie Grant, was an influential campaigner for civil rights in Britain and around the world. In a political career that spanned four decades, he fought to promote equality of all kinds as a trade union leader, a member of local government, and a Member of Parliament. Although he spent the majority of his career in mainstream politics, he still deserves the status of a Turbulent Londoner as he continued to fight for what he believed in once he was elected, and acted as “a red rag to the bulls of rightwing politics” (Phillips, 2000).

Born in Georgetown, Guyana on the 17th February 1944, Bernie Grant moved to London with his parents when he was 19. He studied at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, but left in 1969 in protest against discrimination against black students. He started working as a telephonist for the Post Office at the International Telephone Exchange in King’s Cross, and became involved in trade union politics during the Post Office strike in 1970. In 1978 Bernie became an Area Officer for the National Union of Public Employees, a full-time job.

Also in 1978, Bernie became a Labour Councillor in the north London borough of Haringey. He founded the Black Trades Unionists Solidarity Movement, and worked there full time between 1981 and 1984. In 1985, he earned the nickname ‘Barmy Bernie’ from the tabloid press because of his leadership of the opposition against the Conservative government’s rate-capping, which meant that central government could restrict the spending of local councils. He is in good company; the name ‘Suffragettes’ was coined by a reporter at the Daily Mail.

Haringey Council emerged from the dispute with central government with Bernie Grant as leader. He was the first black man to hold such a position in Europe. Bernie practiced what he preached, and Haringey was one of the few local councils to develop policies that tackled discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, race, or sexual orientation. After the controversial Broadwater Farm riots on the 6th of October 1985 Bernie stood up for the local youth, despite widespread and frequently vicious criticism.

The Broadwater Farm controversy didn’t damage Bernie’s reputation enough to prevent him being elected the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in 1987. He caused a stir by attending his first state opening of parliament in African dress, another of his ‘red rag’ moments. Once in Parliament, Bernie continued to fight for what he believed in. He founded the Parliamentary Black Caucus, and campaigned to end racism in the UK and abroad, against racist policing methods, deaths in police custody, and institutionalised racism in education, housing, and health. He also fought for the rights of refugees, greater resources for inner city areas, the elimination of overseas debt for poor nations, and the recognition of past colonialism and enslavement. He worked hard for his constituency, campaigning for a major cultural and arts facility, now called the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in his name.

Bernie Grant remained the MP for Tottenham until his death on the 8th of April 2000, aged 56. He was a man who never shied away from what he thought was right, even in the face of party politics and widespread criticism. He proved that it is possible to make positive changes from within the official system of government, a lesson which is worth hanging onto in the face of modern mainstream politics.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Bernie Grant.” Wikipedia. Last modified 4th May 2015, accessed 18th June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Grant

Phillips, Mike. “Bernie Grant.” The Guardian. Last modified 10th April 2000, accessed 18th June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/apr/10/guardianobituaries.obituaries

The Bernie Grant Archive. No date, accessed 18th June 2015. http://berniegrantarchive.org.uk/

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