The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

The late 1970s saw some shocking racist attacks in east London. But it also witnessed the beginning of a fightback by British Asian youth and a determination to effect change. I can’t claim to understand the challenge that young people in Tower Hamlets and other London boroughs faced. But I’m in awe of what they achieved at that time in the face of a wall of prejudice.

WARNING: There are events and language used below that may cause offence but reflected the reality at the time in the late 1970s – which this blog abhors and welcomes the fact that times have changed.

On the 4 May 1978, a 25-year-old machinist called Altab Ali who had come to the UK from Bangladesh in 1969 was murdered in the borough of Tower Hamlets.[1] This is the borough covering the most iconic parts of London’s East End including Poplar, Whitechapel, Stepney and Bethnal Green. Altab Ali was returning home from his workplace in Brick Lane, Whitechapel when he was set upon by three teenagers. He died from his wounds.

It should be noted that the 4 May 1978 was also the day of the London local elections. A total of forty-one National Front candidates were standing in Tower Hamlets and would attain nearly one fifth of the vote. Labour romped home as usual but the NF polled very close[2] behind the Conservatives across all wards in the borough.

After increasing skinhead activity in the area and brazen attacks on local Asians, the murder of Altab Ali and the growing brazenness of far right ‘boot boys’ called for a grand public gesture. On 14 May 1978, the coffin of Altab Ali was borne aloft in a mass demonstration of Bangladeshi anger into the middle of London ending up in Hyde Park. The 7,000-strong procession brought the reality of what was happening in east London into the centre of the capital.

His killing also led to a largely forgotten London strike on 17 July 1978 by Bengali workers. Hundreds of Bengali-owned businesses also closed for the day in protest at the murder.[3] Those on strike included a bottle labeller called Roomiz Ullah who worked at the Charrington’s brewery in Bow. He was still recovering from injuries sustained on 5 July. Ullah had been clocking off with co-workers when they were attacked outside the brewery by a white gang.[4]

In September 1978 the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council, a trades union organisation, published a grim pamphlet called Blood on the Streets[5]. The front cover had a graphic illustration of a prone figure on the ground with blood gushing from his head. The document was a soul-destroying litany of attacks on Asians in east London. But it also shone a light on attitudes in both white and Asian British working-class communities.

The case studies were furnished by the Bangladeshi Youth Movement, Tower Hamlets Law Centre, Avenues Limited and others. What it revealed was growing incidents throughout the 1970s of what the pamphlet referred to as “Skinhead ‘Paki-bashing’ incidents”.[6]

It painted a very polarised picture of the Brick Lane area in comparison to its hip incarnation today. White skinheads were swaggering with impunity down Brick Lane treating Asian people as if their lives were worthless. Meanwhile the police brushing attacks under the carpet on technicalities or simply ignoring them. Referring to the two students in South Woodford, the pamphlet listed the deaths of Altab Ali, Kennith Singh in Newham and Ishaque Ali. But this, the authors insisted, was only the tip of the iceberg.

“Behind the headlines is an almost continuous and unrelenting battery of Asian people and their property in the East End of London. The barrage of harassment, insult and intimidation, week in week out, fundamentally determines how the immigrant community here lives and works, how the host community and the authorities are viewed, and how the Bengalee (spelling used in the report) people in particular think and act.”[7]

The stance of the local community towards the police was one of suspicion. A police interpreter who helped officers where victims had poor English told the report authors that even he thought most police encouraged complainants to drop their case. In one example cited, a student called Mustafa Siddiqi was stabbed at a Brick Lane butcher shop. The white assailant was arrested then released without being charged while Siddiqi was advised to drop the case in order to maintain “good community relations”.

Those contributing to the report from the Bengali community raised the same alleged features of police investigations. An unwillingness to prosecute; poor note taking if any; witnesses having their immigration status raised by officers and advice to take out a private prosecution for common assault instead of expecting the police to act. The racial motivation of attacks was almost always thrown into doubt.

This was a point made by The Institute of Race Relations in evidence submitted to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure in 1979. It claimed there was a “repeated reluctance” by the police to admit the racial dimension in attacks on black people. This resulted in misleading advice to victims and even charges being brought against the victims themselves.[8]

It would take the murder of the black youth Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 and the subsequent Macpherson inquiry and report in 1999 to fully re-examine these policing issues raised in Blood on the Streets back in 1978.[9] McPherson addressed police shortcomings recognised by the 1981 Scarman report but on which insufficient progress had been made such as the need for more recruits from ethnic minority communities.

The tendency to play down racial motivation in attacks was also tackled head on by Macpherson. Whereas race was often dismissed by police and coroners up to the Lawrence murder, now Macpherson recommended that the “Police Services and the Crown Prosecution Service should ensure that particular care is taken at all stages of prosecution to recognise and to include reference to any evidence of racist motivation”[10].

In 1999, nearly twenty years after the 1981 riots, Macpherson told the police bluntly that there still needed to be more training on racism awareness and valuing cultural diversity. This should not be a one-off, the inquiry recommended, but subject to regular re-evaluation to assess implementation in daily police work.

Macpherson also addressed the Stop and Search powers of the police that had contributed to the riots in Brixton and Toxteth. The report recognised that these powers were needed to prevent crime but that they needed to be recorded. The record had to include the “reason for the stop, the outcome, and the self-defined ethnic identity of the person stopped[11]”.

The Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane area, part of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, was mainly from the impoverished Sylhet province of Bangladesh. There had been Bengalis in this part of the city since the 19th century working as sailors, referred to as ‘lascars’[12]. Many had worked for the East India Company. But there had been a much greater influx of overwhelmingly male immigrants in the 1960s to work in the ‘rag trade’ (clothing industry).

The Jewish character of Brick Lane was already a dimming memory for me in 1981. As a child I used to buy old coins from orthodox Jewish men running antique stalls. For Jewish friends at school, the East End was somewhere they went to see their “bubbe”, the Yiddish word for grandmother.  By 1976, the former synagogue on Brick Lane was reconstituted as a mosque as the population shifted towards Bengali and Muslim.[13] The eighteenth-century building had started life as a French Protestant chapel before going from synagogue to mosque evidencing how this part of London had absorbed wave after wave of migrants.

Blood on the Streets interviewed white working-class locals who were sympathetic to the problems faced by their Bengali, Muslim neighbours. It should not be assumed that the white population in Tower Hamlets was uniformly racist even though the NF vote in the borough touched twenty per cent in 1977. A recurring refrain from local whites mentioned in the report was that the new Asian arrivals needed to ‘get tough’ just like black Britons had after the 1958 and 1959 Notting Hill riots.[14]

“This attitude is particularly prevalent among working class East Enders brought up in a tradition where from childhood you are expected to fight back. They are puzzled by the passive response from a non-violent people which may even be regarded as ‘unmanly’, or weakness or cowardice that actually invites attack.”[15]

This was a sentiment echoed to me by Errol Christie, the black boxing champion whose biography I co-authored in 2011. He felt that black youth in Britain had, in his own stark terms, busted a few skinhead noses and scared them off. Errol would even show me a scar on his knuckle where the tooth from a skinhead’s mouth had embedded itself and then been extracted in a heartbeat. This, Errol opined, was what Asian youth needed to do.

That message was already landing in 1978, according to Blood on the Streets. A new attitude was emerging among the younger generation of Bengalis. “The ability to fight, the martial arts, the language of ‘self-defence’ and an aggressive self-awareness has taken over from the gentler approach of their elders”.[16] Karate was suddenly very popular.

But, the report warned, a new “machismo” was also prevalent that was further diminishing the role of women and threatening to solidify their subservience. There had been large demonstrations against racism, especially following the murder of Altab Ali, but “the number of Asian women participating can be numbered on one hand”[17].

Fortunately, there were Asian women in the 1970s who struggled for their rights and hit the national headlines. Through the summer of 1976, a strike at the Grunwick film processing plant in Dollis Hill, north west London, was covered by the BBC and ITN news nearly every night. The workforce was made up almost entirely of women from the Indian sub-continent or Asians from Kenya and Uganda and were dubbed the “Strikers in Saris”[22].

Secondary picketing was still legal, and thousands of workers and supporters streamed down to the factory and joined a very rambunctious picket line. It was a long-lasting dispute and nearly a year later in June 1977, up to 20,000 people were standing alongside the women workers. This included Labour government ministers Shirley Williams, Fred Mulley and Dennis Howell and the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill.[23]

The Trades Union Congress and the union to which the women belonged, APEX, eventually withdrew their support on the grounds that the dispute for union recognition and reinstatement of sacked striking workers could not be won. One major downside of Grunwick was that it fired Margaret Thatcher’s resolve to ban secondary picketing by other workers unrelated to a dispute. But on the upside, it finally brought British Asian women out of the shadows and gave them a voice.


[1] Hoque, Aminul, ‘Altab Ali: Bangladeshis in east London reflect on legacy of a racist murder’, The Conversation, 3 May 2018

[2] Taylor, Stan, ‘The National Front in English Politics’, Palgrave Macmillan, 1982

[3] ‘Bengali workers on strike’, Race Today, September/October 1978

[4] Ibid: ‘Bengali workers on strike’

[5] ‘Blood on the Streets’, Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council, September 1978

[6] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[7] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[8] ‘Police against Black People, Race & Class’, The Institute of Race Relations, pamphlet no. 6, 1979

[9] ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’, Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, February 1999, Web

[10] Ibid: ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’

[11] Ibid: ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’

[12] ‘Lascars and the East India Company’, Royal Museums Greenwich, Web

[13] ‘Brick Lane Jamme Masjid’, Historic England, Web

[14] ‘The Notting Hill riots of 1958’, Warwick, Web

[15] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[16] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[17] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[18] ‘Nephew asked to cut up meat – QC’, Evening Mail, 15 November 1978

[19] Baker, Bob, Bishton, Sue, Collett, Deborach, Jennings, David, ‘Read All About It’, AFFOR, 1980

[20] NUJ Guidelines and Code of Conduct for the Reporting of Race, paragraph 2 (in 1978)

[21] Khan, Sara, McMahon, Tony, ‘The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism’, Saqi Books, 2016

[22] ‘The strike that brought immigrant women into Britain’s working class’, The Economist, 25 November 2016

[23] Bell, Bethan, Mahmood, Shabnam, ‘Grunwick dispute: What did the ‘strikers in saris’ achieve?’, BBC News, 10 September 2016

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