Shocking attitudes to race in the early 80s


If I want to shock the millennials I work with, I tell them of a grim time not so long ago when racism was not only casual but endemic. Worse, it tipped from the mouths of MPs, broadcasters, senior police officers and judges. I find it almost impossible to believe that when I was in my teens, people could utter some of what follows here…

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Powell – putting his own views in other people’s mouths

Enoch Powell MP was a posh demagogue much loved by the sort of people who would begin a sentence with “I’m not racialist but…” Powell always put his racist views into other people’s mouths. As if to say – I don’t necessarily believe this myself but I’m honour bound as a representative of my constituents to tell you that…etc.

That allowed him to posture as the unwilling messenger who had to relay to all of us the shocking truth about the perils of immigration. He once claimed that an elderly, frail white woman had “excreta pushed through her letter box”.  A woman like her was intended to embody all white people – vulnerable and overwhelmed by the aggressive and sexualised violence of people from the black Commonwealth.

It was all nods and knowing winks from Powell to the racists on the street. That’s not to say that a little old lady didn’t have poo put through her letter box.  But it sure as hell happened to a lot more Asian run newsagents at the hands of neo-fascists – a fact that conveniently escaped Powell.

Winston Churchill’s grandson was a prominent MP in the 1970s – same name as his granddad but less illustrious career. In 1976, he made a very Powell-esque speech himself. He imagined his constituents not being able to recognise their own neighbourhoods anymore.

We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”

Churchill, incidentally, once described one of his constituents to the House of Commons as being “as black as your coat, Mister Deputy Speaker”.

Sir Kenneth Newman of the Metropolitan Police had some positives in his career such as backing the formation of Crimestoppers. But he also opined that Jamaicans were incapable of obeying the law: “It’s simply in their make up, they’re constitutionally disposed to be anti-authority”.  Another commentator even said that mugging was a form of self-employment for “West Indians”.  Crime reporting in those days was often underpinned by the assumption that black people were more disposed to criminality.

Another knighted copper called Ken was Sir Kenneth Oxford running the force in Merseyside. BBC reporter Martin Young spent some time with the Liverpool police and wrote a report for The Listener magazine. Jaws dropped round Merseyside when he claimed there was a view that “half-castes in Liverpool today” were the “products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8 – the red light district”. Oxford bitterly denied that any senior police officer had said such a thing to the reporter – who in turn stood by his story.

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Alfred Sherman

Right-wing ideologues often conflated the perceived threat posed by immigrants – from the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean mainly – with the permissive society unleashed by the 1960s. Alfred Sherman was a political guru to Margaret Thatcher and once declared that:

“…the imposition of mass immigration from backward alien cultures is just one symptom of this self-destructive urge reflected in the assault on patriotism, the family – both as a conjugal and economic unit – the Christian religion in public life and schools, traditional morality in matters of sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law – in short, all that is English and wholesome…”

How did black Britons view this kind of thing? In the late 70s and early 80s, change was slowly happening. A new generation born and bred in Britain wasn’t prepared to doff its cap to the former colonial master. And they wanted to succeed in British society.

However, there was still very widespread discrimination in employment and housing. I found a copy of a teen mag called Fab208 – mentioned elsewhere on this blog – where a black single mother was interviewed about what Christmas would be like for her. Mrs Jones, who lived in a dingy flat in Wapping with her kids replied:  “I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide.”

There was so little room in the flat that clothes were hung up outside to dry but were then stolen. The family never went on holidays. Her 14 year old daughter Sharon told Fab208:  “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”

Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family.  “I’m not a sponger.  I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.” 

Shame Enoch Powell never dropped by to hear her account of life in Britain during the 70s and 80s.

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70s pop star in reinvention drama – circa 1979/80


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A nice plungline number
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Starlight Express???

Les McKeown was the lead singer of the Bay City Rollers – a teen sensation that in the mid-70s had pubescent girls screaming their heads off and fainting in public. The same girls might have been rooting for Donny Osmond a couple of years before but their loyalties now shifted – fickle as these teenyboppers were.

The Rollers look was all about the Tartan as the lads hailed from north of the border. Flared trousers with a tartan trim that stopped just below the knees – sounds awful because indeed it was. Just another sartorial atrocity from the early and mid 1970s.

Then punk came along and blew them and a load of other bands out of the proverbial water. Or maybe they’d just had their best times and the rot was inevitably setting in. There was also the little question of dubious management and missing millions. Les McKeown peeled off to try a solo career.

The result was a ditching of the Tartan and an attempt to embrace the end of the decade zeitgeist. Well, he was very popular in Japan. But the fame of just a few years before was to elude Mr McKeown. Here are two images that might shed some light on why UK audiences decided to move on.

Should mention in passing that I had a good mate at university in the early 80s who had gelled up blonde hair and when we wanted to insult him, we’d say he had a Rollers haircut. It was deemed to be the most offensive comment you could make about somebody’s barnet back then.

TRIVIA POINT: The Ramones were to eventually credit the Rollers song “Saturday Night” with inspiring the laddish chant in their hit “Blitzkrieg Bop”.  Listen to the chant in the Ramones song then compare with the Rollers below.

 

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Fascist infiltration of schools in the late 70s


There’s an increasing concern about neo-fascist infiltration of school playgrounds today – so it’s worth a quick glance back to what the situation was like in the late 70s and early 80s when neo-Nazis were very active among school pupils.

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The NF campaigned against individual teachers
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Publications promoting multiculturalism were lambasted by the fascists

Football terraces were good recruitment grounds for the far right but schools were another arena of activity.  In one report, there was a quote from a fascist group:

We welcome young people. We make or break them. Many are coming to us with the rise in unemployment. Skinheads are prime material – raw and aggressive. They need an identity. The whole point of getting children is to indoctrinate them. We are building a Nazi society through the youth of today.

Chilling stuff. The British Movement and National Front were particularly active. I recall one pupil from my school returning from a BM conference (from memory in Brussels in 1980) replete with skinhead cut and a perma-snarl. He walked up to me in the school library and informed me that I was a “pinko…leftie…etc”.  John Tyndall, chairman of the NF in the 70s said that “until children reach an age at which they are able to determine their own values, some sort of values have to be instilled into them”. According to the 1974 NF manifesto, schools were to be segregated on the basis of race and liberal studies – or “academic Marxism” as they called it – would be banned.

The NF’s youth wing took over the magazine Bulldog and that became its main recruiting tool in schools. It included a campaign to remove “red teachers” from the classroom. They sometimes found themselves competing with other far right groups like Viking Youth, led by Paul Jarvis – who was also looking for recruits in the Scout movement! The BM produced a publication called Fact Finder, which included a “Lie Detector”. According to this, the heroes of the Nuremburg Trials were those on trial! Needless to say, holocaust denial featured highly.

Reported incidents in 1980/81 included:

  • May 1980 – black pupils at a Camden school attacked by skinheads from the National Socialist Party of the United Kingdom
  • October 1980 – BM recruiting at schools in Dartford, Kent
  • October 1980 – Young National Front campaign against a teacher at a Dover school
  • February 1981 – Manchester school daubed with swastikas and NF symbols
  • March 1981 – 33 pupils, mostly Asian, leave a classroom at a Birmingham school before a fire-bomb explosion – racist attack suspected

Newspapers for and by the jobless in the early 1980s


After 1979, there was a calamitous rise in unemployment – especially among the youth. In northern cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – a kind of dole culture took hold. You could be forgiven for thinking that not having a job was the norm while being in work was some kind of privilege. Local authorities and trade unions funded unemployment centres. I recall the centre in Liverpool on Hardman Street with a pub attached at the back called The Flying Picket where you might bump into Alexei Sayle at the bar on some nights.

Some of these centres produced cheap newspapers for and by the unemployed. They would normally reflect the opinions of the dominant political group within the centre – often on the ultra-left. Here are some examples – note the attack on the TUC for not doing enough for the unemployed. A common theme at the time was that the Labour Party and trade union leadership were sadly wanting in the face of the Thatcherite onslaught.

 

David Bowie – it wasn’t always adulation


Well, for most of the time it was adulation in the 70s and 80s but Bowie wasn’t immune to criticism – particularly in the late 70s and early 80s when everything from his political views to musical relevance came under post-punk scrutiny. Here is flattering front page from the US new wave magazine Trouser Press but underneath is a less flattering letter in a British teen mag.

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The political end of Jeremy Thorpe – 1979


Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976.  He stepped down after an extraordinary scandal that gripped Britain at the time over allegations he had a gay relationship with a man called Norman Scott – and was then involved in a conspiracy to have Scott murdered.

The allegations had seeped out during the trial of Andrew Newton, a man who’d driven Scott out on to Exmoor and shot his dog – Rinka – a Great Dane. He then tried to shoot Scott but the gun was said to have jammed.

Scott used his appearance in court to reveal his relationship with Thorpe – claiming it happened in the early 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal. That was bad enough in the homophobic 1970s but worse came when Newton emerged from prison in 1977 to claim he had been hired to kill Scott.

There was then the hideous spectacle for the Liberal Party of its leader and deputy Treasurer David Holmes being put on trial with two others – just weeks before the general election of 1979. Thorpe had already stepped down as leader before Newton’s release – replaced by David Steel.

The electors of Devon North didn’t return Thorpe to parliament and as you can see in the video below, he cuts a miserable figure behind the victorious Tory. It’s not inconceivable that he might have lost in the Thatcherite tide but the trial certainly didn’t help.

A week after losing his seat, Thorpe and the others were put on trial for attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. A former Liberal MP testified against Thorpe claiming Scott had been a target. But on the 22nd June, 1979 – the ex-leader and the rest were acquitted.