In 1998, St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel was renamed the Altab Ali Park. The church of St Mary’s that once stood there had been completely destroyed in the Blitz and the new name was felt to be more relevant to the area’s growingly confident Bangladeshi community.
But who exactly was Altab Ali?
Visitors to the nearby Brick Lane market can glimpse the new park gate with its Bengali design surmounted on what’s left of the old church wall. They might attribute it to the emergence of what’s been termed BanglaTown, the vibrant immigrant success story of today’s east London.
However, in 1978, the name of Altab Ali hit the local headlines as yet another victim from an embattled community. Twenty five year old Altab, a clothing worker, had been on his way home from work when three white youths attacked and killed him.
If this had been an isolated incident of “paki bashing”, it might not have triggered the wave of fury that now burst out of this corner of the East End. Ten days after his death, thousands of Bangladeshis filed behind Altab’s coffin, on the 14th May, as it was carried all the way to Hyde Park for a demonstration.
This was about as public a display of being fed up as London had ever seen. To understand the depth of feeling behind this long funeral cortege, it’s worth flicking through a dossier that the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council published that year aptly titled ‘Blood on the Streets’.
It’s a dispiriting catalogue of far right violence combined with either police ineptitude or indifference – it’s hard to tell which. The list of thuggish incursions in to the area begins with a hundred and fifty skinheads storming Brick Lane in a show of strength just a month after Altab Ali’s murder.
On 11th June, they rampaged down the street terrorising market stallholders and shopkeepers. What might have riled them was the emergence of Asian youth organizations that were taking a more strident stance against fascist hooligans. For the first time, Bengali boys were hitting back and the skinheads did not approve.
The white youths mustered at the top of Brick Lane. Seeing them gather, the owner of a sari shop phoned the police begging for assistance. None came. Nobody from the local constabulary would arrive till after the mob had run amok with their excuse being that the phone call to the station had come during a change over of shifts.
The next month saw an attack that was far more audacious and would spark off an area wide strike by Asian workers and a one day shut down of businesses.
On the 6th July, thirty white men turned up at the Charrington Bottling Plant in Bow armed with clubs and bricks. Incredibly, they began setting about the sixty or so Asian workers at the plant causing several injuries. Police were to claim afterwards that there was no discernible racial motive involved.
September brought a report in The East London and Hackney Advertiser about an Asian family forced to live in a back room of their own house for six weeks as it came under sustained bombardment with various objects. The police had been called and visited but said they were otherwise powerless to stop the damage being done or prevent the death threats.
In many of these cases there was perceived to be a marked unwillingness by the police to investigate alleged crimes or to prosecute attackers. For example, one Asian motorist attacked by a white van driver was curtly informed that the police would look in to the matter of dangerous driving by his assailant but the assault itself was a civil, not a criminal matter.
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…
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.
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.
In July, 1981, David Moore was killed during the Toxteth riots. A disabled man, he was one of a small number of fatalities during that year’s summer of violence. Using several sources from the time, I’ve pieced together his story. It’s a unique insight into the stormy events of the summer of 1981:
As a baby, Liverpool born David Moore developed the condition enteritis – an inflammation of the small intestine normally caused by ingesting something contaminated. He wasn’t expected to live but somehow managed to pull through. In many ways this early brush with death presaged what was to come in his short, unhappy life.
At eight years of age, David was waiting at a bus stop in the Dingle area, where he came from. The Dingle was in the ‘South End’ of the city, cheek by jowl with neighbourhoods in Liverpool 8 where most of Liverpool’s black population lived. Together with the grand villas circling Sefton Park, a vast green space created by philanthropic Victorians, this area comprised a district called Toxteth.
As David waited for the bus, some girls were messing around on the pavement nearby. An outwardly anxious boy, he might have been a target of their ridicule or else the misfortune that now befell him could just have been a random accident. David was shoved by one of the girls and fell in to the path of the oncoming green and yellow double decker.
His right leg was crushed under its wheels and with it any hope of leading the semblance of a normal, cheerful life. In the years that followed, he would have to endure one hospital appointment after another involving corrective surgery and physio. The efforts of medical staff could not prevent David walking the rest of his days with a pronounced limp. Friends even noted his left foot always seemed to point downwards as if he was forced to walk on his toes.
Clearly this meant he couldn’t move all that quickly.
“In fact,” his brother in law John Flynn would note, “I hardly ever remember him running.”
Compounding his physical problems was his inability to learn quickly. With a crushed self-esteem, it was hardly surprising that David did not achieve academically. Sent to Dingle Lane Special School, he became something of a loner without friends. Unable to socialise successfully, he would slink off home and play with his toys hiding away the lame leg that caused him so much shame.
Desperate for some social acceptance, he found himself as a teenager trying to impress other youths with acts of idiotic bravado. It made him feel ‘big’ when he came to the attention of the police and he hoped it would make the street gangs like and even respect him a bit.
“He was really like the story book child,” his mother Agnes said, “when he was good, he was very good. But when he was bad, he was up to all kinds of mischief. But there was no badness in the boy.”
As both the port and factories shed jobs in the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, David would have considered himself lucky to have a job in the council’s parks and gardens department. Then, and even more so now, the public sector was a major employer in the city and the ‘Corpy’ – city corporation – was a lifeline to thousands of Merseyside families.
David earned around £50 a week, a king’s ransom compared to being on the dole. He’d give his mum about £30 of that sum to cover his living costs and help with her budgeting. When the parks and gardens job came to an end, he tried his hand on building sites but not being physically strong meant his time as a ‘brickie’ was short lived.
Increasingly, David was consigned to ever-longer periods on the dole queue along with most of his age group. Being without work was becoming the norm whether you were a black youth in Liverpool 8 or a white working class kid in the neighbouring Dingle. In a 1983 parliamentary response to a question from a Merseyside MP, the secretary of state for employment Peter Morrison made it clear that state intervention was no longer considered an answer to chronic levels of unemployment.
“Jobs will come to Merseyside when companies produce goods which customers will buy. I have great confidence that the people of Merseyside will rise to this challenge.”
While on the dole, David halved the amount he gave to his mum so now she got £15 a week. Always keen to make money in any way he could, David would go door to door asking people if they wanted their hedges cut or windows cleaned but the sight of this awkward looking young man led to the door being shut more often than not.
One usual routine he had was to visit his eighty one year old Auntie Ann. She lived on the second floor of a block of flats in Speke, quite a way out of the city centre. Mrs Ann Green wasn’t David’s real aunt but a companion he had made who he called his ‘auntie’. It didn’t really matter to the young man whether she was formally a member of his family or not.
Like so many who had been forced to fill in Unemployment Benefit Form 40, David was bored stupid without work and any friendly and chatty company was sought out and nurtured. For the past three years, he had brought Auntie Ann Christmas and birthday presents and in between time, just watched the TV at her house exchanging small talk.
David had redecorated the chimney breast in the living room and the two had agreed that if she could get her hands on some paint, they would do up the bathroom together. If necessary, he could stay overnight in the room he slept in most Sunday nights as part of a routine that had developed. This small space with the posters he put up on the walls was a refuge in to which he could retreat from the outside world.
But on one fateful weekend, he decided not to make his usual stay and instead to go back home to his mum. It might have been the reports of rioting in Liverpool that on the local TV news that made him want to return. So leaving the small, elderly lady, they shared one last joke then he turned away.
“I’ll see you on Sunday Auntie Ann.”
The violence between youth and police, or “bizzies” in the local Scouse slang, had already been going on for three weeks – an unprecedented period of disorder not seen elsewhere, even in Brixton. The epicentre of the trouble was Upper Parliament Street – or the “Parli”. This was a haunting Victorian boulevard lined with chunky bourgeois properties that were either derelict or subdivided in to bedsits and student digs. It still has a vibe to me of Malcolm X Boulevard, the long nineteenth century street that links Harlem to Central Park in New York. Unlike Brixton, Toxteth had wide streets and grassed open spaces that meant the riots were spread over a bigger area, were harder to contain and resembling something approaching a battle.
The Parli was the heart of the city’s black community, a long-standing neighbourhood with a large mixed race element that seemed strangely divorced from the rest of the city. Only a short bus ride from Upper Parliament Street brought you in to the University precinct or down in to the main shopping area of Liverpool. Yet as a Londoner arriving as a student in Liverpool in 1981, I was immediately struck by how few black faces I saw in the town centre or in bars and clubs.
Official figures confirm that out of 22,000 people working for Liverpool City Council at the time of the riots, only 169 were black. It was estimated that unemployment was running at something like 60% in the black community and in areas where blacks had been employed elsewhere in the UK, like public transport, there was hardly a black face to be seen. In Liverpool’s schools, only two governors were black and poor academic performance was endemic.
April of 1981 saw an anti-crime police drive in Brixton, south London – Operation Swamp – ignite several nights of violence. Three months later, on Friday 3rd July, it would take the arrest by police of 20 year old Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Shelbourne Street in Toxteth to provide the spark for a riot that would match Brixton in scale and intensity. The youth had been chased on a motorbike and fallen off as the police caught up with him. As they tried to question the young man, a small crowd pulled him away and tempers quickly heated. He was later arrested and appeared in court charged with wounding with intent to harm three police officers.
The first night involved scuffles, an arrest and some injuries on both sides but after this Toxteth simmered with a glowering rage. On the following night, an anonymous caller to the police reported a stolen car and officers who went to investigate were pelted with bricks and stones. This was the first skirmish of what would be a very long night of violence.
Eyewitness accounts from the time described a dairy and a car hire shop at the top of Upper Parliament Street providing a fortuitous combination for the rioters. A group of youths took the milk bottles from the dairy and filled them with petrol from the car hire outlet. The police line that was attempting to advance up Parli suddenly found itself at the receiving end of blazing Molotov cocktails.
Worse was to come as the actual hire cars were enlisted for use against the police line. Rather like the game of dare with stolen cars in the 1950s movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, youths jammed the accelerators with bricks then drove at pull speed towards the police jumping out before impact. “The police scattered like flies each time a driverless car screeched down at them,” an eye-witness later said. One press report called the action a wild “dodgem game”.
A police officer remembered one car “hit a lamp-post and burst in to flames. If it had stayed on course, it could have killed someone.” But it wasn’t just the cars that were hurtling towards the police line. The Daily Express, in its coverage that weekend, claimed that twelve milk floats from the dairy were driven in a similar manner while two hundred youths built barricades of flaming car tyres sending a pall of smoke rising high above Liverpool.
“There was a hail of missiles,” Constable Chris Gregory, as he then was, recalled, “We were asked to go forward. It took us all our time to hold the thin blue line and protect ourselves. It was like Belfast.”
One witness saw a JCB digger used as a “tank” with Molotov cocktail wielding rioters edging gingerly behind it until they were close enough to throw their missiles with deadly effect. The JCB would then retreat before another onslaught. It was also alleged that the heavy-duty vehicle was used to take chunks out of buildings, accounting for a small number of the two hundred properties that would be razed to the ground or burnt down in the days of rioting ahead.
Kenneth Oxford, the even more dour than usual Chief Constable of Merseyside, called on forces in Cheshire and Lancashire to come to his assistance. Ironically, finding common cause with many of the political Left, Oxford dismissed claims that the disturbances were a race riot. But that’s where the overlap in analysis abruptly ended. For the Left, it was proof that growing unemployment had driven the youth to the streets. To Ken Oxford, there was a wholly different reason.
“The situation is anti-discipline and anti-authority. It is the action of a band of hooligans who do not want to live in a civilised society.” Oxford denied claims that police had harassed local black youth and, as with similar allegations made against police in Brixton, that he had deluged the area with officers in the run up to the violence.
But local activist John Arboin of the Jamaica House community group countered that the growing police presence in the area had been seen as a provocation. With very poor relations between the forces of law and order and the people of Toxteth, this could only be seen as an act of aggression. “There was nothing going on,” Arboin said, “People were ringing up asking for them to be withdrawn.”
One of those officers drafted in by Oxford came from across the Mersey, picked up by a police van trawling for as many officers as could be mustered at speed. Jeff Ashcroft was from Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula, a part of Merseyside that had always slightly resented being carved out of more posh Cheshire when the metropolitan county was created. Ashcroft was looking forward to a “cold pint of bitter” after a day shift but now found himself driven to the Parli.
“We could hear this strange animal-like howling mixed with the sound of breaking glass. In hurried amazement and fear we lined up and were quickly given a riot shield, something I’d only seen before on the news from Belfast. Following a very nervous sergeant, we walked around the corner into hell.”
What he saw was the line of police officers and beyond that, the fires beyond. Then he clapped eyes on his first Molotov cocktail.
“Like a small meteorite, I watched in awe as it arced down over the tops of the officers, to fall with a smash and flash of fire onto the street between them and me.”
He was then told that he and his colleagues had been brought in to relieve those on the front line. His “stupid little plastic face guard” gave no protection from the missiles that rained down including stones and bits of iron railing. There was no shortage of iron railings in an area clogged with grand old Victorian houses.
During the fracas, there seemed to be a breakdown in command as dawn broke and Ashcroft claimed the officers ignored orders to hold the line. Instead, instinctively and fed up, they drew their batons and charged – some throwing away their shields as they made for the rioters. By 7am, something resembling order had been achieved amid the smoking ruins and debris.
Withdrawal was not an option for Oxford. Sunday saw no let up in the action and by 2am on Monday morning, there were so many fires burning that a police spokesman said it was as “bright as day”. 140 police had now been injured with one “speared” in the head by a railing used as a javelin at the police line.
Sunday night to Monday morning was arguably the worst night thus far. The Racquet Club, an anachronistic relic from the area’s more salubrious past, went up in flames but the inferno threatened the Princes Park Geriatric Hospital whose patients were still within the building. Ambulance workers appealed to the rioters for a halt while they ferried out the elderly occupants, one ambulance at a time.
It was during this break in the action that Oxford made a momentous decision. In his subsequent report, the Chief Constable wrote that “the single offensive tactic we possessed, the baton charge, proved increasingly ineffective”. He now gave the order to use CS gas – the first time this had been deployed in mainland Britain. The New Statesman claimed nearly a fortnight later that a total of fifty-nine gas projectiles were fired in to the crowd to disperse them.
I can remember people telling me that they were in local drinking clubs in the small hours of Monday morning when CS gas wafted in from outside and left everybody choking. One story had it that a canister rolled through a grate and in to a basement club clearing the place. Obviously, all these anecdotes have to be taken with a requisite pinch of salt but nobody doubts that the air of Toxteth reeked of a foul smelling, choking gas.
The fear that Oxford claimed motivated his decision was the fact that Upper Parliament Street was a thoroughfare that led directly to the heart of the city. The rioters could not be allowed to break out of Liverpool 8 and in to Liverpool’s commercial heart.
But the Home Office authorised use of CS gas specifically to flush out armed gunmen, not as in this case to be directed at a crowd. Civil liberties campaigners, the New Statesman and Labour politicians, made this point in the days of heated debate that followed. Oxford countered that the canisters had been fired at walls and other objects like cars and anybody injured had been the unintended victim of a ricocheting canister. If this was the case then Phil Robins was spectacularly unlucky in that he was hit twice, in the chest and back, with one wound the size of an “egg shaped hole”.
The first night of the Toxteth riot coincided with a pitched battle between skinheads and Asian youth in the Southall district of London. After the first weekend of chaos in Liverpool, the Moss Side area of Manchester obligingly erupted with a one thousand strong mob surrounding a police station. From there, it was one so-called “copycat” riot after another across the country.
In Liverpool, a furniture warehouse owned by a former Conservative councillor went up in flames while more discerning rioters, according to the Conservative MP for suburban Wavertree Anthony Steen, even looted works of art. Steen’s local association operated a tea and coffee house called Thatcher’s that had all its windows smashed at a cost of £800 to replace. I recall this tea house being picketed by young Labour Party members in Thatcher masks to the consternation of the blue-rinse ladies within.
Having left his Auntie Ann in Speke, David felt he better check in on his sister Morag and her husband, John Flynn, as the riots had been happening very close to where they lived. All this talk on the TV of clashes on the streets made him extremely nervous. David was prone to bouts of anxiety and chewed his fingernails to the bone. To calm himself, David had a few drinks in the pub before knocking on Morag’s door.
He eventually got to John and Morag’s flat and watched the telly for a while with them. He then left but barely quarter of an hour later there was an insistent knocking at the front with David asking to be let back in. There had been trouble in the Grove Street area and he wanted to be accompanied to the bus stop.
David might just have been thrown off balance after finding out that his usual bus, the 72, had been re-routed away from the northern side of Upper Parliament Street and towards Smithdown Road and Lodge Lane. In order to get the right bus, it would have been more judicious to walk towards the city centre and away from the rioters but unknowingly, he and John decided to find a stop still in use on the Smithdown Road.
As the two men walked briskly past a new housing development, the land rose slightly in to a small grassed over hill. These patches of green masked an absence of houses either bombed away by the Luftwaffe or fallen victim to post-war town planners.
It was on this mound that a terrifying vision presented itself. First there was the sound of missiles thudding off the side of police vans and Molotov cocktails being thrown and exploding on impact. Cries of ‘Get Them!’ coming from either rioters or police, it was hard to tell.
A dark blue police van was engaging in a familiar riot control tactic of charging the demonstrators to disperse them. As it sped forward, the rioters bolted directly towards David and John. The expressions on their faces were full of anger and the two men froze in the face of the oncoming spectacle.
As the crowd overwhelmed them, they were separated with David trying to run but it was more of a pathetic hopping movement. John stayed on the grassy hill to avoid the police van but David craved the flat pavement where he could find his balance more easily.
John thought he heard David call to him as the van moved in the disabled man’s direction. With headlights full on and hovering between the grass and pavement, the vehicle was moving in David’s ill-chosen spot. All around, rioters were frantically climbing fences in to the housing estate to get away.
“I heard a sound like a soggy thump,” John would later recount.
As if in a bad dream, John moved towards the small crowd that had formed on the pavement and looked down. Four times, he claimed, he stared towards the prone figure but only on the fifth occasion could he assure himself that it was David.
The left side of his face was swollen and a gash had opened up on the right side leaving large fingers of blood streaked across his face. John tried to make sense of the contorted pattern on his brother-in-law’s neck before realising they were tyre marks.
Local Labour councillor Pauline Dunlop crouched over David in a scene that had an almost Pieta-like pathos. Captured on camera, Pauline looked in to the lens with a blank despair, recognising that very little could be done for the youth at her feet.
“He was unconscious and then regained consciousness for a few minutes before he went in the ambulance. He just said that his leg hurt, that he didn’t want this to happen, that he was not doing anything.”
Accounts of what had actually happened to David were embroidered with every telling. The most reliably witnesses saw him hit once at speed by the van. But that didn’t stop one teenager telling a journalist a more gruesome and widely circulating story.
“My mate seen it with his own eyes. The van ran over him once and then reversed and ran over him again on purpose.”
David’s mum was at home watching the TV when a firm knock came at the front door. The police officer found it almost impossible to relay the true situation and fumbled for a line about David being slightly injured and could Agnes Moore, known to her friends as ‘Nance’, ring the hospital to see if her son was being discharged soon.
Incredibly David was still alive and in great pain but his condition was extremely grave. As Charles and Diana processed down the aisle of Saint Paul’s cathedral in front of a global TV audience of 750 million, the most watched programme ever, Britons enjoyed a public holiday to mark the occasion.
The comedy team from the BBC’s ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ produced a pretty tame spoof souvenir programme called ‘Not the Royal Wedding’ with Griff Rhys Jones in drag as an unlikely Lady Di and Rowan Atkinson as Prince Charles. But most commentary was unreservedly glowing for the first marriage of a Prince of Wales since 1863. The multi-thousand guest list brought together the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with comedian Spike Milligan and Nancy Reagan, wife of the US president in what was undeniably a glittering occasion.
For Agnes Moore though, the day brought the untimely death of her son. As news of this swept through Liverpool 8, youths gathered on street corners with renewed intent. Once again, the air filled with petrol bombs, stones and pieces of wood hailing down on police lines in what was to be the most severe outbreak of rioting since the first weekend in July.
Those who had seen David’s fatal accident didn’t seem to know what to make of it with 59 year old Lillian Pearse, a resident on St Nathaniel Street saying that the driver must have known he’d hit David but just drove on “at a hell of a speed”.
“If this lad had run away with the others down an alleyway he would have been all right.”
Ken Oxford, clearly stung by criticism of his previous tactics, pointed out that the tactic of driving at rioters, something he readily admitted was done, had to be preferable to using CS gas. “I would much rather use this form of dispersal,” he added.
David had the posthumous distinction of edging the Royal Wedding to one half of the front page of the Daily Post, Merseyside’s other main newspaper. “In Love” was proclaimed in bold, large type above an image of Charles and Diana kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. But next to the fairy tale romance was a smudgy image of David with the more sober warning “New Riot fears as man dies”.
For David’s mother, his passing away proved to be yet another hammer blow on top of so many that she had endured. Just two years earlier, her oldest son Malcolm had died at just 24 years of age of a sudden inflammation of the brain. He had been serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland, a familiar route out of dole misery for many working class boys.
In December, 1980, her husband had suffered a fatal heart attack while working as an engineer for the state run rail network, British Rail. And now, only seven months later – Agnes had to take on board the loss of David. The boy she had always enjoyed a close bond with as the weakest child of seven who needed that much more love and care.
For Auntie Ann, the pain was unbearable.
“My nerves just went. I went a bit hysterical then. I was screaming, top note. I’m sure the neighbours must have thought I’d hurt myself.”
For the rest of her life, Ann kept the bedroom that David slept in most Sunday nights as a kind of shrine. Agnes, meanwhile, got in to spiritualism having been informed by a medium that her disabled son was sitting in a chair in the house trying to speak to her. One of the last gifts David had given his mum was a yucca plant.
“It’s growing like anything,” she said admiringly, “he must come down and see to it himself.”
But not that tenuous! In 1964, the Tories fought one of the most odious elections in British political history. The seat of Smethwick was held by Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker – tipped to be foreign minister in a Harold Wilson Labour government. Local Tory councillor Peter Griffiths ran against him and the big issue of the campaign rapidly became immigration.
The Conservative Party has denied that it originated the slogan that appeared all over the constituency – ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. But after Griffiths achieved a shock victory, prime minister Harold Wilson was moved to demand that he be treated as a ‘parliamentary leper’.
So well reported was the racial poison spread around in the Smethwick election that Malcolm X paid the constituency a visit in 1965.
The 1960s was a decade of contrasts in Britain with a hip and swinging middle class in London liberating itself while outside the metropolitan elite, bigotry and narrow mindedness was still highly prevalent. Griffiths served two years before being thrown out in the snap election called by Wilson in 1966. And that might have been the end of him…but then along came the seismic shift to the right in 1979.
Up popped Griffiths in Portsmouth North where he road the coat tails of Maggie’s Tory whirlwind. It seemed he fitted into the new political order. And almost as if he was a barometer of British political fortunes, he remained in that seat until 1997 when he was felled by the swing to Tony Blair.
So what did Maggie think about race issues in the 70s and 80s. One of her key advisers, Alfred Sherman, had views on ethnic minority issues that would be regarded as slightly beyond the pale in our more inclusive times. One such was that immigration had been from cultures that were alien to English values including “sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law”.
A recurring theme from Sherman was that waves of immigrants from ‘alien cultures’ had resulted in a loss of control of what it meant to be British. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Margaret Thatcher similarly remarked in 1978 on TV that many Britons “fear rather being swamped by an alien culture”.
Behind Thatcher, on the Tory backbenches, views on immigration and race relations were a touch reactionary. In one debate on immigration in the House of Commons on 5th July, 1976 – some rum comments were made.
Winston Churchill’s grandson, who shared the same name but not the same glittering career as the war leader, thought the tolerance and generosity of the British people was being tested to the limit.
“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.”
During the 1976 debate, Churchill pointed out that a West Indian had told him at his MP’s surgery that he would remove his daughter from a school, which was 75% immigrant, because she had no chance of a ‘proper English education’. Churchill added, “that man was as black as your coat, Mr Deputy Speaker”.
John Stokes, MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge claimed that a petition to the Home Office might be replied to in six weeks but an “immigrant leader” who wanted to see the Prime Minister would get an audience in two days.
He went on to claim that a vast gap existed between what he called the pro-immigrant camp – made up of race relations people, intellectuals, the media and do-gooders – and “the ordinary people who look to us in the House of Commons for protection”.
“They do not want a multi-racial society. They do not believe that integration will work.”
And in case anybody thought that by immigration, the Commons debate might be referring to all those who entered the UK, George Rodgers – MP for Chorley – put them on the right track. “The difficulties revolve around the colour of people’s skins. We should bear that in mind and recognise the problem, not avoid it.”
And so it went on with Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield, even demanding that the then Labour government apologise to Enoch Powell for the comments they had made after his notorious 1968 anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech.
Three years later, the 1979 Conservative Manifesto would include proposals for toughening up of immigration policy directly under its promises on fighting crime. It acknowledged that the ethnic minorities had made a valuable contribution to the life of the nation.
“But firm immigration control for the future is essential if we are to achieve good community relations”.
Wood Green is dominated by a great red brick hulk of a 1970s shopping centre, called Shopping City (or at least it was when I lived there in the 1990s). It’s been Riot City in the past. One major disturbance was in 1977 when the far right National Front marched through an area that then, as now, was ethnically mixed and very cosmopolitan.
The result was inevitable. Throughout the late 70s, fascists and anti-fascists faced off up and down the country as racist parties thrived in an atmosphere of economic decline and growing unemployment. The Wood Green clash led to fifty arrests and thirteen injuries as a result of broken bottles, stone throwing and smoke bombs. Reportedly, something resembling a bullet was fired through a shop window and one witness claimed a National Front marcher had been aiming at two black children – an unsubstantiated allegation I should point out.
One press report said the Wood Green incident was the biggest “race demonstration” since a notoriously violent fracas in Red Lion Square in 1974 when a student was killed fighting the NF. In Wood Green, the police line broke several times and demonstrators got to lash out at each other at close range.
During the 1979 General Election, the NF continued to be a very vocal presence and provoked a riot in Southall, London. But after the Thatcher victory, the NF diminished as a force and after various splits and fall outs, the British National Party would eventually emerge as the main far right party.