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OP-ED: Forty years on, things are better -- but only just

  • Published at 03:04 am August 1st, 2021
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Racism remains a serious problem in the UK despite the progress made

In 1981, I was a member of the Conservative Party. Well, we are all allowed to make a few youthful indiscretions, surely?

I was living then in Basildon, a large so-called “new town” in South Essex that had been built just after WWII to rehouse Londoners who had been bombed out of their homes during the Blitz. It was a nice place to live and I wanted to do something to support my community. 

I had some good friends who were members of the local Tory association and in the summer of 1977 they invited me to join. It was the most non- political organization that I have ever known. 

Most of the members were middle-aged, middle class individuals with a real sense of community spirit. The majority of our meetings consisted of drinking tea, arranging fetes, and fund-raising for local good causes. Current affairs or politics were rarely, if ever, discussed. 

Then slowly and almost without anyone seeming to notice at first, things began to change. New members started to join who most certainly had a political agenda. They wanted to talk about privatizing the police force (I kid you not), banning trade unions and, above all else, halting immigration. I did some checking (not so easy in those pre-internet days) on just who these newcomers were. 

It transpired that many of them were former members of the far-right National Front (NF) who a few years before had actually stood against the Conservative party candidates in local elections. By 1979, many of them were now on the Tory Party ticket hoping for election to the council. 

Many of those I considered to be traditional Conservative members had now left the party or were reluctant to come to meetings. I still hung on.

1979 was also the year in which Margaret Thatcher was elected as our first woman Prime Minister. The rhetoric from the government and from our local party now seemed darker and more menacing. Thatcher spoke of white British people feeling “swamped” by immigrants. I now also stopped going to the meetings, but retained my membership.

Then came 1981. There were regular provocative marches by NF supporters through predominantly immigrant areas of many of our inner cities. Every street crime, however minor, that involved a black teenager seemed to be splashed daily across the front pages of the tabloids.  The country felt like a tinderbox.

In the early hours of the morning of Sunday January 18th of that year, an all-night birthday party for two black teenagers at number 439 New Cross Road in South London was just starting to wind down. At about 6am a fire broke out in one of the upstairs rooms and very quickly spread to the rest of the house. 

In the weeks and months leading up to the fire in New Cross, there had been a series of firebomb attacks on the homes and community centres of Asian and black people in London and elsewhere. Although it was never confirmed by the police, it is likely that this was the cause of the blaze at number 439. 

Thirteen young black people died in the fire. The newspapers ran with the story for a few days then lost interest and moved on. The events of that day have been vividly recalled in a series of documentaries shown at primetime across three nights on BBC TV last week. 

Through interviews with many of the survivors of the fire and contemporary news footage, Uprising by the Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen, told the depressing backstory to the fire: An openly racist police force; school teachers telling black children that they had no future in this country; the n-word frequently daubed on the walls and front doors of black people’s homes telling them to go back to where they came from.

The summer of 1981 saw riots in many of our major cities: Bristol, London, and Liverpool. The tabloids had a field day. The Sun newspaper was typical: “Blacks Run Riot in the Streets.”

Later that summer, three black youths were arrested in Bristol and charged with looting. Basildon’s Tory MP, Harvey Proctor, a great friend of Enoch “Rivers of Blood” Powell, issued a statement. 

He said that these boys should immediately be returned to their country of origin. But there was a bit of a problem with this; the lads, their parents, and their grandparents had all been born in the UK, so it was going to be difficult, to say the least, to determine exactly where this “country of origin” was.  

The local Tory party called an emergency meeting to issue a statement that 100% of the constituency members had voted to support Proctor’s declaration. 

I dragged myself out of my political retirement and went along. To call it hostile doesn’t do it justice. Anyone who raised even the slightest moral objection to the idea of deporting three young British citizens with British passports was booed, heckled, and spat upon. It showed how far the local party had changed; no more summer fetes with cucumber sandwiches. This was a baying racist mob.

My own modest attempts to remind the members of the so-called “party of law and order” that what they were proposing was not only illegal but morally wrong was met with bottles and chairs being thrown at me on the stage.

I resigned my membership that night. But not before the vote had been taken. The result was that not all members of the Basildon Conservative Association had voted in favour of the MP’s motion that night. The next day the newspapers reported that one member of the party (me) had voted against. 

It was a very small and hollow victory and I never voted Conservative again.

Things are far from perfect in this country in regards to racism but they are much better than they were at the time of the New Cross fire and what followed. Those who still harbour such vile opinions know that the vast majority of people in the UK do not share their warped view of the world. 

Times have changed. Where once racist language and an allegiance to a racist ideology was spoken about quite openly, now it is not. Those who continue to believe this rubbish know that if they spout it in a one-to-one situation, they are likely to be called out. 

It is far safer for them to hide in a football crowd and chant offensive slogans or shelter behind the anonymity of a Twitter pseudonym and troll black footballers who miss penalties, than to do it openly. 

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. 

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.