The presence of Black people in Parliament is no coincidence but the result of a conscious effort to break free
MPs Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott during the heated debate on black sections at Labour party conference in Brighton, 1987 | PA Images
Gary Younge explores how the seminal moments in Black History and British Politics continue to intersect inside and outside Westminster
I remember the first time I admitted that I was British. It was 1987 and I was 18 and teaching at an Eritrean refugee school in Sudan. Up until that point I would tell people I was from Barbados, where my parents were from, even though I’d only been there once for six weeks aged four and was born in Hitchin. British was not a garment that fit easily. In a myriad ways, both subtle and brazen, I was constantly being told I could never fully be a part of the only country I’d ever known. When people asked me where I was from Stevenage was not the answer they were looking for.
So there I was in Sudan claiming a country I barely knew. And when I told people I lived in England they did not believe me. England, to them, meant white people. They assumed I really meant America.
Then in June that year one of my Sudanese friends ran up to me, thrusting an Arabic-language newspaper that I couldn’t read in my face and congratulating me on the victory of my ‘compatriots’. Black MPs had been elected to the House of Commons and news had reached Sudan. Now there was not only proof but congratulations. Black Britons did exist. I was not just making it up. It was the start of me feeling there was a story I could tell that others would understand.
“About 50 years from now, future historians…will presumably devote a chapter to the coloured minority group in this country,” wrote Ruth Glass in Newcomers: The West Indians in London in 1960. “They will say that although this group was small, it was an important, indeed an essential, one. For its arrival and growth gave British society an opportunity of recognising its own blind spots and also of looking beyond its own nose to a widening horizon of human integrity. They will point out that the relations between white and coloured people in this country were a test of Britain’s ability to fulfil the demands for progressive rationality in social organisation, so urgently imposed in the latter half of the 20th century.”
Over time the question of black people’s right to be in Britain was no longer seriously contested, even if their access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to thrive was not yet assured
The arrival of Black people into Parliament was an important part of that test. It was an indication of the degree to which Britain could accommodate them into the power structure and, potentially, the extent to which that power structure might change as a result of their presence.
Black people had long been central to Britain’s development as a nation, through their unpaid labour under slavery and the resources taken from their countries under colonialism. “This small island,” said Winston Churchill, “[is] dependent for our daily bread on our trade and imperial connections. Cut this away and at least a third of our population must vanish speedily from the face of the earth.”
But for the longest time the British public feigned to be unaware of how the “Great” had been put into Great Britain.
“It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire,” wrote George Orwell in England Your England in 1941. “In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the Empire exists.”
But the arrival of significant numbers from the Caribbean following the war would force a reckoning with the nation’s imperial adventures. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan, the late Sri Lankan-born intellectual and editor of Race And Class, explained of the post-colonial presence in Britain: “We are here because you were there.” But, of course, if you did not know that ‘you were there’ then the presence of those from elsewhere would be confusing.
But there is more to politics than Parliament, and in the absence of representation in Westminster Black Britons had to develop their own means of asserting their rightful place in Britain’s civic life both as citizens and migrants.
This was no easy task. After teddy boys went “n****r hunting” in Nottingham and West London – effectively unleashing a pogrom on Black residents and leading to riots in 1958 – the debate centred not around confronting the racism stemming from the arrival of Black people, many of whom were citizens of the Empire, but on the belief that their very presence was the cause of the racism.
This led to the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which effectively put an end to Black immigration from the colonies, branded by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at the time as “miserable, shameful, shabby” and a “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”. My mother got in just under the wire – granted her right of entry shortly before the restrictions were passed, and arriving shortly after they began. I still have the passport – the old blue hardbacked with a lion and a unicorn perched on Latin script and embossed in gold, issued by The Governor of Barbados “in the name of Her Majesty” and cites as her national status “British Subject: Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies.”
The black and white picture inside is of a teenager, just 19, with high cheeks, high hair and high hopes.
The Brixton Riots, 1981
A range of immigration and nationality laws aimed at restricting numbers would follow, in 1968, 1971 and 1981 and beyond. Legislative efforts to protect the rights of those already in the country followed with the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 and beyond which sought ever stiffer sanctions against discrimination on the grounds of race.
In response to the 1958 attacks Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian activist, initiated a carnival that was first held in St. Pancras Hall in London before moving on to the streets of Notting Hill to become Europe’s biggest street festival. “We disrobed ourselves of our urban, cosmopolitan, adopted English ways,” the Trinidadian-born actress Corinne Scott Carter told me, recalling travelling on the underground in full carnival regalia for that first event. “And robed ourselves in our own visible cultural mantle.”
In 1963 Bristol saw a bus boycott after the local bus company refused to hire Black bus crews in the city.
Friction between Black youth and the police, a long-running sore, episodically exploded. In 1970 nine Black activists were tried and acquitted of inciting a riot after police targeted the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, accusing those who gathered there of criminality – the first judicial acknowledgement of behaviour motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police.
A 1981 house fire in New Cross, London left 13 Black people, aged between 14 and 22, dead. Accusations of police indifference to unfounded allegations that the fire was racially motivated, prompted a Black people’s day of action with a 20,000 strong march from Fordham Park to Hyde Park. Later that year there were a series of rebellions across the country in Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds, in Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Moss Side in Manchester, against police harassment in a period of mass unemployment.
Throughout this time, beyond the most egregious expressions of blatant bigotry, the Black community could rely on just a relatively few MPs to argue their case and explain their context within the House.
As such, the arrival of Black MPs into Parliament in 1987 was no coincidence but an effort to break free from the marginalisation and alienation from mainstream politics.
This did not, of course, put an end to racism. But it was part of an evolution in how Britons understood racial and national identity. Over time the question of Black people’s right to be in Britain was no longer seriously contested, even if their access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to thrive was not yet assured. Whether in sport, literature, drama, music or politics it was no longer possible to imagine the country without them. Unpick them from the national tapestry and the entire fabric would unravel. The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, and tireless campaigning of his parents for an inquiry into how and why the investigation into his death was poorly handled by the Metropolitan police, illustrated the degree to which the political struggles of Black people continued to combine efforts outside Parliament to force action inside. The subsequent report would reshape British conversations about race and policing for at least a generation.
In the years to come Black representation would grow in Parliament so that we now have the most diverse Parliament and cabinet in history.
Thinking back to my 18-year-old self, trying to make sense of my racial identity, I know how important this is. But in itself, it is insufficient. As the Black Lives Matter protests raged this summer, one Black woman who was once in Parliament died. After 50 years in Britain Paulette Wilson, who once worked as a cook in the Commons canteen, was threatened with deportation during the Windrush scandal. She died a “broken women” and a symbol of how far we have to go.
Gary Younge is a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and the former editor-at-large for The Guardian. A new edition of his Who Are We? How Identity Politics Took Over the World appeared in September 2020