Bernie Grant

African Rebel

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 3

For black Britain, the political scene is largely devoid of heroes. The standout politicians admired by the general British public include the likes of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher; both of whom expressed abhorrent views of black communities both at home and abroad.

One British politician who perhaps deserves greater regard is Bernie Grant, one of the first black Members of Parliament and an uncompromising Pan-Africanist.

Bernie was born on 17 February 1944 in Georgetown, Guyana. As a child, he attended the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic School, before winning a scholarship to attend St. Stanislaus College.

Bernie moved to England in 1963 and attended Tottenham Technical College, before going on to study engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Known for his radical engagement in student politics, Bernie was said to be popular amongst his peers. In 1969, Bernie left Heriot-Watt in protest against its discriminatory practices, when he learned that a scholarship programme to South Africa was offered exclusively to white students.

The 1970s saw Bernie begin his engagement with trade unions; working with the Union of Post Office Workers to improve pay and working conditions. Bernie also served as an official with the National Union of Public Employees, a trade union that represented public sector workers.

Politics became a larger focus for Bernie and this period of his life saw him engage with elements of the political left. Bernie joined the Tottenham Labour Party in 1973, holding numerous positions before being elected as a member of Haringey Council in 1978. Bernie's passion for justice and his roots in the trade union movement saw him found the Black Trades Unionists Solidarity Movement, an organisation designed to 'fight against racism and for positive action for black workers', where he worked full time between 1981 and 1984.

In 1985 Bernie was elected Leader of the Haringey Council, making him the first black leader of a local unit of government in British history. Later that year, Bernie would get his first taste of nationwide notoriety for his often misquoted comments following the Broadwater Farm Protests.

Despite the backlash from the British media and calls for him to step down from within his own party, Bernie was elected to Parliament in 1987. Defeating the incumbent of 23 years, Norman Atkinson, and in doing so becoming one of the first black members of British national government alongside Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng.

Bernie arrived at his first State Opening of Parliament in traditional West African attire, widely quoted to be Ghanaian, which in itself caused widespread derision from the British media/public.

Bernie's time in Parliament saw him champion police reform, health equity, fair housing, a multi-racial school curriculum and greater investment in the black community.

In 1988, Bernie founded the Parliamentary Black Caucus (PBC), an organisation focused on the political, economic and social advancement of black people in Britain. Bernie told members at the 1989 inaugural conference that:

"For far too long the black community has had no voice in Britain and we are seeking to redress that."

Internationally, Bernie fought for the elimination of overseas debt for developing nations, and for the recognition of the impact of past injustices, such as colonisation and enslavement.

Other notable accolades include:

  • Chair of the All-Party Group on Race and Community

  • Chair of the British Caribbean Group

  • Founded the Standing Conference on Racism in Europe

  • Established the Africa Reparations Movement in Britain

  • Established a major arts and cultural facility in his local constituency, posthumously called The Bernie Grant Centre

Bernie's legacy is one of an unyielding determination for equality, justice and empowerment both at home and abroad.

Following Bernie's death in 2000, British Prime Minister Tony Blair eulogised:

"The black community across Britain lost an inspiration. And injustice everywhere lost a fierce opponent."