Speaker's corner: Howe (left) rallies anti-fascists, in Lewisham, 1977. Photo: Syd Shelton
Show Hide image

Diane Abbott on Darcus Howe: “A living embodiment of the struggle against police racism”

The MP recalls being in the Old Bailey for the “Mangrove Nine” trial in 1970, in which the great black activist and intellectual walked free. 

Darcus Howe: a Political Biography
Robin Bunce and Paul Field
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £54.99

This biography of Darcus Howe is undoubtedly a labour of love. Robin Bunce and Paul Field have made a creditable attempt to chart postwar black activism through one man’s life. And there can be no other person more appropriate to build the story around – because Darcus Howe is one of the standout activists and public intellectuals of his generation.

I first saw Howe in person in the Seventies. He was in the dock defending himself in the Mangrove Nine case at the Old Bailey, one of the most notorious postwar political trials. Nine black activists had been charged with incitement to riot for organising a demonstration in defence of a café in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, that had been raided 12 times in 18 months and subjected to a sustained campaign of police harassment. Bunce and Field make clear that the police did not just stumble into the trial. The British state was in a condition of advanced paranoia about black activism. Special Branch even had a “black power desk”. The charges against the activists were a “deliberate strategy to target and decapitate the emerging black power movement”. And yet, despite a high level of collusion between government ministers, the police and the criminal justice system, the strategy failed. The charges were thrown out and Howe left court a free man and walked into history.

When I attended the trial, I was just a young onlooker, too insignificant to be introduced to the great man. But I have never forgotten the sight of him in the dock, a living embodiment of the struggle against police racism and injustice. Even more importantly, he was the embodiment of the idea that police racism could be challenged successfully. As he said in a recent interview, “It was a time of vulgar racism. The everyday abuse black people would get from strangers on the street and the police alike would shock you today. But I never once believed what they wanted us to believe – that we as black people are inferior to whites – and fighting my corner at the Mangrove trial was part of that.”

To understand Howe, it is important to put him in context. He is part of a generation of black activists who lived to see that they had altered reality for generations yet to come. There is a tendency in the press to believe that black activism began with the Stephen Lawrence case. I bow to no one in my respect for Doreen Lawrence, her courage and fixity of purpose. I was the first person to raise the case in parliament. But the issues she raised had been articulated and campaigned for 20 years earlier by Howe and his peers.

Black leaders in Britain then were mostly Caribbean in origin, which gave their politics a particular character. They had emerged from the post-colonial struggle in their respective countries – so they were a mixed group with a genuinely international perspective. African-Caribbean and African leaders worked easily together, as many of them had been fellow students at the same time in postwar London.

The biggest mass political entities in Britain’s overseas territories were the sugar unions (and oil in Trinidad) – something that is rarely understood about Caribbean politics at that time. Michael Manley was a highly educated member of the Jamaican elite whose father had been the first prime minister of independent Jamaica (he, too, went on to be PM), but even he had to make his name as a sugar union organiser at the beginning of his career. The unions were so important that collectivism came naturally to Caribbean-origin political figures such as Howe. And, in an era before state funding for black organisations in Britain, collective organisation was vital for survival.

Howe’s generation of black leaders had a strong intellectual streak. It is no coincidence that the favoured project of black activists of the time was to run a bookshop, as with New Beacon Books in north London. So with Howe – as with most other black political leaders of the time – his political activism marched in step with his work as a writer, journalist and public intellectual. As this biography points out, he was not a member of an uneducated black underclass. He went to an exclusive school in Trinidad and travelled to London to study law at the Middle Temple. All his life his chief mentor was the great Caribbean writer and intellectual C L R James.

The biography describes some of the big political campaigns in which Howe played a central role, which may not be familiar to those who know him only for his television appearances. He was also the editor of the monthly Race Today, required reading for any black activist of the time, and played a crucial role in the Race Today Collective. In March 1981, after a suspected racist arson attack caused the New Cross Fire, killing 13 young black people, Howe helped organise the Black People’s Day of Action. I was on that march and it was electrifying – over 20,000 people, the largest black demonstration I had ever seen. I remember our chant: “Thirteen dead; nothing said.” The following month, in the aftermath of the original Brixton Riots, Howe was again at the centre of the community’s response.

He went on to have distinguished career as a journalist for national publications, including the New Statesman, television presenter and commentator. And yet, for many of us, he will always be that man in the dock at the Mangrove trial, standing up for himself against the might of an institutionally racist state – and standing up for all of us. This meticulous biography sets out facts about a life and an era that should be far more widely known.

Diane Abbott is the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, London

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.