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

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Is it really hypocritical for lefties to send their kids to grammar schools?

Both sides now.

The year is 2030. Half the developing world is under water. The US passes a constitutional amendment allowing President Ivanka Trump to stand for a third term. The Labour right is increasingly confident that, this year, it might finally remove Jeremy Corbyn.

You, however, don't care about any of this because your mind is on other things. Your eldest is turning 11, and Theresa May's flagship education policy has been a success - there is now a grammar school in every town, as well as rather a lot of secondary moderns. And so, you need to decide what matters to you more: your egalitarian left-wing principles or your determination to get the best possible education for your kid.

Let's get one thing straight before we get too far into this - bringing back grammar schools would be a terrible education policy. There's no evidence for the contention that they create social mobility – they tend, in fact, to be dominated by the most prosperous families, who have the sharpest elbows and find it easiest to fund tutoring for their kids. What's more, while the kids who attend grammar schools tend to do pretty well, the majority who don't do worse than you'd otherwise expect.

As a result, overall education standards are higher in comprehensive areas than they are in selective ones. (The BBC's Chris Cook has written several excellent pieces on this topic; here’s one of them.) One of the few things that can unite both everyone in education policy, and everyone in the Labour party, is that grammar schools are terrible.

Neither of those groups are in charge of the country right now, however, and Prime Minister May – not a woman who's lacking in intellectual self-confidence at the best of times – seems particularly committed on this one, so grammar schools we shall have. For middle-class lefties, then, the question seems very likely to become: is it hypocritical to send your kids to one?

There are, it will stun you to learn, two schools of thought on this.

One denies that it's even a question: of course it's hypocritical. Selective schooling will do untold damage to education standards, the economy and social fabric, not to mention the self-esteem of the vast majority of kids who get told they're a failure at the tender age of 11. How can you possibly claim to care about disadvantaged kids, even as you expend time and money that other parents don't have on coaching your kids so that they don't have to go to school anywhere near them?

The other school of thought is more nuanced, and – one can't help but noticing – more likely to be expressed by those whose age is closer to 30 than to 18.

Selective education is a bad system, it concedes – but it is not a system that will go away just because I, personally, refuse to take part in it.

Obviously I'd prefer to send little Timmy to a comprehensive school. But in the selective world of 2030 there won't be comprehensive schools, merely grammars and secondary moderns. Someone's kid is going to get that place in a grammar school. By not pushing for it myself, all that I'm doing is disadvantaging my own child, without actually making the world better.

The first lot, in other words, think it's immoral to buy your place in a lifeboat while the kids in steerage drown. But the way the second group sees it, prioritising abstract principles over the life chances of your child is immoral. (You could call it the Jeremy Corbyn vs Claudia Bracchita argument). And so, whenever this topic has reared its head, people tend to end up shouting at each other, if not filing for divorce.

At risk of looking all wussy and liberal, I genuinely can't work out where I stand on this one. On the one hand, there's something quite persuasive in the argument that one can fight against grammar schools, but still send your kids to one - there's nothing inconsistent about wanting to change a bad system, but still trying to make the best of it. (I'm still imagining a 2030 selective education dystopia, of course: arguing against grammar schools, then deliberately moving to Kent so your kids can attend one, is rather harder to defend.)

One the other hand, there is something inherently uncomfortable in left-wingers finding theoretical justifications for their own selfishness ("Of course, taxes should be higher. But since these loopholes are there, well..."). I also, by the by, went to private school (sorry), and suspect that the 7 per cent of the population which did the same sticks its oar into the state education system far too much already, so maybe I should shut up.

Before I do though, here's one last cynical thought. At the moment, Labour is united on grammar schools - they are obviously bad, we obviously shouldn't create any more of them. If selective education were to become national policy again, however, that unity could plausibly crumble. And one of the few issues that can unite the entire Labour movement simply wouldn't be there any more.

I'm not saying this is the motive behind Theresa May's obsession with grammar schools, but it would be a helpful side effect.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.