Activist, Britain first black councillor, and joint first black MP
Labour MP Bernie Grant was one of the most charismatic black political leaders of modern times. His death on 8 April 2000 marked almost four decades campaigning for racial justice and minority rights. Though in life he was an outspoken maverick, in death, Bernie Grant was praised from the heights of the Establishment, from Cabinet ministers and Scotland Yard to political associates and black community leaders, and Prime Minister Tony Blair described Grant as “an inspiration to Black British communities everywhere”.
Born February 17, 1944 in British Guiana, now Guyana, Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant was the son of school teachers, Eric and Lily, who named him after two generals then fighting the Second World War. Bernie came to Britain in 1963, and worked as a British Railways clerk, a National Union of Public Employees area officer, and as a partisan of the Black Trade Unionists Solidarity Movement
A successful local politician, Grant served for a decade as local councillor in the London Borough of Haringey, of which he was elected Leader in 1985. He was the first black head of a local authority in Britain, and was responsible for the well-being of a quarter of a million people, many of them Black and ethnic minorities. Grant joined the Labour Party in 1975 and was elected as Member of Parliament for Tottenham in 1987.
Bernie Grant brought to parliament a long and distinguished campaigning record. He was a founder member of the Standing Conference of Afro-Caribbean and Asian Councillors and a member of the Labour Party Black Sections. He convened major conferences of politicians, activists, researchers and academics to shape black agendas. Grant also helped tackle racism on a European wide level, in association with members of the European Parliament and anti-racist groups.
Grant inspired the Parliamentary Black Caucus, co-founded with his fellow “first black parliamentarians” elected in 1987 and Lord Pitt. Inspired by Congressman Ron Dellums and the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, Grant told the PBC inaugural conference in 1989: “For far too long the black community has had no voice in Britain and we are seeking to redress that”. His epitaph, he hoped would simply state “Bernie Grant – African Rebel”: a fitting tribute to a man who was a powerful link between black communities in Britain and the Black nations and communities of the world.
In many ways a firebrand activist at heart, Grant courted controversy all his life and evoked mixed emotions. He once shocked royalists and socialists alike by wearing an African dashiki at the state opening of Parliament. Arguably, a controversial politician not to every ones liking, Grant claimed he was misquoted as saying “the police got a good hiding” in the 1985 Broadwater Farm racial disturbances.
As his black parliamentary colleagues rose to the heights of New Labour’s centrist government – Paul Boateng to the Home Office, Keith Vaz to the Foreign Office, and Diane Abbott to top-level state committees – Grant alone continued to support old-style trade union, populist democracy and the fight for black political empowerment within the Labour Party. Lee Jasper, a staunch Grant supporter, and chair of the National Black Alliance and the campaign group Operation Black Vote, said: “Bernie will be remembered as a hugely popular man of the people that every black man and woman should aspire to emulate”.
Grant continued work as an MP despite undergoing a heart bypass operation and kidney failure in 1998. In the closing year of his life, Grant addressed the House of Commons saying a just conclusion to the Stephen Lawrence case “is the last chance for British society to tackle racism.”