'Millions have lost a friend'

Click to follow
Indy Politics

It is given to few backbenchers to be recognised just by their Christian names, but Bernie Grant was one of them. Whether it was as "Barmy Bernie", scourge of the Daily Mail-reading classes, or just plain Bernie, hero to a generation of black Londoners, there was never any mistaking, or ignoring, the MP for Tottenham.

Never was this more true than at the State Opening of Parliament in 1987, the year he was elected. With his reputation for striking views already well established, he cut a dash by attending the ceremony in a white dashiki, thus ensuring that the nation had a memorable picture to go with his equally unforgettable words.

The son of Guyanese teachers, he came to Britain as a 19-year-old immigrant in 1963. He was educated at Stanislaus College, Georgetown, Tottenham Technical College and Heriot-Watt University, after which he worked as a railway clerk, and then a telephonist.

He joined the Socialist Labour League, the forerunner of the Worker's Revolutionary Party, and only switched to Labour in the mid-1970s. He was a member of Haringey Council from 1978 until 1988, serving as deputy leader (1982-83) and leader (1985-87).

It was in the aftermath of the Tottenham riots and the murder of PC Keith Blakelock that he first made a national impact. His words, seized on with relish by papers keen to promote the idea of the "Loony Left', were: "The youths around here believe the police were to blame for what happened on Sunday and what they got was a bloody good hiding." For a while, those words turned him into a bogyman of the right, but they - and his tireless work for the local community and blacks everywhere - made him a hero to blacks and Asians.

At the 1987 election he was elected Member for Tottenham. He was far from a single-issue politician; he supported strict discipline and uniforms in schools - and even admitted a "soft spot" for the Royal Family. He was unafraid to criticise his own party leadership when he thought they were wrong. In 1997 he attacked the Government's aid package to Montserrat after the volcanic eruption. And in 1998 he wrote an outraged letter to the Home Secretary, urging him to lift the ban on Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam movement, entering Britain.

When first elected, he was the only black face in the Commons and he carried considerable expectations on his shoulders. But he always seemed torn between the attractions of being a "character" and a champion of minorities.

Similarly, his interventions in the Commons were wildly variable. He was capable of cogent and impassioned debate. Four months ago he used a question to the PM to demand an apology for the slave trade. But he was equally capable of spoiling his arguments with posturing and pomposity.

In his relentless campaigning for minority rights, there were real successes. Long before the Macpherson report on Stephen Lawrence's murder, for example, Grant was calling for a special police squad to investigate racial crime. Just such a unit was set up after Macpherson, and is now assisting with the Telford hangings investigation.

But increasing ill health - diabetes, a heart bypass operation and subsequent kidney failure - cramped his colourful style. Yet this did not stop him working. Nor did it dent his reputation as a fierce political opponent, a humorous and lively debater and a gentle and kind friend. Keith Vaz, Minister for Europe who entered the Commons with Mr Grant in 1987, said: "He was an icon for the black community in Britain and his legacy is to have pushed forward to new heights the frontiers of black representation in Britain. He was an ambassador for the black community in the truest sense. Millions have lost a friend today."