More than half a million people gathered on the streets of west London yesterday to dance to steel bands, gyrate to sound systems, watch colourful Mas Bands and eat mountains of Jerk chicken and other Caribbean delicacies. The 42nd annual Notting Hill Carnival seems to have been a success.
This year's carnival had a theme of "unity", which the organisers hoped would highlight the need for London to stand together in the wake of last year's terror attacks. Such a theme is entirely fitting. For in many ways, the history of the Notting Hill Carnival has been the history of multicultural Britain. The event began in the 1960s as a celebration of Caribbean culture by London's West Indian community. The first "carnivalers" were a handful of homesick Trinidadians who played steel drums on the Bayswater Road. This was the self-expression of the Windrush generation; black Londoners coming to terms with a host society that was still very hostile to newcomers.
As the black population of Britain grew, so did the carnival. In 1976 it became a focal point for clashes with police, when pent-up frustration at the heavy-handed policing and discrimination boiled over. It was such scenes of unrest that provided the momentum for change, both in the carnival and wider society. Racism in Britain was challenged by the passing of the 1976 Race Relations Act. And the policing of the carnival became more sensitive. The police began to work with the organisers, improving relations with the black community. The ubiquitous pictures at this time of year of carnival dancers embracing smiling policemen symbolise a reconciliation.
The carnival has been largely peaceful in recent years. An attempt by the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone to re-route the event has been seen off. And the carnival is now Europe's largest street party, attracting people of all ages and backgrounds. It has grown from a festival for a small minority community into a celebration that the whole of London can enjoy.
We should not be blind to the problems that persist. The police made over 100 arrests over the Bank Holiday weekend. And there were two shocking murders six years ago. But the balance sheet is overwhelming positive.
Last week the government minister Ruth Kelly set up a commission to examine whether multiculturalism has gone too far. Her speech at the launch reflected the assumption that permitting, even encouraging, diverse cultural traditions to flourish, has resulted in modern Britons living in physical and mental ghettos; that multiculturalism has divided people, rather than brought them together. The triumph of the Notting Hill Carnival stands as a colourful rebuke to such pessimism.Reuse content