Obituaries: Lord Pitt of Hampstead

Joan Lestor
Tuesday 20 December 1994 01:02

"Some black people regard me as an Uncle Tom," David Pitt once said, "while some whites regard me as a Black Power revolutionary. So I imagine I got it about right."

When I first met David Pitt at the Labour Party conference in 1958 he was an impressive and mature man already deeply immersed in the struggles around race and human rights both in Britain and abroad. A doctor by profession, a personal friend of leading African and Caribbean politicians, he was an international activist as at home on a platform in Trinidad as he was later in the House of Lords in London after being made a life peer in 1975: preaching the same message, arguing the same case; that it is not enough to believe racial and other forms of discrimination are wrong, it is essential that the law of the land reflects and enshrines those views. So it was that he was at the forefront of campaigning for the Race Relations Acts of the Labour government and against the same government's 1968 East African Asian Acts that removed the given right of East African Asians to exercise their rights as citizens and enter Britain. "You can't hold these two views at the same time," he said. "If we believe in outlawing racial discrimination at home we can't do it by saying `Keep them out'."

Those who saw Pitt as a Black Power revolutionary sought to justify that view when he formed CARD (Campaign Against Racial Discrimination). Those who regarded him as an Uncle Tom sought to justify that view when he called during a rally against racism inTrafalgar Square for more blacks to join the police force.

He knew what he was saying and what he was asking. He knew it would anger many of the younger blacks whose experience of the police was racist and alarming. But Pitt argued strongly that one of the ways to change institutions was to get inside them and he felt this particularly about the police.

Pitt's selection as the Labour candidate in Hampstead for the 1959 general election was a turning-point for many in the Labour Party. The racist nature of the campaign alarmed his friends and hurt him deeply. But he went on to try again in Clapham in 1970. And although the result was poor he always argued that had he been selected a couple of years earlier (instead of a matter of weeks before the election) he would have done it: "People would have got to know me. My colour would have been less significant."

For many in the Labour Party David Pitt's involvement both in London and national politics caused them to sit up and look at themselves. For some had shuffled their feet in embarrassment when they were forced to recognise that socialism and the brother- and sisterhood they preached included their black brothers and sisters as well as their white ones. So his involvement and courage gave others strength and particularly ignited the young black people growing up in Britain.

His analysis of the struggle for equality, not just on the race issue but right across the broad spectrum of society, may be old hat today but 20 and 30 years ago it was an uphill struggle. He made it clear that a racist society was, in his book, harmfulto all of us, irrespective of colour. And that sexism carried the same message. So it always came across that he was fighting not just for a better world for his children and his grandchildren but for ours as well.

In the great days of the CND marches David Pitt was there in the medical unit patching up the blistered feet of the marchers and urging them on. His fear of a nuclear war was real but he felt throughout that time that the Big Powers were far from dedicated to avoiding a holocaust. He feared it would come.

As a pioneer in the anti-apartheid movement he lent us the basement of his Gower Street surgery for our headquarters. And it was on one of our greatest marches that a group of Fascists gained entry to the basement and burned it out. Pitt always said thatincident was never dealt with by the authorities. But his only concern was for the dangers in which others were placed.

He saw throwing off the yoke of apartheid in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) as part of the same struggle: "You can't campaign against injustice here and ignore what is happening elsewhere," he said. "It is all part and parcel of the same struggle."

Thus living to see the liberation of South Africa was a tremendous satisfaction. That change is possible and right, not might, can triumph was a vindication of what he had been about all those long years.

So many of the issues on which David Pitt campaigned years ago were far from popular. He never jumped on bandwagons; he left that for others. My real test of a politician is "Where were they when the going was tough?" Pitt was always right there. He passed the test.

He was wonderful company. He loved people and they loved him. He held court for his friends right up until a few days before he died. He loved to argue and would often stop someone in full flood by saying loudly "Listen to me" and then proceed to demolish the arguer. Many of his visitors in the last few days were from the Caribbean; so were the many messages, for he never forgot his roots.

A few days before he died, when he could hear but barely speak, I told him of an incident of a young black man, known to both of us, who had suffered a gross injustice. I mused aloud what to do and, despite the fact that the once powerful voice that could ring like a blast across a large audience was now an almost inaudible whisper, he mouthed the words I had heard him say so many times before, "Take them on, dear - take them on."

That's what he did for over half a century.

Joan Lestor

Much will be written about the life and times of David Pitt, writes Robert Hughes. He made his mark in the community as a general practitioner and as a politician who understood the needs of ordinary citizens.

He is, perhaps, best known for his passionate interest and involvement against racial discrimination and for equality of esteem of individuals irrespective of race, class, creed or colour. He faced the cutting edge of racism in the two parliamentary elections he fought, in Hampstead in 1959 and in Clapham South in 1970. In both cases it is generally held that race was a major factor in the rejection of his candidacy. He was not deterred, but he was angry, and all the more determined to serve the people with whom he had such affinity.

David Pitt was always an internationalist and played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle. On 21 March 1961 the then London Evening Times carried the following report: Doctor Tells of Blaze: A baronet and two other men were alleged at Clerkenwell today to have been among a party of men who set fire to the offices of the Anti Apartheid Movement in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. On March 4th, the Anti Apartheid Movement had organised a March from Great Russell Street to Hyde Park to begin at 4pm. At 4.30pm a group of men drove up to the house, several of them went to the door and obtained entry by a trick. They then went down to the basement where the offices of these organisations are and they set fire to it. Dr David Pitt, a coloured man, said he had a surgery and waiting room on the ground floor of the premises.

The offices had been made available by Pitt. He remained unmoved by this kind of threat and he kept his connection with the Anti-Apartheid Movement from its inception right through the difficult periods until South Africa had its first democratic all-race elections. He shared the joy of that experience while understanding that the work of eradicating apartheid was just beginning. At the formal disbanding of AAM and the founding meeting of the successor organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), although desperately ill, he sent a message of good wishes and support.

Lord Pitt's warmth and understanding of the nature of politics was a great contribution to society. Today we would be rightly shocked at the physical attacks on his property, we would be rightly shocked if race were to have the same significance in a British election.

There is stilll a long way to go before we can say that racism is extinct in Britain, but Pitt's charm, tolerance and passionate advocacy helped immensely to change the climate in our society.

The word "comrade" may nowadays be disappearing from use, but I can think of no better way of paying tribute to David Pitt than to say "He was a good comrade."

David Thomas Pitt, medical practitioner, politician, campaigner: born St David's, Grenada 3 October 1913; general practitioner, San Fernando 1941-47; President, West Indian National Party (Trinidad) 1943-47; general practitioner, London 1947-94; member, London County Council, for Hackney 1961-64, member, Greater London Council, for Hackney 1964-77; Chairman, Campaign Against Racial Discrimination 1965; JP 1966; Deputy Chairman, Community Relations Commission 1968-77, Chairman 1977; created 1975 Baron Pitt of Hampstead; TC 1976; Chairman, Shelter 1979-90, Vice-President 1990-94; President, British Medical Association 1985-86; married 1943 Dorothy Alleyne (one son, two daughters); died London 18 December 1994.

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