'Racism Had Taken a Beating'

Robin Bunce and Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography

Bloomsbury, 304pp, £55.00, ISBN 9781849664950

reviewed by David Renton

If one were to write a total history of racism and anti-racism in Britain since 1945 — taking in the arrival of the Empire Windrush, the 1958 Notting Hill riots, the deaths of Blair Peach, Cynthia Jarrett and Stephen Lawrence, the stunts of Martin Webster and the brief electoral success of Nick Griffin, shifting popular ideas of solidarity or exclusion, and the changing approaches of the British state — Darcus Howe would deserve inclusion at three points.

First, in 1970-71 as a defender of the Mangrove restaurant, one of the most popular venues in Notting Hill, then still the beating heart of black London, and with a clientele taking in such varied names as the novelist Colin MacInnes, the veteran activist CLR James, and the journalist Lionel Morrison. At the end of that year, Howe was one of nine people charged with riot following a police attack on a demonstration protesting against police raids on the Mangrove. Potentially facing a jail term of up to ten years, Howe defended himself, and was acquitted by a majority-white jury of all charges. Four of the defendants were convicted on lesser charges, and none were sent to prison. ‘Racism,’ in Howe’s ebullient summary, ‘had taken a beating.’

Second, from 1973, as editor of Race Today, originally the monthly journal of the Institute of Race Relations, based near Kings Cross, but taken by Howe to Brixton, where it covered such stories as the three-month strike at Imperial Typewriter in 1974 (where the recognised union the TGWU failed to support Asian workers) and the Grunwick dispute of 1976-78 (sustained for two years by solidarity from workers outside the factory, and by an extraordinary local mobilisation). Race Today was loosely inspired by CLR James’ ideas about organisation, philosophy and the potential of white workers to support black struggles.

Third, in 1981, following the death of 13 young people aged between 14 and 22 at a birthday party at New Cross, which many protesters believed to have been result of a racist attack, Howe led a movement culminating in the Black People’s Day of Action, when 20,000 black people marched through London on a working Monday to protest at police, media and government indifference.

In Darcus Howe: A Political Biography, Robin Bunce and Paul Field cover these events sympathetically, adding to Howe’s memories their notes of interviews with other key participants and his friends, and such files as have been deposited in the local or national archives. They also survey Howe’s media career from the mid-1980s onwards, including his lengthy stints as a main presenter of two programmes, The Bandung File and Devil’s Advocate, and his interview with Fiona Armstrong in August 2011, during the London riots, in which Howe (almost uniquely among those interviewed on television) steadfastly refused to condemn the rioters, instead reminding Armstrong of the killing of Mark Duggan which caused the protests.

Bunce and Field’s accounts of the protests of 1970-1 and 1981 are detailed and compelling. They have a fine ear for courtroom drama, bringing out the radical legal strategies which Howe adopted — from challenging certain jurors before the trial began in order to maximise both black and white working-class representation, to the decision to represent himself (while other defendants were represented) and his effective cross-examination of police witnesses. It is easy to see a synergy between confrontational tactics of this sort and Howe’s political radicalism.

By contrast, the authors’ treatment of Howe’s 12-year stint at Race Today, which shaped his intellectual development and Marxist politics, is perhaps a little too brisk. Howe was CLR James’ nephew, and the Race Today Collective included an extraordinary group of talented activists, including the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, the playwright Farrukh Dhondy and the writer Leila Hassan, Howe’s successor as editor the writer (and his partner). I would like to have learned more about how Race Today worked, and why it eventually ran aground. Howe was born in 1943; activists of his generations corresponded, and we have more than one collection of letters written by James. It is a shame that not more of Howe’s private correspondence is quoted in the book.

From James, Howe had inherited a scepticism about the Leninist model of organisation (although this did not prevent friendships with at least a few Leninists), a belief in the revolutionary virtues of the whole British working class, white as well as black, and a feel for the reserves of hope embodied in culture and especially sport. But, attractive as this combination must sound, these were ideas which were capable of ending, as well as making, political alliances. Race Today’s analyses of inertia within the trade union movement extended at times to the rest of the (‘white’) political revolutionary left which was portrayed as complicit in the failings of the union leadership. Bunce and Field recall Vic Richards and Ian Botham visiting James in his declining years; what to make, in this context, of Botham’s avowed Conservatism?

There have been differences of emphasis between black political campaigns in the US and here in Britain. Separatism has been a weaker current here, and black Labourism and Marxism stronger; there is no British counterpart of the considerable harm (as well admittedly as the episodic good) done by the Nation of Islam. It would be nice to be able to ascribe this to James’ legacy, but it is hard to do so without a more detailed balance sheet of how far Howe and the Jamesians got in winning an audience.