Black Down in Britain
From an Obama victory back to 1970s Britain: Stephen Thompson, popular author of Toy Soliders and Meet Me Under the Westway reflects and arrives with some new takes on politics from both sides of the pond.
The first black president of the United States — I never thought I’d live to see the day. But can Obama’s victory really have the impact that so many are predicting? Can he, for example, inspire apathetic black Britons like myself to embrace politics and use it to effect change in our lives?
I came to some semblance of political awareness during the 1979 general election. I remember watching coverage of the voting on TV — mostly for the entertainment value — as the two main parties went toe to toe in the battle for ideological supremacy: Left versus Right, socialism versus capitalism, collectivism versus individualism. Labour’s defeat was acutely felt in our household. Although no-one in my family had voted, Labour was ‘our party’, and to see it routed in so humiliating a fashion was hard for us to bear. We just couldn’t understand the defeat. Traditional Labour supporters had deserted the party in droves, even in some parts of inner city London, which had always been left-wing strongholds. I was barely into my teens at the time, but even I could sense that we had undergone a profound change in British politics.
It’s no exaggeration to say that when the Tories took office in 1979 my family was scarcely existing above the breadline. We lived in a street where every other house was either derelict or unfit for human habitation. Our own house, a four-storey, rat-infested, post-war terrace, was in such a state of disrepair we had to drag the landlord through the courts to get him to spruce it up a bit. And just as it was for my family, so it was for Britain’s black population as a whole. With no economic, political, or cultural status whatsoever, black Britons had become little more than an underclass. And all this despite the enormous contribution of the Windrush generation to rebuilding the country after Second World War.
By the mid-80s left-wing politics in England was officially dead and buried. Under pressure to reform its outdated ideologies, the socialist movement had been reduced to little more than a rabble. Come the end of the 80s, Right-wing, free-market economics was the only show in town. Making money, and keeping most it for yourself, became the order of the day. No matter where you came from, no matter what profession you were in, greed, selfishness and cut-throatery were seen as the only way to get on in life.
Naturally, there was a downside to all this rampant materialism, for if the 80s gave birth to the yuppie and the ‘ordinary’ share owner, if it witnessed the fire sale of state assets and ushered in a culture of private education and private health care, if it created overnight millionaires at a rate not seen before or since and sparked a national obsession for owning property, then it was also the decade of high unemployment, homelessness, the miners’ strike, race riots, anti-nuclear demonstrations, anti-racist demonstrations, BNP marches, football hooliganism, recession, and many other forms of social, political and economic instability. And if the situation was bleak in the South, then it was doubly so in the North, whole swathes of which had simply been abandoned by an increasingly centralised and autocratic government. For someone in my situation, that is to say an unemployed black kid loafing about Hackney with little prospect of escaping its mean streets, Britain had indeed become, as Hanif Kureishi so memorably described it at the time, ‘an authoritarian rat hole’.
Like millions of people all over the country, I felt only too acutely the effects of the Tories’ draconian policies, especially in the area of criminal justice. Until you’ve been the victim of the notorious ‘sus laws’, until you’ve been beaten up and called every racist name under the sun by the very people who are supposedly there to protect you, until you’ve experienced first hand what it’s like to live in a community where there are police cars and vans on practically every street corner and where young black males are several times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than their white counterparts, then it’s hard to imagine the level of hatred I felt towards Thatcher and her cronies. I’m not for one moment suggesting that the problems that existed in Britain’s black communities in the 80s were all the result of external forces. Many of them were self-created. I was unemployed for years after leaving school, not only because there were so few jobs, but also because I left school without any qualifications. I chose to abandon my education. No-one forced me. But my dropping out of school was no cause for being bludgeoned about the head with a truncheon by some racist cop drunk on power and looking for an excuse to enliven his shift. I hated the police, just as I hated their Tory paymasters, but what could I do to escape their tyranny? What could any of us do? There was no-one around to help us, no-one to whom we could take our grievances, which is why so many of us took to rioting in the streets. Labour, the supposed champions of the oppressed, were in the political wilderness, while the Liberals, then as now, were little more than a sideshow. Throughout the 80s and much of the 90s, Britain was, to all intents and purposes, a one-party state, and it was for this reason that I turned my back on politics. There was simply no party worthy of my support, and so I chose to abstain from the electoral process. I haven’t cast a vote in a general election since 1987. Lately, however, I’ve begun to take an interest in politics again. Almost inspite of myself, I’ve found that I’m not as indifferent to politics as I used to be. If the recent historic events in the US have proved anything it’s that, whether we like to admit it or not, politics matter. We can no more get away from politics that we can our own shadows. Obama’s victory has not made me any less cynical about the powers-that-be and their contempt for the ordinary citizen, but it has, without doubt, brought me up sharp about the dangers of political apathy and a refusal to engage with the political process.
‘One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiours’.
Stephen Thompson was born in London to Jamaican parents. He is the author of Toy Soldiers (Sceptre, 2000) and Missing Joe (Sceptre, 2001) as well as Meet Me Under the Westway. He has lectured in journalism and creative writing at Birkbeck College. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Observer, The Idler, The Voice, The Scotsman and Arena Magazine. He reviews for Scotland on Sunday and is a regular contributor to the popular ONE Magazine blogs at www.IamONE.co.uk