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Saturday, 8 April, 2000, 14:12 GMT 15:12 UK
Bernie Grant: A controversial figure
silcott campaign
He was at the fore-front of the Winston Silcott campaign
Bernie Grant, who has died aged 56, was a controversial figure long before he became one of Britain's first black MPs.

He already had a reputation as a hard-left trade union leader and local government politician, when, in 1985, he was condemned from all sides for remarks he made after the Broadwater Estate riots in Tottenham.

Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant was born in British Guiana, now Guyana, the son of two schoolteachers, who named him after two generals who were then fighting the Second World War.

He came to Britain in 1963, and worked as a British Rail clerk and international telephonist, before becoming a full-time union official with Nupe.
broadwater farm
Labelled anti-police during the Broadwater farm riots

His early political leanings took him, briefly, into the Workers' Revolutionary Party, which he left for Labour and a seat on the council in the London borough of Haringey in 1978.

Forceful character

His forceful character built up a loyal following among the unemployed, the black community and the left, and he became known nationally for leading the fight against rate-capping the borough in 1984.

What the police got was a bloody good hiding

Bernie Grant on the Broadwater riots
The battle split Labour in the council, and Mr Grant emerged as leader in 1985.

He had a reputation for being anti-police, believing that they treated black people unfairly, and the same year, after the Broadwater Estate riots, in which PC Blakelock was murdered, he made his famous remark: "What the police got was a bloody good hiding."

This, and his failure to condemn the violence of black youths, brought swift denunciation from the Labour Party leadership, while the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, called him "the high Grant, Bernie priest of conflict".

Led Haringey council in 1980s

Mr Grant protested that the remark had been reported out of context, but apologised to PC Blakelock's family for the distress it had caused.

In his defence, the local police chief in Tottenham described him as "caring, committed, hard-working and effective", but he became one of Fleet Street's favourite loony lefties, and was nicknamed "Barmy Bernie" by The Sun.

After the riots, the Tottenham MP campaigned for the release of Winston Silcott who had been convicted for PC Blakelock's murder.

His conviction was eventually quashed.

One of first black MPs

He won the nomination for the Tottenham Parliamentary seat by ousting the sitting MP, the former Labour Party treasurer, Norman Atkinson, with the support of a local black section.

After the 1987 General Election, he was one of the first three black MPs in the Commons, and made his mark almost immediately by wearing a traditional Ghanaian cotton robe at the State Opening of Parliament.
bernie grant
At the State Opening of Parliament in 1996

As a working MP he maintained his reputation as a firebrand, backing demands for black sections in the Labour Party, urging the exemption of Rastafarians from the poll tax, and defying convention by disrupting the Chancellor's Budget speech in 1988, shouting "shame, shame".

Often seen as an embarrassment to his party leaders, he opposed holding the Vauxhall by-election in 1989 so long as Labour fielded a white candidate, the constituency included Brixton, with a high black population.

He was an example to everybody because he always said what he thought

Frank Dobson, Labour Mayoral candidate

Bernie Grant almost trebled his majority in the 1992 General Election, and stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, backed by the far left Campaign group.

In 1993, after years of being labelled anti-police, he helped to defuse a potentially explosive situation following the death of Jamaican immigrant Joy Gardener while police were trying to arrest her for deportation.

Last year, he called for Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, to take early retirement after a damning report into the inquiry on the Stephen Lawrence murder.

But in recent years, although Mr Grant remained a strong advocate of black and ethnic minority rights, it was perceived he had mellowed in his views.

In October last year he announced his support for Frank Dobson as Labour Mayoral candidate for London.

Frank Dobson said he was "saddened" to hear of Mr Grant's death.

"I didn't always agree with him but he made a huge contribution to political life in London," he said.

"I think his life represented the triumph of hope over cynicism because he decided to get involved and prove he could be selected and elected to Parliament.

"He was an example to everybody because he always said what he thought."

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08 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Black MP Bernie Grant dies
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