On Bernie Grant's birthday, here are five facts about his life

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Bernie Grant is one of the most recognisable black figures to have entered politics on these isles. Grant was of Guyanese descent and was elected as Member of Parliament for Tottenham in 1987, before being followed by David Lammy in 2000. His brand of open leadership may have been controversial to some, but ultimately won him many admirers during his time as an MP. To mark the occasion of his birth, here are five facts on Bernie Grant. 

Note: This is mainly for our younger readers, but for our older guests, this should be a refreshing look at history.

Both of his parents were teachers 

Grant was very conscious of history and the significance of his heritage, a fact which may have been informed by the role of education in his family’s life. His Father Eric A. Grant was a headmaster and would later become principal of a Teachers’ Training Union. Likewise, his Mother Lily was a highly respected teacher, both in Guyana and later in Haringey, North London. His parents were not alone in stepping into education, as a number of his closest relatives followed down this path. Grant would perform well academically too, passing his O Levels with impressive marks, before leaving school a year later due to not being able to study his preferred subjects. 

He left University due to the discrimination faced by Black Students

On arrival to the UK, Grant attended Tottenham Technical College where he became involved with the student union. He then enrolled as a student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to gain a degree in mining engineering. However, Grant’s stay at the University did not last long. 

He left in 1969, in protest against discrimination faced by black students, which barred them from participating in work experience in apartheid South Africa. 

His brother, Leyland Grant offered some insight into Grant’s character, explaining,

Bernie was always interested in defending the weak against the strong. In primary school, he defended a schoolmate, who was a native South American [who] faced prejudice and discrimination in his school life. When he was working in the labs for the Demerara Bauxite Company, he also took up many cases involving co-workers although he was not an official union rep.”

Grant continued to help in efforts to bring an end to apartheid from afar. He signed the Boycott Apartheid 89' petition and joined anti-apartheid pickets outside Tesco, urging Tottenham’s locals to boycott their products due to selling South African goods. As the leader of Haringey council, he disinvested in South Africa & joined the National Executive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), demanding in Parliament that Thatcher’s government changed course on sanctions against the regime.

He was (by many accounts) the first black person to lead a local authority in Europe

In 1985 he became the Leader of Haringey Council. This was preceded by years of engagement with the labour movement, various other positions within the Labour party and a seat on the Council in 1978. His election as the head of Haringey Council was the first time a black person had led a local authority in the UK and by many accounts, in Europe.

He was recognised by The Queen

In his book 'The English', Jeremy Paxman discusses Grant's encounter with The Duke of Edinburgh and The Queen. By this point in time, Bernie Grant had been an MP for five years. In Parliament, both The Duke of Edinburgh and The Queen passed among politicians, shaking the hands of those they met. As Paxman explains, The Duke of Edinburgh was largely unaware of who Grant was prior to enquiring. By contrast, The Queen was in the know, commenting, ‘You’re Bernie Grant aren’t you? I’ve seen you on the telly.’

He challenged parliament to apologise for Britain's role in the transatlantic slave trade

We’ve spoken about how Grants upbringing likely played a role in his early passions and outlook on African, Caribbean and British relations. Upon being made an MP, these were not laid by the wayside, and in his last intervention in Parliament, he sought an apology from then Prime Minister Tony Blair, for the role the British State had played in Slavery. You can watch the full video here, but his point on how we observe those involved in the slave trade is especially important given the current discourse on monuments.

Six years earlier, he chaired the African Reparations Movement and gave his famous Reparations or Bust speech.

Mayowa Ayodele

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