Commission for Racial Equality

After Grunwick: Trade unions and anti-racism in the 1980s

This is the latest post looking at the history of the turbulent relationship between the British labour movement and black and Asian workers in the post-war era, following on from posts on the Imperial Typewriters strike in mid-1974 and the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978. While Grunwick is seen as a turning point, there were still significant problems for black and Asian workers in the labour movement. These were exacerbated by the attacks on the trade unions (and the black and Asian communities) by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. This post is based on extracts from my forthcoming book with Brill/Haymarket, British Communism and the Politics of Race.

Although the Grunwick strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since as compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[1]

However the strike did not signal an end to the problematic relationship between the trade unions and black and Asian workers, particularly as the trade unions, as well as Britain’s black and Asian communities, came under attack in the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many black and Asian workers remained dissatisfied with the trade unions, particularly for their limited reaction to the problem of racism faced by these workers. In 1977, the PEP (Political and Economic Planning) report, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, outlined the problems that black workers faced in their relationship with the trade union movement, noting that while the 1970s had seen developments in most of the trade unions adopting anti-racist and equal opportunities policies, there was ‘a contrast between this formal policy and its practical results’.[2] In interviews with eight of the largest unions in Britain, the report found ‘little evidence that any definite action had been taken’ by the trade union leadership to combat incidents of racial discrimination inside the unions.[3] The report revealed that the trade union leaders were likely to ignore cased of racial discrimination unless they reached the highest echelons of the unions’ complaint structures and as ‘very few complaints filtered up to head-office level,… leaders tended to interpret this as meaning that there was very little trouble of this kind.’[4] The trade unions, along with the Labour Party, were spurred into anti-racist action by the mid-to-late 1970s, as seen with the large scale mobilisation of trade union support for the Grunwick strike and the labour movement backing of the Anti-Nazi League. However as Phizacklea and Miles argued in 1987, the anti-racist campaigning by the trade unions (primarily the TUC) and the Labour Party ‘seemed to die away with the collapse of the National Front vote in the general election of 1979’.[5]

In August 1976, the TUC formed its Race Relations Advisory Committee and in 1981 created a Black Workers Charter, but several studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that these initiatives had a limited impact upon the efforts of the trade unions to combat racism in the workplace and within their own organisations. Phizacklea and Miles cited a 1981 investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the AUEW that it was the policy of the union to condemn racial discrimination, ‘no specific instructions about how such a policy should be implemented had been provided for either officials or members’ and this principled opposition to racism was ‘contradicted by both the open expression of racism’ by some union members and ‘the refusal of the officials to take any action to combat that racism’.[6] Gloria Lee stated that when interviewed, black members ‘saw themselves as grossly under-represented within their unions’ and ‘felt that as black members, they [were] more poorly served buy their union than white members’.[7] John Wrench cited in his 1986 paper that certain acts of explicit racism were still occurring in the trade union movement in the early 1980s, but there was also ‘the more passive collusion of union officers in practices which were discriminatory in their outcomes, and a reluctance to change these practices’, such as the use of word-of-mouth to hire people, which worked greatly against non-white applicants.[8]

The traditional position of the trade unions was to have no specific policies to assist black workers integrate into the labour movement, arguing for ‘equal treatment’ for both black and white union members.[9] Despite the actions taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the aforementioned initiatives by the TUC, the ‘equal treatment’ argument still remained with the trade unions. In 1977, the PEP report stated that some union officials justified their poor record on combating racism ‘by saying they make no distinction between black and white and that this means that no special action can be taken’.[10] Phizacklea and Miles claimed that this was still the case in the 1980s and declared ‘[r]acism can masquerade in the guise of colour-blindness, when there is clear evidence of cases containing discrimination and allegations of lack of support for Asian and Caribbean members from their unions.’[11]

As part of the TUC’s efforts to combat racism, special education classes were created to inform trade unionists about the impact of racism upon black workers and how to tackle this, but critics asserted that as these classes were voluntary to attend, it had not reached the right audience and was not well supported by the unions.[12] Wrench argued that ‘those…who would benefit most from attending such courses tend to stay away as they feel that such provisions are a waste of time and money’.[13] A 1984 report by the Greater London Council’s Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group found that the GMWU, ACTT and NUT all held equal opportunities and ‘racism awareness’ training courses, but only the AUEW-TASS ran any ‘positive action’ programmes, which supported ‘appointing officials with ethnic background, or females, to the union’.[14]

John Wrench wrote in 1986 about this GLC report, stating:

The findings of the GLC survey confirm the suspicions of many activists that despite the history of disputes and struggles, the research, the educational material, and the prosecutions, there remains a body of trade union officers who simply do ot understand – or are wunwilling to acknowledge – what racism and racial equality are, what their effects are, how they operate, and what sorts of measures are needed to oppose them.[15]

However most of these reports from the 1980s pointed to areas where the trade unions were progressing on issues of ‘race’. Phizacklea and Miles wrote that ‘we have witnessed some concern amongst some unions to increase the participation and representation of Asian and Caribbean workers and restatement of a commitment amongst the same union to tackle racism within their own ranks and the wider society.’[16] John Wrench also noted that in the era of austerity and the Thatcherite onslaught against the trade union movement, ‘there has been an awareness of common cause and common interest’ between black and white workers and that this had been ‘part of one positive development of recent years – the increasing organisation of black workers and their success in making their influence felt within the labour movement.’[17]

This eventually led to the establishment of black sections or caucuses within several trade unions, as well as the Labour Party, which were seen as highly controversial at the time. Despite opposition from Labour Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, the black sections motion was passed by the 1983 Labour Party conference and the Party, alongside several public service unions, established black caucuses or sections as part of their internal structures. In a 1985 roundtable organised by Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and the Indian Workers Association (Southall) General Secretary Vishnu Sharma (also a leading CPGB member) argued that black caucuses and sections were beneficial for the labour movement, while Race & Class editor, A. Sivanandan, described them as a ‘distraction from the struggle that the black community has to face today’.[18] Hall countered this by saying:

If you say that the real problem is maintaining the momentum of the black struggle then I can see that the black sections are a distraction. But if you are concerned, an I am concerned, about the question of the white working class, you have to recognise that the Labour Party is a majority working class party. It has hegemonised the working class since the beginning of the twentieth century, whether we like it or not… So the black struggle must have some idea about how to get into that organisationally, how to transform that organisation…[19]

He argued that bringing the black struggle to the Labour Party was a ‘double struggle which is both with and against’ and required taking the fight to the Labour Party’s constituent elements, as well as the TUC –‘blowing it apart from the inside’.[20] To transform the ideas and actions of the labour movement, Hall proposed, one had to ‘mak[e] the internal structured organisation of the labour movement aware of the impact and history of racism.’[21]

Despite their initial controversy, the general political consensus is that the black caucuses within the trade unions and the black sections inside the Labour Party proved useful for promoting an awareness of issues of racial discrimination and equal opportunity within the labour movement, remaining until today. At a time when Thatcherism seemed at its hegemonic peak and the labour movement was at one of its lowest ebbs, the formation of the black caucuses/sections in the face of fierce resistance was a victory that buoyed those in the anti-racist struggle.


[1] McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2014, ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, p. 600.

[2] Smith, David J. 1977, Racial Disadvantage in Britain: The PEP Report, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 202.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

[5] Phizacklea, Annie and Robert Miles 1987, ‘The British Trade Union Movement and Racism’, in The Manufatcure of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveride, Milton Keynes: Open University, p. 119.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lee, Gloria 1987, ‘Black Members and Their Unions’, in The Manufacture of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, p. 151.

[8] Wrench, John Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations no. 5, 1986, pp. 11-2.

[9] Wrench, John and Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, edited by Peter Ackers, Chris Smith and Paul Smith, London: Routledge, p. 245.

[10] Smith 1977, p. 193.

[11] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 123.

[12] Lee 1987, p. 149.

[13] Wrench 1986, p. 13.

[14] GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group, Racism Within Trade Unions, 1984, London: GLC, p. 16.

[15] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 22.

[16] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 121.

[17] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 24.

[18] ‘Black Sections: Radical Demand or… Distraction?’, Marxism Today, September 1985, p. 33.

[19] ‘Black Sections’, p. 34.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.


The intersection of race, class and gender at the Grunwick strike

On 23 August, 1976, six workers went on strike at the Grunwick Photo Processing Lab in North-West London, beginning a strike that lasted for almost two years and involved thousands of people over the course of it. The Grunwick strike is now considered a turning point in the history of British trade unionism and race relations. I have written elsewhere about the intersectionality of the strike, but this post, based on an extract from my forthcoming book, expands on how the issues of race, class and gender crossed over during the strike.


Looking through the lens of critical race and feminist theory, it can be argued that the Grunwick strike was intersectional,[1] where issues of race, gender and class were all present and raised by different people involved in the strike. However while all of these issues were present (and recognised by those involved), the approaches formulated to tackle these issues were disparate and non-inclusive. While the trade union movement recognised racial and sexual discrimination were issues of resentment amongst those striking at Grunwick, the strategy for ‘victory’ was a class-based approach – primarily recognition of trade union representation from the owners of Grunwick.

In the coverage of the strike in the various left-wing, feminist and black activist publications at the time, the prominence given to the various issues of class, gender and race can be seen. The Socialist Workers Party declared in their pamphlet on the strike that, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’,[2] while the International Marxist Group depicted the Grunwick strike as part of a longer union history:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[3]

However it was suggested in the journal Race Today that some black workers felt that to mobilise on this issue ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[4] Meanwhile A. Sinanvandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, wrote that the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[5] In his eyes, the official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[6] For example, in February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[7] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands. What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces. As the Black Women’s Group Brixton stated in the following years:

The only basis on which the trade union movement and the White left would support the struggle of Black workers was on the condition that they subordinate the main issue of racism to trade unionism, which is of importance, but not sufficient to ignore the racist issue.[8]

The feminist magazine Spare Rib celebrated the role taken by women, particularly Asian women, in the strike, who, according to them, made up 60 per cent of strike. In January 1977, the magazine declared:

It takes a great deal of guts for an Asian woman to come out on strike and stand on a picket line in the full glare of publicity day after day. All sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on her. Members of her family may gossip and deprecate her, as it is considered a dishonour for a woman to put herself in the public eye.[9]

The magazine also highlighted the particular hardships faced by women employees at Grunwick and quoted one of the women on strike:

What I mean by slave treatment is that if a woman is pregnant, for example, she can’t get time off to go to the clinic. The management says why we can’t we go on Saturdays, but the cliniuc is not open on that day.

Many of our women have small children at school or in nurseries. The management tells you halfway through the day that you must work overtime that night – but this is terrible because you can’t pick up your children and you can’t contact your home.[10]

Interviewed at the height of the mass pickets in July/August 1977, Jayaben Desai talked positively about the support that came from different areas for the women on strike:

Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community see what we are fighting for.

And before, the trade unions in this country were felling that our community was not interested – this was wlways a gap in our community. But this will bring the distance nearer.We can all see the result – people coming here from all over the country were seeing us as part of the workers now.[11]

These differing persepctives on the focus of the Grunwick strike have led to much debate over whether the strike was a class-based strike or a strike against racism (or both), with the female aspect of the strike overlooked by many scholars. A. Sivanandan wrote in 1981 that the ‘basic issue for the strikers was thw question of racist exploitation’, acknowledging that union recognition was part of this.[12] Ron Ramdin also acknowledged that racial discrimination was an issue at Grunwick, but wrote, ‘[w]hile low pay, racism and the oppression of women were contributory factors, the main cause of the Grunwick strike was the ‘conditions of work’.[13] Following on from this argument from Ramdin, several authors have argued that Grunwick brought black and white workers together as a class to fight for trade union recognition and to combat racism in the workplace. Gary Macfarlane stated that the strike ‘ demonstrated that class unity could be forged in action and racism challenged head on’,[14] while Satnam Virdee wrote ‘during Grunwick, ‘key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive lanhuage of class that could now also encompass racialized minority workers.’[15]

Although the main emphasis of APEX and the Brent Trades Council was on trade union recogition, as mentioned above, there were moments when these organisations did not acknowledge that there was a racial aspect to the strike. In a letter from the Basingstoke General branch of APEX to the General Secretary of the TUC, there was a call for a national campaign by the TUC to highlight the struggle at Grunwick, with letter ending, ‘Let all know about the Grunwick employers Dickensian nature of employment, mainly of Asian origin, thus making the issue additionally delicate in the matter concerning race relations.’[16] Furthermore, in a flyer produced by APEX to call for the mass pickets in mid-1977, it was stated in bold capitals at the top of the flyer:





However other academics, such as Jack McGowan, have rejected that racism was an issue at Grunwick, writing that a ‘race-driven narrative is a tenacious trope in the accounts of Grunwick from the Left.’[18] McGowan cited the Commission for Racial Equality as stating, ‘It cannot be shown that the management at Grunwick practised racial discrimination’, and further argued that the strike could not be about ‘race’ because the co-owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was of Anglo-Indian descent.[19] Criticising a particular BBC Radio 4 documentary on the strike produced by Melissa Benn, McGowan lamented that ‘Benn’s radio audience might… misinterpret Grunwick as a case of white exploitation of ethnic workers’ and argued:

[Benn] appears to conflate the profound difference between the structural, socio-economic status of a sector of the labour force – regardless of ethnicity – with an implied willingness on the part of an employer deliberately to exploit workers on the grounds of race alone.[20]

McGowan here takes a very narrow concept of racism and does not consider that Grunwick’s owners and management relied on the structural position of the Asian manual workers (especially the female workers), largely informed by their ethnicity and recent migrant status, to treat them poorly as employees. As Pratibha Parmar and Parita Trivedi have argued, Asian women were viewed as ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘meek’ and ‘pushed into unskilled and semi-skilled jobs’ in ‘small organized sweatshops or doing homeworking’.[21] These racist and sexist assumptions, along the difficulties of trade union organising in these workplaces, made Asian female workers vulnerable to exploitation, but as the Grunwick strike has shown, these women were willing to challenge these assumptions and were able to take the lead in militant industrial action.[22]

The importance of the strike in fighting sexual discrimination has traditionally been overlooked in discussions of the strike, although since Amrit Wilson first wrote about the strike in the 1978 edition of Finding a Voice, it has been acknowledged by feminist scholars that the discrimination that workers faced as women informed the militancy of the women involved on the picket line.[23] As the quotes from Spare Rib above show, women at Grunwick experienced specific discrimination based upon their gender, which was often combined with discrimination based upon their ethnicity. The recent work by Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson suggests that previous accounts of the strike have ‘neglected the complex intersections between class, gender and ethnicity’ at Grunwick and therefore argue that the strike should be viewed through an intersectional lens.[24] For the labour movement, there was an emphasis on class, although there was an increasing acknowledgement of the extra problems faced by ethnic minorities and by women – but the strategies put forward for combatting the intersecting forms of class, gender and racial oppression always emphasised class unity and using the tools of class mobilisation, such as the mass picket and the accession to the trade union leadership.

Although the strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since because of this compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recogniswed the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[25]


[1] See: Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139-68; Crenshaw 1991, pp. 1242-300.

[2] SWP, Grunwick, p. 4.

[3] Socialist Challenge, 3 November 1977.

[4] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154.

[5] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292.

[6] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, p. 70.

[7] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, in Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[8] Black Women’s Group Brixton, ‘Editorial’, Speak Out, 2, 1981, p. 3, DADZIE/1/8/3, in Stella Dadzie Papers, Black Cultural Archives, London.

[9] Rossiter, ‘Risking Gossip & Disgrace: Asian Women trike’, Spare Rib, January 1977, p. 18.

[10] Campbell and Charlton, ‘Grunwick Women’, Spare Rib, August 1977, p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sivanandan 2008, p. 130.

[13] Ramdin 1987, p. 288.

[14] MacFarlane 2013, p. 87.

[15] Virdee 2014, p. 135.

[16] Letter from APEX Basingstoke General branch to TUC General Secretary, 18 April 1977, MSS 292D/253.119/3, in TUC Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[17] APEX flyer, August 1977, MSS.464/20, in APEX papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[18] McGowan 2008, p. 389.

[19] McGowan 2008, pp. 389-90.

[20] McGowan 2008, p. 390.

[21] Parmar 1986, p. 245; Trivedi 1984, p. 45.

[22] Although a recent study has suggested that African-Caribbean women, who also went on strike at Grunwick, have been erased from the visual and collective memory of the stike. McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 606.

[23] Wilson 1981, pp. 60-71.

[24] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2012, p. 134.

[25] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 600.



Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-168.

——— 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43, 6, pp. 1242-1300.

MacFarlane, Gary 2013, ‘From Confrontation to Compromise: Black British Politics in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, London: Bookmarks.

McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2012, ‘Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain’, Gender, Place & Culture, 19, 2, pp. 133-152

——— ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, pp. 754-775.

McGowan, Jack 2008, ‘“Dispute”, “Battle”, “Siege”, “Farce”? – Grunwick 30 Years On’, Contemporary British History, 22, 3, pp. 383-406.

Parmar, Pratibha 1986, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, London: Hutchinson, pp. 236-275.

Ramdin, Ron 1987, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot: Gower.

Sivanandan, Ambalavaner 2008, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press.

Trivedi, Parita 1984, ‘To Deny Our Fullness: Asian Women in the Making of History’, Feminist Review, 17, 34-50.

Virdee, Satnam 2014, ‘Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968-79’, in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 209-228.




Anwar Ditta and the discriminatory border control system

The following is based on an excerpt from our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination (Palgrave Macmillan). It discusses the case of Anwar Ditta, a British-Pakistani woman who fought the UK immigration control system for four years to get the authorities to allow her three children into the country. Only after a large grassroots campaign, combining anti-racists, trade unionists, feminists and other activists, and a series of blood tests arranged by Granada TV, did Ditta convince the British government that her children were indeed her own.

If you are interested, you can buy the book (slightly cheaper) here.

anwar ditta

The story of Anwar Ditta and her husband, Shuja Ud Din, is long and complicated (with the most concise narrative found in Paul Gordon’s 1984 book chapter, ‘Outlawing Immigrants’).[1] But the crux of the matter was that, in 1979, the British High Commission in Islamabad refused to give entry clearances to Anwar Ditta’s three children who were residing in Pakistan at the time, on the grounds that the authorities had doubts that Ditta was the biological mother of these children. Ditta, who was born in Birmingham but had lived in Pakistan since adolescence, and Ud Din, a Pakistani national, had both travelled separately to the UK in the 1970s and, after finding a place to live in Rochdale, requested that their three children join them. This began what The Guardian called a ‘Kafkaesque’ journey through the immigration control system that lasted over four years.

After settling in Rochdale and marrying in 1975, Ditta and Ud Din requested of the immigration authorities that their three children, who were living with their grandparents in Pakistan, be permitted to join them in the UK. In 1977, the children applied to the High Commission in Pakistan and were ‘interviewed’ by ECOs in 1978, along with Ud Din’s mother and sister since, as Gordon wrote, ‘the children were too young to be interviewed’.[2] In early 1979, the Home Office refused to provide entry clearances for the children, stating that it was ‘not satisfied that Kamran, Imran and Saima were related to Anwar Sultana Ditta and Shuja Ud Din as claimed’.[3] The reasons given by the Home Office did not relate specifically to the children, but were based on a ‘premise of suspicion’ of Ditta and Ud Din’s application.[4] As Gordon wrote, ‘the entry clearance officer at Islamabad did not argue directly that the three children were not those of Anwar Ditta’, but from the position that ‘the application was fraudulent’ and thus proceeded to ‘build up a case of apparent discrepancies in statements supplied on behalf of the children’ (our emphasis).[5] Gordon further explained that for the immigration control authorities these discrepancies were ‘sufficient to argue that the children were not those of Anwar Ditta and Shuja Ud Din’.[6]

The Friends of Anwar Ditta, a campaign organisation, reproduced the reasons given initially by the Home Office in a pamphlet it produced to publicise her campaign, arguing that the ‘Home Office arguments clearly do not stand up’ and were ‘not based on positive evidence’.[7] As the pamphlet showed, the reasons for the refusal all related to the details of the (admittedly complicated) backgrounds of Ditta and Ud Din, including discrepancies in the ages of Ditta when she married in Pakistan and when she later remarried in Britain, the fact that Ditta and Ud Din remarried in Britain in 1975 despite having a Muslim marriage in 1968 in Pakistan, discrepancies in the account of the marriage ceremony in Lahore (which by then had occurred over a decade prior), the fact that Ud Din admitted to overstaying his visitors entry clearance, and the fact that Ditta applied for a UK passport under her maiden name although she was married under Muslim law. The pamphlet categorically addressed all of these supposed discrepancies raised by the Home Office, stating that the reasons were ‘all irrelevant’ and that ‘none of them disprove the fact that [Kamran, Imran and Saima] are Anwar and Shuja’s children’.[8]

The Home Office argued that there were two women by the name of Anwar Sultana Ditta, with a pamphlet by the Anwar Ditta Defence Committee (ADDC) citing this ‘extra-ordinary suggestion’ from the statement provided by the ECO handling their case:

It appeared that there might be two Anwar Sultana Dittas, i.e. One who married Shuja Ud Din in Pakistan in 1968 and the other whom Shuja Ud Din married in the United Kingdom in 1975.[9]

Gordon also identified that the ‘official line was that the children were those of her sister-in-law’.[10] The Home Office did not have to substantiate these claims as the burden of proof rested on Ditta and Ud Din to prove that the children were actually hers. Ditta’s course of redress was to appeal the Home Office’s decision and her case was sent to the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, where it was heard by the Adjudicator, C. P. Rushton, in April 1980 and a decision was handed down the following month.

Leading up to the date of the appeal, a campaign around the Ditta case began to emerge, first under the Friends of Anwar Ditta, then led by the ADDC. This committee, which included people from the Asian communities in the North of England and the legal fraternity in Manchester, as well as from the labour movement and the anti-racist movement, mobilised quickly and began a campaign of letter writing to politicians, the media and potential supporters of Ditta, alongside the publication of several pamphlets and flyers and arranging public speaking engagements by Ditta.

Even before the Tribunal meeting with the Adjudicator, Ditta’s case came to be focused on an appeal to the body as the facilitator of ‘the truth’ because her testimony and documents were not believed by the authorities. A leaflet published in late 1979 said that Ditta had suggested that ‘a blood test would establish that she was the mother of the children’, but reported that ‘the Home Office replied: “There is no need to go that far”’. The leaflet argued that there was a need to go this far, as the Home Office had used blood tests in another case, when trying to deport Abdul Azad. An article in the newspaper of radical leftist group the Revolutionary Communist Group at the time also highlighted another case in which the Home Office employed blood tests – that of Afzal and Shemin Mohammed – writing:

The Home Office used blood tests to try and prove Afzal Mohammed was not the father of his two children, that he had engaged in a marriage of convenience and that he should be deported. Because of the large amount of public support Afzal Mohammed received, the Home Office has so far failed to deport him, but the case shows quite clearly the lengths the British state will go to deport someone who is black.

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Momentum built behind the campaign, with a large march held in Rochdale in March 1980, before the meeting with the Adjudicator in April of the same year. At times the campaign organisers seemed confident that enough evidence had been gathered to make a successful case. The ADDC leaflet claimed that ‘[s]olicitors say that the evidence is so conclusive that it need only be presented at the appeal to prove the case’. But this was not so. After the Tribunal met in April to hear Ditta’s case, the Adjudicator presented his decision in July 1980 (this was delayed from May), which upheld the original rejection by the Home Office.

In accounting for his decision (reprinted by the ADDC in numerous pamphlets and leaflets), the Adjudicator stated that the ‘oral testimony could be sufficient to tip the balance in the appelants [sic] favour’ (our emphasis), but that he deemed the witnesses in the case to not be credible, stating, ‘[t]he parents of the appelants [sic] have on their own admission on several occasions lied to, or deceived, persons in official positions both in the UK and Pakistan’. The Adjudicator thus based his decision on the ‘credibility’ of the adult witnesses in the case, as well as on the long and complex history of Ditta and Ud Din’s marriage and immigration status; however, the decision was supposed to ascertain whether the children could enter the UK as Ditta’s children. As an ADDC bulletin from February 1981 stated, ‘[t]he only issue relevant to the case was whether Anwar was the parent of the three children’. In an article for the New Statesman, David Holmes cited the Adjudicator as saying that the documents outlining the relationship between Ditta and her children were ‘too few in number to outweigh the deficiencies in the oral evidence’, but pointed out that ‘in a rather careless sentence’, the Adjudicator actually referred to Ditta and Ud Din as ‘the parents of the appellants’ (our emphasis).[11]

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A letter sent by the ADDC to potential supporters stated:

The adjudicator not only disregarded the available evidence, but also launched a most scandalous racist attack on the parents and their witnesses. He repeatedly questioned their ‘credibility’ on matters which had no bearing whatsoever on the case in hand. His racist slurs and abuse were intended to subject the family to a personal trial for nothing more than the fact that they have stood up and fought for their rights.

The Adjudicator’s questioning of the credibility of the family and their witnesses was evident in his statement (replicated in this flyer on page 3) that he ‘could not accept that Anwar Ditta and Hamida Rafique [Ditta’s sister] were simple Asian village women’ and his ‘finding’ that ‘[a]lthough they left the UK in mid-childhood’ and were ‘lacking in education’, the sisters had ‘an excellent command of English and were far more westernised and sophisticated in their demeanour than the average member of the immigrant community’. This statement could be taken to suggest that Ditta and her family could not be believed because they were educated immigrants and were therefore presumed to be more devious and calculating than the ‘average’ South Asian migrant.

The Adjudicator concluded that he ‘[could] not find that the appelants [sic] have on the balance of probabilities discharged the burden of proof upon them’, and thus dismissed the appeal. However the burden of proof did not technically lie with the applicant and the balance of probabilities was supposed to weigh in favour of the migrant, unless the authorities had overwhelming proof that the applicant was being dishonest. But in Ditta’s case the Adjudicator explicitly stated that the burden of proof lay squarely upon the potential migrant and that it was up to the applicant to prove their desirability to the authorities.

After the Adjudicator handed down his decision, the next course of action available to Ditta was to appeal this decision, but leave to appeal was denied by the Tribunal in September 1980. This meant the only avenue left open to Ditta was to appeal to the Minister for Immigration, Timothy Raison, for his consent to allow her children to enter Britain. The ADDC argued that a strong public campaign would be necessary to convince Raison of such. In a letter to potential supporters, the ADDC stated: ‘The adjudicator’s decision demonstrated that there can be no justice or democracy by appeals to the British state. These can be won only with the support of the black community, the working class and the socialist movement.’

With her testimony disbelieved, Ditta once again turned to the physical body in the hope that it would reveal ‘the truth’ and that the authorities would accept this, rather than Ditta’s words, as convincing evidence. In an ADDC pamphlet, she pleaded:

I am willing to give a medical test. I am willing to give a skin test. I am willing to go onto a lie detector to prove that they are my children. I’m not telling them any lies, why should I tell them lies? Why should I claim other peoples [sic] children?[12]

By December 1980, the ADDC had collected further evidence to submit to the Home Office, with the help of Labour MP, Joel Barnett, which, a press release stated, included ‘a report of a medical examination of Anwar Sultana Ditta, [and] evidence relating to the authenticity of fingerprints on identity cards obtained by Anwar whilst in Pakistan’, amongst other items. However, the ADDC announced that in January 1981 ‘the Home Office wrote back to say that this was not enough’. In a letter from Timothy Raison to Joel Barnett (written after Ditta’s children were finally allowed to join her), Raison stated that regarding the evidence presented in December 1980, he acknowledged that there was ‘fresh relevant material’, but ‘was not convinced that it was sufficient to justify overturning the decision confirmed by the appellate authorities’ and that the case would be reconsidered after blood tests were conducted (to which the Home Office had refused to agree in 1979).[13]

In early 1981, Granada Television’s World in Action paid for blood tests to be conducted on Ditta and her three children in Pakistan. The press statement by the ADDC described this as ‘a final effort to prove beyond all doubt that they are related as parent to child’. On the same day on which this press statement was released, the reports of the blood tests were received by Raison, who publicly stated:

I now believe that there is the substantial new evidence which I invited you [Joel Barnett] to submit to justify reversing the original decision. The entry clearance officer will be instructed to issue entry clearances to Kamran, Umran, and Saima to join Anwar Ditta and Shuja Ud Din.[14]

Raison cynically added, ‘I regret that it has taken so long to bring this case to a conclusion and hope that the children will have happy lives here’[15], as if it were not the fault of the Home Office that the case took so long to conclude.

Ditta’s children joined her in Britain a few months later, but this was a special case where the appellant had claimed victory over the British state. There were a significant number of other cases in which families had been separated by the immigration control system who did not have the fortunate outcome that Ditta had. With Ditta’s case finally reaching a positive conclusion, migrant rights campaigners hoped that the decision in this case would increase pressure on the government to alleviate the strict nature of the controls system and believed that Ditta’s case would highlight the difficulties that immigrants faced when trying to enter the country. As The Times wrote, ‘[t]he case has raised serious doubts about the fairness of procedures being used to screen would-be entrants to Britain’.[16]

In the House of Lords, Lord Avebury asked whether the Home Office would conduct blood tests on Riaz Ahmed ‘whose application to join his father made originally on 15th February 1972 was refused on the grounds that the entry clearance officer did not believe that the relationship was as claimed’. The Conservative leader of the House of Lords, Lord Belstead, replied that ‘[i]t is not our practice to conduct blood tests to establish relationship for the purposes of the immigration rules’. He added, however, that it was ‘open to an applicant for entry clearance to submit whatever evidence he [sic] wishes in support of his [sic] case’, even though Belstead would have been aware that these tests were too expensive and too difficult to conduct for many migrants from South Asia. Lord Avebury further asked whether the Home Office or the British High Commissions in South Asia would ‘arrange for blood tests to be carried out by a doctor nominated by the High Commission for this purpose’, in cases in which the ECO had doubts about the relationship of a dependant applying to join a parent in the UK. In response to Lord Avebury’s question, Lord Belstead stated that the government had ‘no plans to arrange for blood tests to be carried out’.

In a letter to Willie Whitelaw in January 1982, Chief Medical Officer Sir Henry Yellowlees warned against the use of blood-typing to test blood relationships. Yellowlees advised that there ‘would be considerable practical difficulties in undertaking such tests as routine’ and further pointed out that ‘a definite risk of hepatitis exists’.[17] He concluded that he ‘could not recommend the adoption of blood-typing in the present circumstances without a review of the staff and facilities which would be used’.[18] In 1985, a report by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) also warned against blood tests to establish kinship becoming a common practice, arguing that, ‘[w]hile tests of a very sophisticated kind can sometimes show a high level of probability that a claimed relationship exists … they will often leave considerable room for doubt’.[19] The CRE was concerned that if these tests were to become common practice, they would ‘add to the costs and difficulties of the procedures and only rarely be of positive benefit either to applicants or ECOs’.[20] One of the possible outcomes of such a scenario would be that the Home Office might come to rely solely on evidence gathered from the physical body of the applicant, and thus deem all testimony and documentary evidence to be irrelevant. An article in The Guardian in 1999 claimed that the ‘advent of DNA testing means [that Ditta’s] case won’t happen again’, but it is likely that in the current climate DNA testing is relied upon by the authorities in lieu of other evidence presented by potential migrants.

What the Anwar Ditta case reveals are the extreme lengths to which the British immigration control system has gone in the past to deny the credibility of a migrant’s testimony and the authenticity of documentation provided by applicants from the developing world. It thus appears that only the physical body is to be believed by the authorities.

Ditta addressing rally in 1979 - from Tandana archive

Ditta addressing rally in 1980 – from Tandana archive


[1] Paul Gordon, ‘Outlawing Immigrants 1: Anwar Ditta and Britain’s Immigration Laws’, in Phil Scraton & Paul Gordon, Causes for Concern: Questions of Law and Justice (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1984).

[2] Gordon, ‘Outlawing Immigrants 1’, p. 115.

[3] Cited in Anwar Ditta Defence Committee, Bring Anwar’s Children Home: Stop the Forced Separation of Black Families, ADDC, Manchester, 1980, p. 7, SC/C/N/27/1, Steve Cohen Collection, Race Relations Archive, University of Manchester.

[4] Gordon, ‘Outlawing Immigrants 1’, p. 123.

[5] Gordon, ‘Outlawing Immigrants 1’, p. 123.

[6] Gordon, ‘Outlawing Immigrants 1’, p. 123.

[7] Friends of Anwar Ditta/Manchester Law Centre, Bring Anwar’s Children Home! The Case of Anwar Ditta & Shuja Ud Din and Their Three Children Kamran, Imran & Saima, Friends of Anwar Ditta/Manchester Law Centre, Manchester, 1980, p. 9, SC/C/N/27/2, Steve Cohen Collection, RRA.

[8] Friends of Anwar Ditta/Manchester Law Centre, Bring Anwar’s Children Home!, p. 9.

[9] Cited in ADDC, Bring Anwar’s Children Home, p. 7.

[10] Gordon, ‘Outlawing Immigrants 1’, p. 125.

[11] David Holmes, ‘Anwar Ditta’s Battle for Her Children’, New Statesman, 22 August 1980, p. 7.

[12] Anwar Ditta, ‘The Case of Anwar Ditta in Her Own Words’, in ADDC, Bring Anwar’s Children Home, p. 6.

[13] Letter from Timothy Raison to Joel Barnett (press release version), 19 March 1981, IRR 01/04/04/01/08/01/05, IRR Library, London.

[14] Letter from Timothy Raison to Joel Barnett (press release version).

[15] Letter from Timothy Raison to Joel Barnett (press release version).

[16] Peter Evans, ‘Woman Wins Fight to Reunite Her Family’, The Times, 20 March 1981.

[17] Letter from Henry Yellowlees to Willie Whitelaw, 14 January 1982, HO 418/33, NA.

[18] Letter from Henry Yellowlees to Willie Whitelaw.

[19] Commission for Racial Equality, Immigration Control Procedures: Report of a Formal Investigation (CRE, London, 1985) p. 41.

[20] CRE, Immigration Control Procedures, p. 41.

Guest post at Border Criminologies

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This is a quick post to let people know that Marinella and I have written a short guest post outlining the findings of our new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, at the Border Criminologies blog. If you don’t already follow this blog, I recommend you do so!

Out Now! Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control has been published

Palgrave cover

This is a quick post to announce that our new book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control has been published by Palgrave Macmillan and hopefully should be ready to be shipped out soon. I know the hardback is costly, but we hope that people encourage their university, college or council library to order a copy. The book can be ordered from here (although your mileage might vary from other online book distributors).

A flyer for the book with endorsements from Philippa Levine (University of Texas at Austin), Imogen Tyler (Lancaster University) and Alan Travis (The Guardian) can be downloaded here. We also drew up a press release with a summary of book’s key findings, which you can download from here.

We also heartily welcome people getting in touch with journals for review copies. If you want a review copy, do contact your favourite history/criminology/politics journal’s book reviews editor and/or Palgrave.

Deny, normalise and obfuscate: The Home Office in the 1980s and the abuse of South Asian women

Palgrave cover

The ‘missing’ files of the Home Office relating to an alleged child-sex ring given by Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens to Home Secretary Leon Brittan is not that surprising. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept silent about a hundreds of thousands of files that were thought to be ‘missing’ or ‘destroyed’ during the decolonisation process that most probably document a number of abuses by British personnel in Africa, Asia, Latin/Central America and the Middle East between the 1930s and the 1970s. Our own research into the abuses suffered by South Asian women at the hands of the British immigration control system shows that the Home Office (along with the FCO) was unwilling to admit to the abuses that occurred during the 1970s and at every turn, Home Office staff tried to obfuscate any independent investigation into these known abuses. We have only started to fathom the extent of the abuses suffered from the archival records released 30 years later. Without the archival record, many of the transgressions of the state would go unnoticed by the mainstream and historians are valuable in making the past wrongdoings of governments known.

As we have written in the introduction of our forthcoming bookRace, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination:

The main methodological approach adopted for the research underpinning this book was archival research based on recently opened Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) files held at the National Archives in London (released to the public between 2004 and 2012). This approach allowed us to capture the internal voice of authority – the one that we know it exists but often cannot be reached – representing the secretive side of the state that excludes us unless there is a leak of information (as recent cases linked to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden would suggest). Thus, we must wait an inordinate number of years to access such information, should any trace of it remain. In the case of the virginity testing controversy, we had to wait 30 years to access this side of the story, for more details of what occurred to be released. This practice must also be understood within a wider context of a series of human rights abuses conducted by British state institutions in the 1970s and 1980s (with the relevant files being released in the same timeframe), such as the actions of the British forces in Northern Ireland, the death of Blair Peach at the hands of a police officer in 1979, the policing of the Brixton riots and the response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. We see in black and white the recurrence of the typical cycle of government evasion of accountability, which usually starts with denial, and is followed by the adoption of a minimisation approach and ‘othering’ strategies. The crude reality of what is known and not shared publicly conveys a sense of uneasiness, and of unbalanced power between those who govern and those who are governed, which can be readdressed by the opening of the archival record.

And further into the book:

This [book] has outlined how the British Government, under both Callaghan’s Labour and Thatcher’s Conservatives, responded to the revelation of the virginity testing practice by The Guardian in early 1979. The initial reaction of the government, led by Home Secretary Rees, was to question whether the tests on South Asian women had taken place in the manner alleged and to claim that any such test was part of a ‘routine’ medical examination to which most migrants were subjected. However, these claims were contested as details emerged that the practice was much more common than first thought, with numerous cases alleged to have occurred in British High Commissions across the Indian subcontinent. The strategy of the Home Office and the FCO was thus to deny publicly the number of examinations conducted (even though internal correspondence reveals that by March 1979 the Prime Minister’s Office knew of at least 80 cases), and to hope that public criticism would be stemmed by the announcement of an investigation into the process of medical examinations of immigrants by Sir Henry Yellowlees.

Soon after the practice of virginity testing was revealed in the mainstream press, the CRE announced that the Home Secretary should allow an independent investigation to pursue allegations of racist (and sexist) discrimination within the immigration control system. However, the Home Office was keen to resist this and challenged the questions raised by the CRE, claiming that discrimination was necessary to ensure the effective control of immigration, as well as launching legal action against the CRE, disputing whether it had the necessary powers to investigate another government institution…

The same strategies of denial, justification and obfuscation were adopted by the Home Office and the FCO when similar questions were asked about the use of x-rays within the immigration control system, with criticisms that x-rays were being performed upon minors not for medical reasons, but to verify their entry clearance applications. The Yellowlees investigation was used by the incoming Conservative government to deflect enquiries about the administrative and non-medical use of x-rays. Although the Yellowlees Report, released to MPs in April 1980, sanctioned the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes, the documents we have uncovered show that the Home Office and the FCO, internally, were in doubt over the usefulness of x-rays and quietly abandoned using them in all overseas posts except the High Commission in Bangladesh. Eventually Yellowlees, for reasons unknown, reassessed his position, and in 1982, Willie Whitelaw announced in the House of Commons that x-rays would no longer be used to determine the age of potential migrants. Since this 1982 embargo, there have occasionally been calls to reintroduce x-rays to verify the claims of potential migrants (and more recently, asylum seekers). 

Guardian front page

And in the book’s conclusion:

As we have shown throughout this book, from the 1960s to the 1980s the British authorities saw (and still see) the strict implementation of immigration controls as necessary for ‘good race relations’, and discriminatory practices – with the burden of proof placed upon the applicant – as necessary for the effective implementation of these controls. The suspicion of foreigners that existed within the system and pressure to scrutinise those who fit the profile of a potentially ‘bogus’ migrant led to the occurrence of various physical (and mental) abuses. This is the context within which the practice of virginity testing operated.

The practice of virginity testing and other forms of intrusive examination conducted upon migrant women from the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s were informed by a mentality of postcolonial dominance. The targeting of this group of women was certainly dictated by the British colonial experience – or misconception – that the female role in South Asian society is submissive. Further, the post-imperial British Government held a conviction, remaining from the colonial era, that people from the Indian subcontinent were untrustworthy. Yet, having admitted many Indian men into Britain for economic development purposes in the 1950s and 1960s, the government had to recognise the need to reunite families as a pressing point of public policy, while at the same time attempting to preserve the whiteness of British society.

The border became a space where virginity testing and other abusive treatments were justified to serve socio-economic and political aims. The increasingly restrictive conditions produced by British immigration control policy saw the authorities seek to apply a formula to create and maintain its idea of the ideal mixed society, whereby the Commonwealth migrant would be accepted on the terms of the host society. In the case of the South Asian women who came to Britain in the 1970s, they were to fulfil the purpose of joining their male family members and creating homogeneous family units in Britain’s South Asian communities, thus replicating the ideals of white British society. To ensure that these women would fulfil this role, and because South Asian migrants were thought to be prone to fabrication (especially women), the body became the signifier of ‘the truth’ for British immigration officials. The combination of all of these elements formed the basis for the conditions under which [many] South Asian women had to endure intrusive tests between 1968 and 1979. This practice was highly discriminatory, with a very select demographic group being the victims; it was an abuse of power and a violation of human rights.

The victims who were subjected to such practices remain mostly nameless and faceless, will never receive adequate compensation and, most importantly for the purpose of a proper healing process, have yet to receive an apology from either the past or current British governments. On this point, when the story broke again in May 2011 in The Guardian, and was widely reported worldwide, the Conservative government did not consider it to be a good opportunity to redress past wrongdoings:

[a] UK Border Agency spokesman said: ‘These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong.This government’s immigration policies reflect the UK’s legal responsibilities and respect immigrants’ human rights.’[i]

In a multi-ethnic, globalised Britain, one would assume that this matter would be taken more seriously. Redressing past wrongdoing is the foundation of restorative justice, an underpinning principle embraced by the UN to attest to the importance of acknowledging abuse and the infringement of human rights. Meaningful reparation of wrongdoings does contribute to the healing of victims, and any action in this direction ought to be encouraged…[ii] 

The task of discerning ‘undesirable’ migrants at the border was prioritised over all other economic, social and humanitarian concerns. Did ever the Immigration Officers, who used their discretionary power to argue that more intrusive examinations were needed, consider the implications of their actions? Have they ever looked back? We accept that they followed orders. We also accept that immigration officials may have agreed, up to a point, to perform their duties in a most comprehensive manner because of the government’s broader vision and their background. In other areas of the world, brutalities directed at certain ethnic groups to achieve a better position for the dominant state would be framed in completely different terms. The harmful actions of the British state and its branches and personnel cannot be dismissed in this way… 

As we have written, the archival record is key to uncovering the past abuses by the British state and as this blog post argues, the need for historians to assist in bringing the archival record to the public’s knowledge is increasingly greater. The recent past should not be arbitrarily off-limits. And if the government is reluctant to open its records, historians should learn from journalists and endeavour to make FOI laws work for us.


[i] A. Travis, ‘Ministers Face Calls for Apology as Extent of 1970s “Virginity Tests” Revealed’, The Guardian 9 May 2011, (accessed 9 January 2014).

[ii] Much of Miriam Aukerman’s analysis would apply to this context as well. See M. Aukerman (2002) ‘Extraordinary Evil, Ordinary Crime: A Framework for Understanding Transitional Justice’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, pp. 39-97.


35 years since Southall 1979

23 April is the 35th anniversary of the Southall ‘riot’ when police violently attacked a counter-demonstration against the National Front in the South London borough – an act of police violence that left dozens injured and one protestor dead. David Renton’s blog Lives Running has been documenting the aftermath of Blair Peach’s death at Southall in April 1979 and the fact that despite an internal police investigation narrowing the suspect list down to 6 police officers, no one was ever held responsible for the killing of Peach. I suggest that you browse the documents that David has posted over the last few weeks.

I have written about the reluctance of the British government (under both Labour and the Conservatives) to call for a public inquiry into the death of Blair Peach before, but thought I would post this brief section from my PhD thesis on the events of Southall 1979. Part of this material ended up in this article on the CPGB and anti-fascism in the 1970s.

Southall 1979

Southall 1979

Southall and the Death of Blair Peach

Southall had one of the largest concentrations of Asians in Greater London, originally attracted by the employment of Sikhs at Woolf’s rubber factory, but then expanding to other ethnicities and job opportunities.[i] The Asian community had suffered from racism for decades, but as stated in Southall: The Birth of a Black Community, ‘The black community of Southall… fought against racism all along the line’.[ii] With the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in June 1976, the Asian youth of Southall became militant, with ‘no time for resolutions, nor for reliance on the goodwill of politicians’, forming the Southall Youth Movement.[iii] For the SYM, ‘the racist attacks against young black people makes black people feel it is not safe to go out at night’ and after Chaggar’s murder, ‘whilst leaders were saying keep calm and trying to play down “isolated incidents”… [w]e knew it was time to organise ourselves’.[iv] While the Indian Workers Associations had been important organisations for Asian workers during the 1960s, by the 1970s, the second generation Asian youth felt that the IWA had begun to ‘degenerate into the position of mediator, into the posture of a support force and into downright conservative, leadership-seeking reaction’.[v] The Asian youth organised around the SYM sought a more active and militant organisation. The SYM was dedicated to ‘physically keeping racism off the streets of Southall’ and countering the ‘lack of youth provision in the Borough’.[vi]

The new militancy and self-reliance of the SYM and of Asian Youth Movements across Britain reflected the influence of ‘Black Power and Third World liberation movements’,[vii] rather than the emphasis on class struggle and industrial politics endorsed by the white left. John Rose wrote in International Socialism that the formation of the SYM ‘took the entire local left by surprise’, writing that they had ‘already given chase to the racists on the streets… and ultimately they will give the racists chase in the factories’.[viii] However Rose stated that the ‘only long-term chance that the SYM has for growth and development is if the leadership comes to decisively adopt revolutionary socialist politics’.[ix] The SYM experienced difficulties in maintaining its own identity when dealing with the left, as explained by the General Secretary of the SYM, Balraj Puriwal: ‘Every time we tried to protest and give our own identity the left tried to take it over… they gave us their slogans and placards… our own identity was subsumed, diffused and deflected all over the place’.[x] There was sympathy for the left amongst those involved in the AYMs, but not at the substitution of their own identity. As Nermal Singh wrote in Kala Tara, the publication of the Bradford AYM:

The white left tell us only the working class as a whole will be able to smash racism by overthrowing capitalism and setting up a socialist state.

This maybe so, but in the meantime are we, as one of the most oppressed sections of the working class, to sit by idly in the face of mounting attacks. No! We must fight back against the cancerous growth of racism.[xi]

To oppose the National Front’s meeting at Southall Town Hall on 23 April, 1979, a community meeting, called by the Southall IWA, was held on 11 April and decided on a course of action to petition the council to refuse the NF access to the Town Hall, march from Southall to Ealing Town Hall on 22 April and that ‘all businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. should shut down on 23 April from 1 p.m. onwards’.[xii] Sharma explained that this form of protest was called a ‘Hartal’ and was ‘quite a common tactic in India’.[xiii] Sharma also emphasised that the 11 April meeting had ‘decided not to resort to confrontation with the police’ and organised a ‘massive peaceful sitdown’ outside the Town Hall.[xiv] The SWP, the ANL and Socialist Unity, an organisation led by Tariq Ali that incorporated the IMG, had called for a protest march on 23 April, but had been ‘turned down by local groupings in favour of the sit-down protest’.[xv]

The NF meeting was to begin at 7.30pm and the protest had been scheduled to commence from 5pm, but confrontations between police and youth had been occurring since the early afternoon. With over 2,700 police involved, around 2,000 demonstrators were confronted by the police and the Special Patrol Group (SPG), which began to prevent demonstrators from protesting out the front of the Town Hall.[xvi] Dave Renton has written that, ‘Between 7.30 and 9 p.m., Southall witnessed a full-scale police riot’.[xvii] The SWP pamphlet, Southall: The Fight For Our Future, described the events:

The first lines of foot police opened up and made way for SPG men with riot shields and hoards of baton-wielding police on horseback. Some demonstrators tried to defend themselves by throwing bricks. But it was useless. The mounties ran amock, joking, laughing and making racist remarks as they smashed skulls with their batons. The footmen followed up using riot shields as weapons and arresting anyone… The police violence did nothing to control the situation.[xviii]

At around 7.45pm, Blair Peach, an ANL and SWP member, was ‘struck on the head by an assailant widely believed to have been a member of the SPG’, dying of his injuries after midnight.[xix] By the end of the night, 342 people, ‘mostly Asian and local’, had been arrested.[xx]

The following day’s Morning Star, having gone to press before Blair Peach’s death was announced, reported the ‘total shutdown’ of Southall.[xxi] The paper reported the police claims of 250 demonstrators arrested during the evening and 77 arrested in the afternoon, along with forty people taken to Ealing Hospital, including eighteen policemen.[xxii] The next day’s Morning Star contained the headline, ‘Curb The Mad Dogs Of Racism!’, declaring that ‘Rees, McNee and Thatcher – All to Blame in Southall Tragedy’.[xxiii] Home Secretary Merlyn Rees was accused of allowing the NF ‘to spread its racist poison in clear violation of the Race Relations Act’ and that the ‘holding of an election does not annul the Race Relations Act, nor absolve Mr Rees of the responsibility to ensure that it is rigorously applied’.[xxiv] Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee was also accused of ‘protecting a handful of racist hoodlums’, when it was McNee’s ‘duty to protect the freedom of the citizens of Southall’, but he had failed to do so and, ‘On the contrary, his men assaulted them, left, right and centre’.[xxv] Thatcher was also criticised for ‘encouraging the growth of racism’ and the Morning Star declared, ‘it is sheer humbug for Mrs. Thatcher and Co. to prattle on about law and order when she talks about Britain being swamped by black people’.[xxvi] The CPGB reiterated its line that ‘throwing missiles at the police is not the way to fight racism’, but understood ‘the sense of frustration, anger and outrage’ felt by the black community in Southall.[xxvii] Whatever violent action was taken by the protestors on 23 April, the Morning Star stated that the ‘real violence in Southall was the officially sponsored violence from mobs of police, apparently including the notorious Special Patrol Group, who simply went beserk [sic]’.[xxviii] The death of Blair Peach and the violent clashes in Southall were ‘the direct result of the toleration of the National Front provocations by the authorities’, declared CPGB General Secretary Gordon McLennan, tolerance that the CPGB thought should be remedied by the use of the Race Relations Act to its full extent.[xxix]

Approximately 15,000 people marched through Southall on 28 April, 1979 in memory of Blair Peach.[xxx] An official inquest, like that held after Red Lion Square, was never held, but the NCCL held an unofficial inquest and Scotland Yard’s Complaints Investigation Bureau also conducted a report. The Leveller reported in January 1980 that this report implied that ‘prime suspicion for Peach’s murder was narrowed down to six police officers’.[xxxi] No one has ever been indicted for his murder.


[i] Paul Harrison, ‘The Patience of Southall’, New Society, 4 April, 1974

[ii] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 45

[iii] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 52

[iv] Bahaj Purewal, cited in, ‘Against Racism in Southall’, Challenge, 36, August/September 1976

[v] Race Today Collective, The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, Race Today Publications, London, 1983, p. 17

[vi] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 54

[vii] Anandi Ramamurthy, ‘The Politics of Britain’s Asian Youth Movements’, Race & Class, 48/2, p. 39

[viii] John Rose, ‘The Southall Asian Youth Movement’, International Socialism, 1/91, September, 1976, p. 5

[ix] J. Rose, ‘The Southall Asian Youth Movement’, p. 6

[x] Cited in, Shivdeep Singh Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s? Southall and the Conjuncture of 23 April 1979’, Socialist History, 23, 2003, p. 21

[xi] Nermal Singh, ‘Racism: Time to Fight Back’, Kala Tara, 1, p. 3,, accessed 14 March, 2007

[xii] Cited in, David Renton, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, New Clarion Press, Cheltenham, 2006, p. 141

[xiii] ‘Interview with Vishnu Sharma’, Marxism Today, December 1979, p. 22

[xiv] ‘Interview with Vishnu Sharma’, p. 22

[xv] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 3

[xvi] D. Renton, When We Touched the Sky, p. 143; S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 4

[xvii] D. Renton, When We Touched the Sky, p. 146

[xviii] SWP, Southall: The Fight For Our Future, SWP pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 3

[xix] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 5

[xx] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 60

[xxi] Morning Star, 24 April, 1979

[xxii] Morning Star, 24 April, 1979

[xxiii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxiv] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxv] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxvi] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxvii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxviii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxix] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxx] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 6

[xxxi] ‘Six Names Out of the Blue’, The Leveller, 34, January 1980, p. 6