Jake Lynch

In the Media Education Foundation film, Race: the Floating Signifier, Stuart Hall discusses the cultural processes whereby differences of appearance come to stand for the natural or biological qualities of human beings. Race is a “discursive construct”, he argues, whose meaning can never be fixed.

One of the key arenas of contestation and negotiation over the meaning of race in the UK is the Notting Hill Carnival. Held annually in west London, it is a celebration of the Caribbean culture brought to Britain by natives of Jamaica on the Empire Windrush, arriving in 1948, and thousands of other immigrant workers – among them, Hall’s own family – in the decades that followed.

By the mid-1970s, it was also a conflict arena. Police swooped to arrest hundreds of local youths at the carnival of 1976, triggering a ‘riot’ (or ‘uprising’) in which over 300 officers were injured. For many years thereafter, reaching into my own journalistic career in the 1990s, the UK’s London-based national media would put reporters on ‘riot watch’ at Carnival time, in case it ‘kicked off’ again.

By now, published opinion was, to some extent, out of step with public opinion, at least in London. Carnival had boomed, with revellers of all races coming to regard it as the opportunity for an exciting family day out, the numbers swelling through the hundreds of thousands as the years went by. Readers and audiences were voting with their feet. The meaning of Carnival had been shifted, now symbolising the dynamism of London’s multi-cultural community. By the end of the decade, journalism had caught up, and the story had changed, as well, with reporting tending to focus on the colour and sounds of the event, its political themes such as (in 2007) the campaign to abolish slavery, and its sizeable contribution to the London economy.

The Millennium Carnival, in 2000, brought an unwelcome reminder of past tensions, as two fatal stabbings revived some of the old law-and-order reporting tropes. A spokesman for the Police Federation, the staff association for lower ranks, complained that crime levels were being played down for “political reasons” and that officers avoided making arrests for fear of “triggering a riot”.

I took this as a cue for a piece of peace journalism, adding context and background by rehearsing some of the history of police relations with the black community of west London. In a report for Sky News, I interviewed a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and explained how, in the past, long-running police harassment had led to carnival organisers being framed for drug offences. This was the nature of the conflict now being transformed, and calls for a ‘crackdown’ risked regression to the bad old days.

The success of Carnival – the occasional tension aside – in recent years has, in effect, disproved the pessimistic view of Britain’s race relations, espoused most notoriously by Enoch Powell. Powell achieved scholarly eminence as a classicist at the University of Sydney, before World War Two, and, on returning to the UK, later served as a Minister in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. In 1969, while in Opposition, he then spoke out against the Labour government’s Race Relations Act, which outlawed discrimination, in what became known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech. It lent impetus to emerging far-right political parties and underpinned street confrontations between the National Front and Anti-Nazi League throughout the 1970s. At the end of that decade, the Front’s growing electoral success was stemmed, in part through organised opposition at grassroots level but also because the Conservatives took on some of its key messages. Margaret Thatcher, in a television interview recorded months before taking office in 1979, expressed sympathy with Britons who feared immigration as a threat of being “swamped by people with an alien culture”.  

By the mid-1980s, the rallying call of the Left was to oppose continuing racist and fascist political organization by denying it a ‘platform’. This argument appealed to the iconic Battle of Cable Street, half a century earlier, which denied the Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley control of the streets in east London, home to even older immigrant communities. It found expression in the ‘no platform’ policies adopted by student unions. These, in turn, became a target for the Federation of Conservative Students, who adopted a deliberate policy of inviting right-wing speakers to universities in a bid to discredit ‘no platform’.

So it was that, in the middle of ‘freshers’ week’ at the Cardiff university campus, in 1986, a rumour raced around that none other than Enoch Powell was about to address a Conservative student meeting in one of the college buildings. Powell had, by this stage, himself become a floating signifier, in Hall’s terms. The classical scholar, wartime staff officer, Minister and Privy Councillor had been swamped in popular imagination by the image of a swivel-eyed rabble-rouser of the anti-immigration Right. As a full-time elected officer of the student union, I led a group of demonstrators to the meeting venue where, finding the rumour was true, we occupied the stage and literally denied Powell a platform to speak.  

The mixed outrage and elation that formed the aftermath of this event was chilled with the arrival of letters from the university authorities to ten of the demonstrators – myself included – threatening expulsion under the catch-all provision of bringing the institution into disrepute. There followed a vigorous campaign and a petition, eye-catching direct actions including a ‘human chain’, formed across the road outside the union building to hand over the signatures to the College Principal, and letter-writing to local newspapers, on behalf of the ‘Cardiff Ten’. Then came the time to negotiate a resolution.

A college letter to the union asked us to ditch the ‘no platform’ policy in exchange for our educational futures – all of us had degrees to finish, in my case after the end of my sabbatical year as union communications officer. What we were being offered was an archetypal ‘middle-class jumping-off point’, which, for a moment, felt very tempting. In the event, we countered. I drafted another letter, proposing arrangements which stopped short of giving the union a veto over all visiting speakers, but stipulated that it must be told of any invitation likely to prove controversial, so that a counter-demonstration could be organised in good time. It even provided for “chanting [to] take place” if the speaker then proceeded to express racist or fascist views.

Somewhat to our surprise, this was accepted. The university authorities were evidently keen to put the episode behind them, albeit at the cost of some damning press coverage, notably an excoriation in the Times by Bernard Levin, then the doyen of right-wing editorialists, who quoted several sections of the letter. The “ignominious surrender was made even more abject”, Levin wrote, “by a codicil to the agreement, under the terms of which the authorities agreed to drop the disciplinary proceedings they had initiated against ten students who had been among those who recently prevented Mr Enoch Powell from completing a speech”.

Why did we risk it? How come we did not jump at the middle-class jumping-off point? The episode, as I have recounted it here, may recall the observation attributed to Henry Kissinger, that academic politics are so bitter precisely because “so little is at stake”, but this relatively minor conflict had important currents running through and beneath it, issues in which there was plenty at stake. For whom? Well, for some of those involved in running the campaign, for a start. The strongest support came from activists in the women’s and black caucuses, notably Patrick Younge, a former union president who became our intermediary with the powers-that-were.

This stiffened our collective resolve to avoid what has been called “the free rider problem”. We could have avoided doing our bit in the struggle at street level against racism in Thatcher’s Britain, and few outside the university would have noticed. As Pareto puts it:

“If all individuals refrained from doing A, every individual as a member of the community would derive a certain advantage. But now if all individuals less one continue refraining from doing A, the community loss is very slight, whereas the one individual doing A makes a personal gain far greater than the loss that he incurs as a member of the community”.

The answer, of course – the logic of collective action, as it has been called – is to conceive of oneself, not as an atomised individual, aiming for what Pareto called “optimality” in personal outcomes, but as a member of identities drawing upon solidarity across a group or groups – the diverse group driving the student union policy and responses, in this case. Reliance on solidarity and collective action tends, generally, to be lesser in the lives of the middle classes. In Andrew Pearmain’s memorable description:

“A middle class by definition has to look, and try to have it, both ways: upwards and downwards at their social superiors and inferiors, backwards to where it’s come from and forwards to where it’s going. This leads to a kind of cultural ambivalence, a wary appreciation of subtlety and nuance, a modus operandi of ‘muddle and fudge’, a complex array of practical hypocrisies, and a sense of humour largely based on social misunderstanding. It also creates a quite distinctive ‘emotional economy’ of anxieties and satisfactions, fears and entitlements”.

It is where the practical hypocrisies are exposed by anxieties and fears that the middle-class typically fashions and/or finds its jumping-off point from the trajectories implied by solidarities and commitments.

Pat Younge went on to make an impressive media career, becoming founding editor of Black Britain, a BBC current affairs show, which attempted to transform the media representation of race. He spoke at the inaugural peace journalism Summer School, at Taplow Court, where he received a warmer reception than Nick Pollard (see Section 1 Preamble). Younge and his team reconceived and re-sourced stories about ethnic minority communities: “Black Britain set out to show there was a diversity of black opinion. There are black people on every side of every argument”.

One of the problems with UK media is that the likes of Patrick Younge remain too few and far between. There has never been a black editor of a major daily newspaper, for example. Journalists are generally drawn from a fairly narrow range of social backgrounds, in which privately-educated white males predominate. This is not to repeat the canard that patterns of news content can be attributed to the tastes, assumptions and political attitudes of individual reporters, or even editors; the extent of such influence needs to be set in the context of conventions arising from structural factors which predispose conflict reporting, for instance, towards the war journalism end of the spectrum.

This week’s contribution from Jake Lynch is from his book, Debates in Peace Journalism, published by Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press, the Preamble to the section on professional debates. The book can be purchased from the following link:

(Jake’s regular column returns on Monday January 12th)


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Dec 2008.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: CONFRONTING THE RACISM OF ENOCH POWELL, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.