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  Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant (1944–2000), by Roger Hutchings, 1986 Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant (1944–2000), by Roger Hutchings, 1986
Grant, Bernard Alexander Montgomery [Bernie] (1944–2000), politician, was born on 17 February 1944 in Georgetown, British Guiana, the son of Eric Alexander Grant and his wife, Lily, née Blair. Both parents were schoolteachers, his father subsequently becoming a headteacher. He was named after two British generals then fighting in the Second World War: Sir Bernard Montgomery and Sir Harold Alexander. From St Joseph's Roman Catholic School, Georgetown, he went on to St Stanislaus College, a Jesuit-run secondary school that was, at the time, one of the most prestigious in the region. St Stanislaus was a characteristic colonial institution. Like its great rival, Queen's College, the school had been created in the nineteenth century to accommodate the children of European settlers and expatriates, and took the English public schools of the time as its model. The school offered a ‘classical’ English education, and during the twentieth century it had become one of the major pools of talent from which the colony drew its civil servants and professionals. In later years Grant spoke with considerable affection about his schooldays, recalling his fondness for Latin verse and nineteenth-century literature. The orderly habits imposed by the school were a constant memory, and he spoke in private with equal nostalgia about being beaten with the ferule—a broad leather strap that the priests habitually carried. Grant's adolescent education took place within the framework of a political atmosphere dominated by the prospects of independence. The 1950s and early 1960s in the colony saw a ferment of argument and agitation around regional and domestic issues, which had its greatest effect on the class of professionals who were consciously preparing themselves to rule an independent Guyana. Families like the Grants, made up from public servants and union officials, wielded considerable influence and were at the centre of the argument.

After leaving St Stanislaus, Grant began work with the mining firm Demerara Bauxite, an occupation that determined his initial career choices. At the time, four years before independence, it was the sort of job—roughly equivalent to the minor rungs of the local civil service—that a well-educated local could obtain without much difficulty, but the higher, managerial, positions would invariably be held by expatriate or native-born whites. For a young man of Grant's background and situation future prospects depended on acquiring the higher qualifications then unobtainable in the region. Inevitably Grant, his mother, and his three sisters joined the wave of migration that was sweeping through the Caribbean.

The family arrived in England in 1963. Grant found a job as a railway clerk, then attended Tottenham Technical College to study for his A-levels, before entering a degree course in mining engineering at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh. At the end of the second year he dropped out of the course. Later on he gave as his reason the fact that ‘white students were sent on scholarships to South Africa. But the black students had to go into the mines in Dunfermline and work as coal miners’ (Daily Telegraph). Grant had already become well known among the black students in Edinburgh as a student politician, but when he arrived back in London at the end of the 1960s he was still discussing, with friends, the prospects of resuming his studies as an engineer. In the meantime he took a job as a telephonist at the General Post Office's (GPO's) international telephone exchange in Kings Cross.

In 1970 the GPO was hit by a strike, and Grant was one of the most popular and energetic local organizers. By the time the strike had ended Grant had stopped talking about going back to university, and it was obvious that he was happy and excited by the challenge of trade union politics and organization. In the workplace he had been part of a group of students and graduates who were more or less temporary, but he stayed on as the exchange representative for the telephonists, attended union conferences, pursued a number of trade union courses, and chaired the local branch of the Union of Post Office Workers. With a typical mixture of passionate commitment and shrewdness he had recognized one of the few industrial areas where the colour of his skin would not be a disability. His charm and authority made him a natural representative. At the same time he had his first experience of anti-racist organization in that role. The Chapel Street branch of the union was notorious as a hotspot of National Front (NF) activity, and Grant was a prime mover in the workplace campaign to outlaw racist practices and defeat NF candidates for office.

During this period Grant's politics took on a sharper edge, and he began to forge long-term alliances on the radical and anti-racist left. Initially he joined the Socialist Labour League, forerunner of the Workers' Revolutionary Party. In the mid-1970s, however, he joined the Labour Party, and by 1978 he had left the GPO to become a full-time official for the National Union of Public Employees. His reputation and experience made him a much sought-after activist in local anti-racist campaigns. Haringey, where he had lived and been a student, was an almost inevitable port of call. In the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s the borough's growing ethnic population was confronted by local resentment and hardline racist organization. Grant had not lost his capacity to laugh at himself: ‘We set up an organisation called The Haringey Labour Movement Anti-Racist and Anti-Fascist Committee,’ he recalled. ‘It was one of the longest names of any organisation that I have been involved in’ (personal knowledge).

Grant was persuaded to stand as a Labour candidate in the local elections of 1978, ‘mainly because I was a genuine trade-unionist and they didn't have many’ (The Independent). He became a Haringey borough councillor in that year, and leader of the council in 1985. His elevation coincided with a period of intense conflict between the Conservative government and a variety of municipal authorities. A black man with a left-wing trade union background, he was also an anti-apartheid campaigner and a supporter of revolutionary governments, feminist causes, black studies, and a multi-racial school curriculum. The tabloid press, its hackles raised, dubbed him Barmy Bernie. Haringey council, personalized in the form of its leader, was the subject of an endless stream of negative stories for most of the decade. In October 1985 Grant became a figure of enduring controversy after a riot exploded on Tottenham's Broadwater Farm estate. The riot followed the death of a local resident, Cynthia Jarrett, while policemen were searching her house. In the ensuing fracas a policeman, Police Constable Blakelock, was murdered, and in the aftermath of the incident Grant commented that the youths on the estate felt that the police were to blame for Cynthia Jarrett's death and had given them ‘a bloody good hiding’ (Daily Telegraph). The remark made him a hate figure in the right-wing tabloids. His subsequent notoriety, and his support for controversial projects such as the campaign for black sections in the Labour Party, made the Labour establishment nervous and distant, and his political survival stemmed mainly from the respect and affection that large segments of the local electorate felt for him.

In 1987 (following the deselection by Tottenham constituency Labour Party of the sitting MP, Norman Atkinson) Grant was elected Labour MP for Tottenham. He entered parliament dressed in African robes, and his career entered a new, more international phase, pursuing broader causes. Among his other duties he chaired the all-party group on race and community (1995–2000), the Campaign Group of Labour MPs (1990–2000), and the Standing Conference on Race Equality in Europe (1990–2000). He edited the Black Parliamentarian magazine from 1990 to 1992. He became the figurehead and tireless activist in cases of official harassment or misconduct, notably that of Joy Gardner, a black woman who died when immigration officers entered her house and put her under restraint. At the same time he became an important resource for Third World governments and campaigners looking for support within the British political culture. When Montserrat's volcano erupted, devastating the island, a row broke out about British aid and policy towards the refugees. Typically the Montserratian chief minister immediately telephoned Grant and invited him in to plead the island's case. Grant caused some embarrassment by arriving on the island before the government's fact-finding mission, but he was never reluctant to break ranks, frequently diverging from some of the most deeply held beliefs of his left-wing allies. For instance in 1993 he created a stir by saying that many in ethnic minorities would welcome government aid that would give them the option of returning home. To ward off the subsequent misunderstanding he felt obliged to hold a press conference to distance himself clearly from the compulsory repatriation advocated by followers of Enoch Powell. Later he defended Harriet Harman's decision to send her children to a selective school, arguing that his own children had suffered from their education in the comprehensive sector. Before that he began the campaign for government reparations for the looting of art objects and other resources from Britain's former colonies. Like his support for Labour Party ‘black sections’, his views on these issues were often strongly opposed by political allies and enemies alike, but in later years he became a highly respected figure, and while he faced plenty of criticism it was muted by the affection in which he was generally held.

Even those who characterized Grant as rash and hasty with his opinions also acknowledged that he was likeable, charming, generous to friends and enemies, and relentlessly honest. He was a child of the contradictions inherent in his background. He had been born and had grown up in a colony, but was part of a class that challenged and finally threw off colonial rule. He arrived in Britain as a middle-class foreign student—a bird of passage—but stayed to become a central figure in the politics of organized labour. He was a dedicated local politician with an international reach and reputation. Above all he was the product of a long and rebellious confrontation with political repression, and at one and the same time the obedient graduate of a training that privileged moral absolutes. He was confident that he knew right from wrong, he had a passionate devotion to an ideal of justice, and he had faith that these beliefs were the guiding lights of his politics and his everyday life.

During the last decade of his life Grant's chronic diabetes began to disable him. In October 1998 he had a heart bypass operation, and subsequently faced dialysis three times a week. Typically he reacted by becoming a champion of the health service and by taking an active interest in the Commons' All Party Kidney Group. Grant married, on 9 November 1971, Joan Courtney (b. 1952/3), an exporter's clerk, with whom he had three sons. This marriage was dissolved and on 18 December 1998 he married his secretary and personal assistant, Sharon Margaret Lawrence (b. 1951/2), daughter of Phillip Arthur Lawrence, headteacher. Grant died, of a heart attack, in London on 8 April 2000, and was survived by his second wife and the three sons of his first marriage: Steven, Alex, and Jimmy.

Mike Phillips

Sources  

The Times (10 April 2000) · Daily Telegraph (10 April 2000) · The Guardian (10 April 2000) · The Independent (10 April 2000) · WWW · private information (2004) · personal knowledge (2004)

Archives  

Bishopsgate Institute


Likenesses  

R. Hutchings, photograph, 1986, Network Photographers, London [see illus.] · photograph, 1993, repro. in The Independent · photograph, 1995, repro. in The Times · photograph, 1995, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Guardian

Wealth at death  

under £210,000—gross; £10,000—net: administration, 22 May 2000, CGPLA Eng. & Wales