Race history made thirty-six years ago

Race history made thirty-six years ago


Written by: Jenny Bourne

A member of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) recalls the events of 1972 which changed the terms of the race relations debate.

On a balmy evening thirty-six years ago, a motley crew of suited businessmen, Black power activists, academics, journalists, community activists, members of the Lords and Commons and tellers from the Electoral Reform Services made their way down the narrow steps into the basement room of Wren’s church, St James’ on Piccadilly. An hour and a half later as the businessmen, Lords and MPs slunk defeated into the night, the staff of the IRR and the membership, who had defeated the board of management by 94 votes to 8, made merry in the IRR’s annexe offices above the Chelsea Cobbler (the kind with one pair of hand-made boots in the window) on Sackville Street.

The vote of IRR’s members on 18 April 1972 to support the IRR staff’s execution of IRR’s aims and commend the coverage of its magazine, Race Today, was one of the most significant steps in British race relations.

Till then the study of race relations had been firmly in the grasp of the establishment, under the political sway of government and the economic control of big business. The number of writers on the subject could be counted on the fingers of one hand. There were no departments in universities, no equality programmes in local authorities, no Black people to be seen in the media, politics, church or civil society.

In a sense the battle at the IRR – over how it was funded and what knowledge it produced – could be seen as part and parcel of the battles that had raged through the universities during the sixties. But in another sense the IRR’s struggle was unique in that Black people’s experience of racism was so obviously at odds with the focus of the IRR, it had to bring about the collision. Black people were being criminalised by the police (the Mangrove trial had just taken place), Black children were being systematically failed by schooling (Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system had just been published), racial violence, especially ‘Paki-bashing’ was rife, stories about brutality were being smuggled out of prisons, the patriality clause of the 1971 Immigration Act was overtly racist. But the Institute of Race Relations, aloof in its Jermyn Street headquarters, was still speaking the language of the gentleman’s club.

It was incumbent upon the IRR to be impartial, said the Board of Management, to give both sides of any argument. When, after much discussion, we managed to get a representative of Frelimo (fighting for independence in Mozambique) to speak at a lunchtime meeting, we were forced the next week to invite the Portuguese Ambassador. Similarly when we carried stories about police excesses in the monthly magazine, Race Today, we had to offer space to a senior policeman to put his point of view. The staff were neither seen nor heard by the Board. Only the director, his assistant and Company Secretary were present at Council meetings. After strong representations by the staff, heads of departments were admitted to meetings, though still without speaking and certainly without voting rights.

Though there were one or two staff members, particularly in the international research unit, who fought the IRR’s battle on a high ideological level – we must not take money from the capitalists, especially when they were committed to things like the Cabora Bassa damn project on the Zambezi. Eventually the terrain on which the staff united to fight were the liberal values of free speech and freedom of expression. At a meeting of the Race and Neo-imperialism Section of the British Sociological Association, an IRR researcher read a paper in which he critiqued the basis of Colour and Citizenship, the book from the IRR’s ten-year Survey on the basis that it served to make the power elite more powerful and the ‘subject (immigrant) population relatively more impotent and ignorant’. In future he suggested that immigrants being ‘surveyed’ should simply tell IRR researchers to ‘fuck off’. The book had been a best-seller, it contained all the recommendations for lobbying the government, and, its principal author, who was also the owner of Westminister Press, sat on IRR’s board. The board closed ranks and decided the researcher had to be sacked. When the staff persuaded Hugh Tinker, the director, not to sack him on the grounds of freedom of expression, the Board turned on the director as incompetent himself.

Meanwhile, Race Today had published an issue whose cover, according to the board, had cost its fund-raising programme thousands of pounds. The offending cover had on the back an advert for an anti-apartheid demonstration and on the front a picture of Lord Goodman (then negotiating for the British government with Rhodesia) and the caption ‘five million Africans say no’. The editor of the magazine should, the Board said, be sacked, the staff said no way. And now the staff took the issue to the general public by cultivating support in the press on the grounds of press freedom.

(It has to be remembered, that, in the tradition of its forebears the Indian Civil Service and the Royal Institute for International Affairs, the IRR was run by and for its Board of Management. The staff were seen and treated as minions, without voice or volition, carrying out the bidding of their masters, who, though technically answerable to a membership, were in effect, their absolute rulers.)

On 20 March 1972 the board summoned all its members to a meeting which was to sort out all the recalcitrant staff once and for all: the director was to be sent on study leave and Race Today shut down. The staff members present asked for a discussion and were refused, whereupon they summoned the whole body of the staff, who, conscious that the future of IRR was at stake, had stayed on in another part of the building after hours. Imagine the horror of Lord Boyle (former Tory minister), Michael Caine (head of Booker Brothers), David Sieff (of Marks and Spencer), Sir Frederic Seebohm (of Barclays Bank), and other luminaries of the business world as ‘their space’ was literally invaded by a horde of some forty angry staff (mainly women) who perched themselves along the side of the polished boardroom tables as they leant over to make their points. The ‘Lords of Human Kind’ had no experience of this kind of dogfight, they were never face to face with the hoipolloi like this. But their struggle to control the gaggle was to founder completely when the phone rang. It was the Financial Times, they were going to press and needed the story that they had been promised. The staff realised that they had been stitched up, the Board realised that their pre-emptive decision looked undemocratic, the Chairman decided to take the matters away from the board and present them instead to a meeting of all the Institute’s members at an Extraordinary General Meeting.

So that is what happened on 18 April 1972.

The changes to the internal workings of the IRR have been fundamental and enduring. And the impact of those changes will be celebrated later this year when IRR has its 50th birthday event on 1 November 2008. But what is important to recognise is the way in which that struggle so many years ago was to change the parameters of debate, policy, research and representation around race throughout the country. It is hard to convey now, in a context where the race scene is so diverse, how the IRR’s struggle influenced every quarter – trades unions, academic departments, newspapers, churches, the burgeoning race relations industry, social workers and other NGOs. In internal meeting after meeting, groups voted to support the IRR’s staff and held special meetings to discuss the issues thrown up.

Essentially the struggle at IRR challenged a multitude of race relations shibboleths: the ‘problem’ was not Black immigrants but White society; the government was not part of the solution but part of the problem; it was not a question of educating Black and Whites about integration, but of fighting institutional racism; it was not race relations that was the field of study, but racism; racism was a moral and political issue which necessitated taking sides; it was those who experienced racism who should be in command of the fight against it.

The reason that the battle at the IRR caught the public imagination is because it showed, too, that it was not necessary in the words of A. Sivanandan, who became director in 1973, to be ‘paralysed by our histories’. ‘We do not have to be at the barricades to be revolutionaries’, he wrote in the preface to Race and Resistance: the IRR story, ‘we do not have to be grassroots to be radical. To apprehend the social consequences of what we ourselves are doing and to set out to change them – is in itself a revolutionary act.’

Related links

IRR News story: Celebrating 50 years of the IRR

IRR News story: Supporting the News Service


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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