Reni Eddo-Lodge looks back to a time some considered post-racial Britain. This episode features Operation Black Vote’s Simon Woolley, former television commissioner and activist Farrukh Dhondy and Actress/Writer Meera Syal. Join the conversation using #AboutRacewithReni Fully-linked transcript and episode can be found at Some reference links below.

[Theme tune]

Reni narration: Welcome to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge

I’m fascinated by the nineties. Now, these years covered  my childhood decade, which means they have a bit of a rose tinted slant for me.I remember the word ‘multiculturalism’ used often, with cause for celebration. It gripped both politics and culture. Looking back I now understand that decade to be a crucial time for Britain’s race conversation. There was talk of a forward thinking, modern Britain that had ample space for people like me. There was a feeling of real change in the air.

In my book, Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, I wrote a history of Britain and race from slavery onwards – but I stopped my research at the recent past.

But we can’t understand now without understanding then. It’s time to look back.

Simon:  At the time there was this Saatchi & Saatchi campaign against Tony Blair and they called him snake eyes.  And so Jon Daniel and his partner Trevor Robinson came to Operation Black Vote and said we want to work for you for nothing. In essence of the campaign was the black vote is a sleeping giant. How do we prod this potentially powerful sleeping giant to make an impact in British politics.  This is what the poster reads ‘imagine the impact of one million black people calling Tony this morning.’

Reni: That’s Tony Blair.

Simon: That’s Tony Blair. And you know this is where the genius about this campaign. He put their telephone numbers on the billboard posters.

Reni: So was this the Labour Party’s telephone number.

Simon: This was his constituency number.

Reni: So this is an image of a very young looking Tony Blair and his eyes are sort of covered with a telephone number

Simon: play on the Snake Eyes Right.

Reni: Right right                   

Simon: And we give out his number. And in the bottom we say ‘he says he claims he fought for us all his life imagine how pleased he will be to chat to us all.’

Reni Then it says ‘if we all vote we could decide who wins the next general election.’  And then the operation black vote is at the bottom

Simon: correct.

Reni: It’s a very striking poster.

Simon: And we had that for all three leaders for John Major. In fact John Major’s number they had to change their number because there was a deluge of black people telling John Major what they thought. And it was our first big big big bold statement about the black vote has arrived.

Reni narration: I’m in the east London offices of Operation Black Vote, talking to Simon Woolley about his organisation’s role in the 1997 general election. He was in the midst of it all.

Simon:  For over 20 years I’ve headed Operation Black Vote. I’m its director, one of the founders. Primarily we try to tackle persistent deep rooted institutional race inequality.  Nothing changes unless we act, and we act as a caucus, as a powerful group.  Politically, economically, socially, culturally and so our activities in terms of our communities is 1, voter registration, citizenship, political understanding; how the system works how we can effectively access it and the third element is nurturing talent to become leaders.  MPs, councillors, school governors.  10 percent of all BME MPs are from Operation Black Vote. They include the first Muslim female cabinet member Sayeeda Warsi. She was with us in the 90s, late 90s, the first directly elected mayor of African and Caribbean descent in Europe, by the way, in Marvin Rees the Bristol mayor…

Reni:  Mayor of Bristol, yeah

Simon: You know here you have a descendant of an African slave now running a former slave city.

Reni: So OBV, which is what I’m going to call it.  What year in the 90s was it set up?

Simon:   96 but there was preparatory work before that.  So you know in the middle 90s. And you know you have to bear in mind now this was still Thatcher’s the era of Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, that the country had been convulsed into challenges of racism challenges of poverty challenges of inequality and you know we emerged from that as in particular from the rise in numbers of black people dying in police custody. And that’s how we actually, that we emerged after civil disturbances in 1995 I think it was in Brixton the death of a black man in custody. And I remember an activist Derrick Hines, he quoted Malcolm X we should use the ballot not the bullet. And then afterwards I was charged with doing the research about just how powerful the black vote could be. And after a years research I came back to the group of activists and said I’ve got it, we’ve got it. They said What’s that? And I said we’re far from being powerless, we could be extremely powerful. We are concentrated in those urban areas which are marginal seats. And I suggested that we could influence 70 to 100. Any group that could do that could be a big player and when we burst on the stage in 96 97 during that election. The black vote became significant, the black vote became an entity.

Reni narration: It sounds like the political conditions Operation Black Vote were responding to were bleak. In particular, Simon pointed to the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and 1999 Macpherson report on the murder that exposed failures of the police, giving an assessment of ‘institutional racism’.

Simon: You know you had the deaths in police custody, so many of them, and then you had this murder that almost crystallised what was wrong about Great Britain in terms of race.  What was significant about it of course is that many of us have known for a very long time, in fact we articulated it for a very long time that we lived in a society that was institutionally racist, that it was systemic within the DNA of our institutions.  And Macpherson’s report legitimised that.

Reni: I think back to my childhood and I remember a celebratory, multicultural, progressive Britain and I remember when Tony Blair was elected. Everyone was celebrating and you know it was also the same the I think that Arsenal won the Double double, so like you know there was just a lot of happiness in north London at the time and I suppose my question to you is, are you saying that the Britain I remember was not as progressive as I thought?

Simon:  Well it was potentially progressive You’re right about that. I mean you know that anthem Things Can Only Get Better.  The end of Thatcherism, the end of that era had gone and what might precede it was full of hope. A lot of activists, Bernie Grant and others that lobbied Jack Straw to have this public inquiry.   Jack Straw was the shadow home secretary but he promised in 1997 if black people vote for Labour then he will afford our community a public inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

So there was this great hope that the institutions would be challenged that things would get better and to some extent they did Tony Blair’s first speech after that victory in 97 in the September of that same year he said Britain cannot be a beacon of hope whilst we have no black judges no black army officers, he made this big speech, joint party conference setting out the challenge of tackling racism we thought YES here we are we’re there, we’re going to get there now.

Reni narration: Labour won the election. And at the dawn of the millennium, some of those political promises were kept. Change happened.

Simon: You have to bear in mind the Stephen Lawrence inquiry produced The Race Relations Amendment Act in the year 2000. This was absolutely fundamental. The amendment act was probably the high point, margin if you like of where we’d come.  We were the clear leaders in Europe in regards to tackling race inequality. Every public body in the country had a mandate to promote race inequality to have a strategy to tackle inequality which came from the report. So we thought Here we go we’re on the right road here.

Reni narration: These political tremors were extending into wider culture. The longstanding anti-racist activist Farrukh Dhondy was hired as Channel 4’s Multicultural Commissioning Editor in the early 1980s, and left in 97.

Farrukh:   I get the job and I think to myself the mission to complain is over. We have to integrate into British society at all creative levels. And here I’ve got the fantastic opportunity to so do.

Reni:  Were you thinking like an activist?   Were you saying this is on television screens of every family in Britain, white, Black, Asian,this will change things for us.

Farrukh:   Absolutely.  It won’t change things. You know, you’re not suddenly going to get employment, schooling, housing this that and the other but it will demonstrate a maturity. You can laugh at yourselves. You can laugh at other people. You can actually show the interstices of what works in the family then not only Desmond’s, the Bandung File, Darcus and the first thing I did I got hold of Darcus, got hold of Tariq Ali, one Asian one West Indian, do a third world program right, which would show us not only the makeup of our communities in here and news from them but Haiti Trinidad Jamaica Guyana Tanzania Pakistan Bangladesh whatever do it and the Bandung File ran for several years.

Reni narration: Desmond’s, the show he’s talking about — it’s a classic. Farrukh commissioned the show about an hardworking, aspirational Black British family, set in Peckham, South London, with an almost all black cast. The final episode aired in December 1994 and it ended up being the channel’s longest running sitcom.

The Bandung File was a current affairs programme edited by the now public intellectual Tariq Ali and the late, great Darcus Howe. Named after a postcolonial conference held in 1955, it was hard hitting and investigative.

Farrukh:  I think that it altered the cultural face of Britain  I mean I would say that wouldn’t I. But I think that it had never been done before. Nothing that I did was old. It was all innovation with my background my political background you know Black Panther movement, Race Today with that animus it was saying that we need to move into a positive forceful integrative movement. Instead of just saying, Oh I’m a poor bastard, you are victimising me.  Saying that all the time just bores people. You’ve got to say look I can laugh, I can create, I can do drama, I can do news this is just as important as what you’re saying on the news right. Whether Theresa May is undermined is just as important as the elections in Trinidad is what we were trying to say.


Reni narration: This comedy sketch, Going for an English, first aired on the BBC’s Goodness Gracious Me in 1998. It wasn’t just hilarious, it was symbolic of the time. The Telegraph reports that in 1997, Chicken Tikka Masala was ordered by 11 million Brits — about 22% of the population.

By 2001, the late Labour MP Robin Cook had declared the meal ‘a true national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.’

Meera: Going for an English, which is the sketch you’re talking about is probably our flagship sketch and I think Channel 4 recently did a public poll on the, could have been the 50 best sketches, or the hundred sketches ever and  Going for an English was number five, which when you consider the canon of comedy sketches and that does include Monty Python and all the greats there we are at number five, that’s pretty extraordinary. And I also found it really heartening because it said to me that that actually the host population wanted that wake up call wanted to laugh,  wanted to let out the pain and the confusion and the anxiety that exists about talking about race

Reni narration: Meera Syal is one part of the four British Indian comedy writers who masterminded Goodness Gracious Me. Decades later, she has an OBE, a CBE, and a long and illustrious writing, acting and comedy career. But back then, all this was up for grabs.

Meera: This was a mid to late 90s when there was a really big sweeping movement which he embraced types of comedy and a whole Cool Britannia thing and a lot of the old dinosaurs were being turfed out in comedy. And we were on the wave of that. The was a real readiness to have the establishment shook up and to not be lazy about laughs. It wasn’t just about you know what minority group or woman or disabled person can we pick on for a cheap laugh, we’re not doing that anymore, we’ve got to be smarter than that.

Reni narration: The best thing about the show, in my opinion, was it’s simplicity.

Meera: So it was the first sketch of the first series, it’s a bunch of Indian people in the workplace and the new white member has joined and they can’t pronounce his name which is Jonathan. There are several versions of … You English and your funny names. It was the whole tenet of the sketch, really simple role reversal sketch in fact a lot of our best sketches were simple role reversal, simply holding up a mirror to the kind of behaviour we’ve been at the end of and yeah it got quite a big reaction. For us it was a really simple sketch. It was stating the bleeding obvious because how many times had we been there, Oh I can’t say Bulvinder I’ll call you Bob. Is that alright. Fair enough.

Reni: What did you feel the cultural context of race being discussed in culture and entertainment was prior to you getting that series?

Meera: It was fairly dismal. You know I’m a kid that grew up when the Black and White Minstrel Show was still top of the BBC schedules on a Saturday night.  Where the, probably the only Asians who certainly in comedy were [inaudible] where programmes like the comedians were on where a lot of the gags were about your fat in Mother-In-Law, your fat wife and ethnic minorities. This was mainstream television.

Reni: Was social impact something that you were considering when you were going into creating Goodness Gracious Me?

Meera: I suppose the big umbrella was the fact that we got onto BBC2 prime time was a big thing and we didn’t want to screw it up. So we worked really really hard. But you know the good thing was that there was too much material. Because we’ve been such a long silent, we for so long had nobody to tell this material to that it was pouring out of us.

Reni:  Absolutely

Meera: And the heartening thing for us is that it did crossover and it certainly proved to me that you know there is no such thing as a, an Asian or a black character that is inexplicable or unexplained to a white audience.  We consistently underestimate the intelligence of audiences. A good joke is a good joke, a good story is a good story. Actually most audiences don’t give a toss about who’s telling it what they’re going to relate to is the true the emotion or the truth of the humour because our humour was so truthful and it came from a really real place. People got that and if they didn’t know what chuddies meant they could ask their Asian friends. In fact that’s what happened and we got so many young Asians saying I used to be the butt of the joke. Now we’re making the jokes now my white friends are asking me what the jokes mean. You don’t know what that means to us.

Reni narration: Fiction, television, comedy — culture can tell hard truths our society and foster empathy in people. But twenty years later, Britain is not the political post racial utopia that the Labour party promised. Culture took a nosedive too. So, what happened?

Reni: Multiculturalism was the buzzword of the time.

Simon: It was and in part promoted positively. You know this is what makes us great all this teaming talent and even that in the early part of the 2000s was challenged some by our own people and then that was on a downward spiral too.

Reni:  Let’s elaborate multiculturalism being challenged because I do remember that as well. And it was like the mood changed.

Simon: Yes, well I think the mood changed after 9/11. Before 9/11 there was riots in Bradford because far right groups were attacking Muslims and Muslims started to fight back. Surprise surprise. And then there was this narrative that we have an enemy within and crudely put people blame multiculturalism

Reni: Who’s people?

Simon:  One of them was Trevor Phillips actually, Ted Cantle, Cantle report. And I think because both were really prominent individuals and particularly when Trevor said it.

Reni: You know we got the ex president of the NUS.

Simon:   That’s right

Reni:  Hanging around political circles for a very long time.

Simon: Mayoral candidate

Reni: high profile black face

Simon:  head of the CRE, Commission for Racial Equality the predecessor for the Equality and Human Rights Commission and basically what he articulated for others to kind of poison was that multiculturalism had caused separatism caused terrorism. How you get there, God only knows, but it was an easy narrative for people to say these people are speaking their own language they’re not integrating.  Not that you have a society that doesn’t allow people to fully integrate that it was our fault that we were living in these ghettos nothing to do with white flight by the way. Nothing to do with poor housing, no. We were led down a cul-de-sac to defend the notion of a multicultural society and that in essence multiculturalism was about delivering race equality.

Reni narration: The Cantle report of 2001 was commissioned by the Labour government after the riots in Bradford, which erupted against a backdrop of deprivation and poverty, and were exacerbated by far-right activity in the area. The report was lead by Ted Cantle, who was the head of the Government’s community cohesion review team. It identified drastic segregation between white and asian communities in the city of Bradford, and said that this segregation was rooted in ‘fear and ignorance’. One of the recommendations of the report suggested that immigrants should take a pledge of allegiance to the country.

While he was the head of the Commission for Racial Equality,  Trevor Phillips became very concerned with ideas of britishness and integration. In 2005 after terrorist attacks on the tube, he gave speech about the mission of his organisation. In it, he said: The disappointment is that a writer of this generation has so little to offer beyond the multiculturalist clichés some of us invented three decades ago and abandoned after 9/11 and 7/7.”

The turn of the century changed things. Terrorism and atrocities committed by people of colour soured any sympathy broader society had with the anti-racist cause. We were again seen as a homogenous group, all judged by the actions of the worst members. I don’t think white people ever have to take responsibility for the actions of their worst.

Simon: So the government was slightly duplicitous on one side they were saying look we haven’t got the answers to tackle race inequality we need black groups like Operation Black Vote and the Runnymede Trust and BTEC and we’ll support them. But on the other side they were pandering to the white working class, the BNP you know have a right to be heard too.

Reni: So people claiming to speak on behalf of the white working class.

Simon: That’s right.

Reni: Absolutely because I think we got be careful there, not all, but the loudest voices claiming to speak on behalf of white working class people were bigoted.

Simon:  Were shockingly bigoted and they were gaining traction. I mean of course you know this was the era of Nick Griffin. They won council seats they won seats in Europe. On his first day in the European Parliament he said the way to tackle Africans coming to Europe is to sink their boats.

Reni:  Ala Katie Hopkins

Simon:   Ala , there you go. That’s right. And so there’s a trajectory of how this bigotry became legitimised from the far right to mainstream. And of course David Cameron‘s government stopped aiding Africans dying in the seas. And so it did have an impact. That language just leave them to die. And they’ll stop coming.

Reni narration: A decade after Goodness Gracious Me debuted on BBC one,  BBC two aired it’s White Season. Here’s a description from their website. ‘As “white trash” and “chav” become commonplace insults, the films explore the complex mix of feelings that lead some people to feel under siege and that their very sense of self is being brought into question.’

The films aired included ‘White Girl’, described as ‘Abi Morgan’s compelling film about an inspirational 11-year-old girl, Leah, and her family’s relocation to an entirely Muslim community in Bradford.’ Other films included ‘All White in Barking’, ‘The Poles are coming’, described as an ‘entertainingly subversive look at the reality of immigration in Middle England’, and entire programme dedicated to Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech.

And the trailer for the season — well, it looked like recruitment propaganda for the British National Party. I’ll describe for you.


The audio is Billy Bragg’s ‘Jerusalem’, a cover of a poem by William Blake, described as unofficial national anthem