Memories of the British National Party’s presence in south-east London during the 1990s loomed over Woolwich Town Hall on Wednesday night as Greenwich councillors debated a motion urging the Government to overturn Donald Trump’s planned state visit to the UK. 853 editor DARRYL CHAMBERLAIN, the only journalist sat in the council chamber, sets the scene and puts forward a personal view on why this was more than a bit of local council showboating.
The Labour motion – which also made it clear that the United States president, who has tweeted videos promoting a fringe British far-right group, was not welcome in the borough of Greenwich – was always going to pass. But Conservative leader Matt Hartley obligingly walked into a trap by claiming such a move was posturing by politicians with no real control over the UK’s diplomatic relations, and proposing his own amendment.
Think the idea of Trump in Greenwich is far-fetched? Well, Vladimir Putin visited the Old Royal Observatory on a state visit in 2003. (A visit to the Peter the Great statue in Deptford had also been planned but was vetoed by the Russian leader’s security detail, Charlton councillor Allan MacCarthy recalled during the debate.)
Perhaps the 55 minutes spent on the motion could have been spent debating bin collections or the borough’s many damaged street lamps. But anyone who has sat through at least one council meeting knows this wouldn’t happen anyway – a Tory councillor would have made a complaint, a Labour cabinet member would have told them to shut up, and then everyone would move on.
What did emerge, though, was much more illuminating – an insight into what influenced the generation of Greenwich Labour councillors waiting to take control. And, as some pointed out – a Trump visit would have a direct impact on the borough anyway.
To misunderstand the motives behind the motion would be to misunderstand a significant chunk of the people of the borough of Greenwich – particularly in the south. And that should carry warning signs for anyone planning to knock on doors ahead of the forthcoming election.
It was clear from the start, when cabinet member Chris Kirby (Labour, Shooters Hill), proposed the motion. (Watch here.) He referenced his upbringing in Bexleyheath, the protests against the British National Party’s “bookshop” – in reality, its headquarters – in Welling, and the racist murders that took place in the early 1990s, of Rohit Duggal, Rolan Adams and Stephen Lawrence.
“Entire communities were wrongly branded as racist and it took years of hard work to undo that,” Kirby said, adding that locals had stood up against the “politics of hate and division”.
After mentioning the scars left by the murder of Lee Rigby, Kirby added: “Greenwich is proud of its diversity. That’s why this motion is so important. As a council, we cannot stand by and let public debate be poisoned.”
Responding for the Tories, Hartley that while Trump was an “appalling individual”, the motion had “no relevance” to local issues. It strayed close to “left-wing obsessions”, he said, adding: “This is not what we were sent here to do.” (Watch here.)
The shadow of the troubled 1990s
But a glance at the Tory councillors sitting alongside Hartley told a deeper story. Greenwich’s Labour benches contain a number of 30- and 40-somethings who were brought up in south-east London in the 1990s, growing up in districts written off as racist – including by people within their own borough, never mind the rest of London – as a result of the BNP’s activities and the murders in the area.
The Tory benches lack anyone who grew up locally during those troubled times. That shouldn’t matter. But here, it does. Because without anyone who could address those memories, they were stuck.
The stain of the BNP’s presence in the area has taken a long time to wash out. And just as the Battle of Lewisham – when SE Londoners turned out to stop the National Front marching from Lewisham to New Cross in 1977 – has proved a lasting influence on that borough’s politics, the events of the early 1990s have shaped the politics of Greenwich, and will continue to do so.
Lies about the past still echo – and Trump amplified them
This still matters. Last week, one person found themselves visiting this website after Googling: “stephen lawrence the truth”. The lies spread in the 1990s by the likes of the neo-Nazis that Trump retweets still echo around dim corners of the internet.
And the Trump motion is best seen in that light. Because the clearest contributions referenced those times.
Deputy leader Danny Thorpe spoke of seeing an anti-BNP march attacked by far-right thugs when he was 11, and of going to see Jurassic Park at the Well Hall Coronet and seeing an appeal for witnesses to Stephen Lawrence’s murder. “I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.
Cabinet member Jackie Smith, whose partner Len Duvall was council leader at the time, said her colleagues’ childhood memories made her feel old – she was one of those injured when the BNP attacked a meeting in Welling Library.
And as Labour councillors queued up to join in, some of the contributions from others who perhaps weren’t so influenced by the events of the 1990s and their effects on Eltham did stray close to Hartley’s criticisms.
Chris Lloyd named each Tory councillor one by one, urging them to “stand up to hate”. “Sit down, Councillor Lloyd,” Hartley muttered. His fellow Peninsula ward councillor Stephen Brain went on a five-minute monologue about Palestine, after Trump’s decision to defy international convention and recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Shooters Hill’s Sarah Merrill mused on what would happen if every council in the land passed an anti-Trump motion, a point echoed by Charlton’s Alan MacCarthy. The focus blurred somewhat. The clock ticked on.
‘Legal duty to promote cohesion’
But Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan – a former leader of Kirklees council in West Yorkshire, which covers Dewsbury, another place which has struggled to shift the smear of racism – made perhaps the sharpest point, proving that understanding the area doesn’t necessarily mean you had to be weaned on Eltham lore.
Hartley’s criticisms showed a “fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of local democracy”, he said: “We as a council have a legal duty to promote cohesion.”
He was supported by Jackie Smith, who pointed out that already-depleted police numbers in the borough would be stretched further by the demands a Trump visit would make.
Eltham North councillor Charlie Davis – not even a Tory twinkle in his parents’ eyes during the early 90s – spoke to support Hartley, but sounded terrified, which is unsurprising as he gets verbally bullied at nearly every council meeting.
And it was possible to sympathise with his colleague Matt Clare’s point about the debate being reminiscent of left-wing councils in the 1980s (but let’s face it, neither me nor him were around then either), but that ship had long since sailed.
In the end, the wisest thing to for the Tories to do was to abstain on the main motion, while making clear their distaste for Trump, and Hartley praised the “extremely thoughtful contributions” of his opponents.
Have the Tories’ horizons shrunk?
It was a poor night for the Tories. Hartley then managed to propose a motion about air pollution, calling for Sadiq Khan’s plans to extend the Ultra Low Emissions Zone to the South Circular Road to be scrapped. Any other issue on air pollution in Greenwich would have been an easy hit.
But there was no mention of the Silvertown Tunnel, Enderby Wharf or Greenwich Ikea. Three wide open goals missed, then one conceded when Labour countered with a motion saying Khan’s proposals for ULEZ weren’t ambitious enough and should be extended to the London borders. The Tory motion was calmly demolished by Greenwich West’s Aidan Smith.
While this also speaks to one of the many wider existential problems for Conservatives in London – balancing personal freedoms with the fact that diesel emissions are killing us and congestion is strangling our city – it did seem to confirm that the Tories have simply abandoned the north of the borough.
But the Trump motion suggests they have problems in the south too, as the generations scarred by the events of the 1990s grow older and take a closer interest in local issues, and as the demographics change with more liberal-minded people moving in, priced out of more inner parts of London.
If the debate was so bad, why prolong it?
Let’s say Trump’s poisonous ideology takes a wider hold (maybe you think it already has) and scars all our lives. What will the Greenwich Tories tell the future generations?
“Well, we had a little bit of power once and the chance to show our objection to him in the most powerful way we could. Instead, we put forward an amendment to say it was a waste of time because we thought we should have been talking about the bins instead.”
And if you still think the Trump motion is an irrelevance to communities scarred by the activities of fascists and racists, maybe you should ask Hartley why he prolonged the debate with an amendment objecting to having it in the first place. After all, he could have been the one talking about the bins.
Looking at some of the social media comment afterwards, it was telling that that most of the trenchant criticism of the motion comes from those who seem to believe that the Trump motion was the only thing discussed. Some tweeted @853london but hadn’t even bothered to follow the account to read about everything else. Lots of things get discussed at council meetings. Not enough things, but the Trump motion was just one of them.
Opposition is a difficult job – particularly when you face a thin-skinned administration that has everything sewn up, even down to the civic mayor. But it’s a vital job.
Greenwich’s remaining Tories face a tough test at May’s poll, and risk a near wipeout – which even many Labour activists would concede would be bad for democracy.
If they’re unable to connect with a defining episode in SE London’s recent history, their task may be more difficult than first thought.
If you’ve a strong and sincere view on why Greenwich councillors shouldn’t have passed the anti-Trump motion, I’ll be happy to print an opposing piece if you can muster up a few hundred words on why it was a rotten idea.
Email tell853something[at]gmail.com if you’re up for it.
11.50am update: I’ve amended the headline after Greenwich Conservatives’ Nigel Fletcher rightly pointed out that the Tories didn’t oppose the motion, they proposed an amendment. I’ve also gone through the piece straightening out some dodgy grammar, adding links and adding a paragraph to make a point clearer. You can watch the full debate on the Greenwich Council website (1 hour 21 seconds in).