Michael Russell Profitt MBE was born Russell D’Anjou in British Guiana (present-day Guyana) in the late 1940s. In this interview he talks about migrating to Britain, aged 13, to join his mother and other siblings who were already resident in England. He shares stories about the political context of Guyana and how this influenced his decision to become involved in British politics as a member of the Labour party. He recalls the moment of Guyana’s independence in 1966 and explains he had no idea ‘in a million years’ that this would impact his British citizenship status.
In the early 1970s Joan Lestor MP offered Proffitt the opportunity to travel to India on an Indo-British political exchange only to discover he did not have a valid passport. Profitt’s story illustrates the speed with which citizenship and passport issues could be resolved; and provides just one example of the sometimes-haphazard ways that the ‘irregular’ citizenship status of former British colonial subjects came to be addressed. Following a phone call from Lestor, the then Home Secretary, Mervyn Mervyn-Rees was able to provide Profitt with a naturalisation certificate and British passport in less than three hours.
Profitt recalls some news coverage within the community about the introduction of the 1971 Immigration Act and explains that the need for members of the Caribbean-heritage community to regularise their status was not presented as a ‘must’ but rather as something that ‘was a desirable thing to do if you wished to take advantage of travel’. The idea, he says, anyone could be deported because of this changing legislation never entered anyone’s thought processes.
The interview covers a wide range of themes and topics (including housing, education, community activism, job discrimination, and immigration virginity tests) and references the following public figures: Joan Lestor MP, Home Secretary Merlyn Merlyn-Rees MP, Jack Straw, Paul Boateng, Bill Morris, David Pitt, Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Herman Ouseley, Crispin St Hill; activists (Darcus Howe and Roy Sawh); and trade unionist, Rodney Bickerstaffe.
Michael Russell Profitt Interview
Transcript by Izzy Conn
SPEAKERS: Michael Russell Profitt MBE (MRP), Juanita Cox(JC)
JC 00:01 I’m Dr. JC, Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Studies. I’m working on an AHRC funded oral history project – ‘The Windrush Scandal in its transnational and Commonwealth context.’ Today’s date is Thursday 20th April 2023. I’m here with MRP. Russell, for the record, could you please spell your first, middle and last name.
MRP 00:34 First name: Michael – M, I, C, H, A, E, L. Second name: Russell – R, U S, S, E, L, L. Surname: Profitt – P, R, O, F, I, T, T.
JC 00:57 Wonderful. Thank you for that, Russell. Just before we started you were going to mention something about your name at birth…
MRP 01:06 Well, I was born as Russell D’Anjou. My father’s surname was D’Anjou, and I grew up in Georgetown, Guyana, as a D’Anjou. So that’s where my original surname came from. However, my parents never lived together, and when it came for me to join my mother in the United Kingdom, I discovered that I had to use her surname in order for me to get a passport. And, as her surname was Profitt, I then became Russell Profitt for the first time when I was about 13.
JC 02:09 So, that’s interesting. Did you have to… was your surname D’Anjou, was that on your birth certificate?
MRP 02:17 Yes.
JC 02:18 And so did you have to go through the process of changing your surname officially?
MRP 02:27 No, I don’t know how it was done. But, my grandmother was a very resourceful lady, and I think she found a way to ensure that I got the passport that I needed.
JC 02:43 So can I just ask, you mentioned that your mother made the decision to come to the UK, do you know the reasons that led to that decision?
MRP 02:54 I think it might have been a combination of several matters. The first, of course, is economics. She grew up in a very poor part of Georgetown, and I think that she certainly didn’t think there were prospects for her, and her emerging family, at that time in Guyana. And so that was part of the reason why she decided to migrate. But it could have had some personal issues as well, the fact that she and my father were not married, and the fact that she had all the children, and all of the pressures that that brings when you are a young woman trying to make your way in the world, must have played some sort of factor in sending her to the United Kingdom.
What sort of educational or class background would you say she came from?
MRP 04:17 Well, low income, so I guess it’d be a working class background. She certainly didn’t have any capital, or as a family we didn’t own anything, we were just living from one street to the next depending on what accommodation we could find. So yeah, I think, working class background.
Do you know to what level she was educated?
MRP 04:50 She was qualified, I later discovered, in needlework. And that’s a certificate she achieved at secondary school, and she must have gone through some sort of test in order to get it. And I think she felt that she was skilled in needlecraft, and when she came to the United Kingdom, I think she thought that she could maybe use that sort of experience and qualification to help her make some sort of progress through life. But it wasn’t to be really.
JC 05:36 What did she go on to do?
MRP 05:41 As I understand it, she struggled. She did several jobs, and when I arrived at 13, I found that during the daytime, she was working in a nearby factory making paper flowers, and she was part of that process of making packages of flowers that I think would have been used for table decorations, or for lobbies, and buildings, or for special occasions, in churches and other places like that. So that’s what she did during the daytime. But then after work, she would come home, and she would be on the sewing machine stitching together garments. It was piecework that she was engaged in, and she would sometimes stitch together bits to make a blouse, or bits to make skirts, or bits to make trousers. And whatever she was given as a task, she would work on that machine from the time, I suppose, she came in, around about five o’clock, six o’clock, until around about 10 o’clock that evening, when it would be time for us to go to bed.
When she travelled to the UK, you mentioned that you had other siblings, did she travel with any of the children or did everybody kind of follow afterwards?
MRP 07:25 No, she had a plan. I had two other brothers with me, and their father was different, and we all ended up living with grandmother, who then became our carer. Mother’s idea was when she settled in the United Kingdom, she would make enough money to pay for me, as the eldest son, to travel to the United Kingdom and join her, and then the other two, in turn, would come over. But, as these plans often come apart at the seams, her’s did. And so, what happened was my grandmother found it very difficult to manage three boys, and the middle brother was particularly challenging in terms of behaviour and expectations… he might have been reacting to mum not being there, and he became a bit of a difficulty for grandmother. So, she asked mother to switch the process of migration so that he came before me. And when I arrived in London, he was already here. And then I found that I also had a second family because mother had two extra children as well whilst she was in the United Kingdom.
Can I ask how that whole process of migration therefore impacted the family dynamics in terms of having been brought up by your grandmother, feeling close to your grandmother presumably, you know, and that distance from your mother, getting to know new siblings… How did that affect the dynamics?
MRP 09:36 Well, I’d always had some sort of resilience about me so, in a way, I just took it on board as how life was. I obviously knew I was not in a family that was well off, I wanted, myself, to make headway in life and to be somebody – I wasn’t quite sure what, but I always thought that mum would take care of the circumstances and mum would pull through. Grandmother was a very strong minded person, as all Caribbean grandmothers seem to be, and she had a fairly strict outlook in terms of what children should and shouldn’t be doing, and how they should and shouldn’t be behaving, and so I suppose I must have felt a warmth to her and decided that I would stick with her and try and support her. So, I almost became one of the leaders within the family to make things happen in the way that it should. And so that’s how it worked out, really. Mother would send letters to grandmother, and remittances would come through from time to time to help grandmother deal with the costs of bringing up three boys in Guyana during the 50s, early 60, and that helped.
So, that would have been an interesting context too, in the 50s and 60s, in terms of the anti-colonial political context, and were you aware of any of the politics going on at the time?
MRP 11:52 Well, I was very aware of it, because grandmother was right in the thick of it. She followed closely the campaign for independence for Guyana. And she followed the political direction of the then leaders of independence in Guyana, and that was [Forbes] Burnham, and [Cheddi] Jagan, and we were definitely on the side of the PPP [People’s Progressive Party], and we knew where they would be holding their meeting. I wouldn’t say grandmother was a member of the party, but she certainly was a strong supporter of what they were trying to do. And she would take me along, you know, little 10, 11 year old boy, and I would be going to these meetings, and I sat at the back, waiting for her to finish whatever she was doing, and then we could go home together, or joining in whatever ructions was happening with the children in and around those events. So yeah, that was it. I mean, I was aware that politics meant something, I suppose, and that was a factor that sort of sunk into my head, that you’ve got to get up and do things if you want things to happen, for the better, and that was all grandmother’s pushing really.
So I asked that question within the context and knowledge that you entered politics in the UK, but before I come to that, I was just interested also about your journey to the UK. What do you remember about it?
MRP 13:38 Well, the shock of the cold of the United Kingdom, a coldness that you never ever forget. When it was my turn to come over, we decided to use airplanes, and the ticket was booked for me to come from Guyana to the United Kingdom, and it was Bee-Wee [BWIA West Indies Airways], that was the airline at the time. And it was very exciting thinking about getting onto this airplane and travelling abroad, because it was something we’d never done before. I was a bit apprehensive because I was doing it all on my own. I must have been about 12 at the time, and I felt as though I was a grown up and I’d be able to handle it all, so it wasn’t so much of a frightening experience as an exciting one. And I was taken to the airport, and then the stewardess escorted me onto the plane and I took my seat and made sure all my bags was in the places where they should be, and then we had to land in Trinidad. I wasn’t prepared really for the trip, I ended up in Trinidad where we had hours of waiting, before we were able to board another great airplane and head off to the United Kingdom. I suppose that’s when it really hit me that this isn’t going to be an easy challenge at all. I was a bit lost I suppose, in my head, in terms of what what was going to happen.
JC 15:46 Where did that flight go from Trinidad though did it go straight to the UK or…
MRP 15:50 No, it landed in New York. I had a brief wait over in New York. And as a sort of child traveller, you get shunted into these rooms and you’re supposed to wait there until the next escort comes along to take you to where you were going. It was getting pretty hairy then, pretty frightening, in all of these challenges and changes, and I just hoped my luggage was in the right place. I just hoped I’d get there.
JC 16:30 So you arrived in the UK, I believe this is July 1961. When you arrived who’s there to meet you?
MRP 16:39 No one. I was really, I don’t know, shocked, but, I suppose, worried. I kept thinking maybe it was in the wrong place, maybe I’d ended up in a country that I shouldn’t be in. What was going on, nobody was there to meet me.
MRP 17:11 I knew it was London, because I’d flown over London in the airplane, I could see that we were in London, and I couldn’t understand why mother wasn’t there to meet me. But there it is, I landed, and I was then escorted into the arrivals hall and told I had to wait for people to come pick me up, but nobody did. Everybody had met whoever it was due to take them away, and I was left in the hall. And there I waited, and I noticed a gentleman who was well dressed and he came over to ask me, ‘Was I waiting for someone?’ and so I said ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, we’re going to be closing hall soon and there’s no one here. What are you gonna do?’ I said, ‘Well, I was waiting for my mum,’ and he said, ‘No,3 let me take you to the railway station where you will need to get a train to London.’ And at that point I was thinking, ‘what’s going on? I’ve got no money, I’ve got no currency, I’ve no idea how you get a train. What’s going to happen?’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll buy you a ticket to London, and when you get to London, you get out the station, and you’ll be heading to Islington, and the best bet is to ask a policeman for directions.’ And he paid for everything, and he gave me extra cash for me to pay the bus fare. I wish I knew who he was now, it’s just one of those, I suppose, random acts of kindness that you’re ever forever grateful for, but which you could never repay. I am now, looking back on it, very, very pleased it happened, but staggered that it could have gone in so many different directions which could have been wrong.
JC 19:55 So, it’s interesting that you talk about this act of kindness because I was just thinking of the context of the 1960s. I mean 1961, there’s the move towards having the first of the immigration bills or the 1962 Immigration Act, and it’s also a context where race has become a prominent and kind of controversial national issue. I wondered, what was your experience of race through your school years and into your university years?
MRP 20:33 I had no idea that being black was a problem until I arrived in the United Kingdom. In fact, on reflection, I doubt whether I knew that I was black. The gentleman who greeted and sent me in the direction of London was a white person, who was very well dressed, as I say, and I had no reason to assume anything to do with racial tensions were involved in the relationships. When I arrived in London and got out of the rail station, there were very very few black people around, and I didn’t sense any animosity towards me at the time. Subsequently, when I went to live with mum, that’s where race became an issue because it was there in the newspapers and it was being discussed within the community. As a young teenager, of course, you begin to think – is it something that us as a community, that we have done something terrible that we are somehow being victimised by those in power? No. It was nothing to do with us, it was more to do with the way they frame their images of people and about life. And I sort of gained an inner strength from the community and the things that we were doing to try to ensure that we were not being oppressed, and not being victimised, or that we could make our way in the world that was emerging then in 60s London. So, race became much more of an issue as a teenager growing up in London, and becoming more aware of the facts involved through reading the news or being in a family or trying to head through the years that you have as a teenager, and the experiences you have as a teenager. Those were the things that brought race out as an issue.
JC 3:22 You mentioned that you got strength from the community and I wondered, could you tell me something about the community? I mean, when you were here in the 60s, what was the makeup of the community?
MRP 23:33 The community at the time were mainly Afro Caribbeans. I suppose we were the largest group of migrants in the country, and whenever in the news, it was mentioned ‘the immigrants,’ we knew they were talking about people from the Caribbean, really, as there were very few Africans around and certainly there weren’t that many Asians, or people from India or Pakistan, in society at that time. So, as a community, we organised activities within ourselves. We lived in houses that were multi-occupied, because that’s the way you did it. You couldn’t get access to public housing, and where people owned property, if they had the capital to buy the property, they would let others sort of share the rooms because that way they earned some money to help pay back whatever mortgage they had. So we lived in multi-occupied houses, we knew all the families who lived in the houses, we entertained ourselves within the building. Usually there was somebody’s room that had television, a black and white television or whatever it was. That’s where we would congregate around weekends, and mother was involved with the other women in activities that they wanted to become engaged. She was a seamstress, so she was always making dresses for the other girls or the other women at the time and there was a lot of back and forth between her and the other women and the men and the involvement. Entertaining at the weekends was always in somebody’s house, that would be a house party to which you would go if you were in with that group, and you certainly wouldn’t go to the other groups party if they were holding it somewhere else. So there was always that fun taking place, and life was very much within the community, you didn’t do things that took you outside of the community because of fear of any reprisals. And you certainly tried to stick together as a group of people, so that you would avoid being caught out in any negative circumstances. Well, it was not a negative reaction, but I don’t think mum knew what was happening. She was trying to raise a family, she would be conscious that if I were to go into education, I wouldn’t be earning. I was then around at 16, 17, which would be the time when you’d be leaving school and you’d be taking on a job. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want to be a burden on her, but I don’t necessarily want to go and work in a furniture factory, which in Hackney at that time was probably the route to employment. I wasn’t a driver, and I couldn’t head into the transportation industry, and so I decided that I would try and see if I could make my way in higher education. Fortunately, the school I was in was blessed with having some teachers who believed in us boys. It was a secondary boys’ school in Holloway. It wasn’t a grammar school, it was a secondary modern school, and at that time, secondary modern schools did not have a very good reputation for producing pupils to go on to higher education. But I was in with a group of people at school who wanted to take up university education. So, I guess, participation in that group meant that I had to keep up with what they were talking about, and I felt that, you know, I wanted to make something of myself. I mean, politics played a part as well because, at that stage, in the whole movement towards, I suppose, the sort of civil rights taking place in America, the concerns that my family and others were voicing about what was going to happen to black people – what are we going to do with our futures? And where’s it all gonna lead? And fears about being driven out of the country. Because of the heightened nature of racial politics at the time, it made me think that I should do something with my life. And mother didn’t want to stop that, so she helped me to find a way in which we could get a grant. I was fortunate that I lived in London, where the education authority would make grants available for children from poor backgrounds so that we had some income to enable me to do my O-Levels and A-Levels. I achieved that, and then came the time when I’d have to decide where would I go? What would I do? I wanted to go into journalism, because I thought that that would be a way of exposing the problems that had bedevilled our community and also challenging this stereotype about black people not being able to achieve anything. But when I went in to meet my careers teacher, he suggests to me that maybe the journalism wasn’t the thing for you. I don’t know why. They said, ‘Well, look, I think you ought to think about maybe something that’s a bit, shall we say, a little bit more substantial?’ I don’t think he liked journalists. And he suggested I should maybe take up teaching. I thought fair enough, ‘well, what does that involve?’ And he said, ‘Well, you’d have to go to a teacher training institution.’ And he suggested that I think about that, because… I’ll tell you what he said, ‘in future, with a lot of your people around, we’re going to need some more people from your community as teachers. So, it might well be a good thing to do at this stage.’ I suppose I reflected on that and thought maybe he had a point. That helped motivate me towards putting down on my choices, colleges of education, with teaching, as a career. So, I know, obviously, you went to Goldsmith’s University. I mean, given the background that you had come from, was that seen as something, kind of… was it supported by the family? Or did they see that as an unusual thing to do? Or how was it? How did they react to it?
JC 31:58 It’s just struck me, actually, that you will have started university in 1966 at the precise moment, almost, that Guyana achieves its independence. Were you aware of Guyana becoming independent at that moment?
MRP 32:16 Oh, yes, because we always kept up with the Guyanese news. People were coming from Guyana, and they would bring news and we had family in Guyana at the time. Grandmother was still alive. So she kept us updated on on what was happening through her letters. There was no sophistication of telephones and the use of mobile phones or anything of that sort. No, you have to do it by writing to each other, and receiving letters and sending letters. So yes, that’s that’s how we managed to keep up.
JC 32:56 So then I wonder, because Guyana got its independence, did anybody think about the implications of that on their citizenship status? I’m not clear, really, whether that would have changed your status at that point or whether your status then becomes changed with the 1971 Immigration Act? But I’m assuming it then meant you became in effect, a citizen of the Republic of Guyana at that moment?
MRP 33:27 Yes. Well, I have a Guyanese passport.
JC 33:33 But when you travelled as a 13 year old would have been a British Guiana passport, and you would have been a citizen of the United Kingdom as a British subject.
MRP 33:47 Yes, so that was my status, and it never dawned on me that my right to remain or to leave and go as I please would be an issue. Never in a million years. I was a British citizen.
JC 34:08 At what point do you realise you’ve you’ve got to either register or naturalise as British?
MRP 34:21 Probably around about 69?… No, I mean, I just carried on thinking that way, and it wasn’t until around about in the 70s that I thought I needed to have a passport and maybe my British Guyana passport was a bit outdated. So I then applied for a United Kingdom passport.
JC 35:02 And so that was because you were thinking of travelling?
MRP 35:07 I hadn’t been abroad from the time I arrived so I had no need to use a passport, really, was the long and short of it. Then, after I left university and became involved in politics, I started to make a name as an aspiring politician. It was in the Labour Party and I was able to participate in various events and activities, some of which attracted the attention of members of parliament. And also the Labour Party, at the time, had some parliamentarians who were very keen to promote multicultural Britain, and to promote the involvement of the black community in politics in some way. And I thought that I was in that wave of black community participants who could make an impact through participation in the Labour Party. And I was invited by one of the Labour politicians at the time, an MP called Joan Lestor, who was really quite a champion of racial equality in politics from the early days. And she invited me to come to Parliament and to meet with her and talk with her, which I did. And she said, ‘Well, we must get your more of a profile if you want to make advances in the Labour Party. So, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll put you forward for a delegation of British politicians who are on their way to visit India.’ And it was part of an Indo-British political exchange, whereby aspiring and senior politicians from the United Kingdom would be travelling to India for a seminar on international relations and, at some stage, senior Indian politicians would come to United Kingdom which sounded great to me. And so I was invited along to join in the party and found myself with Joan Lestor, Jack Straw, and other luminaries. And then came the week before we were going, I was asked to bring my documentation to Joan Lestor, so she can sort it out, and it was then discovered I didn’t actually have a passport. So being Joan Lestor, she rings up the Home Secretary, who was then Merlyn Rees and she says, ‘He doesn’t have a passport.’ ‘What?’ ‘I want him to go with the party to India.’ And Merlyn says ‘Well, bring him over to the Home Office with whatever he’s got.’ Well, there and then, I was taken to the Home Office and entered into the office of the Home Secretary… it was a plush office… I heard ‘Russell, why haven’t you got a passport?’ ‘I don’t need a passport.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we’ll have to get you one.’ So, he then disappears around the corner and gets somebody to come in and take all my details and whisks in a photographer and, I kid you not, within the space of about two hours, I ended up having a British passport. And, also, I was a British naturalised citizen because I had a document to show that I was.
JC 39:38 So you had a certificate of naturalisation?
MRP 39:40 Naturalisation and a passport in less than a day.
JC 39:48 And did you go ahead to India?
MRP 39:51 I went on the trip to the subcontinent which was absolutely fantastic and such a revelation about how other communities dealt with so many different issues. In itself, it was a really, truly deeply, humbling and learning experience, which I’ve always treasured.
JC 40:24 So, can I ask you, what year is this?
MRP 40:27 This would have been around about 72, the early 70s.
JC 40:34 And were there other people, I’m trying to think at that time, maybe Diane Abbott, maybe Paul Boateng? I’m trying to think who else may have been around, other black counterparts who were involved?
MRP 40:50 No, Diane was not even active in politics at that time, and nor was Paul. Paul was a civil liberties lawyer in Brixton at that time. No, the only, I suppose, nationally known black figures who could have been involved would have been like a Bill Morris, who was then emerging as a trade union leader in the transport union.
JC 41:30 I don’t know if I’ve got my my dates wrong, Sir David Pitt as well?
MRP 41:35 Yes, David Pitt. He, of course, tried to be elected and wasn’t successful,in Brixton. And I think that he took a bit of a step back, but was around.
JC 41:55 So can you tell me, how does your career then progress after, ypu know, having travelled to India and, obviously, Joan Lestor saying that that would be a great way to get into politics. What happened next?
MRP 42:13 Well, I then became active in Labour politics. By that stage I was on Lewisham council, as an honorary counsellor called an alderman, and I participated in discussions at the House of Commons around the issue of race. There were various advisory bodies at the time for the Home Office, I was involved in some of those advisory bodies, and I was, at the same time, trying to develop my own career in teaching. So, it was a bit of politics, and my career, and family life, and that was enough to keep going. So plenty was happening, and it was a very busy time.
JC 43:22 Can you remember anything about the Home Office, or what was going on in terms of immigration or in terms of the 1971 Immigration Act? Was there any sort of publicity around the need for people to register at that point as British or…?
MRP 43:52 It was fairly clear that people within the community needed to have their documents in order if they wish to guarantee their citizenship in the United Kingdom, and if they wish to travel. I wouldn’t say there was any sort of campaign work taking place, other than news coverage within the community about it being something that you should do. It wasn’t a must, it was a desirable thing to do if you wished to take advantage of travel.
JC 44:38 So, did they ever sort of indicate in any way what might happen if you didn’t take advantage? I mean, was there any sense that at some point, you may lose the right to being British if you didn’t register?
MRP 44:50 No, there was no thought that, you know, you could be upped and shipped out of the country. You know, that wasn’t part of the discussion at all. That was in no way the thought process that, as Caribbeans, we held. This was our mother country. This is a country that we thought would look after us and, if we had problems, if we had difficulties, would find a way of resolving that. And, you know, even to my own thinking, that’s the way it worked – they wanted me to go to India, they sorted out the problems, and I went to India, and I came back and I tried to serve the country, by becoming actively involved in politics. That was what I thought you could do as a citizen who wanted to play your part. I mean, the thought that you could be rounded up and deprived of your rights was totally, totally alien in thought processes to members of the community during the 70s. It was just never even imagined.
JC 46:03 I guess, if you hadn’t travelled, then possibly you wouldn’t have heard or been aware of issues in terms of maybe immigration officers deciding who could and couldn’t come into the country? I’m thinking in terms of say, for example, I think it’s the 1958, or 1959, Mental Health Act. And I know Aggrey Burke has written some material about the fact that people were repatriated on the basis that they had mental health problems, and would be “better off,” in quotation marks, back in the Caribbean. And I was just wondering, in the process of having been a Lewisham alderman, or working in politics, whether you had come across people who had been kind of coerced into voluntary repatriation, or maybe who had committed a crime who had been, again, kind of deported?
MRP 47:10 On the national level there was, of course, quite a debate taking place about the rights, responsibilities, and future of people of colour in the United Kingdom. We were in London, Roy Sawh was doing his speeches. We would go along, we would listen to Roy at Hyde Park corner, we all enjoyed this wonderful Rabelaisian debate that was taking place about the rights of black people and where they could and couldn’t go for the future, and how dare they try to deprive us of our rights. You know, we felt strong, we felt proud about those things. However, there was a national debate, which had a logic of trying to reduce the numbers coming in to the country. Always the numbers. The numbers. And we knew what that meant. So, policy decisions were being taken, some were taken by the Labour Party, some were taken by the Conservative Party to try to, I suppose, appease a concern amongst the electorate that these people were taking away something that they weren’t entitled to, and which would deprive our children of having. So that was happening all of the time and what it meant was, if you were consciously aware of that, you would surely do things that would avoid you coming into difficulty and you would certainly not put yourself in a position where you would make it easy for them to take away something that you wanted and that was, I guess, part of the thinking going on at the time. The debates around whether or not people should go back was a lively one as well, because a lot of black people who were involved in politics, were talking about, you know, ‘we need to go back home and build up our own countries, so that when things happen in the future, we’re as strong in the Caribbean, as the other countries of the world are.’ And at that time, more people from the Asian diaspora were coming into the country, and so, again, we felt that as Caribbeans we need to make sure that we weren’t, ourselves, pushed out of the opportunities that existed. So, it was a lot of looking at each other to see where the politics could take you, and what you needed to do to ensure you have your own little space and your own rights. So, yes, that was all part of the national discourse that was around at the time. Some of us wanted to see if we could try and find, I suppose, a multicultural way in which this could work. And, again, in education, there was a huge debate about whether you should be going in the direction of multiculturalism, or whether you should look for assimilation, or whether you should try and find modes of integration that would work for the best interest of everyone. So that debate was always happening and, as a politician, you need to know what it is that you think will make the difference in all of this, and be clear about where you wanted to go. So, that was very much the flavour of what was happening at that stage.
JC 51:05 Who were the sort of prominent figures then in the community… I mean you’re sort of phrasing it as you and the community, and I’m wondering who the movers and shakers were, at the time, including yourself?
MRP 51:21 I was aware that others were wanting to contribute to politics, and so I was working to try to pull the group together of people who believed that political participation could make a difference. Of course, there were others who didn’t actually accept that political involvement would make any difference, and that the argument should be on the streets. So you had your Darcus Howe, you had your Institute of Race Relations, and that tradition, and they were very much actively involved in a national debate. Darcus was a very prominent character, a national figure, who was performing regularly on television and more power to his elbow, I thought, but it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go, I was looking for elected routes through. And then in there, I was able to work with the likes of Bernie Grant, who had come up through the Labour/trade union route, but also, like myself, felt that local councils did so much to influence people’s lives that it’s important to make sure their policies were right. And there were other councilors across the United Kingdom that we would reach out to talk with like [Michael] Wongsam; he was in Birmingham. And there were others that we would be engaged with, and this was way before the emergence of the Labour Party Black Sections campaign. This was well before that.
JC 53:26 You mentioned Bernie Grant coming up through the trade union route and, I’m wondering, did you get a sense of how supportive the trade unions were to the issue of racial discrimination and the need for equality?
MRP 53:40 Yes, the trade unions have always been part of the whole progressive movement for change in the United Kingdom. And that’s a root for a lot of black people who are involved, who took positions as shop stewards, and I suppose then worked their way up to national level. But, clearly, Bill Morris was then making his way up, and we looked up to Bill as leader, and Bernie. But the trade union has always got to be very mindful of its membership base, and it was known that there were some trades unions that were more favourable to black people than others, and, I guess, the unions that had more black members, the transport and general workers union, or the railway workers union, the traditional industries where black people worked, were the more progressive unions than the others. And so that was one of the tensions within the labour movement in terms of which trade union you would be seeking to work with to make any political advancements across the Labour Party. So there was that dynamic that you had to be aware of.
JC 55:19 So, the other thing that I guess I find quite interesting is that, today, when you look at both the Labour and Conservative Parties… If you look at the Conservative Party today, black representation figures quite highly and, I wondered, when you went into politics, what made you know it was the Labour Party that you were going to join, as opposed to the Lib Dems – I don’t even think they were called the Lib Dems then – or the Conservative Party?
MRP 55:54 For me it was because, coming from the Caribbean, and living in the Caribbean, with all of the politics of independence and roots in PPP and PNC traditions, the party that was natural for us was the Labour Party, in the United Kingdom, and so that, for me, was the direction in which I headed. I’ve always supported progressive, broadly based politics and so I’m not somebody who’s naturally private sector, stand on your own two feet, type of person, and I suppose we didn’t have those characters within the family so it wouldn’t be something that was natural, but there are other communities where that is so. That’s clearly the case within the Asian community, and there are traditions within that community that meant they were able to advance in, you know, unheard of ways through the Conservative Party. And it’s, to me, perfectly understandable that if you go through that tradition where you opted out of state education, you went to private schools, you go from private schools, into the clubs that private schools go into, you meet Conservative politicians. And, if you are of that disposition, and you’re black, they’re going to make you advance because, naturally, they can see the way the wind’s blowing, and it so happened that they’ve blown the Labour Party out by that route. They’ve ended up with a Prime Minister who has come up through that patron route – public schools, and through the institutions of the majority party. And that’s that’s the way it happens.
JC 58:09 So, I’m wondering now that I kind of understand that, when you became, I think you were Brent Council’s first [race] relations advisor in 1982, I wonder if you could just tell me a bit about that role and what activities you got involved in?
MRP 58:25 Well, I ended up going into local government because I found it very difficult to make progress as a school teacher and a politician. The people who run schools don’t like to see their head teachers or their deputy head teachers on the television, championing certain causes that maybe wouldn’t necessarily be things that they would like to see. So, I was after equalities, and I was pushing the case for the rights of children from the black community to be given a fair chance, and so it became very difficult. And I was advised that maybe if I wanted to make an advance, I should probably find a career outside of teaching. So I then applied for a job that was going at the time as a Race Relations Advisor with, I suppose, the desire to see if I could help a progressive local authority make the policy changes that it wanted to see happen locally. Brent was one of the most diverse boroughs in London. It had a huge settlement of people from Asia. It had a number of people from the Caribbean, but by no means the majority, and leadership of the Borough Council, at the time, were trying to find ways in which they could show [and] ensure that they were doing the right thing by the community, and I applied, and was successful in getting that job. It was a new… I suppose it wasn’t really a career, as such, but it was a way in which adaptations could be made to the public services that would be beneficial to the majority of the local community. And that was the way it was pitched to me, and that’s how I ended up in Brent, working with the leadership of the authority to try to see if the services could be improved in a way that would be beneficial to all sections of the local community. And that involved looking at things like housing, jobs, education, and health, and leisure and recreation. But as I got there, again, the leadership may have wanted to see the changes taking place as rapidly as possible, but there were a lot of people within each of those sectors who themselves were thinking ‘Hang on a minute, we don’t want to go that way, because that could affect us and if you’re affecting us, that could be difficult.’ So, there was a lot of resistance around these changes, which needed somehow to be managed and dealt with. But other local authorities were trying to go in that direction. You had Herman Ouseley, who was working in Lambeth, you had Crispin St Hill, who was working in Islington, and Bernie [Grant] was in Haringey, and there was a broad movement to try to see if services could be of benefit to the whole community. Could something be done about housing, so that you didn’t end up with black people living in the worst housing because they couldn’t access local authority housing? And in parts of London, certainly Lewisham, where I was a councillor, one union dominated the manual grade jobs and used policies which deprived black applicants from ever getting those jobs. And that was one of the fights that I had to take on, and I had to take on a fight against the trades union, which was a bit rough, but that was when I was a councillor. It was rough because the trade union leader, at the time, didn’t think that I’d be any use at being a counsellor, and I called him racist, and he sued me, and his union took me to court. So I had a battle on my hand. I was a Labour councillor being taken to court by a Labour union to try and create something that, nationally, the Labour Party said it wanted to see, which was equality. It was a very strange experience to go through but, eventually, we managed to resolve the issue and move it on. But the changes that we needed to see at local level took a very long time to bed in because of the resistance that we had and, also, I suppose that inertia that you get when people have been at whatever they’re doing for a long time, and they don’t want to see any changes, because it alters their way of life. So, again, that was part of the resistance that we had to deal with. I got into terrific difficulty in Brent with the education establishment because we ended up thinking that the way to do the change was at school-level, and we wanted to try to find people who would work with each school to try to bring about the changes, but local papers and the national papers called them ‘spies,’ so we were accused of putting spies in the classroom, which didn’t help. So, that then led to a huge national furore around ‘race spies’ taking over in schools, which created huge waves of media coverage, and ended up with one head teacher having herself in difficulty over it all, and taking the local authority to court for trying to deal with an issue of race within her school, which she didn’t want to deal with. And she became a cause celeb which then meant that the local authority had to think much more seriously and deeply about what it was trying to do, and helped to make things much more difficult for changes to take place quickly and slowed the whole process down. But it was a challenge trying to take on the issue of race in a bureaucratic way, and there were a lot of lessons to be learned, and maybe some of the things that we did weren’t the right things to do, or maybe we didn’t do them in the right way. But, I think, overall the initiative was worth it because there are now, I suppose, more black people working in local government, there are some communities where the black community have got better housing, and I mean, in certain respects, I would say there was some progress, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t easy to get those changes.
JC 58:25 So I want to backtrack very slightly to the first example you gave me, where the local authority were then trying to take you to court?… No, the Trade Union were trying to take you to court, what was the outcome of that? Did it just get thrown out, or? And did the housing issue then get resolved? Or…?
MRP 1:06:54 It was an employment issue. It wasn’t a housing issue. Um, well, to go back. For legal reasons I’m not sure I can talk a great deal about it, because it was settled on the basis of ‘you go your way, we go our way, and let’s try and forget it all happened.’ But it’s difficult to forget these things, because they took place and they, they made a huge difference, mentally, to the characters involved. I was on the council, and one of the things that we introduced was record keeping of the racial origins of employees. Now, this is a normal practice these days so, in a way, what we did then has led to these changes that are now normalised. But ethnic record keeping was unheard of at the time, and we introduced that in Lewisham, and after we got the head counts in, we found that in a service that was important for everybody ie. refuse collection service, no one of colour had been… was employed, or had been employed for years. So, I asked why this was, because I was on the committee looking into it, and I was told ‘well, it’s the employment practices.’ And, pushing a bit more I discovered from my councillor friends that the trades union had a veto on who could and could not work for the refuse collection service which, I just thought was outrageous. You can’t… you can’t have a service where employees decide who’s going to work within the team. ‘Oh, it’s always been that way, you know, because they always work that way.’ And again, pressing, I wanted to know who it was and was told that shop stewards were the ones and the shop steward, the senior shop steward, would come and sort me out. ‘Hang on a minute, you don’t operate that way. I’m an elected councillor and I can ask these questions.’ And so a reporter carrying the story about my questioning, asked me who I thought was responsible for all of this and I mentioned the name of a trades unionist. And in doing so, he said that I had libeled him, and he got his union to write a solicitor’s letter to me, saying, ‘unless I withdrew the comments, I will be taken to court for libel.’ And I, of course, didn’t want to withdraw and told him and his solicitors that there’s no way I was gonna withdraw. I thought I’d be supported by the council, but it turns out I wasn’t. The council doesn’t support the councillors, in making its defense, I’d have to find my own lawyers. ‘What?’ So what can I do, I turned to people who I knew locally, and we set up a Defense Committee, because that was like the model everywhere, wherever black people were in troubles at that stage, you would form a little local committee when you would organise your fundraising and your press publicity. So we had a Russell Profitt Defense Fund, and it was set up in Lewisham, and we went to various events and raised funds to fight this case. It then took off in the local press, and in the national press, that a trades union was about to sue a local councillor who was championing the cause of the black community, and that got picked up in the black community press because we had things like the West Indian World, the Caribbean Times, Asian Times, and various other local papers that carried community stories. And so they pressed and pressed the issue and we got a lot of publicity around it. Eventually, a friend within the labour movement said, ‘Look, this is nonsense. You can’t have a trades union, suing a local councillor to deal with these sorts of issues.’ So they approached the trades union nationally, and the then leader of the trades union, a chap called Rodney Bickerstaffe, who was then the General Secretary said, well, he’ll see what he can do. And he then had to persuade his people to find a way in which it could be resolved and they were pressing me to apologise and I was saying ‘no’, and he wouldn’t have it, and he was going to press his rights through his union. Oh, it was an absolute nightmare. I had no idea that these sorts of things could happen if you’re fighting for equality. But the community stuck with me, and in the end settlement was reached whereby the… the threats were withdrawn.
JC 1:13:08 Russell, I’m just aware that I’ve taken up a lot of your time.
MRP 1:13:13 We’ll have to stop soon.
JC 1:13:14 We’ll have to stop. Before we stop I just wanted to, for the record, so that I remember, that you were a Labour councillor for Lewisham from 1973, was it to 1986?
MRP 1:13:28 Yes.
JC 1:13:29 To 1986. Also, just for the record to say that this interview’s taking place in Walworth Methodist Church within the context of the Golden Oldies… is that what it’s called?
MRP 1:13:49 Walworth Golden Oldies.
JC 1:13:51 Walworth Golden Oldies, which was, I believe, founded by yourself.
MRP 1:13:56 No, no, no, no, no. I’m currently the chair of Trustees, but it was founded in the 1980s by all the senior citizens locally, who were themselves very keen to carry on the cultural traditions of the Caribbean, so that senior members could feel and experience whatever it was they enjoyed most of their youth whilst they were growing up in the Caribbean, which we do today. We play music, we have the meals, and we have visiting speakers, and we go on trips and outings to various places of interest and follow the cultural traditions of the Caribbean.
JC 1:14:47 I’ve just realised there’s one, one, question that I didn’t follow up on and I hope you don’t mind me asking, but you were saying that when you became Brent Council’s first race relations advisor, Brent Council at that time had a high Asian population, and it’s reminding me about things like the virginity tests that Asian women were being subjected to. And I wondered, to what extent members of the Asian community came to you for assistance with anything to do with their immigration issues?
MRP 1:15:25 What we had at the time was…. support initiatives for the community that took place at local authority level, but also community level. So within the Asian community, they had a number of their own community associations, Indian, Pakistani, or Muslim communities… Sri Lankan communities and the like. And there was also a Council for Community Relations because the national government had agreed that, through the difficulties of the 60s and the 70s, the issue of race would be handled through a commission of public spirited characters who would meet and organise an administrative body called a Community Relations Council and it would have national chairs, and then there’d be local bodies, and there’d be local committees that broadly bring the community together so that all of the public spirited individuals who wanted to see change happen, they could play a part in helping to bring that change about. And, so, in Brent, we had a multiplicity of Asian and Caribbean organisations and we also had the Community Relations Council trying to bring groups of people together. And, on that, the local authority decides to graft me as a race advisor, to try to bring the various groups together, so that we would end up in a more harmonious community than was the case previous to my arrival. Again, it was not easy, because of, I suppose, natural concerns and cultural traditions and desires to be sure that the identity of your race was preserved in as a unique way as possible, so you wouldn’t want to give up, naturally, your rights to others to manage. So within the communities, everybody had their own little advisors and had their own little ways of resolving their issues. And we would deal with the national issue, we would take up concerns that maybe a Community Relations Council couldn’t because it was too political, but a local authority could certainly say to the Home Office ‘that policy is wrong.’ And the elected local councillors and the leader of the council could have the ear of the local press to make sure that things like the testing of virginity of Asians who were coming in, because they were trying to slip through the net, wasn’t something that was accepted. And in that way, we managed to keep the campaign for the rights of the individuals to keep going, but I don’t think we ever resolved the question of who was going to help who to make sure that everything worked as best as possible for them, and it’s still alive today. I suppose it’s part of what you have in the rich and diverse cultural milieu that we call British society.
JC 1:19:11 Thank you very much, Russell. I know I’ve taken up a lot of your time, so I really appreciate it,
MRP 1:19:16 That’s alright, happy to help out!
JC 1:19:18 And I hope that we can do a part two at some point, but thank you very much.
MRP 1:19:23 Certainly.