As Britain braces itself for the Platinum Jubilee, a fanfare to hereditary power and privilege, where’s the opposition? With the exception of a three-day ‘Fuck the Jubilee’ festival in Bristol, there’s little of the agitprop street theatre or situationist provocation that accompanied previous royal celebrations. We are unlikely to see any plywood guillotines or 21 bum salutes outside Buckingham Palace. It’s a far cry from the 1977 Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols’ performance of ‘God Save the Queen’ on the Thames, a rebellious parody of the Royal River Pageant.
John Lydon won himself a place in British folklore. But for all the mock outrage over the Pistols’ anarchic antics and seditious lyrics, none of those involved – among them Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood – faced criminal charges. The performance was a publicity stunt devised by McLaren and Richard Branson to promote the band’s new single. The Silver Jubilee’s real radical was the Black activist Darcus Howe, born in Trinidad in 1943. As Howe knew, the monarchy wasn’t just a symbol of empire but was actually built on the proceeds of slavery. In 1660, Charles II had incorporated the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa. Its charter gave the company possession of coastal West Africa from Cape Blanco, at the northern end of what is now Mauritania, to the Cape of Good Hope, ‘for a period of one thousand years’. Together with his younger brother, the future James II and VII, and assorted London merchants, the king was set to make a fortune from gold, ivory and enslaved Africans trafficked from the Ivory Coast.
While Howe’s antipathy to the monarchy ran deep, he was never one to miss out on a party. So in June 1977, Howe and Frank Crichlow, owner of the Mangrove, a Notting Hill restaurant and meeting place for activists, decided to throw a street party with a difference: a celebration of African Liberation Day. Instead of the ubiquitous Union Jack bunting, All Saints Road in Notting Hill would be adorned with the flags of African nations, the flag of the Organisation of African Unity and the red, green and gold of the Rastafari. Having spent many years as a grassroots organiser, Howe was well aware that the street party would need official sanction. He and Crichlow paid a visit to the local police station, explained their plans to the community relations officer and obtained permission to close the road.
The street party was a success. But as the festivities were winding down, a police car arrived. The officers were on duty; carried away by jubilee spirit, they were also drunk. Leaning out of the window, one of the officers began shouting racist abuse. Howe, who had studied law at Middle Temple in the 1960s, pulled the abusive officer out of the car and performed a citizen’s arrest, reading him his rights London-style: ‘You’re fucking nicked!’ The other officers were too intoxicated to put up anything more than token resistance and scarpered.
Howe locked up the captive officer in the basement of the Mangrove, appointing Wappy King, a local hustler well acquainted with the penal system, as his warder. Howe asked King to get the officer a sandwich and a cup of tea. King protested – this was better treatment than he had ever received at the hands of the police. But that was Howe’s point: King, the working-class hustler, should teach the officer how to treat his charges properly. Howe then phoned Scotland Yard: ‘I have got a police inspector here under arrest for disorderly behaviour and incitement to riot.’ Shortly after, seven vanloads of police arrived in riot gear. King escaped arrest by jumping out of a window. Howe tried to follow him but didn’t make it: he was arrested for kidnapping a police officer. By the time Howe went on trial three months later, the charge had been reduced to ‘threatening behaviour and wilful obstruction’. The magistrate seems to have seen the situation for what it was. He dismissed the case after the prosecution rested. He did, however, offer one piece of advice: ‘Mr Howe, the next time you have a party, don’t go and talk to the police.’
Howe’s Silver Jubilee street party was the second time his opposition to the monarchy had landed him in trouble. Soon after arriving in Britain in 1961, he was beaten up by some Teddy Boys for refusing to stand for the national anthem at the Swiss Cottage Odeon. His thinking was strongly influenced by his education as a young member of the People’s National Movement in Trinidad. During the campaign for independence in the late 1950s he was a regular at the ‘University’ of Woodford Square, as Eric Williams’s mass rallies were known. Here he heard not just the case for independence but the case for a republic – a status that Trinidad and Tobago, alone of the Caribbean nations, achieved under Williams’s government in 1976, following the rise of the Black Power movement.
Howe also had history with the British police. From its opening in 1968, the Mangrove was subject to regular police raids on the pretext that it was rife with ‘pimps, prostitutes and criminals’. By the time Kensington and Chelsea Council revoked its all-night licence, locals were organising under the banner of the Action Group for the Defence of the Mangrove. On 9 August 1970, a crowd of around 150 demonstrators with placards assembled in the streets – to be met, as a police document later revealed, by 588 constables, 84 sergeants, 29 inspectors and four chief inspectors. Howe climbed onto a car roof to address the crowd: ‘We’ve complained to the police about the police and nothing’s been done. We’ve complained to magistrates about magistrates and nothing’s been done. We’ve complained to judges about judges and nothing’s been done. Now it’s time to do something ourselves.’
They did succeed in doing something. Nine of the protesters – among them Howe, Crichlow, Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese – were brought to trial at the Old Bailey, charged with ‘incitement to riot and affray’. Howe chose to defend himself from the dock, and made his case to great effect. On 16 December 1971, after 55 days of argument, the judge – concluding that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred on both sides’ – acquitted five of the Mangrove Nine, including Howe, of all charges, with the other four receiving suspended sentences for minor offences. It was the first judicial acknowledgment of racism within the Metropolitan Police.
Soon afterwards, Howe became editor of Race Today and founded the Race Today Collective. With contributions by C.L.R. James and Walter Rodney, Race Today quickly became (as Diane Abbott put it) ‘required reading for any Black activist’. The collective was the voice of Black liberation in Britain. But its work in defence of minority rights and minority workers made its influence more widely felt: during the 1970s, it played a key role in the Imperial Typewriters and Grunwick disputes, as well as the Bengali squatters’ movement, taking on the National Front and the GLC with equal success.
Howe became a household name in the 1990s with his Channel 4 show Devil’s Advocate; he might have been combative but he was always prepared to debate. As he had shown when he went to the Notting Hill police to get permission for his jubilee street party, he understood that to make the establishment listen it was sometimes wise to engage with it. In 1994, shortly after Prince Charles’s extended television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby and with the publication of Anna Pasternak’s Princess in Love looming, Howe devoted an episode of his programme to the monarchy. Farrukh Dhondy, then commissioning editor at Channel 4, suggested that Howe spar with Peregrine Worsthorne, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Worsthorne defended the monarchy on the grounds that it was popular, and that, thanks to the combination of monarch and Parliament, Britain was stable, prosperous, and hadn’t had a constitutional crisis for more than three hundred years (would he be so confident now?).
Howe took a different tack, considering the impact of the monarchy on the royals themselves: people like Diana were forced to conform to the demands of an antiquated institution, in the context of a press that had no respect for privacy, and a public that had abandoned deference. ‘I’m not arguing for republicanism as a philosophical principle,’ he said. ‘What I’m saying is that once an institution starts destroying people, it’s time to recognise there is something fundamentally wrong with that institution.’ Nearly thirty years on, the public seems to be moving in this direction. In 2021 a YouGov poll found that 41 per cent of Britons aged 18-24 now want an elected head of state, compared to 31 per cent who remain unequivocally loyal to the monarchy. The more jubilees you’ve seen, however, the more likely you are to support the queen. In June 1977, two weeks after official African Liberation Day (on 25 May), Howe and the community in Notting Hill celebrated an older, and perhaps truer, meaning of ‘jubilee’, going back to the Jewish Scriptures, where the yovel, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn, was sounded at the start of every fiftieth year to signal that Hebrew slaves and prisoners would be freed and debts forgiven. This is jubilee not as an excuse to sell bunting and corgi-shaped biscuits but as a call for emancipation.