Walls Come Tumbling Down

Issue section: 

The social and political turmoil of the Thatcher/Major era and the cultural responses to these challenges lie at the heart of this oral history of three interlocking periods of recent British history.

Walls Come Tumbling Down is essentially three books in one. The first deals with the extraordinary rise of Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s, forged from a music fan’s outrage at racist remarks uttered by guitarist Eric Clapton into a national movement that enabled thousands of people to find their political voice and express their creativity for the first time.

The second details the meteoric rise and fall of the magnificent 2 Tone record label and its stellar talent roster. The third — and most problematic — section concerns the legacy of Red Wedge and its alliance with the Labour Party.

The RAR and 2 Tone accounts are immediate and engrossing, providing an account of first-person testimonies to how grassroots activism and tactical allegiances of the left rose to confront the racism that permeated all facets of society. The critical role the Socialist Workers Party played throughout this period is acknowledged, especially in relation to the Anti Nazi League and RAR, though we are more spoken about than spoken to. Clichés about the SWP’s alleged cultural illiteracy and adherence to political dogma are rehashed once again.

The diversity of contributors and the foregrounding of the music created are the book’s great strengths, but with so many currents at play — feminism, LGBT+ rights, the Irish Troubles, apartheid, black struggle and the miners’ strike (among dozens of others) — the narrative is often unwieldy and important topics such as the Falklands War aren’t discussed at all.

The Red Wedge chapter is by far the most frustrating, with the most egregious contributions made by the likes of Neil Kinnock, Angela Eagle and Tom Watson — which should alert the reader to the way the book will conclude. The arbitrary cut-off date of 1992 also leaves the great anti-racist battles of the early 1990s against the BNP in Welling and the justice campaign over the murder of Stephen Lawrence out of the narrative. Broadcaster Robert Elms dares to claim that today’s Britain “is a society where racism is absolutely frowned upon”, which is blatantly untrue.

Walls Come Tumbling Down attempts to show how far we’ve come and it rightly celebrates those who fought in the past. But it pays no heed to the present anti-racist struggle, and allows many of those interviewed off the hook as to their role in some of the key political battles that blight Britain today.