Chapter 03: The Honeyford Affair

In January 1984 Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford wrote an article on "Education and Race - an alternative view" for the pro-repatriation magazine "The Salisbury Review". This article was to spark off 2 years of bitter controversy that would tear the community of Bradford in half. It was to have a profound effect on everyone - not least Eric Pickles.


In order to understand how the ramblings of a middle school headmaster in the pages of a minor right wing magazine could so devastate the normally tight-knit cohesion of the Bradford community, it is first necessary to look back several years.

Bradford has always been a multi-cultural and multi-racial city. Early immigrants came from across Europe; Germany, Poland and the Ukraine. Later people came from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent to feed the textile mills of Wool City. Yet it is on Bradford's black community that malicious attention has always been focussed.

In the early 1970's neo-nazi groups like the National Front were at the peak of their strength. Active in Bradford as elsewhere they had a visible presence on the streets and in the media, even putting up numerous candidates at elections. Racist violence was commonplace.

In 1976 the Front organised a huge "anti-immigration" march through Bradford. Tolerance throughout the community finally broke and a massive resistance poured out to meet them. Thousands of local people harried the nazi procession through Bradford city centre and into Manningham. Barricades were thrown up across Manningham Lane and the remnants of the Front march only reached Manningham middle school with the help of a large police presence. . Clashes between local protesters and the police - who were judged to have acted as "protectors" to the fascists -continued into the evening. There were a number of injuries and 2 Police cars were overturned and smashed.

"The Battle of Bradford" marked a turning point. Even the local Telegraph & Argus announced that the fascist "stormtroopers" should never be allowed to return.

From then on a communal decision was reached to drive the fascists from Bradford forever. The atmosphere was electric with euphoria and determination.

Over the next few years physical confrontation against any organised fascist presence became the norm. There were many ugly incidents and the neo-nazis turned increasingly to terrorist violence to retain their tenuous grip. Arson attacks, shotgun attacks, machete attacks, stabbings and finally murder were the price paid by Bradfordians before the fascists abandoned any hope of maintaining an open presence in the city.

In July 1981 12 Asian youths were arrested and charged with "conspiracy to cause explosions". They had prepared a cache of petrol bombs for defence against a planned invasion of Bradford by the National Front. Immediately after their arrests over 800 people turned up at a public meeting in their support. It was a clear sign of the mood at that time. The following year the Bradford 12 were all acquitted in an historic jury decision. The right to self-defence had prevailed.

Of course there remained a level of submerged "cultural" racism in large sections of the white community, but none the less the general feeling was one of progressive hope.

Demands for improvements in race relations were met by a consensus amongst local politicians. Peter Gilmour, the young Tory chairman of the Council's Education Committee, was particularly held in high regard by both the older, more traditional Asian community as well as the younger radical elements in the Asian Youth Movement. Gilmour was unashamedly anti-racist and promoted innovations such as the provision of halal meat in schools in 1983.At that time Gilmour's close friend Eric Pickles was also a firm supporter of the council's multi-cultural policies. At the 1983 Tory party conference Pickles was heckled and booed when he spoke out in a debate on immigration.

The introduction of the halal meat policy led to protests from a largely white middle-class "animal rights" group that was soon attracting support from racist elements on the far right. Some councillors such as Labour's Norman Free also weighed in against the halal decision and grassroots Tory party members in Gilmour's constituency of Keighley North were soon expressing displeasure at their representative's standpoint.

Other decisions began to arouse suspicions, such as the council's introduction of "race training courses" for head teachers - the result of a complacent attitude to racial attacks in schools. With these pressures simmering, Ray Honeyford's outpourings proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Ray Honeyford was appointed headmaster of Bradford's Drummond middle school in 1980.

He had lived and worked in the Manchester area all his life and rather than move to Bradford he chose to drive through from his home in Prestwich each day. He found a very different environment from that which he was used to.

When Honeyford joined Drummond, half the pupils were black. Within 5 years this percentage grew to around 90% when the council's policy of "bussing" pupils to outlying areas was eventually scrapped.

Honeyford first expressed dubious views 2 years after coming to Bradford when he wrote to the local T & A on school notepaper to complain about a council grant given to a local West Indian Community Association. As a result he was disciplined by the council.

Undeterred, the following year he wrote an article for the Times Educational Supplement. This took the form of his diary entries over a week.

It was clear from this article where Honeyford stood. Whilst claiming not to be a racist Honeyford's tone expressed clearly the kind of "cultural racism" which was common in wide sections of the population.

His article for the right wing Salisbury Review confirmed this clearly.

Whilst primarily an attack on what Honeyford called "The Race Relations Lobby" Honeyford was also attacking the council's carefully drawn up multi-cultural Education policy. According to Honeyford "much of the pressure for a multi-racial curriculum comes from the vehement, radical left of black organisations."Honeyford took the populist view that there exists in Britain a uniform, Christian and superior "English" culture. His idea of a dominant English culture had been defined in the first issue of the Salisbury Review when John Casey quoted the poet T.S. Eliot;

"It includes all the characteristic activities of the people: Derby Day, Henley regatta, Cowes, the Twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin-table, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century gothic churches and the music of Elgar."

His basic premise was as absurd as it was romantic, but none the less it would strike a chord with a large number of people.

Honeyford illustrated his theme with a series of offensive and irrelevant stereotypes that can only have been intended to insult the parents of the children in his care. His article is littered with phrases like:

"West Indians .... create an ear-splitting cacophony for most of the night..."

"The hysterical political temperament of the Indian sub-continent..."

"A half educated and volatile Sikh..."

"Pakistan is a country that cannot cope with democracy... the heroin capital of the world which is now reflected in the drug problems of English cities with Asian populations.

Honeyford sums up his feelings with this passage.,

"At no point in all this sound and fury does the plight of those white children who constitute the "Ethnic minority" in a growing number of inner city schools merit even a mention. Yet their educational "disadvantage" is now confirmed. It is no more than common sense that if a school contains a disproportionate number of children for whom English is a second language (true of all Asian children, even those born here), or children from homes where educational values to support it are conspicuously absent (i.e. the vast majority of West Indian homes – a disproportionate number of which are fatherless) then academic standards are bound to suffer."

Honeyford got most of his facts wrong and his views were not shared by the vast majority of teachers in Bradford's inner city area. But Honeyford was primarily an ideologue.

Honeyford's association of "inferior cultures" with West Indians and Asians defined the victims of his "cultural racism" as precisely the same as victims of overt racism. If there ever was an "intellectual" difference, in practice there was none.

Of course the parents whose children went to Drummond were not amongst the 1000 right wing subscribers to the Salisbury Review and so it was not until the Yorkshire Post reprinted the article in March that they realised what exactly their headmaster felt about them.A number of the Drummond parents were so shocked that on March 15th they formed the Drummond Parents Action Committee. One of the parents, Jenny Woodward, was elected chairman and the committee called for Honeyford's dismissal. Woodward later stood for the post of parent governor to the school. She faced 12 other candidates but received more votes than all the others put together.

Initially the consensus amongst senior councillors was hostile to Honeyford. Both Tory leader Ronnie Farley and Tory Education chief Peter Gilmour publicly attacked Honeyford' Senior Labour councillors and the Liberals joined in along with the Community Relations Council and a number of community organisations. The local N.U.T. called for Honeyford's dismissal.

But Honeyford was not without supporters. Tory backbench councillors remained initially silent although their sympathy lay almost entirely with the headmaster and his views. A number of Labour councillors were unhappy too and before long the apparent council consensus was broken when the outgoing Labour Lord Mayor Norman Free backed Honeyford. The governors at Drummond, mostly political appointees, backed Honeyford. His union, the N.A.H.T. came to his defence.

The controversy was beginning to boil when the May council elections came. Tory Education chief Peter Gilmour became the first political casualty as a direct result of his anti Honeyford stance. Most of his own ward party members would not help his campaign and he lost his seat.

With Gilmour gone, Eric Pickles became the chairman of the Education Committee and responsible for the Honeyford saga. At first he simply went along with what appeared to be the political consensus at Bradford council. Much later he said this was a mistake;

"When I took over as Education chairman I was told that he (Honeyford) was an out-and-out racist, part of a movement to topple the authority, and a person who had to be got rid of."

This is Pickles' view today, but at the time he had read Honeyford's article and found his views distasteful. Council officials like Education director Richard Knight warned Pickles of the trouble that lay ahead and told him that Honeyford would have to go. The difficulty lay in publicly justifying Honeyford's removal. In opting initially for the reason that Honeyford had ignored the rules laid down by his employer the council - they lay themselves open to the charge of being unjustly "authoritarian".

The Tory right meanwhile began to organise in Honeyford's support on the basis of defending "free speech". The media were soon backing Honeyford both locally and nationally.

The Honeyford campaign would soon also draw in activists from the extreme right who were more than willing to exploit the situation. Frank Kelly - later of the Yorkshire Monday Club - collected a 6000 name petition backing Honeyford. Another recently retired Bradford headmaster lent his support; Stanley Garnett, northern spokesman for the neo-nazi British National Party.

Within a matter of months public opinion was totally polarised.

As the controversy dragged on the Drummond parents grew more frustrated with the lack of progress in removing a headmaster they had no faith in. They began organising marches and demonstrations. Later they organised boycotts, keeping their children from school. In March 1985, one year into the affair, they successfully organised a weeklong "alternative" school for their children. It seems somewhat ironic now that the government believes in greater parental control of schools. To Honeyford's backers the Drummond parents were seen as a group of left-wing conspirators. Their views were judged as irrelevant. In April 1985 when the right wing Tory MP Marcus Fox arranged an adjournment debate in Parliament on Honeyford, Labour MP Max Madden - whose constituency included the school - was denied the right to speak for his constituents!

Throughout his first year as Education supremo, Eric Pickles walked a political tightrope. Although he wanted rid of Honeyford he was soon fully aware of his own backbenchers support for the headmaster. He could not back a straight dismissal as demanded by the opposition. Instead he opted for a quiet "pay off" deal so that Honeyford would simply retire. But with no overall control of the council, Pickles needed the support of the opposition. Both Labour and Liberals would have none of it.

In November 1984 Honeyford turned down a £100,000 payoff package secretly proposed by Pickles. Honeyford was not averse to a pay-off in principle, just the amount. In January 1985 he set his leaving price at a quarter of a million pounds. The Honeyford affair took many twists and turns and is fully documented elsewhere (see for example the Telegraph & Argus Supplement, November 1985).

Suffice it to say that by September 1985 Pickles had made several attempts to arrange a pay-off deal. Each had been blocked by the opposition. Honeyford had faced a 5-month suspension on full pay, which provided a breathing space, but he was eventually cleared of "misconduct" by a school governor's inquiry and reinstated following High Court action by his union.

The situation in Bradford was becoming more and more tense. The widespread "cultural" racism that for so long had remained submerged had now been released with a vengeance. Popular public opinion, at least on a national scale, seemed to be shifting in Honeyfords favour with strident pro-Honeyford campaigns in the tabloids.

Eric Pickles was facing the most serious political dilemma of his career.

He had been to see Honeyford himself and later described the meeting;

"My mistake was not going to see Ray Honeyford sooner than I did. When I did, I met a genuine man, perhaps a little stubborn but a person who cared about his school, pupils and parents. Asian children tugged at his sleeve wanting to talk to him. I realised he believed in what he was doing and that the system was out to crush him."

But it was no warming to Honeyford that brought about a remarkable conversion in Eric Pickles. He was coming under severe pressure from the government to back Honeyford. Keith Joseph, the Education minister, had ordered a full report on the affair and Pickles was told to settle the matter quickly. The government was closely in touch with the network of "independent" radical right wing pressure groups that were becoming increasingly influential at Downing Street. These groups had been taking more and more responsibility for formulating and promoting new Tory policy ideas. The Salisbury Review was part of this network.Eric Pickles, as a member of the Tory National Executive Committee, found himself isolated from government opinion as well as his local Tory activists and Tory voters.

It was time for Pickles to re-examine his own basic beliefs and consider his political future.

His close friend Peter Gilmour had chosen to sacrifice his own political future in order to do what he believed was right. If Pickles continued on the course he was following there was a good chance he would go the same way.

But Pickles was far too ambitious for that. He had spent too much time building his political career to see it crushed now. It was clear to him that the future lay in embracing the philosophy of the newly dominant radical right and Eric Pickles decided to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Pickles apologised to the government for his mistake. He promised to make amends by delivering Bradford into Conservative hands with a new radical face.Meanwhile the situation in Bradford was deteriorating fast. With Honeyford back at Drummond middle school the parents reintroduced their boycott and set up a picket line outside the school. The picket was shown almost daily on television an some ugly confrontations developed.

Bradford's Lord Mayor Mohammed Ajeeb - Britain's first Asian Mayor - broke his silence and called for Honeyford's suspension. Ajeeb's home was attacked as a result. 3 new anti-Honeyford parent governors were elected overwhelmingly on the day that Margaret Thatcher signalled her backing for the headmaster by inviting him to an education seminar at Downing Street.Drummond school governors appointed a new chairman - right wing Tory councillor Eric Sunderland - and the newly elected parent governors walked out in disgust.

Growing street violence was highlighted by local church leaders which prompted emergency secret talks at City Hall involving the Bishop of Bradford and West Yorkshire Chief Constable Colin Sampson.

Such was the concern that finally, in October 1985, the Labour and Liberal groups dropped their opposition to a payoff deal for Honeyford. It seemed that at last the matter was to be settled.

But it was at this point that the new Eric Pickles emerged. Shed of the last vestiges of his "wet" past and determined to sweep away the old practice of fudged "consensus" politics, Eric Pickles proclaimed "There will be no pay-off. Honeyford will stay."

Pickles' new stance stunned the opposition. At a stormy council meeting on October 29th Liberal John Wells said; "What they seem to be going for now is a nasty rightwing backlash vote. I urge you to change your position or you will be accused of fiddling while Bradford burns." ' This was no exaggerated claim. With Bradford moving towards large-scale civil unrest all bets seemed off. The Drummond Parents Support Group launched a wider campaign and it seemed a fight to the finish lay ahead.

But Pickles had dithered too long. Evidence from canvass returns coming to the Tory group indicated that their new backing for Honeyford had come too late. It was likely that Labour would gain control of the council at the next elections in May 1986.

Pickles later explained;

"Politically, I felt it would be good for the Tory party if Ray Honeyford was in place at the time of the coming local elections but feared a Labour victory, and if that happened, he would be out without compensation. I fought for the best settlement I could."

In fact Honeyford himself had told Pickles that he was ready to go. Honeyford was by now a celebrity in right wing circles and had a new career planned.

In December 1985 Honeyford agreed to retire with a golden handshake of £71,000 plus an index-linked pension of £6,500 per year. Not bad for 5 years "service".

With Honeyford gone almost everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Ray Honeyford was out but not down. He immediately sold his story to the Daily Mail who serialised it under the headline "The Hounding of Honeyford". With his new financial independence he threw himself into the inter-linked network of right wing organisations around the Conservative party; the Salisbury Review, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Freedom Association, the Committee for a Free Britain and the Campaign for Real Education.

He helped form a new organisation "Majority Rights" to campaign for the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality.

In May 1988 he was elected a Tory councillor for Bury. Meanwhile, at Eric Pickles' invitation he returned to Bradford to campaign for the Conservatives in the May 1986 elections. But by that time most people wanted to forget the pain of the Honeyford affair.

For Eric Pickles the affair had proved the catalyst for his political conversion. Government pleasure at his new stance was shown by the remarkable number of Tory ministers who came to Bradford in the run up to the elections.

But Pickles' conversion had come too late to save him from the immediate local right wing backlash. Someone had to take the blame for Honeyford's fall.

In April 1986 Pickles was voted off the Tory's National Executive Committee - a seat he had held for 12 years.

The following month the Tories in Bradford were swept from power by an unprecedented 16-seat landslide victory for Labour.