Monthly Archives: May 2013

More anti-fascist history; Hyde 1977

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The historian is me is intrigued by the decisions that confront the organisers of Saturday’s anti-BNP protests in Woolwich and Lewisham. As I see it, they face three areas of difficulty. 1. The BNP’s original route itself involves an assembly and an arrival point which are implausibly far apart (6 miles). I simply don’t believe that the BNP will actually try to march from one to the other, but will probably rely on what even they describe as mobility (cars, etc) to get from borough to borough. 2. Will the BNP keep to its original plans, or will it follow police instructions and reassemble in Whitehall? 3. How far to prioritise stopping the BNP (who have not marched in 30 years, have very few numbers, etc…) over the EDL (who have numbers, and momentum, and who are planning up to 60 events of one sort or another this weekend, including, crucially, events in central London)?

So far, what this weekend reminds me of best (and it was Sue Sparks who suggested the comparison) is events in Hyde in 1977 – when the NF were still on an upward curve:

[The following is not from my book on anti-fascism in the 1970s, but a separate piece I once published for North West Labour History on anti-fascism in the North West in the 1970s]:

“Activists learned in autumn 1977 that the National Front were planning a march through Hyde, a small industrial town a few miles from Manchester, on 8th October. Protests against the National Front march received the backing of the local left-cultural magazine the New Manchester Review. The September issue ran a long editorial criticising the police for using the Public Order Act against a small knot of republicans who had protested against the Queen during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. The editorial then raised the question of the pending National Front demonstration,

“The NF can claim to be merely exercising its right to make a political point. But even in the absence of any counter-demonstration by the Socialist Workers Party, the avowed policies of the NF which include the forcible repatriation of all Black immigrants, can hardly be calculated to stir sympathy among a significant and hitherto peaceful and industrious section of the community. Even Voltaire would have approved of the use of Section 5 here.”

The follow-up issue (which appeared two days before the planned march) went even further in supporting calls for the National Front march to be banned. “It is also worth recalling for the benefit of members of Tameside Council that Mr Webster is interested not so much in free speech as ‘Kicking our way into the headlines’. That can best be done on marches and rallies such as the NF had planned for Hyde. Victims and traders face being driven off the streets; opponents are determined. Can they really be blamed?”

Tameside Council had given permission for the National Front meeting in Hyde Town Hall. Colin Grantham, the Tory leader of the council, explained that the Front were only marching (in his words), “for free speech and against red terror”. When it came to a vote on Tameside Council the meeting split along party lines – Labour voting against the march, the Conservatives for. In the weeks following the announcement of Tory support the amount of racist graffiti and National Front stickers rose. The small number of Black and Asian people living in the area spoke openly of their worries. One resident, Abdul Jalil, told the New Manchester Review, “We’re frightened, and we’ve never felt that way before in Hyde.”

Geoff, who was to become a full-time worker for Manchester Anti-Nazi League, had recently returned from several years spent working abroad. He suggests that the events at Hyde need to be seen through the prism of the NF’s defeat at Lewisham on 13th August 1977. “Webster was trying to regroup the Front after Lewisham. That’s why they put so much effort into Hyde.” In London the negotiations that would lead to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League were already taking place. But they were not yet complete. Local activists determined to prevent the Front from marching, although there was not yet any one umbrella group to co-ordinate the movement. The local Communist Party specifically turned down the suggestion of joint work with Mick Murray, Secretary of the Greater Manchester Communist Party, stating that they were “are opposed to adventurist and isolationist tactics which only strengthen the forces of reaction.” According to Geoff, “Steve Jeffreys [of the SWP Central Committee] and I walked around Hyde for a day to plan the protest. What we saw was that it would be easy to block any march. The main road goes through a series of underpasses, we would have four opportunities to block the road. [Manchester Chief Constable] Anderton and his assistants must also have done the same, and thought it through like us. I’m sure that’s why they banned the march.”

In response to the protests the Greater Manchester Police announced that the National Front would not be allowed to march in Hyde. This ban was announced publicly, receiving the full support of local press. Even the Communist Party’s paper the Morning Star applauded James Anderton’s seeming about-turn. Mick Murray wrote that the ban “has lifted a storm cloud from over this small northern town.” But in reality the police had done deal with the NF to allow them to march – and receive full police protection – on a different route. Unlike the ban this deal was never publicised, and the agreed route remained, of course, a closely-guarded secret.

Local activists were less willing than the press to take the police announcement of a ban at face value. Different groups continued to build protests, including the Anti-Nazi League, the SWP, the North West Trades Union Congress, the North West Standing Committee Against Racism, Manchester City Labour Party, the Manchester Anti-Fascist Committee and the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism. Geoff remembers buying in flares and £20 of rotten tomatoes from the street market to throw at the NF. “The stallholders could tell what we were up to!” Activists soon realised that some sort of deal had been struck between the police and the National Front, even though the terms only became clear after the event. John was one of the young anti-fascists who attempted to prevent the National Front from marching. He remembers that no-one knew for certain the revised route of the demonstration. Anti-fascists therefore divided into three groups. The largest contingent of anti-fascists, marshalled by the SWP’s national organiser Jim Nichol, headed for Stockport. Press information seemed to suggest that if there was going to be an Front march, then it would begin there. Another smaller section of about 200 people remained in Hyde – in case the National Front attempted to march there. Another group, of about the same number, waited in Manchester town centre. They were to be kept in reserve – in case either of the other two contingents were caught out.

These three groups of anti-fascists were to have very different experiences. The first group of comrades in Stockport found themselves waiting for a march that never happened. Roger was then in his early twenties, and a student at Salford University. This is how he remembers the protest. “The SWP and other groups gathered at the Town Hall, but it was very much a cat and mouse affair, as the planned NF march was re-routed, and most of the afternoon was spent with groups of anti-NF demonstrators scouring Stockport being tracked overhead by police helicopters and on the ground by police squads. Eventually the NF march was discovered but [it was] very well protected by police lines and from where I was there was little which happened.”

The second group were no more successful. In Hyde town centre Martin Webster of the National Front conducted a one-man march, defended by over 2,500 officers (similar numbers were employed at each of the predicted flashpoints, with one newspaper estimating the total police presence at an extraordinary 9,000 officers). As he walked, nervous and sweating past the distant jeers of the protesters, it must have occurred to him that rarely in the history of public order have so few people owed so much to so many. Without the police to protect him, his “march” could not have begun. Ramula Patel of the Asian Youth Movement walked in front of him the whole way with a placard which said “This man is a Nazi”. Anti-fascists were able to heckle Webster and disrupt his parade, but could not prevent such a large contingent of police officers from demonstrating. Declan, a rail worker and member of Longsight SWP, was also involved in the clashes at Hyde. “I got within twenty yards of Webster at one point. He didn’t look much like a Führer to me.”

The third group of anti-fascists – the reserve – found themselves in the thick of the action. Seven hundred members of the NF assembled in Levenshulme. They were dressed up for the day, some in paramilitary fatigues. According to the journalist from New Manchester Review, “One or two NF marchers were warned by their escorts, but there were no arrests for incitement or for the paramilitary uniforms. Even a refrain or two from a Simon and Garfunkel song, perverted as ‘I’d rather be a nigger than a jew’ passed off without comment from the guardians of law and order.” By the time that the word came out that the fascists had assembled in Levenshulme – and were marching to central Manchester – it was too late for the Stockport contingent to prevent members of the Front from marching. Despite the disparity in numbers, the 150 or so anti-fascists in reserve attempted to block the Front. There were scuffles through Levenshulme and along Kirkmanshulme Lane towards Belle Vue. But “road diversions and well drilled marching columns of police four and five deep siphoned off the SWP column into an aimless tour of side roads.”

Owen was another student from Salford University. He had never been in a situation like this before, “There were some NF and that was the first time I had seen the steel pointed Union Jack DMs and shaved heads up close. I had shoulder-length hair and was busy growing my first beard (like you do) when this NF guy made eye contact with me and shouted ‘you’re the next Kevin Gateley, you’re gonna die you long-haired communist bastard’. Needless to say I found this quite disturbing and was somewhat nonplussed by the total indifference of the constabulary standing in between me and this guy.” One of Owen’s friends, Rob, was a Young Liberal form Manchester. “He managed to get in and talk to some of the NF as they were not all shaven haired thugs. He spoke to a couple of very confused older people who had been bussed in by the NF and did not know what they were getting involved in. They expressed concern over urban decay, family of theirs who had been mugged by blacks, unemployment etc.”

Having praised Chief Constable James Anderton’s decision to ban the original National Front demonstration, the local press was outraged when they learned of his complicated deceit. The Stockport Express reported the anger of the local Labour group, and their desire to find out what the police operation had cost. “Now that it is all over”, recorded the New Manchester Review, “the point has been well made that the events in Hyde and Levenshulme were organised not so much by the National Front, but by the police.” The Manchester Evening News was no more endeared to the police. Following a serious assault by the police on one of their reporters Peter Sharples, Dennis Ellam of the Daily Mail told the National Union of Journalists’ newsletter, “I have never, even during two years in Belfast, seen such displays of official aggression towards newspapermen.” Anderton ordered an internal inquiry. Bert Ellison of Tameside TUC sent round a circular letter listing fifteen complaints against the Manchester police, who had frisked anti-fascists, and detained people without arrest. Some officers had even illegally removed their identity-numbers so that they could not be subject to prosecution. Despite these and other protests, Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees declared his support for the police action.”

[published on FB, with discussion, here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151394647786269%5D

And here is Sue’s comment, which took me back to this episode;

“We faced similar issues (not the web pages of course) in the 70s, when the correct emphasis on mobilising to try to prevent the NF from marching began to get distorted into things like finding their addresses, going to their houses and trying to beat them up. Of course, they did things like that to us, but that was not the point. We also spent a lot of time on coaches up and down motorways, tramping round the streets of unfamiliar cities trying to find and stop them. I particularly remember a very long day travelling to The Hyde in Manchester and back to London, with many hours of walking in the rain in between with nary a sight of the bastards. That wasn’t a waste of time, we had to do it, but the truth was that we only got close to humiliating them when the community came out in support, as in Southall and Lewisham. The latter was really kids fighting police racism as much as the NF, but that meant the NF couldn’t rely on the usual degree of police protection.”

Rock Against the Tories

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Left-wing activists attempted to make sense of the new political period after April 1979. ‘People had really underestimated how right-wing Thatcher would be,’ recalls Steve Jeffreys, ‘how close her policies were to those of the Front.’ As early as the winter of 1978–9, Colin Sparks of the Socialist Workers Party had argued that the National Front would not be the source of reactionary developments for British capitalism.  If it was not going to be the NF, then there were other options on offer, including what he perceived could be a ‘statist’ right-wing Conservatism. One anti-racist paper, CARF, produced a poster ‘ConservaFront’, showing National Front and Tory politics merging together.  Martin Barker of Bristol Socialist Workers Party condemned ‘the new racism’. Unlike the National Front, the Tories condemned black culture, and not black blood. But they were racists all the same.  Following the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and then the Conservative victory at the 1979 election, Dave Widgery wrote, ‘We face a new Toryism, frankly elitist, not just making racialism respectable but Reaction itself fashionable.’  Paul Holborow’s memory is nuanced:

“I was very focused on the Anti-Nazi League, but also on Thatcher. That had as much impact on me as the decline of the National Front vote. I was completely committed to defeating the Nazis, of course. But I could also see things in a wider context. There was a growing dissatisfaction in the trade unions among the left of the Communist Party. I was always interested in the realignment of the left. The Communist Party dominated the first ten years of my political life, but by 1979 the CP was rent with divisions. The SWP were hoping to realign the left in Britain. But this didn’t happen; we were caught up by Thatcherism, the industrial downturn, and the rise of Bennism. Meanwhile people like Hain had a very clear sense of how the Labour left was going to benefit from the Anti-Nazi League. We had a different conception. Events as it happened worked to support his view.”

The problem was not just that the Tory Party had moved right. What worried more people were the signs that Thatcherism had widespread support. In spring 1980 Peter Hain, radicalized by his experiences in the Anti-Nazi League, agreed to chair ‘the debate of the decade’, a 2,000-strong debate held in Central Hall between the Labour Party and the revolutionary left. Hain’s introduction to the published form of the discussion began by contrasting the mood of the late 1960s, when such militant unions as the engineers’ AUEW had seemed capable of transforming society, and of the early 1980s, when the left of all descriptions lacked popular appeal. In his words,

“The trade union movement as a whole is in political disarray, unsure of its grass roots base, uncertain about its national direction; the left outside the Labour Party is weaker in terms of its political base; the student movement is passive and middle-of-the-road in its politics; and the Labour Party, whilst moving significantly leftwards, still has not shaken off a dominant right-wing leadership. Above all, socialism patently lacks the appeal and allegiance in the working class which it once had.”

Meanwhile, Stuart Hall told the Communist Party’s magazine Marxism Today that Thatcher represented ‘authoritarian populism’, ‘a weakening of democratic forms and initiatives, but not their suspension’. Hall sought to explain Thatcher’s success as a cultural project, using family values and Conservative morality to place its imprint on political, economic and ideological life.  If Thatcherism was primarily a form of cultural politics, then it followed that the Tories could best be resisted in the cultural sphere. Hall praised Rock Against Racism in particular as ‘one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis’. So was the alternative to Conservatism a revised Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League alliance, perhaps with the name ‘Rock Against the Tories’, or some other such title?

The idea was tried: by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, by Artists Against Apartheid, and by Billy Bragg and others in Red Wedge. With the perfect, twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, we can see now that Margaret Thatcher had history on her side. In terms of high politics, 1979 marked something like a counter-revolution. Free-marketers captured Parliament and held office for the next 18 years and more. The welfare state was attacked, and nationalized industries were privatized. The young activists whose energy had sustained the Anti-Nazi League did not realize just how aggressive the Tories would be. Defeat after defeat sapped the energy of all the protest movements.

John O’Farrell was then a young Labour activist in Exeter. His book, Things Can Only Get Better, captures the feeling that Labour had lost the support of the majority.  Labour suffered further catastrophic defeats in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 general elections. If even parliamentary Labour could be smeared as ‘loony’, the prospects for revolutionaries were still worse. People entered the 1980s full of hope, but watched valuable campaigners go down to defeat, including the coal miners, the hospital workers and those who fought against Section 28. Rock Against the Tories sounds easy to organize, but what happens when every campaign has its own ‘Rock Against’ and still loses?

The dilemmas of the left are expressed in the title of Dave Widgery’s history of Rock Against Racism, Beating Time. Written in the dark night of Thatcherism, one purpose of his book was to defend his political moment against the limits of the gloomier present. He was writing in the spirit of rock against the downturn, as the generation that became adults in May 1968 came to face the tougher 1980s. Yet if all this sounds depressing, we should also remember some of the contradiction of the 1980s. The right won in the sphere of politics and economics, but the left (buoyed up in part by its success with the Anti-Nazi League) prospered in the cultural sphere. While the state became more racist, popular racism actually declined. The first losers were the far right – in the 1979 election. The Anti-Nazi League saw a brief upturn in activity, as the NF crumbled and its mantle was taken up by the more violent British Movement and John Tyndall’s New National Front, which split from the National Front in early 1980  and was eventually renamed the British National Party. In retrospect, the radicalization of these fascist parties was actually a sign of their isolation. They moved towards violence precisely because their popular audience had been lost. More than just a campaign After the election, both left and right attempted to evaluate the new situation. ‘For the rest of 1979’, recalls Pete Alexander,

“there was actually very little Nazi activity to be ‘anti’, though also the big focus for them – and us – of the general election had come and gone. The ANL centre still functioned for a while, mainly I suppose because of the Blair Peach campaign. Sometime in 1979, Paul Holborow, Jerry Fitzpatrick, Mike and Joan, the four ANL full-timers, all moved on. I think we thought of it as a campaign that had come to an end, rather than as something in hibernation.”

Jerry Fitzpatrick recalls the period around the election in similar terms:

“The Anti-Nazi League had won. We’d made a major impact. We’d mobilized way beyond anything the left had done in years. The National Front was neutered, demoralized, in retreat. You’ve also got to understand that the key organizers were in a state of physical exhaustion, it had been the most intense period of our lives, and we were tired. Also with Thatcher coming in, she was a more sophisticated and determined threat. The issues were different now. The plates had moved.”

The period after April 1979 saw new challenges for the generation who had established the Anti-Nazi League. The decline of fascism also made it harder to organize the mass confrontations on which the ANL’s early vigour had been built. Ronnie remembers the movement slowing down. ‘I moved to Runcorn at the end of 1979 and the Anti-Nazi League was winding down then. We had one disco in Netherley which got around 30 people where the previous one that summer had sold 400 tickets. I know this because I wrote them out by hand on pre-cut cardboard.’ The anti-racist movement was larger, but also less active. The ANL was compelled to evolve. Some of the people who had been attracted to anti-fascism began to question whether a different anti-racist strategy would bring more reward. They were not hostile to the Anti-Nazi League; these activists just wanted to broaden out the anti-fascist campaign. In Manchester, Greg ‘came to the conclusion that those who saw the fight against fascism as the conclusion were mistaken. I tried to read about the rise of Hitler . . . My conclusion was that we weren’t in a parallel situation.’ What distinguished 1970s Britain from Weimar Germany?

“The organization of the National Front was not as far advanced as the NSDAP of 1930. The situation of British business (although shaky) was far more secure than the situation of pre-Hitler German industry. The British ruling class had plenty of more obvious strategies still open to it. They could work through the complicity of the trade union leaderships with the Labour government, or there was Thatcher for them to call on. You could have a strong state without fascism.”

Greg argued with the Longsight CARF group that they key priority was to fight institutional racism. The group reoriented away from anti-fascism towards anti-deportation campaigns. This is not to argue that the National Front had entirely gone away. On 29 June 1979, supporters of the NF attacked black and white dancers at a rave at Acklam Hall, Ladbroke Grove, in west London. The young black street-poet Benjamin Zephaniah dedicated his poem, ‘Call it What Yu Like’, to the young, mainly white members of the Anti-Nazi League who fought off the National Front that day,

“Outside is a shout / De Punks are about A shout / Nazis out, Nazis out. O Punk, O Punk, de fight nu long Yu battle well / Everybody start scatter Me an me people jus / Exit. De place was as mad as de world / Not good We hav fe leave dat scene / Not one police number came. O Punk, O Punk, de fight nu long / Yu battle well.”

One line from the poem recalls the argument of the last chapter. The fascists attacked and ‘Not one police number came’.

December 1979 saw the arrest of anti-fascists at Chapel Market. According to Anna, ‘The chief superintendent wanted to put an end to all our protests.’ Anti-fascists responded by setting up a Chapel Market 11 defence campaign. Not all officers were as opposed to the anti-fascists. Anna recalls one man, Inspector Barker, watching her sell papers. A small group of fascists set upon them, kicking with steel-capped boots. ‘Suddenly Barker leapt out of his car, and chased this fascist down Upper Street. I remember him saying to his colleagues, “We’ve got a chap in there and he’s just attacked that lovely lady from the Anti-Nazi League.”’ Barker was soon moved on. The second time that there were arrests, the police tried to detain just Anna. ‘You could tell they were the Special Patrol Group, they didn’t have numbers, just initials on their epaulettes. “You’ll have to move,” one said, “you’re obstructing the highway. Move on, or I’ll arrest you.” They weren’t interested in anyone else.’ The scene quickly degenerated from high drama to domestic farce. Anna’s daughter and her friend tried to grab hold of her mother’s arm, and stop her being arrested. Meanwhile, the contents of Anna’s bag were strewn all over the ground. ‘I was shouting at him, “Unmesh, whatever you do, pick up my make-up!”’ An anti-National Front protest was also held in Lewisham in April 1980. Christine from Lewisham, by now a member of ALCARAF, wrote up the protest for West Lewisham Labour Party.

“Notice was taken that the Anti-Nazi League was assembling at Lewisham Town Hall at 1 p.m. and it was decided to maximise support by calling ALCARAF supporters to rally in the same area . . . Permission to use the car park having been refused, the rally was held outside Eros house. Anti-Nazi League demonstrators joined the rally and there were speakers form Lewisham Council and the Trades Council. Hundreds of local men and women, black and white, turned out to demonstrate against the National Front.”

An article from the Communist Party newspaper, the Morning Star, was gently critical of the way the Anti-Nazi League had developed. Dave Cook complained that ‘Despite the significance of its past role, the ANL has tended to become submerged in [the Campaign Against Racist Laws] and the Blair Peach Committee. It [has] only come to life in response to a fascist mobilisation.’ What was the alternative? Cook sought ‘a perspective to redevelop the ANL, enabling it to play a more general propaganda role, with carnivals and propaganda aimed at particular sections, in addition to its important role as a mobiliser.’

Dave Cook was not the only activist thinking along these lines. Sometime in early summer 1980, the Socialist Workers’ Party’s Pete Alexander wrote a letter to his party’s central committee criticizing the handling of an anti-racist demonstration in Newham. He argued that some form of anti-fascist organization was still required. Alexander was invited to work full time as an organizer for the Anti-Nazi League. Soon afterwards, the League was relaunched on a new basis. The focus of opposition was no longer the mass support behind the National Front, but now the more violent ultra-Nazis of the British Movement. This required some change of emphasis.  When the NF or the BM attempted to march, there was still a need for mass opposition, and local demonstrations could be built quickly thanks to the large passive support that the ANL enjoyed. However, more of the emphasis had to be placed on smaller numbers of anti-fascists, keeping a permanent watch on the also small numbers of fascists. The hope was now to prevent racist attacks, and this required a new style of organization. ‘The British Movement did not have the soft, respectable support,’ recalls Pete Alexander, which the National Front had cultivated.

“We were dealing with people who openly acknowledged and were proud of the fact that they were Nazis. It was clear that many of the youth – and actually some of them were just young teenagers – who supported the BM did so on an anti-establishment basis. In this situation we still needed to mobilize against BM marches – it would have been a mistake to give them the space to grow – but we also needed some anti-establishment movement on the left that could appeal to these youth. One thing we did was hold a conference in London, I think it was called Youth against the Nazis,  where we tried to provide space to various left organizations.”

Socialist Worker’s later editor Chris Bambery records some of the activities that the Anti-Nazi League organized in this period:

“In April 1980 it mobilised against the Nazis on the terraces of West Ham football club. It mobilised two thousand in July against the Nazis in Oxford, and organised a campaign in Harrogate to remove an NF leader, Andrew Brons, from his lecturing post. In August the ANL distributed fifty thousand leaflets in one day after a racist murder in Coventry and finally that same month organised the forty-thousand strong Northern Carnival Against Racism in Leeds. [It was] the ‘youngest and most working class’ [of all the carnivals] according to Socialist Worker.”

Not all these events were organized by the Anti-Nazi League office. In Oxford, for example, other networks, including the International Marxist Group and the Workers’ Socialist League also played a part. Gerry Gable of Searchlight describes some of those who took part. ‘Students at Ruskin in those days included dockers, miners and steel workers as well as white-collar trades. The Trades Council was full of workers from Cowley . . . they could take on anything and win. The cops did not want the BM in town and gave the anti-fascists a free run at them. They never came back.’ In addition to the demonstrations listed above, the Anti-Nazi League was also active in Brighton and Hove. There were three National Front rallies there at the Level, a piece of ground in the town centre where the left and trade unions had traditionally met, as Tony describes:

“At the first demo, large numbers of people met at the Level while the fascists mobilized and marched from Hove towards Brighton. Those of us who went up to confront them were outnumbered and there were large numbers of arrests, including myself, as groups of us took them on. On the second march we occupied their meeting place (Norfolk Square) and fooled both the police and the fascists who had an initial pre-meeting on the beach. We gradually drained people from Norfolk Square down to the beach where we confronted them . . . By the time of their third demonstration they had lost all credibility among their own followers and they could only hold a meeting at the Level because the police surrounded it in a ring. When the police lost their bottle, the fascists quickly disbanded.”

The strategy behind the relaunch of the Anti-Nazi League was to maintain the large protests (when required), but in the meantime to reduce the permanent organization, which indeed had already been winding down. Key activists were encouraged to turn their organizing energies against Thatcherism instead – as, indeed, many already had. ‘After Southall in 1979 and 1980’, Jerry Fitzpatrick recalls, ‘I was organizing with John Dennis and John Ellis a RAR tour to Belfast and Derry in support of the H Block prisoners who subsequently went on hunger strike for political status. There were priorities for me other than ANL.’ Again, in summer 1981, the Anti-Nazi League’s Peter Hain was nominated as Labour candidate for Putney.  Others from the ANL generation threw themselves headfirst into the campaigns for the steelworkers and then the miners. One Anti-Nazi League leaflet from this period suggested that the movement should have three immediate goals: first, to bring out anti-racist propaganda; secondly, to expose the links between British and continental fascists; and thirdly, to combat the active ultra-racists of the British Movement, who were winning new recruits among young people.

In 1980 and 1981, the ANL continued. The idea was to balance the different needs of the movement. It was a tough hand to play. In August 1980, the Anti-Nazi League called a demonstration after the National Front attempted to march through Birmingham. The police forced the NF through Nuneaton instead, where they were whistled and jeered. An international event was organized at the Friends’ Meeting House in central London, with speakers including an Italian mayor and a former inmate of a German concentration camp. Another national conference was held in March 1981. Members of the League joined anti-racist marches in Paris. There was a young people’s conference, designed to win young working-class kids away from the British Movement, which had some success, mainly in Sheffield. There the ANL organized regular discos in the Bow Centre, a drop-in centre for young unemployed workers. The music played was uncompromising skinhead music, ska and reggae; bands like the Specials and the Beat. Badges were launched, ‘Skins hate the NF’, and in Luton, Manchester and Cardiff, ANL groups also tried to base themselves on unemployed school leavers. The Anti-Nazi League’s Peter Hain gave an interview to the New Musical Express on the reasons for the League’s relaunch:

“Our success was so great from 1977 to 1979 that it allowed people to feel that the problem had been solved. But none of us had any illusions in the leadership that the problem could be solved on anything but an emergency, short-term basis, and that it would come back in a different form.”

The League continued to exist, but the movement had changed. It no longer felt like a huge, vibrant, national network. Instead the movement was experienced as a series of local ‘fire-fighting’ operations, one-off initiatives responding to specific fascist threats. The Anti-Nazi League responded to a series of racist murders in Coventry by handing out over 50,000 leaflets in the town, over just one weekend in July 1981. The ANL worked with local groups including the West Indian Youth Council, the Indian Workers’ Association and local unions. After this massive show of anti-racist feeling, the killings stopped. A carnival in Leeds was organized with Rock Against Racism. Misty in Roots played and the Specials, Aswad and the Au Pairs.  Just 42 people joined a National Front counter-protest.  Pete Alexander was the chief steward:

“The march was really wonderful, much bigger than the police or I expected. The Nazis were totally outnumbered. It was a long march and as it wound its way through working-class areas it got bigger and bigger. The cops tried to have us moving down one side of the road, but I was able to insist on us taking up the whole road, making it much more powerful. To begin with, when we went past shops, kids would peel off and steal things, so I stopped the march and held a short meeting with the main local stewards to discuss the problem. We agreed that this was our march and we weren’t having it spoiled by crime, so after that we sent our stewards, local youth, out to every shop we passed, and there were quite a few of them, and we stopped the pilfering. When I organized this I think I had had Orwell and Barcelona somewhere in my mind. At another point, one of the top cops tried giving an instruction to one of the stewards, so I stopped the march again. This time I explained to the Chief Super, their top guy, that any instructions had to go through me. He could see that, unless he agreed, the march wasn’t going anywhere, so he gave in. In the end, this chief cop told me that ours was the biggest march in the history of Leeds, and even thanked us for being so well organised.”

The carnival was ‘fantastic’. ‘The Specials were the main band, and really superb. My last memory of the day was having to jump on the back of a mini-bus containing the band, trying to fend off their many young fans. Later people wanted to touch the hand that had touched the hand of, I suppose, Jerry Dammers.’

In autumn 1981, Temporary Hoarding published what was to be its final issue. The reports from local groups insisted that the movement continued, but there were signs in them that the energy was dissipating, or being used elsewhere. Sheffield Rock Against Racism confessed to having ‘packed up around the beginning of 1980, partly through exhaustion, partly through the temporary trailing off of activities after Thatcher got in. But also because we were fed up of grovelling to musicians in bands who were only interested in RAR as a way of getting gigs.’

Recently, RAR had provided the music float for a Sheffield Skinheads march against police harassment. ‘With six to seven hundred kids on the march there were a number of Nazis who would dearly have loved to move in. But with black and white and male and female all marching, and reggae and ska booming over their heads, they had to keep their traps shut.’ In Brighton, RAR had joined together with No Nukes Music to set up a group, Revolutions per Minute, raising money for Rock Against Racism, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Gay Switchboard and the New Cross Defence Fund. Bradford RAR was now one of the older groups, boasting of continuous existence since early 1979.

‘Fortunately we have always managed to get a lot of support from the student unions at the university . . . At the moment we’re supporting CND’s No Nukes Music Tour with the Thompson Twins and a benefit for CND’s Easter Trans Pennine March with Crass and Poison Girls.’

The Leeds carnival was Rock Against Racism’s farewell party, as Red Saunders recalls. ‘There were splits on the committee. There were arguments about money, bidding for grants.’ Part of the problem was RAR’s very success. ‘When we had first started, our first editorial said we wanted crisis music, rebel music. Well, try listening to the Specials’ “Ghost Town”. There hadn’t been music like that, when we started. Black and white musicians simply didn’t play together.’

The nature of music had changed. The threat of fascism had also receded. ‘We were a broad group of people, with a single aim – to stop fascism. When the NF collapsed, we lost the focus of what we were about. RAR was about fighting the NF, and also raising the issue of racism. When we started, there had been no such thing as Two Tone.’

Black anger against police racism, which had risen steadily through the 1970s, finally exploded later in 1981 with the inner-city uprisings, in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. Not that these were only race riots: large numbers of white youth also took part. Socialists, trade unionists and even lesbians and gays gave their solidarity to the rioters.  The police were once again on the other side of the barricades. The fighting appealed to exactly the same layer of angry white youngsters that the British Movement was courting. ‘In a very practical way,’ suggests Pete Alexander, ‘the riots showed that if you want to be seriously anti-establishment, you have to be prepared to link up with black kids against the cops, and hence also break with the British Movement.’

The riots in Liverpool broke out on the very same weekend as the Leeds Rock Against Racism carnival, and the mass Anti-Nazi League leafleting in Coventry. The same weekend also saw fighting in Southall, as a group calling itself the ‘White Nationalist Crusade’ attempted to hold a meeting at the Hamborough Tavern. By the end of the evening, the racists had been forced out of Southall, and the pub set ablaze.  The press tried hard to link these events, but for most who took part, the striking fact was the absence of rioting in Leeds, when there was fighting in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. It is almost as if the carnival released the tension that might otherwise have been expressed. Steve from the Manchester Campaign Against Racism and Fascism found himself caught up by accident in the middle of the Liverpool protests. He had been invited by the Isaac Wooton Centre to address a meeting there on the politics of immigration controls. To his consternation, the meeting hall was right in the middle of the protests, and he found himself speaking even as the rioting began. Yet this mixed crowd of black and white leftists seemed keener to wait and hear Steve speak to the end of his talk, than to get involved in the real struggle going on outside the hall.

“At some point in the meeting, there was a large noise outside and various lights. As it continued, there was more and more noise. Something very major was clearly happening outside. I assumed that the meeting was over and we would all go outside. So I started to get up and leave. Someone asked, ‘Where are you going?’ Before we could join the protests, there had to be a formal vote. Some people actually voted to stay in, most to go outside. I ended up in Toxteth all night – there was no way I could get home.”

Steve also recalls the participation of local whites in the fighting. ‘I remember middle-aged ladies handing out wet towels for their kids to deal with the smoke. This was a community that hated cops.’ The 1981 riots were rainbow protests, involving both black and white. They carried the legacy of the Anti-Nazi League, expressed in the slogan of the carnivals, ‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’.

Squaddism

‘By late 1981’, Pete Alexander insists, ‘it had become pretty clear that the BM threat had passed.’ Among key activists there was a strategic consensus that the Anti-Nazi League should be wound down.

“The riots were important, but so too was the fact that everywhere they demonstrated we mobilized in greater numbers. Sometimes you could see kids hovering around deciding whether to join them or us, with the decision having nothing to do with politics and everything to do with who was going to win. Another factor was that a lot of the BM were really lumpen, and I think quite a few were arrested. The reality is that we could respond to BM activities through local or regional mobilizations. The national structure was a conference, occasional meetings of the steering committee, a membership, mailings to the members and secretaries of local ANL branches (this included a free copy of Searchlight), the occasional pamphlet, myself and one other person in the office, and mobilizations that I would push from the centre. I just gradually let things slide. There was no big announcement about the office closing, or the staff declining to just me, or us no longer sending out mailings, and so on. In fact, nominally, the ANL continued to exist and nominally I continued to be its organizer. Letting things run down like this meant the BM couldn’t take advantage, and, indeed, if they or some other Nazi group did revive, so could we. It also made it more difficult for those individuals for whom anti-fascist activity had become a way of life, a reason for existence in some cases, to develop an effective campaign against us.”

In 1978 and 1979, the Anti-Nazi League had been a mass movement, with widespread support. By 1980, it had become something different, a sort of residual brand around which different people grouped locally, in response to events on the ground. As the membership of the ANL fell, so the character of local activists changed. Whereas, once, they might have been Labour or Liberal voters, young and new to politics, by 1980 or early 1981 these new faces had drifted off, and the gap was most often filled – at a local level – by members of the Socialist Workers’ Party.

Debates about the how to organize anti-racist work expressed themselves within the Socialist Workers’ Party. There was a brief, sharp, internal argument. At the end of it, about 12 people were expelled from the party and similar numbers left with them. The numbers involved were small, but expulsions are a relatively rare event in any left-wing party, and so were widely discussed elsewhere. The issue at stake was the question of how anti-fascist tactics should evolve.

With fascism in retreat, there was some confusion within the anti-racist campaign. A minority of activists seem to have become ‘permanent’ anti-fascist activists. In Hackney, Manchester, Brighton, Oxford and elsewhere, there were arguments within the anti-Nazi camp as to what tactics were required to protect people from fascist attacks. The problem was complex. Although the number of active fascists had fallen sharply, the remaining minority were resorting to violence and in certain places were more of a nuisance than ever. The previous National Front goal of building a mass party had been shelved. Local fascists could make up for their political isolation by attacking black people or the left. Even negative publicity ensured that they remained in the press.

Through 1981, the fights continued between fascists and anti-fascists around Chapel Market in Islington.  In February of that year, Peter Hain’s house was firebombed. Week after week, the names and addresses of prominent supporters of the Anti-Nazi League were published in NF papers. It was a clear incitement to violence.

In December 1981, eight anti-fascists from Manchester were jailed for between six and fifteen months, for possession of offensive weapons.  By their account, they had gone out to defend left-wing students from a fascist attack. But they took the students’ union van without permission. Their actual activities amounted to kidnap, and when they were caught, the sheer stupidity of their plans must have been obvious even to them. Their supporters within the local SWP district argued that socialists should establish defence units to protect anti-racists from National Front or British Movement thugs.

According to Martin, an Anti-Nazi League (but not SWP) activist from Manchester, the so-called ‘squaddists’ even found some support among groups that had not been involved in earlier campaigns.

What was the League’s leadership supposed to do? In the 1970s, the League had grown through mass activity. Its strength was its popular support. The permanent anti-fascist campaigners would not be satisfied as long as one fascist remained alive. The tactics they envisaged were violent and elitist, and threatened to diminish the mass support for anti-fascism that the movement had so far enjoyed.

In the early 1980s, Alan worked as a full-time organizer for the Socialist Workers Party in Manchester and then Liverpool. On one occasion, he was sent as part of a group to attack a National Front organizers’ meeting in Blackburn. This was not a positive experience for him. ‘There was no discussion. It was not a mass activity. We were a group of about 12 men, beating people up. I didn’t like the feel of it. It felt sad and squalid.’

Alan believes that the origin of the squad tactic can be traced back to the early 1970s, to the period before the Anti-Nazi League was formed. He argues that, alongside the tactic of mass action, there was also a different tradition within the movement. The physical confrontation of the late 1970s was a collective action. It was very different from the targeted violence of the squaddists: ‘The people who come on anti-racism demonstrations are working, they’ve got families. We can’t train people for violence in the way fascists can. Their thugs will always be better than our thugs. By contrast, open organization will always work better.’ Alan argues now that the squad culture that took root after 1979 thrived in an atmosphere of drink and sexism, and was incompatible with the socialist and anti-racist goals of the League. ‘Horrible things were said by comrades, which I was ashamed of.’

Mark Steel describes going home on the coach after one demo, to find the organizers being condemned for failing to lead the masses into a final physical confrontation with the Front.

“All this was to miss the point of the ANL. The exuberant school kids who distributed the badges, the tenants who formed groups to wash off the graffiti . . . were the real army that defeated fascism in 1979. It should be celebrated that most people who attended the counter-demonstrations weren’t hardened brawlers and were probably secretly frightened. For it proves that thugs can be beaten by ideas.”

Danny from ALARAFCC is another who thinks that a generation of anti-fascists were fighting on the wrong ground: ‘These people were of a particular kind – the emphasis was on action not propaganda. But you had to fight on both fronts.’ In north London, Anna felt like a mother to the young lads who wanted to carry on fighting fascism. She couldn’t understand the complaints against them from within the movement. ‘If you are involved in a movement that engages in conflict with violent opposition, then unfortunately as well as all the good comrades, you will attract people with the excitement of the conflict. For me, it was an ideological battle, but it became a physical conflict for survival.’

Gerry Gable insists that even the squad tactic needs to be placed in context. ‘The violence of these anti-fascists was for the most part a punch in the nose or a kick in the balls, whereas the Nazis were into killing or attempted murders.’ In Islington, he observes, National Front supporters attacked a left-wing bookshop. ‘The manager had two compressed fractures to her skull.’ In Birmingham, a man influenced by NF propaganda decided to attack a left-wing bookshop. He stole a car and drove into the shop. In the boot was a woman he had kidnapped earlier. ‘The police could not determine if she was dead before the fire or not.’

Another activist, Ronnie from Liverpool, was a member of this unevenly politicized milieu. For his part, he is willing to accept the claim that the priorities of the movement had become distorted.

“The Socialist Workers Party was the first taste of revolutionary politics most of us had experienced and when I joined I was not the finished article. I met people who had lived all their lives in the north end who admitted they had been racist in the past because no black people lived by them, so they grew up not knowing any. As far as being homophobic is concerned, well I was. I had a gay uncle and I used to go for a pint with him and his mates, but I was embarrassed about him until I joined the SWP and saw that, even though I couldn’t get my head around it, he and his friends were as good as anyone else and better than most.”

John from Manchester recalls that some time around 1979 a squad of people had emerged – not deliberately, but simply because they were the comrades who took the greatest interest in anti-fascist defence. Through 1979–80, these comrades played a useful role, protecting paper sales and other events from fascist attack. Over time and without anyone intending it, though, the squaddists separated themselves from the rest of the party. ‘The SWP in South Manchester had lost the plot. I remember one district committee meeting – I turned up and we had the meeting with just two of us, instead of twelve.’ Why were the numbers down? ‘Because the meeting wasn’t about fighting the Nazis.’

‘In its essence’, argues Pete Alexander, ‘squaddism was about squads of anti-fascists – almost always young men – covertly attacking fascists. The main centre of this was in Manchester – from where most of the expellees came – but there was some support in Hatfield and elsewhere.’ Why, then, did the tactic emerge? Pete Alexander puts this episode in context:

“The SWP’s success in fighting fascism was based on recognizing the importance of two interrelated components: mass mobilization and physical force. The French in general and the Labour and Communist parties in Britain only did the first, whilst the squaddists just did the second. The lesson that some liberals took from the ANL was that it succeeded because of rock concerts and razzmatazz. Actually, had there not also been Lewisham and many smaller battles, the Anti-Nazi League would not have worked. The problem with the squaddists is that they drew the opposite lesson, not appreciating that fascism is a political as well as a physical force.”

Some showdown was inevitable. In many people’s minds, the Socialist Workers Party had become the ‘beating-up-fascists party’. It continued to have this image, two years after British fascism had gone into sharp decline. The episode needed to be brought to an end. The Anti-Nazi League had moved people in ways that no political movement had in Britain since CND. The people who identified with it, did so with a vengeance. They believed in the League. They wanted the moment of 1977 or 1978 to continue for ever. The squaddists would have continued to argue for militant anti-fascism, even if fascism had been in terminal decline.

NF = No Future

Meanwhile, most anti-racists and anti-fascists were thinking in the opposite direction to the squaddists. Rather than seeking a revived anti-fascism, by 1981 or 1982 most of the activists thought that there was less need for an anti-fascist movement than there had been in 1976 or 1977. Activists from Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League took up different radical causes, including the Right to Work marches, the Campaign Against Racist Laws, anti-deportation campaigns and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Steelworkers went on strike, and then there were other battles including print workers and eventually the miners. There was the rise of Tony Benn, which excited many people, and later there was also Livingstone in London and the Militant Tendency in Liverpool. The League’s office was never formally closed, although in practice the movement was run down between summer 1981 and the end of the year. The ANL badges were packed away or traded, and the movement entered into people’s memory. Many of the best-known RAR bands moved into the more glamorous and rewarding world of chart music. Meanwhile, the more politically active bands tended to remain at the margins. The Conservatives’ election victory in 1983 also had its effect, further demoralizing many activists who could see that the moment of the ANL had now passed.

From her vantage point of Chapel Market, Anna could see that the battle had now been won. ‘Even the fascists were being exhausted, and turning public opinion against them . . . Committed passionate resistance wore them down. They couldn’t best that.’

With the National Front dying on its feet and the British Movement also in retreat, there was less need for the Anti-Nazi League.

Some time in late 1981,  the League went dormant. According to Pete Alexander, ‘Very few people wanted to keep the ANL going. Our activity was commensurate with the level of events. We kept up local activities as necessary, and there was no date when the ANL office was officially closed.’ ‘It’s actually much more difficult’, Alexander continues, ‘to carry this kind of operation than to mobilize for demonstrations etc., which becomes like second nature.’ The Anti-Nazi League in its second incarnation may have been less well known than the first, but its work was still valuable. The campaign took seriously the need for a continued organization. The organizers took seriously the need to develop their tactics in opposition to a changing opponent. The National Front was in tatters, but other parties were still there. Indeed, had the ANL not been revived, it is perfectly possible that groups such as the British Movement might have grown.

In December 1982, Peter Hain brought Martin Webster of the National Front to court, alleging libel. ‘It’s a difficult thing to bring a case like that, as a politician.’ Hain was protesting against an NF pamphlet that accused him of advocating violence, when his entire activist career had revolved around the advocacy of non-violent direct action. ‘A family friend had been executed in South Africa. Webster was libelling me, as if I had been involved, as if when I was a young schoolboy I had planted bombs. I also wanted to tie him up in time, effort and expense.’ After a two-day hearing, Martin Webster was found to have committed libel, and Hain was awarded damages plus £20,000 costs. Sheffield historian Richard Thurlow has surveyed the membership of the National Front through these years: ‘At the time of the 1979 general election membership was around 10,000. With the poor performance in the 1979 general election and the split between Tyndall and Webster, the numbers collapsed . . . After the removal of Webster, membership slumped to reach 3,148 on 1 October 1984 and fell precipitously to just under 1,000 in January 1985. An organization that shed nine-tenths of its membership in a little over five years was evidently far less of a threat than it had been.

As the National Front’s membership continued to decline, so did its vote. Other right-wing parties began to supplant it, yet their growth remained more potential than real. For ten years and more, the NF’s enemies – the people of the left, and black Britain – were able to live with that fear removed. The activists of the anti-fascist movement could look back with pleasure on a job well done.

Southall

Standard

The first peak of the anti-fascist campaign came with the events at Lewisham in August 1977, which led to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League and from there to the two Rock Against Racism carnivals. The events at Southall were different. Sustained fighting between anti-fascist demonstrators and the police ended this time with the defeat of the anti-fascists and the killing of one demonstrator, Blair Peach. Peach’s murder resulted in a series of further events: an inquest, a verdict of unlawful killing and the eventual disbanding of the Met’s Special Patrol Group. Within days of Southall, Margaret Thatcher had also been elected prime minister. The Front suffered a humiliating setback. But so did Labour. Both the left and the far right suffered.

The fighting at Southall needs to be set against a background of clashes between the National Front and the left or young Asians. There were places of conflict in west, north, east and south-east London. Anna recalls weekly fighting at Chapel Market in Islington. ‘It got very bad in the winter of 1978 and 1979. You’d see seven or eight Union Jacks on a great spike flag, a hundred fascists at a time.’ So how did anti-fascists respond? ‘We produced leaflets every week, on a Gestetner machine. We were getting support from the local unions. We leafleted every estate. We knocked on every door. The clashes at the market were just at the end of that work.’

Demonstrations now routinely ended in fighting. Early in 1978, the NF attempted to stage its first Young National Front Rally in the centre of Birmingham. Five thousand people protested against them, clashing with police wielding batons and riot shields.  In Leicester, on 21 April 1979, an estimated 2,000 anti-fascists mobilized to oppose less than 1,000 NF supporters. The police re-routed the shaken NF march out of Leicester, and then attacked the remaining anti-fascists. The news showed police dogs chasing anti-fascists on to the Leicester University campus. Eighty-two people were arrested, including Balwinder Rana from Southall in west London, who was stopped by four plain-clothes officers and bundled into an unmarked car while on his way home. For Mike from Preston, Leicester was a victory ‘even more clearly than Lewisham’. David from Leeds was less upbeat: ‘The police were completely out of control and I remember discussing that someone was going to be killed soon.’

Whose police?

Many anti-fascists also remembered the role of the police at Wood Green or at Lewisham, when anti-racists had hoped to block marches called by the National Front, but had instead come face to face with the Metropolitan Police, and had been on the receiving end of considerable violence. After Lewisham, National Front News publicly thanked the police for their successful ‘organization’ of the day’s events, which had allowed the march to continue for as long as it did.  The following month, Arthur Bailey, secretary of the Lancashire Police Federation, gave a public speech criticizing the Trades Union Congress for its public endorsement of anti-fascism, suggesting that the trade union campaign against the far right marked ‘the beginning of the end of free speech’.

According to David R from Leeds, ‘the police response [to anti-racism] was at best sneering and abusive, and at worst brutal’. For Kim Gordon of the black socialist group Flame, the crucial issue was stop and search – ‘police harassment’ that rose with the soaring black unemployment of these years. The black paper Samaj suggested that young blacks were victims of a police desire for reprisal, following the riots at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. ‘Because there is nothing that the police can find against them, they are being charged for “Sus” (“being suspected persons loitering with intent to steal”) or for “conspiracy with persons unknown to rob persons unknown”.’

In Preston, according to local Anti-Nazi League activists, the National Front openly boasted of having a ‘sympathetic friend’ within the force. Such claims might be dismissed as bluster, were it not for the signs of co-operation between the state and the far right.

In Manchester a defence campaign was created to support Nazir and Munir Ahmed. On 2 July 1978, strangers attacked the Ahmeds’ shop in Longsight. There was racist graffiti up all over the area, and the Ahmeds assumed that the attackers were linked to the National Front. But when the brothers attempted to call the police, they learned that their assailants were in fact plain-clothes officers. Nazir and Munir Ahmed were eventually charged on several counts, including assault on a policeman, wounding with intent and carrying offensive weapons. They could count themselves doubly unfortunate. For most victims of racist attacks, the police merely contributed to the problem; they were not the problem itself.

Steve, the defence lawyer for Nazir and Munir Ahmed, suggests that the Longsight police were operating lynch law. ‘The police were just out of control. That was beyond anything that would have been sanctioned by the top cops.’ After Lewisham, the use of truncheons and riot shields became standard. More resources were given to the Special Patrol Group, more use made of the Public Order Act.

Police from as far away as Birmingham marshalled Martin Webster’s one-man march through Hyde. A young doctor, Annie, recalls watching the pictures of this march on television in Brazil, where she was on holiday. Walking at the head of several hundred police, NF leader Webster’s demonstration looked as much to her like a police as much as a fascist exercise. ‘A Labour government was prepared to use whatever it took to ensure that a fascist could march.’

Manchester chief constable James Anderton was a passionate authoritarian, who believed that God sanctioned his interventions. Anderton attempted to ban gynaecologists from the city (or at least those who allowed abortions), and enforced the harassment of gay men. His officers introduced a ‘preference’ system for journalists, and also prosecuted more obscenity cases than every other force in the country combined. Activists were not pleased to learn in March 1978 that Manchester police had received a special delivery of Armalite rifles and Sterling sub-machine guns. They were later tested in exercises in Collyhurst, a working-class district. The Manchester police were said to possess more powerful guns in greater numbers than even the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast.

Throughout the late 1970s, many anti-racists continued to believe that the police were neutral or even on their side. Bev from Nottingham ‘didn’t get involved in any confrontation during demos’ and generally found the police ‘quite tolerant and unprovocative’. If the police stopped anti-fascists, others argued, then this was only because the fascists were the ones holding the meetings, and the anti-fascists were the ones on the attack. The initiative belonged to the far left. If the situation were reversed, surely the police would protect anti-fascists?

Colin Barnett of the Northwest TUC argued this line through the protests in Hyde. He suggested that, once the first fascist march had been banned, opponents would do better to ignore subsequent provocations and leave the handling of the National Front to the police.  Generally, it was the Labour Party and members of business associations who argued this line, but even some socialists attempted at times to avoid permanent confrontation. If the fighting was always between police and anti-racists, as it had been at Lewisham, then the lines dividing left and right might be obscured.

While some anti-racists argued that police hostility was purely a tactic, and that in the last resort the police would come to their aid, others remembered the protest in support of the Lewisham 21 in July 1977, a month before the more famous Lewisham anti-fascist protest. There, it was fascists who had charged and attacked anti-racists. The police still found 23 anti-fascists to arrest.

Others remembered the brutal scenes at Grunwick in July and August 1977, when the police had determined to remove the pickets supporting around 100 Asian strikers. Police officers were observed smashing press cameras, hitting one teenager’s head repeatedly against the bonnet of a car, dragging strike leader Jayaben Desai by her hair through the crowd, and kicking one black worker repeatedly in the face. T

he argument between anti-fascists over whether police racism was accidental or institutional came again to the fore at Southall, on 23 April 1979. It was a full police riot against the left and the Asian community. Southall kids are innocent Southall had a largely Asian population. According to the 1976 census, 46 per cent of the local population had parents born in the Commonwealth or Pakistan, or were born there themselves. The National Front had few supporters in Southall or anywhere in the borough of Ealing. Their intervention was all about muscling into an area from the outside.

The protests began when the Conservative council agreed to let the town hall to the NF, to hold an election meeting. In June 1976, an NF-inspired gang had stabbed Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall. Local young people had responded by turning out in large numbers to remember the dead youth, before marching on the town’s police station. The following weekend, some 7,000 people marched through Southall carrying placards, ‘Powell is a murderer’ and ‘We are here to stay’.  They also joined a great demonstration against racist attacks through central London. The memory of the state’s failure to take action against the killers helped to give later events their edge.

Prominent local Anti-Nazi League activist Balwinder Rana remembers reading about the NF meeting in the Ealing Gazette: ‘The news spread like wildfire. People felt very angry and insulted.’ Pete Alexander was a former student and anti-apartheid activist. By spring 1979, he was the Socialist Workers Party west London organizer. Alexander recalls the strength of local organization. Forces included a large Anti-Nazi League group and the Southall Youth Movement (SYM), established in 1976 after the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar. There were also branches of the SWP and a black socialist organization, Peoples Unite, with its headquarters at 6 Park View. Each group worked with the local branches of the left-wing Indian Workers’ Association, led by Vishnu Sharma, who was close to the Communist Party, and his deputy, Labour councillor Piara Khabra.  The International Marxist Group also had members in Southall, and the IMG’s leading speaker, Tariq Ali, was a Socialist Unity candidate for Southall in the April 1979 election. The Indian Workers’ Association, based in Coventry, had a branch in Southall, known as the IWA(GB). Better here than elsewhere, Alexander argues, there were organizations that could mobilize popular anger.

We should not exaggerate, however, the warmth of the relationships between different left-wing and community groups. Balraj Purewal was one of the founders of the Southall Youth Movement. He remembers having contact with left-wing parties, and takes pride in the independence that his young comrades kept from a majority ‘white’ left. ‘Even now I don’t know what left and right in Southall means. Every time we tried to protest and give our own identity the left tried to take it over . . . they gave us their own slogans and placards.’ Balwinder Rana, recalls this period differently. He had emigrated from India back in 1964. In 1969, he had been the founding president of the Indian Youth Federation, the first political Asian youth organization in Britain. He joined the International Socialists in 1974 and worked as a full-time organizer. He had also led anti-National Front campaigns at Gravesend in Kent. Today, he remains sceptical of the community movements:

“Before 1979, I felt that people in Southall were not interested. I used to organize coaches to protest marches against the NF everywhere. But it all used to be white people; never more than twenty Asians came. The Southall Youth Movement, when it started, was very good. Locally, they often fought against the fascists and they gave us a hope that we had reached a turning point in our struggles against fascism. But they did not develop politically and became very parochial. They hardly ever went outside Southall to confront the fascists and would often say that the NF would never come to Southall. It was a big shock for people when the NF came into Southall.”

If the left succeeded in mobilizing people, this took hard work and a practical desire for unity. Following the news that the council had agreed to let the hall, local activists decided to call a mass meeting to organize protests. Rana contacted Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers’ Association. Why didn’t they just organize a small activists’ meeting under the auspices of the Socialist Workers’ Party, or the Anti-Nazi League? ‘If the left had called it, the press would have been hostile.’ The plan was to hold a delegate meeting, with no more than two people present from any one organization. ‘We didn’t want the churches or the community relations council taking it over.’

Local socialists toured around the unions, women’s and community groups in Hounslow, Southall, Ealing and Hayes to build support for the meeting. When it gathered, the entire local movement was represented – not just community groups, but engineers, teachers and hospital workers. The meeting itself was divided. Two police officers showed up. A vote was taken to exclude them. Piara Khabra from the Indian Workers’ Association argued that the best tactic would be to call a stay-away. The focus should be on a demonstration before the National Front’s meeting. Yet the Anti-Nazi League and their allies in the unions were determined to confront the NF head-on. Socialists addressed the IWA meeting. Vishnu Sharma was also sympathetic to their ideas. Pete Alexander remembers, ‘We moved a resolution that workers should go on strike and walk out, to stop the meeting taking place. The top table didn’t know how to respond. They went into closed session, and then came back. They agreed.’ A programme was also agreed:

To petition the Ealing Borough Council to request the cancellation of the booking of the hall for the National Front;  The petition to be put to the Council on the day before the demonstration, on Sunday 22 April, after a march from Southall to Ealing Town Hall;  That all businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. should shut down on 23 April from 1 p.m. onwards.

It was decided that on the day of the NF meeting there should be a peaceful sit-in on roads around the town hall, and that those arrested should comply peacefully. Rana was elected chief steward. The meeting also set up a co-ordinating committee, which distributed some 25,000 leaflets and 1,000 window posters around the borough, stressing that the protest was to be peaceful. As well as these materials, the ANL produced a number of leaflets in English and Punjabi, while Socialist Worker ran a front-page headline, ‘Shut Down Southall’. On 18 April, representatives from the co-ordinating committee met with Merlyn Rees, the Home Secretary, visiting Ealing as part of Labour’s election campaign. Rees insisted that he possessed no powers to ban an election meeting. The Chief Superintendent of Southall Police requested a meeting with ‘community leaders’, including some protest organizers, such as Vishnu Sharma.

Balwinder Rana was also there. ‘When I came in, they were sat there with their hands clasped; it looked like they were praying. The Superintendent made a speech warning that left-wingers wanted to destroy the town: “Next week evil is coming.”’ Rana responded that he only knew one kind of evil, the racism of the National Front. ‘Then Vishnu Sharma jumped up, and supported what I said. Then all the others began to nod their heads in agreement!’

On Sunday, 22 April, the day before the election meeting, 5,000 marched to Ealing town hall to protest, handing in a petition signed by 10,000 people. This was a huge demonstration, with all sections of the population represented, including older women in long white dresses and Sikh men in turbans and beards. But even this march was attacked, with the police picking fights all along the way. Rana recalls his attempts to negotiate with the senior officer in the car park before the demonstration set off. ‘I asked him why there were so many police, and horses. He said that they were for our protection. He had information that the National Front might attack us. I said there’s five thousand of us here, there’s no way the NF are going to try anything. But he wouldn’t take them away.’ In an atmosphere of mistrust, trouble was always likely to break out:

One young demonstrator was playing around. He flipped a copper’s hat off as a joke. But rather than taking it as a joke, they arrested him and dragged him away. I stopped the march, we all sat down in the middle of Southall, outside the police station, and I went in to talk to the chief superintendent. They wouldn’t let him go. So I said, ‘If you don’t let him go, I can’t be responsible for what happens.’ They threatened to arrest me, and I said, ‘Go on then’, and within five minutes, they’d let him go.

At this point, there were 5,000 people in the middle of Southall, with more watching. The police were not going to try anything there. But as the marchers left central Southall, snatch squads grabbed another 20. Despite such provocations, Pete Alexander recalls that protesters remained optimistic about preventing the National Front meeting from taking place. ‘We had wind that the strikes were going to happen. It was clear that the protests were going to be big.’ Black and Asian workers, including staff at Heathrow airport, were at the front of the protests. Activists, including members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, were also able to pull off a strike at Ford Langley. A number of other local workplaces with a predominantly white workforce also backed the strike call, including workers at Sunblest bakery, Walls’ pie factory and Quaker Oats.  These were large-scale strikes, uniting black and white workers, to protest against the NF presence in Southall. Maybe more than anything else, they reveal the success of several years’ active campaigning by left and black activists. The Anti-Nazi League provided the opportunity to make unity work.

A very British coup

Monday, 23 April was St George’s Day. To celebrate, the borough council chose this day to fly the Union Jack from Southall town hall. To most passers-by, this decision seemed crass. Why did the council choose this day of all days to proclaim their British nationalism? On closer reflection, the decision seems even odder. If they wanted to celebrate England, the council could have chosen the red and white cross of St George. But the Union Jack was the British flag. To the young anti-racist protesters, such ‘accidents’ felt sinister. As far as they were concerned, just about the only people in 1970s Britain under the age of 50 who spontaneously identified with flag-waving nationalism were the supporters of the Front. It seemed the council had decided that the most appropriate response to the presence of an Asian minority among their own people was to support the violent racists of the NF.

The police began to arrive in Southall early in the morning. Coaches were parked all over the town centre, and officers on horses were seen patrolling the streets. People felt that the presence of such large numbers of policemen, so early in the day, was a provocation. The mood was tense. Local shops, factories and transport closed at 1 p.m., and people began to gather at the town centre from lunchtime.

One problem for the organizers was that the National Front were not even due to start their meeting until 7.30 in the evening. If workers were going to strike against the NF, as many did, then it should be at least a half-day strike. According to Balwinder Rana, ‘the shops closed at 1 p.m. We asked people to assemble outside the town hall at 5 p.m.’

Before the left and the striking workers, young Asians arrived on the scene first. Rumours had spread that the police were already trying to smuggle National Front members into the town hall. Thus members of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) began to assemble outside the town hall from around 12.30 p.m., while others were waiting for the official 5 p.m. starting time. Balraj Purewal led a march of some 30 to 40 members of SYM, along South Road, to the town centre. People joined along the way, so that on reaching the town hall, the SYM contingent had swelled to around 100, and eventually 200 people. They attempted to form a picket outside the town hall and were forcibly dispersed by the police. Soon, up to 40 arrests had been made. Members of the SYM attempted to meet with senior police officers, but were turned away.

The people around the Southall Youth Movement had fallen victim to rumours and were determined to confront both the National Front and the police. According to one activist interviewed by the BBC in Southall, ‘This is our future, right? Our leaders will do nothing . . . our leaders wanted a peaceful sit down, but what can you do with a peaceful sit down here? We had to do something, the young people. We don’t want a situation like the East End where our brothers and sisters are being attacked every day.’  Pete Alexander contrasts the mass tactics of groups such as the Indian Workers’ Association with those of the SYM:

“The IWA mobilised their forces through the afternoon and did march at about 5 p.m. in the afternoon, i.e. on time. The Southall Youth Movement lacked discipline. Responding to the provocation of the police, and in an attempt to show how militant they were, they marched a few hundred youths towards the town hall in the early afternoon. Given their relatively small numbers, it was easy for the cops to deal with. This not only took some of them out of the fray before things had really started; it also gave the cops some justification for occupying the centre of Southall.”

The left set up headquarters initially at the offices of the National Association for Asian Youth, at 46 High Street, close to the centre of town, but far enough to prevent the building from coming under attack. Stewards were provided with red armbands. First aid centres were set up, and there was a legal advice unit and even an unofficial ambulance. The organizers of the protests feared that the police would turn violent.

Paul Holborow recalls that ‘There was a threatening police presence throughout the day. Their only purpose was to intimidate people.’ Pete Alexander goes further: ‘It was a military occupation.’ A Catholic priest, Father Thomas Lloyd, described seeing a police coach with the ace of spades held against the window, and ‘NF’ written by officers on the steamed-up glass.  Huge numbers of police, some 2,756 officers in all, were used to break up the anti-fascist protests. By 2 or 3 p.m., the police were in control of the town hall. The members of the Southall Youth Movement were dispersed across the surrounding area, and as new contingents of demonstrators arrived, they too were moved on – frequently by force.

One of the most frightening aspects that Balwinder Rana remembers was the noise that the police made by drumming their sticks against their riot shields. The purpose of the police operation was not to arrest any wrongdoers, but to intimidate and ultimately hurt as many of the protesters as possible. By 3.30, the entire town centre was closed, and the police declared it a ‘sterile’ area, meaning that it was now free of anti-fascists. Meanwhile, rain had begun to fall by the bucket-load, further dampening the mood. In order to keep the town centre secure, the police established a series of roadblocks that nobody was allowed to pass – not even the people who actually lived on the streets that were being closed.

At one stage the police observed that several dozen anti-fascists had boarded a number 207 bus in an attempt to escape through the police lines. The police then boarded the bus and removed demonstrators by force. Several windows were smashed in the fighting.

According to Pete Alexander, ‘Our original headquarters, where we had planned to have medical and legal support, was in the offices of the National Association for Asian Youth, but because of the police occupation we could not operate from there. As a consequence we moved further out, into the Peoples Unite building.’ This community centre was associated with the band Misty and the Roots. It was just outside the main roadblock. By late afternoon, four separate protests had been established at each of the main blocks, with thousands of people at each one.

Balwinder Rana tried to keep people’s morale up, speaking on platforms, working to ensure that as much of the protest as possible could be held together. There should be no repeat of the situation in mid-afternoon, when one group had been cut off from the rest. The situation was desperately unclear. Protesters were still anxious to block the town hall. Police officers meanwhile were refusing to negotiate even with the organizers of the protest. Their orders were that there should be no compromise with the crowd. Rana also noticed that the diversity of Sunday’s protest had not been reflected in Monday’s scene. The older men had not appeared. There were fewer of the women who had marched. Rumours of a fight were keeping many people at home. Pete Alexander recalls the geography of the police riot:

“At the centre of Southall there’s a crossroads: one road going to the west (Broadway), one to the north (Lady Margaret Road, one to the east (Uxbridge Road) and one to the south (South Road). The town hall, where the meeting took place, is on the corner between the north and east streets. The police station is about 80 metres along Uxbridge Road, on the same side of the road as the town hall. After the Southall Youth Movement’s abortive march, the cops took control of the crossroads and the whole area between it and eastwards beyond the police station. When I say ‘took control’ I mean armoured cars, cavalry, the ordinary riot cops in large numbers and helicopters. The Indian Workers’ Association and others blocked the South Road; we – the Anti-Nazi League and others – blocked the Uxbridge Road. Blair Peach and others worked their way around to the Broadway, but we had too few people to the north and the police were able get the National Front in that way.”

The real trouble started as the day turned to dusk. There was still a large group of demonstrators, sitting peacefully on the Broadway, blocking the western route into Southall. One demonstrator, Peter B, was part of this group. In his memory,

“At about 7.30 p.m. the good humour of the crowd was shattered . . . a roar went through the crowd, emanating from the rear. People turned and looked westwards down the street. I saw, to my amazement, a coach being driven fast straight into the back of the crowd. It was a private coach, an ordinary 30–40 seat char-a-banc. At a cautious estimate, I would put the speed of it at 15 m.p.h., which is murderous when it is being driven into a crowd.”

The coach was carrying police officers and some 20 members of the National Front, whose objective was the town hall. From this point onwards, the situation was one of a general mêlée. The crowds were dispersed, the coach broke through. The crowds gathered again. Other police vehicles followed, and demonstrators attempted to block them. They were beaten back. One anti-fascist later reported, ‘Every time people tried to push through the police lines, mounted police on horse-back laid into the demonstrators, beating them to the ground and arresting some of them.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick contrasts Southall with previous protests. ‘After Lewisham, it was much more disparate. The ANL was trying to work with the IWA and with the local community. There was no centralized decision-making. The police were more determined, and willing to use violence. We were broken up too quickly. The police had more control.’ According to Rana, ‘People started to throw bricks. The police used horses. They drove vans into the crowd, and fast, to push us back. They used snatch squads. People rushed back with whatever they could pick up.’

Individuals ran into the park, or sheltered in homes, or in the Peoples Unite building where medical facilities were stretched beyond breaking. The police could see how Peoples Unite on Park View was being used, and determined to clear the building. Officers entered the building, occupied it, and gave instructions to the people sheltering there to leave. They formed a gauntlet along the hall and the stairs, and beat people as they tried to escape. Tariq Ali was in the building, bleeding from his head. Clarence Baker, the pacifist manager of Misty and the Roots, was hurt so badly that he went into a coma. The solicitor John Witzenfeld was inside when the police attacked:

“they kicked in the panel on the door to the medical unit and waving their truncheons told us to get out. I was pushed into the hall with the others behind me. Suddenly I felt a blow to the back of my head and I managed to half-turn and saw a hand holding a truncheon disappearing downwards . . . Whilst we were waiting for the ambulance, two police stood in the doorway with their backs to us whilst people were brought down from upstairs and I saw truncheons rise and fall and I heard shouts and screams from the women.”

The building itself was so badly damaged by the police action that afterwards it was demolished. Officers with batons smashed medical equipment, a sound system, printing and other items. Jack Dromey, a senior official of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, told an inquiry called by the National Council of Civil Liberties, ‘I have never seen such unrestrained violence against demonstrators . . . The Special Patrol Group were just running wild.’  His view was echoed by Mrs Dialo Sandu, a Southall resident who was spat at by one police officer as she watched the riot unfold from the security of her front garden ‘They treated us like animals. It’s the first time I would ever speak against the police. But I saw what happened with my own eyes.’

Between 7.30 and 9 p.m., Southall witnessed a full-scale police riot. Dozens of anti-Nazis were beaten. At least three suffered fractured skulls. Others were kicked until they lost consciousness. There is no doubt that the police sought to inflict as much pain, physical and psychological, as they could. Caroline, then an active member of the Anti-Nazi League in Ealing, spent the night driving between Southall and Heathrow. ‘Many of the Asian kids that the police arrested, they beat them up for a bit, and then they took them out of London. They dropped them in the middle of nowhere, on the side of motorways, nowhere near telephones or anything. These young kids were confused, crying. The police just wanted to humiliate them.’

So why were the police so violent? According to Caroline, ‘They wanted revenge for Lewisham.’ After the storming of Peoples Unite, Balwinder Rana was forced to escape by jumping over a garage, and hid from a street full of police horses. The organizers had the numbers of all the phone boxes in central Southall, and had thought that they would be able to keep in contact. But the police occupied the town centre, including the boxes. Angered, disorientated, the protesters attempted to regroup. Perminder Dhillon described her memories of the day’s events in an article for the socialist feminist magazine Spare Rib.

“Around ten, many of us gathered to watch the news at a restaurant where Rock Against Racism and Indian music had been blaring out all evening, drowning out the National Front speakers inside the town hall. Their wounds still bleeding, people saw the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary, and other ‘experts’ on the black community condemning the people of Southall for their unprovoked attack on the police! As usual, only pictures of injured policemen were shown – nothing of the pregnant women being attacked and the countless other police assaults.”

One historian, Nigel Copsey, has described how the police ‘contributed to disorder’ as the day went on, ‘first by making peaceful protest impossible, and then by attempting to disperse the crowd using aggressive tactics, such as “snatch squads”, charging with riot shields, truncheons and horses, and even driving vans into the crowd’.  By the end of the day, according to police records, over 700 had been arrested, and some 342 people charged. This number actually underestimated the number of police detentions. These were the largest arrests in Britain on a single day for decades.

Blair Peach was part of the crowds blocking the western approach, as Uxbridge Road joined the Broadway. Along with his friends, Peach saw the police break a route through for the National Front to hold their meeting. Frightened by the intensity of the police violence, Peach and friends headed south. Beechcroft Avenue was not cordoned off, and it must have seemed a way to escape from the fighting. But Beechcroft Road was no real haven: at its far end, the road led straight back on to Uxbridge Road – back to the police lines. According to one later report:

The police formed up across Northcote Avenue, moved across the Broadway and charged into Beechcroft Avenue, carrying riot shields and truncheons. They were moving at a fast walk, but according to some witnesses broke into a run. Once into Beechcroft Avenue, they made way for two Special Patrol Group vans which drove into a street beside them, went round the junction with Orchard Avenue and stopped inside Orchard Avenue. The police officers moved after them. The vans opened, and now more police officers got out. It was at this time, at the junction of Beechcroft and Orchard Avenues that Blair Peach was attacked and fatally injured.

Peach’s body was found towards the end of the road, on a corner that faced back towards the town hall. The family opposite tried to shelter him, not realizing that he was already dying. Peach had sustained a head injury and was taken to Ealing Hospital by ambulance, arriving at about 8 p.m. Death was pronounced shortly after midnight. By about 10 p.m., the organizers of the anti-fascist protest had succeeded in opening a second headquarters. Most of the protesters had gone, and the police began to scale down their operations. The mood was downbeat. Balwinder Rana heard the news of his fellow demonstrator’s death. ‘I knew Blair Peach. We used to gather every Sunday at Brick Lane. The NF tried to speak there, and we tried to stop them. The police said whoever comes first can have the spot. So we would camp out there Saturday night, even Friday night, to stop the fascists. It was there I met Blair Peach.’ It is one thing to lose a stranger, another to lose a comrade whom you have known in struggle.

Blair Peach

In the aftermath of 23 April, anti-fascists were riven by competing feelings of guilt, anger and remorse. The very next morning, at 11 a.m., Commander Cass, who was in charge of investigating the previous day’s events, began by interviewing Amanda Leon, who had been with Blair Peach when he was killed. Leon quickly took the initiative. She told Commander Cass, ‘I saw a police officer strike Blair Peach with an overarm blow with a truncheon . . . I only saw one blow struck. The truncheon made contact on Blair Peach’s head. I don’t know what part of the head the blow fell on. My impression was that it was the back of his head because he was running away.’ She described Peach’s killing as an assault. She said that she herself had been hit on the head with a baton by a police officer and that she had seen a man lying on the ground with a policeman bending over him and hitting him in the testicles. Leon tried to use her interview with Cass to begin a complaint against the police. He, of course, refused to investigate it. Later, the police attempted for seven years to keep the text of their interview secret. It was only released following a High Court injunction.

Blair Peach was a teacher and a member of the SWP. He was 33, a trade unionist and a veteran of campaigns for the participation of the local community in education, in solidarity with struggles in Ireland and South Africa. According to Roger Huddle, ‘He was a very gentle, quiet man. He was absolutely incensed about racism.’ Chris Searle describes Peach in the following terms: ‘there was a particular electricity about Blair’s spoken interventions. He had a stammer that sometimes interfered with his delivery. Yet his personal courage was such that his words and arguments always emerged, forged through a determination that you could feel was willing his voice forward.’  Annie was the doctor in the first aid room. Even today, she holds that Blair’s killing had been given the highest authorization.

What was remarkable on 23 April is that only one person died, given the number of overarm truncheon blows to the head. Those of us in 6 Park View were made to go through a gauntlet of police doing this to each and every one of us as we left the house, and then we were told to go back into the house. Most police would have or should have been trained in the possible effects of blows to the head, and in fact police in general are told to try to avoid hitting on the head, as any blow to the head is potentially fatal. The reason is not only the blow itself, but the after-effects of it, which include bleeding into or around the brain, which may not be detected until it is too late. On 23 April, not only were heavier than normal truncheons used, but police throughout the demo used these heavy truncheons to hit people on the head. Someone somewhere must have said this was OK. Someone somewhere was prepared to see people killed on a demo in Britain. It was perhaps the first time in the twentieth century that this was considered an acceptable result of policing a demo in Britain. After the storm On 23 April, the Metropolitan Police ‘won’. The police succeeded in attacking and hurting as many ordinary people as possible, and also kept Ealing town hall open for the National Front meeting to take place. The Special Patrol Group was fêted for its proud role in having defended democracy from the people of Southall. In the days afterwards, the partisans of British justice took a vindictive approach towards their enemies. Some of the mood that followed can be seen in the account of one of the trials of the anti-racist protesters:

“A 14-year-old Sikh boy appeared before a magistrate at Ealing juvenile court. He had been charged with ‘threatening behaviour’ and being in possession of ‘offensive weapons’ at 6.20 p.m. on 23 April 1979. The sum total of the prosecution case was the evidence of one policeman who stated that he had seen the accused with an offensive weapon . . . The defence produced several witnesses. These included a white doctor, a white solicitor and a white ambulance man. They all testified that the boy, at the time, was being treated for a hand wound and had suffered a severe loss of blood. They knew because they were all in the legal aid room at 6 Park View. I was with them, when the police raided this address and arrested the boy in question and numerous others. But defence witnesses, even respectable ones, are not permitted to obstruct ‘the due process of law’. The boy was found guilty and fined £100. The defence argued that he had no job and no source of income. The Magistrate replied, ‘Let him find a job.’ The defence retorted that it was a criminal act for a 14-year-old to gain employment. But the Magistrate had meant a ‘paper round’ or something like that. The boy in question will be paying 75p a week for the next two years.”

This was not an article from the revolutionary press, but from the liberal Guardian. In the days following Blair Peach’s killing, the police and the courts were arrogant in their defence of power. To be black or Asian, to be young or to oppose racism was enough to constitute a crime.

Mark Steel was a young activist caught up in events at Southall. Back home afterwards, he experienced a complex of emotions, ranging from shock at the news of Blair Peach’s death to remorse that he had been excited by the clashes with the police, and guilt that he had escaped when someone else had died. What angered him most was the press coverage afterwards. ‘Every paper, news bulletin, politician, police officer and respectable member of society was yelping at how this demonstrating mob must be stopped . . . From the way it was reported, there must have been people who thought, “What on earth made those violent Anti-Nazi people want to kill that poor teacher?”’

The papers swung overwhelmingly behind the police. The Guardian was almost alone in the mainstream press in challenging the police riot.  The Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Telegraph all covered the story as their front-page lead. The headlines were: ‘BATTLE OF HATE. Election Riot: Police Hurt, 300 arrested’, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’, ‘300 HELD IN RIOT AT NF DEMO’ and ‘300 ARRESTED AT POLL RIOT’. One edition of the Daily Mail went furthest in deliberately confusing the racists and the anti-racists, proclaiming, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’.

What was so offensive about this story, and indeed about the general press coverage, was the way in which it depicted a mixed-race group of young anti-racists as violent, aggressive thugs, as much a threat to society as the National Front. Regional papers were even worse. The Hereford Evening News was critical of Southall residents for responding to the National Front. ‘However understandable the resentment of the large Asian community in the west London suburb where the National Front chose to stage a deliberately provocative election meting, there can be neither excuse nor forgiveness of their violent attacks on the police.’ Yet in some ways this article was untypical. The Hereford paper was almost alone in recognizing that the trouble had not been stirred up entirely by the Anti-Nazi League. The Oxford Mail was yet another paper to speak up for the police: ‘Because this is a free country, where even detestable organisations have to be allowed to hold election meetings to support their candidates, a big force of police was present. The organisers of the demonstration caricatured this as police repression.’ The Swindon Evening Advertiser claimed that ‘The Anti-Nazi League, which was originally sponsored, in part, by a number of respectable people who did not stop to think twice, has now degenerated into an umbrella for extreme left malcontents.’ The Nottingham Evening Post bemoaned the fact that ‘If the extreme political nut-cases want to behave as they have done, in this country of free-speech, there is little we can do to stop them, short of banning them completely.’

A number of papers called for bans against the far left. According to the Oldham Evening Chronicle, ‘the real consensus in Britain is to get the rabble of both Right and Left off the streets’. The Bradford Telegraph and Argus asked, ‘What price the Anti-Nazi League when the people it persuades to demonstrate use Nazi methods?’ The Oxford Mail termed anti-Nazi protesters ‘enemies of democracy’. Finally, the Lancashire Evening Post developed this phrase, suggesting that while the political right were irresponsible, the left were more dangerous. The ANL were an urgent and pressing threat to democracy. ‘In the short term they are more dangerous than the National Front because they hide their revolutionary and totalitarian aims behind a noble cause.’

Yet, in the days that followed, it slowly became clear that the police and their allies had gone too far. It became clear that the vast majority of local people felt an extraordinary sympathy for Blair Peach, the man who had died for them. The Metropolitan Police’s ‘military’ victory crumbled.

The murder of Blair Peach became a symbol of the unjustified use of police violence, and even re-legitimized the Anti-Nazi League within the wider Labour movement. Fifteen thousand people marched the following Saturday, 28 April, in honour of the dead man, with 13 national trade union banners taken on the demonstration, and Ken Gill speaking on behalf of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. Workers at the Sunblest bakery raised £800 for Peach’s widow.

Balwinder Rana remembers that for the next week, protesters were everywhere, flyposting, speaking, organizing, discussing the lessons of the police riot. The police were around, in very large numbers, but they did not dare to stop people from organising. It was almost as if the police were shamed by the enormity of what they had done. One activist Kathy had been unable to attend the Southall demonstrations, but her husband Harry took part, and was badly beaten the police. She knew Blair Peach, and tried to make sense of his death in a poem, ‘We cannot offer words / to express our grief and our anger/ we throw red flowers / in silent explosions of pain … the red arrow of the anti-nazis / fuelled to rocket power with our collective anger.’

Rock Against Racism brought out a special leaflet, Southall Kids are Innocent: ‘Southall is special. There have been police killings before . . . But on April 23rd the police behaved like never before . . . The police were trying to kill our people. They were trying to get even with our culture . . . What free speech needs martial law? What public meeting requires 5,000 people to keep the public out?’ Questions were asked in the Indian and New Zealand parliaments. Even the Daily Telegraph’s reporter described how the police cornered one contingent: ‘Several dozen crying, screaming demonstrators were dragged to the police station and waiting coaches . . . Nearly every demonstrator we saw had blood flowing from some injury.’

For eight weeks, Blair Peach’s body remained unburied. The day before the funeral, he was accorded a ‘lying in state’ at the Dominion Theatre in Southall. Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office had the job of protecting Peach’s body overnight.

“I remember at dawn, we were supposed to open up the building. There was already a queue of people. Later, two police showed up, an officer and a sergeant. They were asking to see Paul. Given what had happened, I was rather unhappy, but I didn’t have the gumption to stop them. After five minutes, the sergeant came out, walking quite quickly. There was the officer, after him, looking straight ahead. Then Paul’s head poked out, ‘And don’t you ever come back!’ In the circumstance of a large community and attacks on a white demonstrator who had been killed, the police quite clearly felt out of their depth.”

People remembered Blair Peach as a fighter. To them, Peach represented the best instincts of the anti-racist left. According to one commentator, Peach’s death had ‘particular reverence for the predominantly Sikh Punjabi community, both as a white man who chose to assist them and thereby defend their right to reside in the country, and as an enemy of tyrannous oppressors whose struggles with the Sikhs are still talked of and remembered in popular bazaar calendar art.’  Finally, on 13 June 1979, Peach was buried. Ten thousand joined the procession. Following this powerful show of support, another 10,000 people marched through Southall again in memory of Blair Peach the following year.  A middle school was named after him and further memorials have been organized on anniversaries since. Bringing the police to justice? Faced with such anger, the officials of the state did their best to close ranks. Despite 147 MPs signing a motion calling for a public inquiry, the Labour government refused this request. Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees told Sir David McNee, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that the government gave its full support to his actions. A number of documents were compiled but not published, including an internal Metropolitan Police report by Commander Cass into Blair Peach’s death, a report by Sir David McNee to the Home Secretary, the Linnet Report on complaints against the police, and a report by Deputy Commissioner Pat Kavanagh on the work of the Special Patrol Group. Following the general election, the new Conservative Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw also refused to take action. Justice Griffiths later opposed an appeal, saying that ‘on its worst construction, this is one isolated occasion of a policeman possibly using a weapon he should not have used, and hitting too hard’. The Home Office dragged its heels in opening the inquest into Peach’s death. Writing in the New Statesman, Paul Foot complained of the delays.

I wonder what the reaction would have been if a policeman, not a demonstrator, had been killed at Southall. Would the inquest have been postponed until the middle of the summer holidays? Would there have been almost total silence in the press about the murder hunt? Would the suspects have been left to carry on their jobs without being charged or even cautioned?’

When it opened, the inquest limited itself to the sole question of how Peach had died. Pathologist Professor Mant explained that the damage done to the dead man’s skull involved an instrument that had not pierced his skin. He concluded that the weapon was a cosh or a blackjack, perhaps a police radio. Sitting without a jury, the coroner refused to accept Professor Mant’s findings. In December 1979, Blair’s brother Roy appealed the coroner’s findings, taking the case as far as the Court of Appeal. Represented by the barrister and novelist John Mortimer, the family was successful in obtaining a ruling that the inquest should be carried out in front of a jury. Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, heard the case. ‘When allegations of brutality or misconduct are made against the police’, Denning found,

“and a fatality does occur, then, if the circumstances are such that something may have gone wrong, and there is a danger of it happening again, a jury should be summoned . . . We have to decide it on the hypothetical circumstances that Mr Blair Peach was struck by a policeman with something heavier than a truncheon … On those hypothetical circumstances, Mr Blair Peach’s brother is entitled to say that there must be a jury, however difficult it may be for the coroner to conduct the inquest in those circumstances.”

At the inquest, the police solicitor tried to use Professor Mant’s evidence in support of his employers. If it was true that a baton had not caused Blair Peach’s death, then it followed that Peach could not have been killed by any police officer. The coroner instructed the jurors to release the police from scrutiny. Not surprisingly, then, the verdict passed was not the condemnatory one of unlawful killing but simply ‘death by misadventure’. Yet in addition to their main verdict, the jury added three riders. First, senior officers should supervise the Special Patrol Group more closely. Second, police officers should be issued with maps before major demonstrations. Third, police lockers should be regularly searched. The effect of these three riders was to restore blame on to the police for the Southall riot.

In the words of the Anti-Nazi League’s Paul Holborow, ‘We regard the verdict as establishing beyond any doubt that police killed Blair Peach.’ The Sunday Times published reports based on leaks from the Cass Report. Attention focused on the officers of Special Patrol Group unit 1/1. At least six members of this unit were known to have travelled in the van that held Blair Peach’s killer: they were police constables Murray, White, Lake, Freestone, Scottow and Richardson. When the lockers of unit 1/1 were searched in June 1979, one officer, Greville Bint, was discovered to have in his lockers Nazi regalia, bayonets and leather-covered sticks. Another constable, Raymond ‘Chalkie’ White, attempted to hide a cosh in his anorak pocket. Either of these instruments would have been consistent with the weapon identified by Professor Mant. A brass handle was also found, a metal truncheon encased in leather about 8 inches long, a lead weight and a wooden pickaxe handle.

The National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL) organized an unofficial committee to investigate events at Southall. The members of the committee included Roger Butler of the engineering workers’ union; the lecturer Stuart Hall; Patricia Hewitt of the NCCL;  Bill Keys, a member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress; Joan Lestor, the Labour MP; Dick North from the executive of the National Union of Teachers; Paul O’Higgins, a law lecturer from Cambridge University; Ranjit Sondhi from the Asian Resources Centre in Birmingham; Hewlett Thompson, the Bishop of Willesden; and Pauline Webb from the Methodist Church. The Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett chaired the committee. The Metropolitan Police boycotted the committee, giving the excuse that their time would be better spent seeking an improvement in race relations in Southall.  The final report attempted to remain even-handed, and at several points its authors explicitly criticized the organizers of the Southall protests. The idea of the committee was to draw lessons from the entire situation on the day. But the final paragraph should be quoted in full:

“The outcome of the police operation on 23 April could hardly have been worse. Many police officers and members of the public suffered serious injury. One person died, apparently at the hands of the police. And the confidence of many people in Southall in the police, and the institutions of the law, was shattered. Those protesters who, deliberately or in the heat of the moment, used violence against the police must carry their share of the responsibility for what happened. But we do not accept that the responsibility was wholly or even mainly theirs. We regard the decision to prevent the demonstration to cordon off Southall as entirely misconceived, and the failure to communicate the decision to the community organisations as disastrous. Those who regard our proposed alternatives as unsatisfactory should seriously consider whether such unacceptable consequences would have flowed from a police operation which respected the community’s right to protest; which kept them informed of the police plans; and which enabled stewards and community leaders to exercise authority over the protesters in order to ensure that, as far as was humanly possible, the demonstration remained the peaceful protest which had always been intended.”

The horror of Southall closely linked to events outside. Five days before Southall, 200 police were deployed to prevent anti-fascist protests in Battersea. Three days before, 5,000 police were used at Leicester. Two days afterwards, over 4,000 officers, including Special Branch, SPG and mounted police, were used against ant-fascists at Newham. Over 1,000 police were employed in West Bromwich on 28 April, and similar numbers at Bradford two days later. One further National Front meeting, held in Caxton Hall on 1 May, required 5,000 police to ensure that it could go ahead.  The surrounding area was sealed off all day. With this many police officers used, so often, and with such determination, it was in fact remarkable that only one person was killed. Just as importantly, the National Front public meeting at Southall was held as part of that year’s general election.

As Blair Peach lay dying, a new Conservative government was waiting to emerge. Margaret Thatcher had already staked her claim to the loyalties of former NF voters. Speaking out against immigration, Thatcher had taken up the cause dearest to them. The situation appeared all the more alarming for those young, politically conscious people who led the Anti-Nazi League. Many activists were in their mid- or late twenties. They had been schooled by the events of May 1968 and the victories of the working-class movement in the years between 1972 and 1974. They had seen local cuts and closures. But it was still possible for them to think that this brief downtime might shortly be reversed. Only slowly was the realization dawning that the worse years of the 1980s were ahead. In retrospect, the conjuncture of Blair Peach’s death and Margaret Thatcher’s victory symbolizes the end of an age.

Carnival

Standard

Through 1978, the movement continued. The largest events were the Rock Against Racism carnivals. The strategy was to connect an anti-racist political message to radical music, to separate young people decisively from the National Front’s politics. Peter Hain outlined the method in the Labour paper, Tribune: ‘The carnival[s] point the way to a style of campaigning that is likely to win the emerging rearguard battle which must be waged against the National Front. In the longer term, of course, socialist solutions will be needed to pressed and fought for. But, in the shorter term, we desperately need to undercut the support of the new Nazis.’  This was anti-racism with a new emphasis, on pleasure, on self-activity and on spectacle.

The first carnival took place on 30 April 1978. The date was chosen to highlight the radical ambitions of the Anti-Nazi League. It was 130 years since the huge Chartist demonstration at Kennington Common, the closest that the British ruling class has come in recent times to facing an insurrection. The carnival was fully publicized by the left and in the musical press. Following the lead given by the New Musical Express over the previous year, all the music papers now carried regular features supporting both Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. A year on from the launch of RAR, Melody Maker ran an interview with Syd Shelton and Roger Huddle, Shelton describing the purpose of the movement. ‘We try and use popular culture which we all enjoy to mobilise people, not in a specific way, but just getting them to take a stand against the Front.’ Shelton insisted that RAR’s target audience was not the already convinced but ordinary kids on the estates. ‘There are no jobs for them, they’re living in cities and estates that are closing down . . . Conditions are right for the Front.’

Who came up with the word ‘carnival’? Jerry Fitzpatrick was given the job of organizing the events. ‘I think it must have been Paul. Red Saunders was struggling towards the idea, something even bigger than the Rock Against Racism gigs and the tours. They wanted something to bring together the cultural and political lefts, like the fêtes organized by the Communist Party in France. But it was Paul who capped it.’

“We started planning the first carnival in January 1977, at least three months beforehand. I remember booking the event through the GLC. The form said that if you had more than 10,000 people, you needed portaloos, and all that. So I booked a mini-festival, for 10,000, not more. I knew we had no money. I wasn’t expecting more than 20,000, tops. We made a deal to book the PA; we paid three thousand there and then, four thousand on the day. Paul drew the money out. I had to sew it into the lining of my leather jacket, so it wouldn’t get stolen. There were scaffolders from Donegal who put up the stage. Red and Roger booked the bands. Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson got X-ray Spex. Two weeks before the carnival, we started trying to book the Clash. I went to a meeting with their manager Bernie Rhodes, then one with the band. Red and Syd [Shelton] were absolutely brilliant. But I remember Mick Jones flicking ash in my hair. Finally Joe Strummer spoke, and said, ‘Fuck it, we’ll show them!’ That was just two weeks beforehand. The word went round the streets of London. After their songs ‘White Riot’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’, the Clash were huge. They brought the youth.”

Local anti-fascists put out leaflets for the carnival. Mike from Preston booked coaches: ‘Wherever you went, you sold tickets. Punk bands played gigs for the coaches, all sorts of people got involved. You really knew something was happening.’ Eighty coaches were organized from Manchester. According to Geoff, ‘I don’t think that the left has organized a larger number of coaches to anything in London, ever, and most of those coaches were full.’ Twelve coaches were sent from Sheffield, 25 from Leeds, a train from Glasgow. Keith remembers being stopped by a policeman flyposting for the first carnival on Tottenham High Road. ‘We said we hadn’t done that many and anyway it was for a worthwhile cause, and he just walked off and left us to it.’ These young anti-racists were astonished when the officer left them alone to get on with sticking posters. ‘This was not a usual occurrence!’

The carnival began with a march to Victoria Park, starting from Trafalgar Square, and going via the Strand, Fleet Street, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green Road and Old Ford Road. According to Dave Widgery,

“At 2 a.m. on the night before the demonstration, a group of RAR stalwarts including Tasmanian journalist Philip Brooks and the New York poet and club doorman Haowi Montag, who inhabited a labyrinthine eighth-floor squat on Charing Cross Road, began to hear crowds chanting through the downpour. And by 6 a.m. the following morning there were already 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square.”

The organizers deliberately avoided placing the carnival in London’s Hyde Park, the traditional destination of such protests, choosing instead Victoria Park, which was situated between Hackney and London’s East End. The march went close to Brick Lane, scene of many conflicts between left and right, and the main centre for Asians living in the East End. The area also had a resonance with the anti-fascism of the 1930s and especially the famous 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when Mosley’s blackshirts had been prevented from marching. The National Front’s John Tyndall had recently announced that he planned to stand in South Hackney, a constituency that included the park. On the day, left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo explained why Victoria Park had been chosen. ‘In the East End, fascists have done their traditional work of dividing one group of workers from another group of workers. There are too many people in the labour movement who believe if you leave it, it will go away.’ David R was a young socialist in Leeds: ‘The first [carnival] was brilliant, but the most exciting bit was the march to Victoria Park where we were reclaiming the streets of the East End, which had been swamped by fascists at an earlier demo organized by local anti-fascist groups.’

Marching to the carnival

Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office recalls some of the planning discussions: ‘Roger Huddle from RAR came into the office to argue with Paul that there needed to be a bigger, higher stage for the carnival – thank Christ they did – they understood the need for security, which none of us did.’ Roger Huddle himself would be stage manager on the day: ‘The first band started, and the crowd rushed the stage. Four people passed out. We took them round the back, and just fortunately they came to. We were so naive, we didn’t have security, we didn’t have ambulances.’

A special issue of Temporary Hoarding was produced – an A1 sheet folded three times to A4 size. Inside was a giant poster of the main acts of the day, Steel Pulse, Poly Styrene, Tom Robinson, replete with anti-National Front quotes, including one from Mick Jones of the Clash, ‘I’m half Jewish so I suppose the NF will try to send half of me back to Lithuania.’ Another large poster asked, ‘How did race hate happen?’: ‘when vote KKKatcher Thatcher makes speeches about the “threat” of alien culture; when Labour MPs sign a parliamentary report which recommends identity cards for all black citizens; when a Ku Klux Klan gang leader can shoot his mouth off on TV – race hatred becomes respectable. Don’t let’s be fooled. Race hate divides us when we most need to stand together – against the real enemy.’

The march was led off by giant papier-mâché models of Martin Webster and Adolf Hitler built by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, the people who would later make Spitting Image, while the Tower Hamlets Arts Project provided clowns, stilt-men and street theatre. There were dozens of banners, ranging from old-style trade union signs that took four people to carry, to home made spray-painted sheets: ‘Karen, Kate, Anna and Jill Against Racism, Fascism, Sexism.’ There was a steel band, and thousands of people carried the Anti-Nazi League’s distinctive yellow lollipop placards. ‘They were so different from the usual placards you would see on demos,’ remembers Geoff from Manchester. ‘At the first carnival we were giving lollipops away; by July you could sell them.’ Alongside the ANL lollipops were many more conventional Socialist Worker placards, blocks of text in Helvetica, against a background of green and purple swirls, ‘Stop the Nazis, No Immigration Controls.’

The march was due to set off at 1 p.m., but long before then Trafalgar Square was full, and the marchers set off under their own steam. Mike from the ANL had been given the job of making sure that the giant puppets of Tyndall and Webster were at the front of the march. ‘We had to run through the crowd, to try and get the heads and get them out, and we were the organizers . . . There was an enormous degree of spontaneity.’
Einde had arranged to meet friends between the Strand and Trafalgar Square.

“When we got there it seemed that tens of thousands of other people had also arranged to meet at the same corner. Eventually enough of us found each other and we unfurled our banner along with the thousands of other banners . . . We looked like a bunch of hippie desperados, to be quite honest – how could we wear such dreadful clothes? It was a glorious day and despite the long walk to Victoria Park I wouldn’t have missed it, one of the most enjoyable demonstrations I ever attended and the music was great, too.”

According to the report in the next Monday’s Guardian, ‘Police spokesmen said they were “astonished” at the size of the event. The tail of the march had still not left Trafalgar Square as the front reached journey’s end at Victoria Park.
‘Outside a couple of pubs near Brick Lane’, according to Dave Widgery’s history, Beating Time,

“there were a few Fronters with their mates, the sort of beer-gut and Page Three brigade who have an I love virgins sticker in the back of their off-brown resprayed Rover saloon and two kids whom they hit. They had come for a good laugh at the do-gooders. Three hours and 100,000 demonstrators later, the smiles were well and truly wiped off their faces and their bloated egos had evaporated into the swill at the bottom of their glasses.£

Peter Hain watched the crowd as it reached the park. ‘I remember the whistles, everyone in the crowd had whistles, also the ANL lollipops, they were new. It gave me a bubbly feeling that I had last experienced eight years previously on the Stop the Seventy campaign.’

Red Saunders compèred, wearing a cap covered in Rock Against Racism badges and a ‘Mr Oligarchies’ cape, an outfit from one of the Kartoon Klowns’ plays:

“The first carnival took place just a day or two after my daughter was born, and I was horrified that my beloved Nina wouldn’t be able to make it. The equality of the sexes, wasn’t that what we were supposed to believe in? Laurie Flynn, to his credit, made sure that all that day, whenever Nina wanted anything or needed anything, there was always someone from the SWP on hand to help her.
By 8 a.m., I was waiting in Trafalgar Square, absolutely pissing myself. I’d been up half the night with the baby. Syd and Ruth had been staying at some squat, and they were absolutely stoned. I was worried about the weather – would it rain? I went for a bacon butty. By the time I came back, I saw the first coaches arrive, and disembarking these dusty-eyed punks. Where are you from, mate? Liverpool. It would be big, then, I knew! We had 10,000 whistles we gave out free, thanks to Tom Robinson. We had the papier mâché models of Tyndall and Webster – we stuck them by the lions at the bottom end of Trafalgar Square. The weather was lifting. By the time people were sitting off, it had lifted.
At Victoria Park, we had the stage. It was very amateur compared to the ones you see these days – put up by a whole bunch of comrades working through the evening. Paul Holborow and I drove down to the park in a white transit van. There was Jerry Fitzpatrick, still finishing the stage. You could see big Rastas chatting to very straight St John’s ambulance men, all sorts of dialogues.
The park began to fill up. I ran on, and the first thing I shouted was ‘This isn’t Woodstock. It’s the Rock Against Racism carnival!’ and there was this huge cheer!”

The Clash, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex played to an audience of at least 80,000 people. Pink Floyd loaned their PA to the organizers. The Clash agreed to play, despite their manager’s protests. ‘They can do it,’ Bernie Rhodes said, ‘if you let them buy a tank for Zimbabwe.’ Publicity for the carnival put Aswad as the headline act, and Tom Robinson second. The Clash felt that they should have been given the best slot. But Robinson was higher in the charts. According to Roger Huddle of Rock Against Racism, ‘The Clash threw a wobbly and refused to stop playing when their time was up. Red Saunders had to pull their wires.’

The carnival’s platform included Peter Hain, Miriam Karlin, Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers’ Association, and Ray Buckton, general secretary of the rail union ASLEF and a member of the TUC General Council. Another trade union leader, Ernie Roberts, remarked, ‘None of the speakers could have addressed a crowd quite like this before. Dressed in an assorted garb of leather and satin, with hair of green or purple or pink, the teenagers gave them an enthusiastic welcome.’ Tariq Ali told the New Musical Express, ‘Lots of people will come for Rock Against Racism today and see that it should be Rock Against the Stock Exchange tomorrow.’

X-Ray Spex took the stage at 1.30, and were followed by the Clash and then Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson played his song ‘Winter of ’79’, predicting the news if complacency got its way and the National Front was allowed to prosper, ‘All the gay geezers were put inside / the coloured folks were getting crucified / a few fought back and a few folk died / in the winter of ’79.’ The threat of fascism was urgent, Robinson warned, ‘but now they’ve got no chance’. The last song brought each of the bands back on stage, for a one-off Tom Robinson number, ‘We Have Got to Get It Together’. The carnival was the lead story on that evening’s ten o’clock news.

John from south-east London had been arrested at the anti-fascist protests at Lewisham and sentenced to three months in jail. He was still in prison when he heard of the numbers attending the carnival:

“As the news came through of the numbers assembling in Victoria Park, our wildest expectations were exceeded. Ten thousand, then twenty, then thirty, then forty thousand. Earlier one of the fascist screws had jeered through the cell door, ‘Where’s your nigger friends now then, Johnny?’ Now he was quiet. The other cons on the wing didn’t support my ideas but they knew that something was happening against the system that crippled their lives. Radios were our contact with the real world. Everyone was listening and with every new announcement they cheered. As the final numbers came through, we were told that 100,000 people, black and white, had marched from Trafalgar Square to east London. All the cons on my wing, many of them racist, cheered and banged on the pipes. It’s a memory I will take to my grave.”

Gavin Weightman described the carnival in New Society: ‘There was something unreal about the sudden flowering in London of all the yellow and red anti-nazi propaganda – as if CND, lying dormant all these years, had bloomed again in different clothes and different colours.’  Richard from Football Fans Against the Nazis was ‘flabbergasted’ by the size of the event: ‘We expected 10 or 20,000 people, which would have been excellent, a big rise in the numbers who came on the marches and the demos. But on the day there were tens of thousands of people there.’ John S from south London was also ‘utterly amazed at how big it was. No-one expected it to be so big.’ Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party drew an upbeat conclusion, ‘The Anti-Nazi League is more than just a campaign – it is a mass movement.’ The historian Raphael Samuel, a member of the Communist Party from his early youth, described Victoria Park as ‘the most working-class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion.’

According to Rock Against Racism’s Sharon Spike,

“What was amazing was all the different people enjoying it; skinheads, punks, teds, Rastas, some old hippies, Greasers, disco-kids ands loads of middle-aged people and all. There were quite a few dogs. There was such a big turn-out that people at the back felt it hard to hear what the bands on stage were singing. But it didn’t matter too much because it was all so interesting just to walk around. It is very hard to describe what it felt like. Not Love and Peace and all that rubbish. It was more than music. Feeling all together. Not being scared of one another. Making you feel strong in a good way.”

Socialist Worker was no less ecstatic:

“At dawn on Sunday in Victoria Park, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism put the final touches to all their hard work. A young park-keeper watching the stage and tents and stalls going up said, ‘We’re expecting five thousand, but we’re ready for ten.’ And more came. Fifty thousand stretched from Trafalgar Square to Hackney. The kids had joined the march . . . Eighty thousand thronged the park, celebrating the rise against the fascists. ‘We’re black, we’re white, we’re dynamite’, they sang. They stood in the sun together. Eighty thousand. No trouble. Magic. The next day the National Front held a walk through London’s East End. Nearly two hundred attended. It was secret. It rained all the way. Even God has joined the Anti-Nazi League.”

Pop or politics?

This first carnival was followed by local carnivals in many areas. Thirty-five thousand came to a Manchester Carnival, 5,000 attended the next in Cardiff, 8,000 came to Edinburgh, 2,000 to Harwich and 5,000 to the carnival in Southampton. It was also in the aftermath of the first carnival that the Communist Party finally gave its official support to the Anti-Nazi League, hushing in retrospect its earlier criticism of the Socialist Workers’ Party’s tactics at Lewisham.

The May local elections were a considerable setback for the National Front, which secured disappointing votes in areas of previous strength, including Bradford and east London. The NF lashed out. A Bangladeshi garment worker, Altab Ali, was murdered on his way home. On 14 May 1978, following the murder, around 6,000 young Bengalis took part in a protest against racism in Brick Lane. It was the biggest Asian demonstration in British history. Older men brought macs and umbrellas; the younger activists created makeshift headgear from the round ANL lollipops to cover them from the rain. Placards asked, ‘How many more racial attacks? Why are the police covering up?’ Askan, one of the march organizers, was interviewed by Rock Against Racism’s Dave Widgery: ‘These racial attacks, they are getting worse all the time. Worse since National Front on the scene. Worse still since Mrs Thatcher. We’re not getting co-operation with the police. Mr Callaghan and his colleagues, do they realise what is happening all the time to our people?’

Working as a doctor in the area, Widgery observed countless examples of petty racism – an elderly Asian porter sacked for looking ill, a Bangladeshi woman sectioned in the seventh month of pregnancy, a white trade unionist driven to insomnia by window bashing, after he defended his Asian neighbour. For Widgery, the death of Altab Ali threw ‘into harsh relief the general level of racial violence in the East End, the indifference of the police and the prejudices of the non-Asians’.

On 11 June, following a series of tabloid stories announcing that the GLC planned to move Bengalis to housing ‘ghettos’ in east London, some 200 National Front supporters went on the rampage, attacking people and shops along Brick Lane. The following Sunday, 4,000 anti-racists marched again through the East End. John S was then a college lecturer in south London. They were the first demonstrations on which he had seen so many Sikhs: ‘It was so different from the meek image of law-abiding Asians.’ Tassaduq Ahmed, an educational worker in the East End, also commented on the growing self-organization among young Bengalis living around Brick Lane:

“The bare facts of assaults and killing of Asians in the East End by the National Front’s bully boys are known; what is not being sufficiently stressed is the strong multi-racial response that these acts have evoked, in particular among the Bengali youth, who have joined enthusiastically with their white friends in combating a menace which in its ultimate form will spell the death knell of a democratic Britain.”

On 7 July, David Lane, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, paid his first visit to Brick Lane, receiving considerable publicity. A series of demonstrations in August culminated in a 5,000-strong march to remove the National Front presence permanently from the area. White and Asian activists worked together to occupy the street each Saturday and guard it from the NF. Jerry Fizpatrick’s memories of this time are vivid:

“Brick Lane was a serious example of how the Front were providing their supporters with a public focus, to organize racist attacks, and as a rallying point for their members. We tried to respond. I remember waking up every Sunday morning, getting ready to go down to Brick Lane. It was skirmishing on skirmishing. But the fact that we were protesting against the Nazis, I know that gave confidence to the Bangladeshi youth. They became more cohesive, you could see it.”

The Manchester carnival took place on 15 July 1978. The following day saw a giant protest of black, white and Asian people, demonstrating against the Nazi Front, who had previously been able to sell their newspaper on London’s Brick Lane. Socialist Worker spoke of ‘a barrier of men and women against the Nazis who peddle their poison in the street market every week’. The same weekend saw the ANL carnival in Cardiff, and a large Anti-Nazi contingent at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

A second national Rock Against Racism carnival took place in Brockwell Park on 24 September 1978, with Sham 69 headlining. ‘The second carnival’, Paul Holborow explains, ‘was booked for when we thought would be slap bang in the middle of the election.’ Alongside Sham 69, other bands, including Crisis, Charge, Eclipse, Inganda, RAS, the Derelicts, the Enchanters, the Members, the Ruts and the Straights, played from floats along the course of the march. It was a huge event, even larger than the first carnival, with 100,000 involved. Joe Garman, chair of NORMANCAR, the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism, described the day in vivid terms:

“The music blared, slogans were shouted, some old some new. I liked ‘One, two, three and a bit, the National Front is a load of shit.’ The ‘Queen’ waved to us, all dressed up as she sat on the throne perched on the top of a bay window. There were lots of kids, some in pushchairs, some perched on dad’s shoulders. There was a Notts collier in pit clothes, his enemy was the National Front even tho’ his ‘blackness’ washed off.”

At the end of the march from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park, Garman described his aching feet – ‘yet another reason for hating the Nazis’.

For many of those who took part, this carnival was every bit as exciting and jubilant as the first. But the success of events in Brockwell Park was partly clouded by news of a National Front mobilization in east London. This was the story that captured the interest of the press.

Called only after the carnival had been publicly announced, the National Front march was simply intended to embarrass the organizers of the anti-fascist event. Within the Socialist Workers’ Party, people were warning Paul Holborow and others to make sure that the NF was prevented from marching. ‘For weeks before,’ Andy recalls, ‘lots of us were trying to make sure that Brick Lane was covered. The ANL wanted to keep an eye on just one thing, the carnival. They didn’t think we could spare people, but we could.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick disagrees:

“I felt that the success of the march depended on us going through Brixton. That was more important than any stunt the NF pulled. Even if we had sent more numbers to Brick Lane, it couldn’t have been enough. The police always had it covered. The Front were contained. We were always going to be contained, which is in fact what happened. We had to keep our eyes on the prize, on the carnival.”

Some on the left insisted that the entire carnival should be called off, and that the vast numbers of people present should be sent instead to chase the 250 fascists marching through the East End. Members of the Spartacist League told carnival-goers that they were ‘SCABBING on the struggle’. Although there would not have been any point in sending the whole crowd against a small National Front march, certain numbers did need to be sent. The leadership of the Anti-Nazi League were caught in a dilemma. How would they know that enough people had been sent? And what could be done if the numbers were too low? On the day, confusion grew, and Paul Holborow, the national organiser of the ANL, admits that the leadership simply failed to send enough people to stop the NF demo. ‘We collectively bungled it.’

Two hundred and fifty National Front marchers assembled in the East End. According to Steve Tilzley, ‘The National Front marched practically unopposed through the East End and held a rally in Curtain Road, off Great Eastern Street. There had been a small, token anti-racist presence in the area to protest against their presence but they were heavily outnumbered by the Nazis and the police.’

Tilzley’s memories were written up more than 20 years later, as part of a longer critique of the Anti-Nazi League, and so should be read with a certain caution. A counter-demonstration did in fact take place and involved several hundred people, but it arrived late and failed to disperse the National Front group. Mike from Preston was at Brick Lane and remembers ‘the sectarian left’ criticizing the League, while themselves ‘refusing to actually organize physically against the very young NF kids’.

David L’s memories are Pythonesque:

There had been demos before along Brick Lane, and lots of people came out when the NF were leafleting there. But this time it was much smaller. What I remember . . . was bizarre. The RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] were out in force. But in all, the left was outnumbered roughly two to one. What I remember is the RCP starting a chant of ‘Police protect the Nazis’. Generally, that’s my analysis. But this time, the police were protecting us!

Dick was sent from Brixton to support the anti-racists isolated in east London. It took him hours to reach Brick Lane, and by then it was too late. ‘Yes we did mess up. I remember quite a lot of bitterness being addressed to people who had been at the carnival.’

The organizers of the carnival did not have enough forces in the East End; nor had they established good enough communication links to keep fully abreast of a changing situation. There were no mobile phones to enable people to exchange news quickly. According to Dave Widgery, ‘The transport logistics were not worked out and the anti-fascists who did attempt to block off the Front in Brick Lane were demoralised and easily pushed about by the belligerent police pressure. The Front were harassed but not stopped and by the time reinforcements had arrived by Victoria line from Brixton, the National Front had dispersed.’

According to Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office, ‘The main people we were relating to were people who were willing to put themselves on the line, to defend meetings, to defend marches. The carnival showed that we could relate to much wider groups of young people, ones who wouldn’t show themselves in the same way.’ While it might have been possible to divert some of the organizers to Brick Lane, he argues, the ANL’s mass audience was not malleable in the same way. Tony Cliff took a full page of Socialist Worker to apologize for his party’s handling of events at Brick Lane.

“Under the threat of mobilising thousands of anti-fascists into Brick Lane, Commander Hunt of Scotland Yard announced on Friday that the NF would not be allowed East of Shoreditch High Street into the Brick Lane area. This statement led to a complacency among the mass of ANL supporters. There was too a terrible failure of communication. Three thousand ANL supporters did come from Brockwell Park to Brick Lane . . . they arrived far too late. At 6 o’clock or so. But the 2000 anti-racists who held Brick Lane throughout the day – an extremely arduous and frustrating task – all anti-fascists owe a tremendous debt. Thanks to them a mass anti-fascist movement has been kept intact. Thanks to them the Carnival was able to go on.”

Back in Victoria Park, the music continued. Red Saunders was the compère again. He had swapped his cape from Carnival One for a ‘much more thought out’ uniform: ‘Yellow boiler suit covered in RAR stencilled slogans with a huge stove pipe hat with the Love Music, Hate Racism slogan all over it. Plus shades, of course.’ Sham 69 had been rattled by a series of death threats, and Jimmy Pursey took the stage to explain that his band could not play. Instead Stiff Little Fingers opened the set. We can quote Dave Widgery again:

“When Jake Burns took off his specs and donned his leathers he transmogrified himself into one of the most stinging vocalists and fiery guitarists punk ever possessed. The Stiffs’ incendiary songs bought in the Irish dimension so important to any movement against racism in Britain, even though Burns denounced troops out. But better, they did punk homage to Bob Marley’s classic Johnny Was.”

Bernie was standing by a Rock Against Racism stall when he found a backstage pass that had been left unattended. He sneaked backstage and watched Elvis Costello playing Nick Lowe’s song ‘What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?’ ‘Lowe had tears in his eyes.’ Aswad played into the night.
Labour MP Tony Benn walked with the crowd from Park Lane to Piccadilly: ‘the youngsters were rushing along and pushing ahead – it made me feel like an animal in a herd! By the time we got to Brixton there must have been a hundred thousand people gathered.’

Mark Steel attended the carnival with his friend Jim, who came from Swanley. It was their first march: ‘neither of us had any idea what would happen when we got there. What is a march, we pondered? Do you actually march, in step, with someone yelling at you to get in line?’ For these young punks, the carnival was no disappointment.

“100,000 ambled joyfully from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park in Brixton. All the scenes which would become so laboriously familiar, the hordes of leaflets thrust at you from all angles, the flamboyant but awful drumming costumes, the chanter screaming into a megaphone and becoming increasingly, thankfully hoarse, it all seemed so thrilling. And there was Aswad and Tom Robinson and Elvis Costello, and instead of feeling angry I felt jubilant because now I was doing something. ”

Geoff from Manchester felt a similar sense of elation. At the time of the first carnival, he recalls, it was not clear whether the National Front would be defeated, but ‘the second was a victory march’.

Even God has Joined the Anti-Nazi League

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Through 1976 and 1977, a number of attempts were made to form anti-racist alliances. Rock Against Racism was one of many to get started at this time, although even RAR only took off in 1978. The Communist Party had its own All-London Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which played a part at Lewisham. Another coalition was the All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee, set up after the protests at Haringey.

In 1977, Danny was working at the Institute of Race Relations. A former member of the International Socialists, he threw himself head first into the campaign against fascism. Danny remembers this period as one of growing struggles and occasional left-wing collaboration. ‘Seventy-six was quite a turning point. You had Grunwick, the Notting Hill Carnival riots, and Enoch Powell’s speeches. You had the National Front and the National Party demonstrating all over the country. In every area, local anti-racist groups were formed. Sometimes the initiative came from political parties, sometimes informally from local youth groups or meeting halls.’ The first chance for this collaboration to succeed came, Danny argues, in Haringey, with the preparations for the Wood Green protest. ‘We worked together well in Tottenham. People came from all different backgrounds and for a time there was good co-operation.’ Then in May 1977, 23 anti-fascist committees in London came together to form an All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ALARAFCC), which adopted CARF, the paper of the Kingston Campaign against Racism and Fascism, as its bi-monthly journal.[1] Members of the Socialist Workers Party and other left groups took part in this initiative. Danny became the first secretary of the campaign.[2]

As far as Danny was concerned, the immediate task was to build a national movement.

“We tried to organize a big conference at Middlesex Poly. Loads of people came, but somehow it didn’t gel. Perhaps we were too liberal. We allowed resolutions from all over. There were so many motions, compositing, it felt like student politics. There were lots of different elements represented, old Communist Party, trades council types, women’s groups, and the gay movement, which was very hostile to the left. Everyone was trying to come together, but the movement was too disparate. We needed to have a healthier pulling together before that could happen.”

So why did the conference fail? Even now, Danny is unsure what went wrong. ‘We were trying to organize from the bottom up. We were local groups with scant resources.’

If ALARAFCC and CARF failed to create a single, unified campaign, then this failure was not apparent at the time. Instead, it only became evident with the rise of the Anti-Nazi League, the one organization that did establish a national profile in the campaign against the National Front.

From protests to organization

‘After Lewisham’, recalls Roger Huddle, ‘it was obvious that an organization as small as the SWP was incapable of stemming the tide. So we set up a united organization, which anyone could join. It had a single demand. The Anti-Nazi League mobilized tens of thousands of people, Rock Against Racism could mobilize thousands of young people on one issue alone – stopping the Nazis, that’s what it was all about.’

The idea of another, bigger anti-fascist alliance had first been mooted a fortnight before Lewisham in the Stoke Newington back garden of Jim Nichol, then the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party and later a successful campaigning lawyer. Events at Lewisham clearly gave the discussions a new urgency. Nichol carefully sounded out a range of activists and politicians in order to gauge the potential of this new movement. Dave Widgery takes up the story:

“Nichol went first to the late Douglas Tilbey, Quaker Labour Party member, magistrate and OBE, ‘a really nice guy, very principled on the question of race and always had a bit time for the SWP’. Tilbey thought it was an excellent idea. Then Nichol put the scheme to Tassaduq Ahmed, a middle-of-the-road Bangladeshi who had been in Britain since 1963 . . . Tassaduq relayed to him the concern he also felt about the number of factions that existed within the black communities. The next barometer was Michael Seifert, the lawyer and Communist Party member, because of his links with trade-union bureaucracy people like Ken Gill, George Guy and Alan Sapper – whose blessing was also going to prove essential. Nichol recalls, ‘I said, “Mike, this is only really going to work if it gets the support of the CP and the left TU leaders. What do you think?” Mike said, “I think it’s a bloody great idea. But I’m sorry, the CP won’t, they’ll crucify you. So I’ll not mention it to anyone.””[3]

But Nichol was determined that the alliance should be established. And as the anti-Lewisham hysteria subsided in the press, so the conviction grew among all parts of the left that further confrontations were required.

Paul Holborow, recently the Socialist Workers’ Party’s district organizer in east London, and described by Dave Widgery as combining ‘the Charterhouse air of clipped command with the concern for accuracy of an artillery officer’,[4] approached two members of the Labour Party, Ernie Roberts, the trade unionist, and Peter Hain,[5] the anti-apartheid activist, in order to establish a leadership for the new movement. Hain originally declined, pleading time and other commitments. But he was soon persuaded. Together, Hain, Roberts and Holborow agreed to launch the Anti-Nazi League. Holborow himself takes up the story:

“The aftermath of Lewisham was the essential catalyst for the formation of the Anti-Nazi League. Lewisham received absolutely saturation coverage. It was the silly season, and there wasn’t anything else to put in the papers. Michael Foot was the Deputy Prime Minister and he condemned us. There was blanket publicity, plus our strategy of uniting the left and the anti-racist organizations. Imagine the SWP National Office. The phone never stops ringing with people saying, ‘I want nothing to do with the SWP, but you’re completely right to be taking on the Nazis.’”

“Jim was not just National Secretary of the SWP; he was also manager of the Socialist Worker print shop. He knew people with whom we had printing contracts, who were sympathetic, but who didn’t want to give money to the Socialist Workers’ Party. Jim put the scheme to me, and suggested that Nigel Harris and I should be central to it. Jim also coined the name, Anti-Nazi League; it played on the traditions of the labour movement.”

Peter Hain was another key figure. ‘He had an excellent reputation for fighting apartheid’, Paul Holborow recalls,

“and was a bridge to the left Labour milieu. Peter brought a vital dimension; he opened up doors to the Labour Party. He also brought experience of running a press campaign – which we didn’t have at all. He had excellent antennae. He and I got on extremely well. He taught me the importance of making your formulations exact. He and I drew up the founding statement.”

In 1977 Peter Hain was a trade unionist and anti-racist in his late twenties. He had first arrived in Britain some 11 years earlier, as a young exile from apartheid South Africa. As a student, he became one of the best-known activists in the Stop the Seventy campaign against the touring South African rugby side. He was also for several years a leader of the Young Liberals. In September 1976, he had begun working as a research officer for the postal workers’ union (today the CWU). A year later, he had joined Labour, and it was in the days immediately following that Hain was invited to join the Anti-Nazi League. ‘If I hadn’t joined the Labour Party,’ he reflects, ‘I doubt I would have been approached. The labour movement was key to the strategy of the League.’

“My view was that we had a big problem. With the decline of the Labour government, the National Front were pushing the Liberals into fourth place. There was a lot of concern about racist violence. For some working-class youth, the skinheads, the National Front were becoming fashionable. We had to go into places that no party could reach. If the Anti-Nazi League hadn’t been launched, the National Front could have made real advances among youth in particular.”

After Peter Hain, Paul Holborow’s next contact was Ernie Roberts.

“I met Ernie at Centrepoint in Hackney. He had been assistant general secretary of the engineering workers’ union for 30 years. He had always been interested in the political dimension of building the rank and file. He had cut his teeth in the Coventry tool-room disputes of the 1940s. He had an immense following on the left. For years, he had been editing Engineering Voice, which functioned as the broad left in the industry. He was never in the Communist Party, and never identified with the Soviet Union, but worked closely with the Communists. He took the statement to the Labour Party conference in 1977, and signed up 40 Labour MPs and many trade union leaders. That was our arrival.”

Many left-wing Labour MPs signed up to the League, as did well-known anti-fascists such as Maurice Ludmer, the editor of Searchlight, who later joined the League’s national steering committee.

A launch meeting was held in November 1977, at the House of Commons, with various sponsors. An ad hoc steering committee was elected, and the three executive positions of organiser, press officer and treasurer were taken by Holborow, Hain and Roberts. Of these, Holborow was the only full-time salaried official with the Rowntree Trust pledging £600 a quarter until the general election.[6] Jerry Fitzpatrick, who became national secretary, comments that ‘Paul Holborow was a very cool organizer. He could be very inspirational and politically courageous. He did come from a public school background, and had a manner that could be austere. He followed the party line closely but was prepared to be flexible.’ Paul didn’t follow music like the RAR people, but he had the modesty to bring in others when required. ‘He really was a good leader. He was the nuts and bolts of the Anti-Nazi League.’

Other members of the committee included four MPs, Martin Flannery, Dennis Skinner, Audrey Wise and Neil Kinnock, former Young Liberal Simon Hebditch and Maurice Ludmer of Searchlight, as well as Nigel Harris of the Socialist Workers Party and the actress Miriam Karlin, who had made her name playing working-class Jewish women in sitcoms.[7] A seat was also reserved in case the Communist Party decided to join.[8] Peter Hain describes the different individuals involved:

“I had lots of contacts with local Labour parties. Ernie Roberts was linked to the traditional labour movement. He was close to the Communist Party, that tradition in the labour movement. Neil Kinnock had a very non-sectarian approach – he didn’t want to spend ages debating racism. He wanted the movement to work. Dennis and Martin brought the Tribunite MPs. Audrey completely threw herself into the movement. Miriam was very important in the Jewish community. She was completely frustrated by the sectarianism – you don’t just see it in the left parties, it was there in the Labour Party, in the Jewish community.”

Peter Hain explains how the committee began as a small group with common purpose.

“We didn’t start off by calling a conference. We would have just paralysed ourselves with argument. Debate is important in its own right, but not when it stops you from acting. We had to get together a group of people who were politically sussed. You build support from there. We wanted to get away from that sectarianism, when people only defend their own position. We made the focus action.”

Holborow agrees:

“It was a very hands-off steering committee, more a point of reference than a decision-making body. The key decisions were taken in face-to-face meetings with myself and Peter and Ernie. I always took great care to make sure that Peter ratified everything I wanted to get done. I think he found it quite exciting, in contrast to the anti-apartheid movement, which was now slow and cumbersome and unimaginative.”

Mike was a member of the 7/84 theatre group, and often unemployed. Shortly after the launch of the Anti-Nazi League, he was invited to work in its office with Paul Holborow. ‘I was largely responsible for distributing leaflets. Soon we were having so many calls for leaflets that it became a kind of despatch room, packing leaflets, tying them together with string. There were just three of us in the office.’ What was it like, working there? ‘Paul was very easy to work with, very clear in what he was doing, giving roles, but you could always talk to him.’

Roger Huddle argues that Holborow’s great strength was a grasp of spectacle.

“Paul had a fantastic ability to organize. I remember one time, we were in Walthamstow, it must have been ’77 or ’78. The NF called a demonstration against the local mosque. Paul got us all there, with banners, strung out in a great long line. He went into the mosque, and persuaded them not to be afraid, but to turn out too. It was a long line, very long. As the NF turned round a corner, marching towards us, suddenly they realized how many of us there were. They just turned and ran.”

Paul Holborow recalls with gratitude the work done by the Anti-Nazi League’s two full-time office workers, Joan and Mike. ‘I must have been hell to work with. I did no administration ever. I used to bark orders at Joan, write this letter, do this, do that. It was so completely helter-skelter; there was just no time in the office. Joan was absolutely brilliant, and Mike as well. They in turn organized large teams of volunteers.’

Nigel Harris was research director for the League. An academic and journalist, he attempted to persuade the well-known faces of the left to join the campaign. Some of those he approached were supportive, while others were hostile. It was hard to predict who would go which way. Among other targets, Harris wrote to Edward Thompson and John Saville, the two former-Communist historians who had launched the first New Left in 1950s Britain. ‘Thompson wrote back saying, “This whole thing is a front for the Socialist Workers’ Party, and you must think I’m an idiot to ask me.” Saville wrote back, “Of course it’s a front, but it’s a good cause, and its alright by me.”’ The greatest hostility that Harris remembers came from the chair of the Jewish Board of Deputies.

“I went to see him, to talk him round. He was a hard nut. He kept on coming back to the point that the SWP did not support the state of Israel. I said that Israel was not going to be an issue for the ANL. He told me, ‘We are as likely to support the National Front as the Anti-Nazi League.’”

Nigel Harris recalls his colleagues vividly. ‘Kinnock was a left shadow rider.[9] Hain had just come from the Liberals on a very militant campaign against apartheid. Roberts was part of the old order and would back anything.’ But what was the glue holding together this diverse set of personalities? The crisis of the times clearly impelled people to work together. But Harris goes further, singling out the role played by Paul Holborow for special praise. ‘Paul was very presentable, smooth, charming, very good at relating to different occasions. I don’t remember any great divisions. Paul was a great operator, good at talking to people before meetings and securing consensus. There was never any embarrassment; the worst it ever got was the threat of embarrassment.’

The launch of the Anti-Nazi League was recorded in the Guardian newspaper. Neil Kinnock was interviewed, saying that it was no longer true that the National Front would go away if it was ignored, ‘The popular belief that their support would dwindle is not true, and the silence of democrats can only help it. We have to give up our silence.’ Peter Hain stressed that the League would be broad-based, recruiting from all sides of the political spectrum. ‘We hope to extinguish their potential. I don’t think banning them is the whole answer. Hitler was banned. Our major aim is to make the public aware of their Nazi credentials.’[10]

Many existing anti-racist activists felt wary of the new campaign. Danny of Haringey CARF was wary of SWP involvement in the new campaign. ‘You’ve got to remember that lots of lefties were already alienated, not just politicos but black activists and gay activists in the movement.’ David L had been a member of the International Marxist Group for about five years. By 1977, he was mainly active in Islington Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. He felt protective towards the campaigning links that his group had already established, and was (like many of his friends) very suspicious of the new movement.

“It took me by surprise. At the time of Lewisham, the Anti-Nazi League hadn’t been formed. It was only set up soon afterwards. I didn’t know it was going to happen. I realize now that the SWP had played an important role at Lewisham, but that wasn’t at all clear at the time. Other groups took part in Lewisham, women, lesbian and gay organizations. Then suddenly there was the Anti-Nazi League. I think we were a bit fed up, really. There was a lot of rivalry between the different groups. Some of it was a bit silly. Islington Anti-Nazi League broke up fascist paper sales at Chapel Street market, but we in Islington CARF didn’t really get involved. There were lots of people who should have been working together. But there was too much suspicion.”

The magazine CARF was guarded in its welcome of the new movement.

“There have been certain fears expressed by local anti-fascist campaigns that such a large national body might swamp local activity and initiative. But since the Anti-Nazi League is specifically geared towards fighting fascism at elections and will most probably dissolve after the next general election, the aims of local campaigns seem to complement rather than compete with the aims of the Anti-Nazi League . . . Campaigns can in fact take this opportunity to make full use of the propaganda available from the Anti-Nazi League. It is after all the local campaigns which will have to stand the test of time.”[11]

Nigel Harris insists that groups like the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism had nothing to fear from the League.

“There were always tensions with the anti-racists. They could feel a bit like the dog in the manger, slogging away for years, horrified as the new flashy car of the Anti-Nazi League took over. They thought we were taking away their audience, but the reality is that the League brought new people in. Long after the Anti-Nazi League was wound down, their campaigns would continue.”

In autumn 1977, it was by no means clear that the ANL would overcome the sectarianism that had long shaped the British left. If that happened, and this book suggests that it did, the change only became clear later, once the new movement had been fully established on the ground.

Designing the movement

Although the Anti-Nazi League was founded on the initiative of members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, it received the support of around 40 Labour MPs and sections of the broader left. Prominent members included Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group and Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers, as well as Hain, Roberts and Kinnock. The League’s founding statement was sent to the press in November 1977.

“For the first time since Mosley in the thirties there is the worrying prospect of a Nazi party gaining significant support in Britain . . . The leaders, philosophy, and origins of the National Front and similar organisations followed directly from the Nazis in Germany . . . They must not go unopposed. Ordinary voters must be made aware of the threat that lies behind the National Front. In every town, in every factory, in every school, on every housing estate, wherever the Nazis attempt to organise they must be countered.”[12]

Bernie was then a young activist in the Socialist Workers’ Party. Having cut his teeth on the Right to Work marches in Manchester, he wondered what this new movement would be like. ‘The Anti-Nazi League all kicked off with a signed ad in The Times. It looked so boring, just MPs and worthies signing up. But from that, it mushroomed. Within a few months, everywhere you went people had the badges on, the Anti-Nazi League became part of the fashion, everyone I knew got involved.’

The organizers of the Anti-Nazi League wanted to sign up as wide a range of people as possible, to show that a majority of people actively despised the National Front. Crystal Palace manager Terry Venables signed up, with Nottingham Forest’s manager Brian Clough, actors Arnold Wesker and Keith Waterhouse, and several hundred trade unionists, community activists, musicians and other celebrities. Warren Mitchell, who played the bigot Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, joined in, as did Compo from BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine. Dozens of local Anti-Nazi League groups were set up, including ‘Vegetarians and Football Fans Against the Nazis’. Patrons of a pub in Rusholme, Manchester, even set up their own group, ‘The Albert Against the Nazis’, with a badge and banner. Badges also proclaimed ‘Aardvarks Against the Nazis’, ‘Skateboarders Against the Nazis’ and so on. This was a remarkably diverse movement, which attempted to undermine NF support in all spheres of life.

One of the tasks was to come up with a visual language that would mark this movement off from the routine tradition of left-wing protests, and show it to the world as something new. Dave King drew up the blueprints for many of the Anti-Nazi League leaflets and stickers. A graphic designer who worked for the Sunday Times, he was also a long-standing, independent activist on the left and a collector of Soviet-era photographs and images. It was Laurie Flynn, editor of Socialist Worker, who suggested King. Paul Holborow emphasises King’s contribution:

“Another crucial part of the movement was the quality of the propaganda. Dave King was the editor of the Sunday Times colour supplement, and an extraordinary designer. He taught us about over-printing in different layers, to give a real depth to the colour. I was always dropping in to his house to see how the latest leaflet was being developed.”

King designed a number of posters with a deliberate montage effect, modelled on the style of John Heartfield, the anti-Nazi artist. He also designed the Anti-Nazi League arrow, which was also based on the historic symbols of German anti-fascism. The earlier image had been three arrows, a symbol invented in 1932 by Sergej Tschachotin and Carlo Mierendorff to link the struggles against capitalism, fascism and reaction. The German anti-fascist Iron Front, an alliance between SPD, free trade unions and the SPD’s Reichsbanner, employed the image. Austrian Social Democrats also used it before 1934.[13] The Anti-Nazi League designers took the older symbol of the three separate arrows and abbreviated it, producing the new symbol of one arrow with three quills.

King’s other innovation was the Anti-Nazi League yellow ‘lollipop’, unveiled at the first Rock Against Racism carnival in summer 1978. King saw these placards as a deliberate attempt to get away from the traditional black-and-white A2 rectangles carried by the left. Different stories explain the image. Some thought King wanted to copy old CND symbols; others that the idea went as far back as Russia in the 1920s. Whatever their origin, the lollipops helped to give a visual sense of the League’s novelty.

Where did the ANL’s name come from? Paul Holborow credits Jim Nichol with the inspiration for the title. The idea was to remind working-class people of the reality behind the NF. According to Roger Huddle, ‘It was necessary to remind people of the history in Germany. No one had said that they were Nazis till we did. If it had been called the Anti-Fascist League, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.’ To call the NF Nazis was to point to genocide as the goal of their movement.

Elections

Although the National Front was never simply an electoral party, there was a sense in which elections acted as the main barometer of its growth. The Anti-Nazi League was forced to respond, covering local areas with leaflets warning of the NF threat. The first test came in November 1977, with the by-election at Bournemouth East. Paul Holborow takes up the story: ‘The president of the students’ union at Bournemouth College of Education was brilliant; he turned out significant numbers. Two east London businesses donated paper to the campaign: it showed up by the lorry-load. Alexis Grower and Michael Seifert organized meetings of Jewish groups. We produced 50,000 leaflets. The Nazis’ vote was derisory.’ Kenneth McKilliam of the NF secured just 725 votes.

Another test came during the by-election at Ilford in spring 1978. According to Holborow,

“The Nazis were going to march, but they were banned. We were banned from counter-marching. This was a big test for us, and for Peter Hain. Traditionally, the Socialist Workers Party would have defied the ban. This time, we accepted it. But we took 2,000 people and leafleted the entire constituency. Peter was with me the entire afternoon. A steward with maps had responsibility for each ward. He was very impressed by our capacity to mobilize people, and also by our discipline. By then, the ball was rolling.”

The Anti-Nazi League was now up and running, but the National Front was far from defeated: its candidate won over 2,000 votes.

Exposure

Anti-Nazi League leaflets and stickers consistently exposed the fascist politics of the National Front. The strategy of the ANL was to focus on the most extreme expressions of racism, in order to demonstrate that racism of all sorts was wrong. Dennis Potter’s play, Brimstone and Treacle (1978), explains this method in a dramatized form. A suburban family, Mr and Mrs Bates, are visited by a stranger, Martin. Mr Bates dwells longingly on the England he used to know, and admits his membership of the NF. Martin responds by suggesting, and it seems innocently at first, that blacks should be placed in special camps. Mrs Bates says ‘like Butlins’. Then Martin continues,

“Camps. Any camps for the time being. Oh think of it! . . . Hundreds of thousands. Millions. Rounded up from their stinking slums and overcrowded ghettos. Driven into big holding camps, men, women, picconinnies . . . You’ll see England like it used to be again, clean and white. They won’t want to go . . . They’ll fight, so we shall have to shoot them and CS gas them and smash down their doors . . . Think of all the hate we’ll feel when they start killing us back. Think of all the violence! Think of the de-gra-dat-ion and in the end, in the end, the riots and the shooting and the black corpses and the swastikas, and the . . .”

Bates begs him to stop, promising to leave the NF. Uncomfortable, confronted by the end results of racism, he is compelled to rethink what he believes.[14] This is how the Anti-Nazi League tried to work.

When it came to exposing the leaders of the National Front, the support of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight was invaluable. Its editor, Maurice Ludmer, had been seconded to the War Graves Commission and visited Belsen concentration camp in 1946. According to one report,

“It was a year after the liberation, the place had been cleaned up, but there was still more than enough evidence of the unbelievable atrocities that had happened there, in the heart of Europe, in the middle of the twentieth century. And there and then, the young soldier pledged himself, wholeheartedly and irrevocably, to seeing that this could never happen again.”

Maurice was a founding member of the Anti-Nazi League, along with another Searchlight stalwart, the journalist Gerry Gable.[15]

Searchlight archives held an enormous quantity of material on the leaders of the National Front, going back to the 1950s and 1960s when many had been members of openly Nazi parties. John Tyndall was shown on leaflets wearing a Nazi uniform and swastika. Tyndall and Martin Webster were exposed through the words they had used. Martin Webster’s article, ‘Why I am a Nazi’ was used against him. ‘Mein Kampf is my doctrine’, Tyndall had said, and he was reminded of it. Other ANL articles described the history of Nazi Germany and what life was like there for women or for Jews. The point of these articles was not simply to dig up the history of the 1930s, but much more to demonstrate what the NF stood for in Britain, 40 years on.[16] Yet ANL activists did not assume that exposing the supporters of the NF as fascists would be enough to ensure that movement’s decline. As Malcolm Cottram, an experienced anti-fascist from Sheffield, pointed out, many members of the NF were comfortable with the tag ‘Nazi’, and it took more than that to discredit their politics. ‘Yelling “Nazi scum” and “Sieg Heil” may bring home to passers-by that the NF have affinities with Hitler and are therefore nasty, but this doesn’t deter the Front – it only hardens them.’[17]

Having exposed the fascist pedigree of the National Front, Anti-Nazi League leaflets went on to show that the NF’s ‘solutions’ were lies. Typically, they argued that black people were not the cause of unemployment, bad housing and crime, but the victims of them. ‘It is not black people who caused 300,000 building workers and 8,000 architects to be unemployed.’ The crimes of the system were blamed on capitalism, and a message of class unity was argued in place of racial division.[18]

Students Against the Nazis

As the Anti-Nazi League grew, it quickly developed spin-off campaigns, involving particular groups of people depending on where they lived or worked. An impressive list of student unions affiliated to the Anti-Nazi League. They included Bedford College, Bradford University, Bristol University, Ealing College of Higher Education, Edge Hill College, Essex University, Exeter University, Liverpool Polytechnic, Loughborough University, Manchester Polytechnic, Newman College, St Peter’s College in Oxford, Central London Polytechnic, the Polytechnic of Wales, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Surrey, Sussex University and Teesside Poly. Twelve national student societies also affiliated, including the Union of Liberal Students, the Union of Jewish Students, the National Organization of Labour Students and the Federation of Conservative Students. The FCS endorsement was unwelcome. Most Anti-Nazi League activists judged that the racism of the National Front found its echo in the policies of the Conservatives in Parliament. The Federation was never denied membership, but when its subscription came up for renewal, the FCS was encouraged not to reapply.

How did student activists build a base for the League in their colleges? Chris and Simon, members of the Socialist Workers Party at Bristol University, helped to set up an Anti-Nazi League group there. First they contacted the Anti-Nazi League national office and ordered enough badges and posters to distribute. They organized stalls and raised the campaign in student union meetings. Then a proper founding meeting was called, at which a team was elected to co-ordinate the League’s activity between larger meetings. ‘From the beginning, we emphasized the activity orientation of the ANL. From the first meeting we elected a small co-ordinating committee, a non-decision-making body. We distributed 4,000 leaflets around the university and involved large numbers of people in this. We contacted lecturers in several departments and got their financial support for the ANL nationally.’ One of the important jobs done was to help set up the Anti-Nazi League at other colleges by taking displays and propaganda to them and talking to other students. ‘We have contacted two Tech colleges so far in this way. We have also arranged to give 500 ANL school student leaflets to [the National Union of School Students] in Bristol and to work with them . . . The ANL sent a coach to counter the Nazi Youth rally at Birmingham, and has mobilized a militant picket against the racist Monday Club MP, Jonathan Guinness.’

David R was a member of Leeds Students Union: ‘I worked on the ANL stall which we put on frequently in the Union building. Our main job was to sell badges and promote the ANL literature. Students were generally very receptive.’ Students from Leeds University also took part in leafleting the football ground and the town centre.

Einde was on the executive of the City University Union Society. ‘We won affiliation of CUUS to the ANL right from the beginning, despite opposition from some of the Broad Left members of the executive and some leading members of the Jewish Society – they weren’t happy about the SWP’s anti-Zionist position.’ Most students were friendly to the Anti-Nazi League, Einde recalls. Indeed, without an atmosphere that was generally supportive, they would not have won affiliation from the City University students’ union. ‘It was a predominantly a technological university with a large number of traditionally apolitical engineers and scientists and a much smaller number of social scientists who tended to be more progressive. There was little overt hostility, except from the real right-wing Tories, who were died-in-the wool racists anyway.’

John helped to organize the Manchester carnival from offices in the students’ union. Although not a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, he was a supporter of its student group, NOISS. ‘At one meeting of the Poly branch of the ANL, members of the International Marxist Group showed up, to argue about tactics.’ The IMG members were guardedly critical of the Anti-Nazi League, arguing that as much energy should be devoted to fighting all forms of racism, not just fascism. ‘The debate was had. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It was important to understand why the Anti-Nazi League and not something broader. There is a need to oppose all forms of racism, but when the far-right are organizing you must do something about that.’ What convinced him that the IMG was wrong? ‘I was at a meeting, which was attacked by the NF.’ Having seen the National Front at close hand, John was persuaded that the left needed to defend its own spaces, and the only way to do that was by confronting the NF head on.
Football Fans Against the Nazis

As the Anti-Nazi League grew, it quickly developed spin-off campaigns, involving particular groups of people depending on where they lived or worked. The National Front had long been targeting football supporters. John Berry of the magazine Leveller describes attending Spurs games at White Hart Lane. Berry described hearing chants of ‘TIN-DALL . . . TIN-DALL’ – ‘a regular feature on Saturday afternoons.’ Berry interviewed ‘Martin’, an openly identified NF supporter on the terraces:

“Martin H is twenty-one. Half of that time has been spent in children’s homes, detention centres, community school and Borstal. His parents are divorced. He never went to school except when he was in care and barely able to read. Most of the time he reads war comics in which gigantic and heroic British army sergeants single-handedly decimate battalions of Huns to whom they frequently refer as ‘Nazi scum’. Martin wasn’t recruited at a football match. He joined the NF about 18 months ago with ‘a friend’ but admits to persuading several mates to join at matches and that is something which is generally encouraged. In his own words Martin joined because ‘the Front stands up for English people. The socialists want more niggers and Pakis here because they vote for them. We kick the fuck out of the wogs. The reds are always stirring up trouble. Someone’s got to stop them.”[19]

Tottenham Hotspur was not a major NF base. Far from it: the club had its heartlands in south Tottenham, which included Jewish areas like Stamford Hill. Spurs fans termed themselves ‘Yids’ or ‘Yiddos’. The club became the launching pad for an anti-fascist campaign.

The original Football Fans Against the Nazis group was set up in Tottenham, on the initiative of John Deason, a member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee, a Spurs fan and secretary of the Right to Work campaign. The first Spurs Against the Nazis leafleting took place on the High Street in Tottenham, and only later outside the Spurs ground. The first time they went, many activists were nervous. Richard was a young architect and Spurs fan. He remembers the fighting that took place, the second time the group put out a leaflet: ‘There was a group of National Front supporters leafleting outside the ground as well, and there were a lot more of them, than there were of us. We had all these old Jewish men walk up to us, and say “You’re doing a really good job, lads”, and then walk off.’ It was worrying until ‘we saw a crowd of about fifty teenagers, quite young, they were running towards us. We were really scared. But they ran right past us, charged into the National Front lot, and kicked them off their pitch. After that, it was fine.’[20]

The leafleting was a great success. Sixty people attended the first public meeting. The editor of the Hornsey Journal was the father of Kim Gordon from Lewisham, and he gave the group publicity, especially when Spurs’ directors attempted to sue the group for breach of copyright, for using the Spurs’ logo in its leaflets. Spurs Against the Nazis also celebrated the arrival of Oswaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, as a victory against immigration controls, ‘Ardiles and Villa – You’re Welcome Here’. The group also organized a five-a-side football competition, in October 1978, which involved some 44 teams, including one from the band Aswad, and which was won by a group of workers from Tottenham bus garage, while Peter Cook and Bill Oddie were referees.[21]

Football Fans Against the Nazis (FFAN) was established out of the success at Spurs. Around 15 local groups were set up, including groups of fans at West Bromwich Albion, Swansea, Oxford, Barnsley, Coventry, Everton, Manchester United, Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday, Norwich and Arsenal. Simon of Owls against the Nazis described the work of the group in Sheffield:

“There was good reason to launch the campaign at Wednesday. Racist chanting was becoming common, and an NF slogan painted up right next to the players’ entrance had remained untouched for nearly a season. Meanwhile [pro-National Front] badge sellers outside the ground were doing a roaring trade in a badge saying ‘Sabella is a Paki’ (Sabella is the Argentinean whizz-kid signed recently by rival Sheffield United). Ninth December was the first leafleting, and despite a shortage of bodies, a group of about a dozen of us got an excellent response from the crowd. People took the leaflets, read them and came back for a badge. 2000 leaflets and 200 badges went on that first Saturday.”

The majority of fans supported Owls Against the Nazis. Indeed, the only problem that Simon could find to report was the attitude of the club itself. Although manager Jack Charlton had publicly backed the Anti-Nazi League, Wednesday refused to let their fans sell anti-racist badges outside the ground. Even the club program contained warnings to leave anti-Nazis alone.

Meanwhile, Leeds Supporters Against the Nazis was established in September 1978, and involved a regular group of between 40 and 100 people in leafleting outside Elland Road, through the winter of 1978–9. The local activities of the different groups were featured in Time Out, Socialist Worker and the Morning Star, whose sports editor Richard Weekes welcomed the Anti-Nazi League as a ‘positive force’ that ‘attempts to unite [fans] against the divisive racists and chauvinists’. In Nottingham, there was no permanent group, but as Bev remembers, ‘signing up Brian Clough and Peter Taylor [to the League] was seen as a terrific coup. I remember SWP comrades being more excited about this than any number of politicians or “serious” public figures who joined.’ Richard from north London suggests that Football Fans Against the Nazis played a part in refocusing the anger felt on many terraces: ‘It helped to turn racist football hooligans into anti-capitalist football hooligans.’ He also stresses that FFAN was part of a wide range of ANL activities: ‘everything was linked. It wasn’t just about football. The Anti-Nazi League had a massive impact on youth culture at the time. Our slogan was “NF = No Fun”, all our activities were based around that.’[22]

After football supporters and young music fans, another important area of anti-Nazi activity was among school and university students. Joe Pearce of the National Front had established an NF youth paper, Bulldog, and the Anti-Nazi League was determined to counter the media claim that young people were turning towards the racists. A group called School Kids Against the Nazis (SKAN) was established. Its paper sold 8,000 copies per issue, and readers’ groups were set up in Sheffield, Enfield, Reading, Canterbury, Brighton and High Wycombe.[23] The magazine published articles, poems and letters, one from Cathy, a 15-year-old former NF supporter from Derby:

“I do not like their violent ways of dealing with people and their rules set down. I wouldn’t like to see everyone in uniform or going into the army upon leaving school. I like people who like to be individuals, in clothes and mind. If everyone followed the NF Nazis we would be like cabbages, doing everything the same as everyone else . . . PS If the NF took Football or Punk away, I’d commit suicide.”[24]

SKAN was closely allied with the National Union of School Students, and prominent members of the NUSS also played a role in SKAN. One was Rehad Desai, a young activist whose father had been a leader of the Pan African Congress in South Africa. Cait from Leeds remembers designing a ‘Dennis the Menace and Gnasher against the Nazis’ badge for the NUSS. The campaign also persuaded him to support his dad’s club Liverpool, rather than his home team. There were ‘too many nasty fascists at Leeds for my eight-year-old brain’. SKAN teams took part in the Spurs Against the Nazis tournament. There was an even larger campaign among university students.
No more normals any more

The strategy of the Anti-Nazi League was to demonstrate the consequences of racism. Although the League was primarily an anti-fascist movement, it did see itself as more than just a defensive process. In demonstrating that the bigotry of the National Front was abhorrent, the ANL hoped to show that all forms of prejudice were wrong. If racism was to be smashed, and all the racists with it, then the fight against fascism would have to be broadened out until it became a fight against the racist institutions of capitalism as well. Dave Widgery made this point in an article, published in the first issue of Temporary Hoarding.

“The problem is not just the new fascists from the old slime, a master race whose idea of heroism is ambushing single blacks in darkened streets. These private attacks whose intention, to cow and to brutalise, won’t work if the community they seek to terrorise instead organises itself. But when the state backs up racialism it’s different. Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with the cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid’s pride is a challenge.”

In the opinion of many Anti-Nazi League activists, immigration controls were a similar problem to the racism of the National Front. In the words of Bob Pennington, ‘there is an inescapable conclusion, once you accept the need for immigration controls, and that boils down to the argument that there would be more jobs, more houses, better schools and better hospitals, if black people did not come to Britain’.[25] Popular racism fed state racism and state racism fed popular racism. Both were wrong. Miriam Karlin, interviewed by Women Against the Nazis, criticized the press and the Conservative Party, as much as the NF. ‘It’s like a dustbin where you know there are maggots. It’s better that people know it’s not acceptable for them to make racist remarks, that they won’t be tolerated. “Bringing it out in the open”, as Margaret Thatcher claims to be doing, really means making racialism respectable.’[26]

Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League publications did not limit themselves to a language of mere anti-fascism, or even mere anti-racism, but went out of their way to protest against all forms of oppression. Some of the range of RAR’s interests can be gathered by looking at its magazine, Temporary Hoarding. A typical issue features an interview with Benji Arambi, an article about homophobia, an interview with Polystyrene of X-Ray Specs, an account of the murder of Steve Biko, three pages of letters, an interview with the Tom Robinson Band and a feature on Wolf Biermann, the dissident East German poet and songwriter. The middle of the Tom Robinson interview was a collage of cinema-reel photographs of gay men holding hands, Windsor Castle, two hands in chains, and a banner proclaiming ‘no return to back street abortions’. Tom Robinson himself was quoted defending the Lewisham march, but also insisting that the greatest threat came from the ‘grey forces of the right’, as he put it, ‘The National Front are evil which is why we do RAR gigs. But they are not the real threat to our liberty. I think the Conservative Party is, the right wing of the Conservative Party.’[27]

Other supporters brought their own concerns into the Anti-Nazi League’s work. Plenty of lesbians and gay men, including Tom Robinson, took part in the anti-racist movement. As well as Gays Against the Nazis, there was also Gays Against Fascism, based around the North London Gay Socialist Group. This group argued that fascism was only one extreme symptom of a violently homophobic society. At least nine gays were murdered in hate attacks between January 1977 and February 1978, and for Gays Against Fascism, the National Front represented simply ‘the most oppressive form of male heterosexual society imaginable’.

Vegetarians against the Nazis launched at the 1978 meeting of the Hunt Saboteurs Association. Within a year it had sold 4,000 badges, and recruited similar numbers of anti-fascists. It could boast the support of the Young Indian Vegetarian Society and the Gay Vegetarian Society. Given space in the Anti-Nazi League’ss first Newsletter, members of the group were proud to advertise their activities. ‘Why not invite VAN to your meetings? We can help you with details of diet or even just good eating-places. Ask us if you want to sabotage a foxhunt. If you are expecting pale faced sandal wearers who wouldn’t say Boo to a Nazi, forget it!’[28]

The Battle of Lewisham

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From spring 1977, the pace of the protests quickened. On 23 April, a 1,200-strong National Front march through Wood Green was opposed by some 3,000 anti-racists, members of Haringey Labour Party, the Indian Workers’ Association, local West Indians, trade unionists, and members of Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers’ Party. While Communists and churchmen addressed a rally at one end of Duckett’s Common, a contingent of anti-fascists organized by the SWP broke away and subjected the NF column to a barrage of smoke bombs, eggs and rotten fruit. Some 81 people were arrested, including 74 anti-fascists. Still, anti-fascists held that the Wood Green mobilization had been a victory: reducing the NF to ‘an ill-organized and bedraggled queue’.

According to Ian, ‘We pursued the Nazis – large amounts of things were hurled at them. We didn’t stop them, but they got a very vigorous response.’ Balwinder remembers ‘coming out of the Tube station and finding a whole gang of NF giving out their racist filth. Fortunately there were also many anti-racists present who directed us toward the common. Then as the National Front march came around the corner of the common suddenly they came under an attack of flour, eggs, tomatoes and worse.’

The police had relatively few officers on duty and the left had a relatively free hand to frustrate their opponents.[1] Richard recalls an angry, confident counter-demonstration: ‘Someone had the wit to set off a smoke bomb. There were Turkish, Greek and black kids fighting against the Nazis.’ Anna from Islington also found herself at Wood Green, and recalls watching the young people throw anything they could against the National Front: ‘All the shops lost one shoe in every pair.’ Another anti-Nazi veteran, Andy, remembers protests getting hotter and hotter: ‘We had a crack at the Front at Wood Green, and I felt that we got very close.’

Jerry Fitzpatrick was then working full time for the Socialist Workers Party in central London. He was sent to Wood Green and played a prominent part in organizing the protests at Duckett’s Common: ‘I’d come from an Irish background. I had been at Derry in 1969. I had seen the resistance on the Bogside – that was a factor. We wanted to organize in the same way. We had a keen eye on confronting the NF.’ The smoke bombs that Richard recalls were in fact marine flares. ‘I bought them from a boatyard. I thought they would make an effective public spectacle. We sought a non-violent context. But we were willing to sharpen the demonstration, to give a sense of colour and cover as people confronted the Nazis.’

The left has had long had a presence in Haringey, and 25 years on from the protests, many local people are willing to describe their memories. Dave Morris, later a defendant in the famous ‘McLibel’ trial, attended as part of an anarchist group. He saw the anti-fascists charge the National Front march, but remembers that the NF were eventually able to regroup and continue along their way. Morris then recalls the police removing the public and protesters from the pavements at the side of the NF march:

“Somehow I got through, seemingly the only one who did at that time. For half an hour I walked alone alongside the fascist demonstration as it completely dominated the streets, protected by police who cleared away most of the public in general. It was eerie . . . After getting increasingly funny looks from cops and marchers despite my innocent whistling and humming and pretending to admire the cracks in the paving stones, I sloped off.”

Another anti-fascist protester, David B., was even closer to the centre of the fighting. His diary provides a vivid record:

“We walked to Turnpike Lane where the counter-demonstration was assembling in the presence of vast numbers of police . . . We met up with Steve and watched the Front march form up a hundred yards away, with plenty of verbal exchange between the two sides. It seemed incredible to me that the police could allow such an obviously explosive confrontation to occur . . . A little way along Wood Green High Road the march was attacked. Red smoke bombs filled the air and a battle was soon under way. Everything that could be thrown was thrown at the fascists in an attempt to stop the march. Police horses appeared on the pavement, and if shoppers got in their way that was hard luck.”

David and his friends eventually found themselves standing outside the school in which the National Front was holding its post-march rally.

“I suggested that we try and go inside. At this point Steve said we were crazy and left. There was some dispute at the door about whether to admit us but finally we got in and I heard a couple of minutes of the meeting. ‘If they’re black, send them back’. The atmosphere was one of rabid anti-intellectualism, clearly thought was a sign of weakness. Then somebody said ‘they’re commies’, and we were recognized as anti-fascists, which I thought was obvious anyway. The mood was ugly so we made to leave but they weren’t able to restrain themselves, we were jostled and pushed out. Robin, a yard behind me, received a number of blows and kicks until blood was running from his nose. Some of this happened outside, but the police stood around nearby, ignoring it.”

This was the rally at which NF leader John Tyndall declared, ‘I think World War Three has just started out there.’

Still more fighting took place later, on the trains heading back to London. According to Gerry Gable,

“the British Movement sent in its Leader Guard. They were not just good street fighters but had received paramilitary training from former Special Forces officers. At first they did a lot of damage, but as the train journey away from Wood Green continued they were cut down and down until finally a handful of them remained battered and bleeding and they made their escape.”

The experience of seeing the National Front at close hand convinced David B. that anti-fascism was an urgent necessity. ‘It had been quite a day. I’d never been through a demonstration like it and left determined that the National Front must be opposed with absolute ruthlessness wherever it dares to appear. Any illusions I may have had about non-violent means of opposing them were destroyed in that school.’[2] Ted Parker travelled up from south-east London to be at Wood Green. ‘What I really remember from Haringey is how close we came. The National Front were brought in by the police, with a lot of protection, a lot of secrecy. We didn’t really think we could stop them. But one day, we would.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick was also thinking towards the future: ‘I drew two lessons. First, we needed logistics, more supporters in the set area, more street planning, a better sense of what the police tactics would be. Second, there had to be an intense effort towards organising among the local community.’

Two weeks after Wood Green, the National Front attempted to hold an election meeting at Shoreditch School in Hoxton. Five hundred people turned out to prevent them.[3] The mood was hardening. The magazine Race Today called for black defence patrols in the Brick Lane area of the East End. But the attention of activists was moving quickly from east to south London, and to Lewisham in particular.

The real muggers

The roots of the protest in Lewisham go back to a police campaign against young blacks. In May 1977, 21 people were arrested and charged with conspiracy to steal purses. This action was perceived locally as a crude attempt to create some kind of anti-mugging backlash. The journalist Paul Foot described the character of the arrests:

“5.30 Monday Morning. Six policemen break down the door of 21 Childeric Road in Deptford, South East London, with an axe. Another six smash down the back door. They pour inside, overturning furniture, ripping open drawers, and turning people out of their beds. Christopher Foster, aged 16, is frog-marched into the road in his underclothes. Insults and questions are shouted at him. He and four other young people in the house are rushed to Penge police station. These include Cathy Cullis, a young white girl. She is stripped to her underwear in a cell. Two policemen come and joke about the ‘disease’ she has caught living with black people.”[4]

The action was recorded within the Lewisham force as ‘Operation PNH’. The acronym was said by local activists to stand for ‘Police Nigger Hunt’. Over 60 black youngsters were detained, and 18 of them charged. Campaigns were then launched in their defence.

Rumours came out about the treatment of the Lewisham defendants. They were only accused of being petty criminals, but the police had assaulted them, smashing down people’s doors before arresting them. It had been an apartheid-style raid. Tony Bogues of Flame and Kim Gordon of the Socialist Workers Party met up with David Foster, who was the father of one of the defendants. They set up a defence committee. Later Gordon spoke to Prince Charles outside a black youth club that the prince was visiting. The prince suggested a meeting between the police and the defence committee.[5] Police Commander Douglas Randall then agreed to a meeting where he would speak to the families of the defendants. Slowly, more of the defendants agreed to take part, until a majority of them were involved. The police were pushed on to the defensive. They then responded by arresting members of the defence committee, adding another three names to the original Lewisham 18.[6] Tony Bogues has clear memories of David Foster:

“David was an ordinary, nice fellow who had believed in the early stages of his life the myths about British justice, but on arriving in Britain he was immediately aware of the question of race. How could he deal with race, raise his kids and still be respectable? David did it with a certain dignity. We sat down and talked with him for days. His house became the community house. There were large meetings, quiet meetings. The question of self-defence from the fascists and the police came up in discussion with the youth. We spent a lot of time, a lot of time, persuading people to work with us.”

Gerry Gable was then a journalist working for London Weekend Television.

“The Evening Standard was running horror stories about young black muggers. They showed an elderly lady battered and bloody and said that blacks had mugged her. We found the battered lady and she had not even seen her attacker as she was pushed down from behind. We met mixed-race gangs where a white kid would be used as the stop as no person in their right mind would stop if a couple of black kids asked them the time. Many of the victims of purse stealing on the local bus queues were black women. When the police approached the victims and asked them to give evidence there was a universal refusal as they hated the police more than those who stole off them.”

Summer 1977 also saw the climax to the picketing at Grunwick in north-west London, and many of those who took part in events at Lewisham were graduates of the Grunwick picket lines. The first mass pickets in support of the striking film-processing workers took place in the spring of 1977, when Right to Work marchers who had walked to London from Manchester joined the strikers to express their support for them. From 23 May, a number of left-wing newspapers including Socialist Worker began to call for mass pickets. Slowly the number of large protests grew. By June 1977, these were taking place weekly, and then daily. On Friday 17 June, 1,500 people turned out to support the 100 or so Grunwick strikers. The following week, members of the police Special Patrol Group were used to send non-union, ‘scab’, workers across the picket lines. The violence escalated and was soon being shown nightly on national television. This was one of the first all-out strikes where the workforce was composed almost entirely of immigrant labour. Many identifiable leaders emerged, not least Mrs Jayaben Desai, chair of the strike committee.

On 9 July, the owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was able to defy the picket lines by bringing in support mobilized by the National Association for Freedom. NAFF turned out 250 volunteers and 150 vehicles. Two days later, on 11 July, the National Union of Miners called for a day of action in support of the Grunwick strikers. Some 20,000 people turned out, outnumbering the police three to one. Twenty-four pickets were arrested. A second national mobilization was called for 8 August (the week of the Lewisham marches), but called off at the instigation of the strikers’ union, APEX. Together with the police and the courts, and shielded by the equivocal support given to the strikers by their own union, Ward was just about able to keep his plant open.[7]

At the same time as Grunwick, there was a strike at Desoutters in north London. Mike was a member of the support group, and later took people from that dispute to Lewisham. ‘One of the most active stewards was ironically a member of the Front. He held together one of the gates during the strike. He received a phone call from Tyndall putting pressure on him to break with the strike. In the end, he left the Front.’

In south-east London, meanwhile, the mood was rising. Ted Parker was the Socialist Workers Party district secretary. He describes how ‘there were different groups in the party’. One was the black socialist group Flame; ‘they leafleted the whole area for weeks’. One of its leading figures was Tony Bogues, a socialist from Jamaica who ‘looked more like a poet than an activist’. Some support came from Thames Poly. The SWP also backed workers at Reinforced Steel, who occupied their plant against the threat of closure.

‘Lewisham was the climax’, recalls Tony Bogues, ‘of a series of activities in the black underground.’ Bogues himself had only been in London for a year, having arrived from Jamaica.

I came from there, the Manley regime, the destabilization attempts being run by the CIA. We said that Jamaica should not become the next Chile . . . My politics was all about self-organization. There was a way in which you talked with working-class people. You started from what they thought. It was a different style from the British left. We didn’t leaflet people. We asked what they thought . . . I made initial contacts, with the people in Flame, and also with family, friends, the sorts of people you drink with in the bar. After a year, I knew a lot of people, some friends, some political. There were the people in the SWP. Kim Gordon was militant, quick-witted. The International Marxist Group had a guy called Fitzroy, from Nigeria. There was the Black Marxist Collective in Croydon. It was a different kind of politics, based on the immigrant cultures.

Parker himself had been brought up in Folkestone, in a very patriotic family. He joined the Royal Air Force at 16, on a three-year apprenticeship. They had education classes at the base, which set him thinking. Together with a friend, Mike, he joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They were court-martialled and given eight-month sentences. A campaign was launched on their behalf. Parker later ended up at the London School of Economics during the heady years of 1966–9. In 1967, he toured South Africa, delivering clandestine leaflets for the banned African National Congress. By the mid-1970s, he had been a union activist in the print union SOGAT and the lecturers’ union ATTI. Through 1977, Parker recalls,

“we had been selling Socialist Worker in Lewisham Town centre. The Front would storm in and break us up. We had to rally as many people as we could to protect us. People used to come down from east London to help us out. There was one estate in Catford, where most of the Front lived. It became notorious for racist attacks. They also attacked a Sikh temple in Woolwich.”

On 18 June, the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party wrote to their counterparts in the political committee of the Communist Party suggesting that their parties should agree to work together around two very specific areas: the defence of trade union rights to strike and  ‘joint meetings of the committees of our two parties responsible for anti-racialist activities, with a view to launching a joint campaign within the Labour movement to drive the fascists off the streets’.[8] Events on the picket lines at Grunwick may have influenced the first suggested area of joint activity; events in Lewisham certainly shaped the second.

On 2 July, members of the National Front attacked a demonstration in support of the Lewisham detainees. One teacher was kicked unconscious by the fascists. Although this time it was the left that was under attack, the police still managed to arrest 23 anti-fascists alongside 27 fascists.[9] Dave Peers of the Socialist Workers Party warned his comrades to expect further attacks:

“The attacks on the demonstration by the Nazis – and in turn by the police – are the culmination of a month of growing fascist and police harassment in the area. We have received well-founded reports that this represents a change of tactics by the Nazis . . .

We have been informed that their South London branches have been given a free hand to attack left-wing demonstrations. This is a danger that no anti-fascist – SWP member or not – can ignore. The local SWP will be contacting trade unions, Labour Parties and all anti-fascists in the area to defend the right to demonstrate and to meet in public free from fascist harassment.”[10]

Although the Socialist Workers Party appeal to the Communist Party for joint action proved unsuccessful, it did focus attention on the next set of demonstrations due to be held in the area. The National Front called an anti-mugging march for 13 August, to assemble near New Cross station. An All-Lewisham Campaign Against Racialism and Fascism counter-protest was organized. The police planned to route it far away from the NF march. The SWP and the Lewisham 21 defence committee promised to challenge the NF. According to that week’s Socialist Worker,

“Panic is breaking out in high places as the Nazis of the National Front prepare to march through Lewisham’s black community this Saturday. Newspapers like The Sun and the Daily Express have called for the march to be banned. So have a number of Labour MPs and the Labour-controlled council. Their concern is not so much with the threat to black people as with the pledges being made by the left to stop the Nazis marching, regardless of what the police do.”[11]

The sky darkened

On 13 August, around 6,000 anti-fascists, including large numbers of local black youths, prevented around 800 supporters of the National Front from marching through Lewisham. The original NF demonstration was publicized as an anti-mugging march, to tap into the furore cause by the arrest of the Lewisham 21. Activists were determined to halt the NF and prevent them from gaining control of the streets. The police, armed with long batons and perspex shields, were equally determined to keep the march going. Although many groups were represented at Lewisham, it was members of the Socialist Workers Party who took the lead in organizing the confrontation with the fascists.

By mid-June, Jerry Fitzpatrick had received word of the planned National Front march.

“A group of us set up headquarters in a building on Clifton Rise. We occupied a house and used it as an organizing centre. Norma, a local activist, was central to this organization, and Ted Parker. We created an atmosphere among black youth. People came in to collect leaflets and posters. You got a sense of people organizing things themselves. There was one incident – it was a small, trivial thing, really. About three weeks before the demonstration, the police were chasing a black youth, and he ran into our building. They grabbed him, and me too, accusing me of providing him with a false alibi. In court, we provided him with a solicitor. He didn’t get off, but it was a light sentence. In the days after, I had a really strong sense that the barriers had come down. The word went round that we would help people against the aggressive police.”

The organizers called for backing from different Lewisham groups. According to Fitzpatrick,

“There were lots of Irish people who provided us with logistics and support. They were hardier than some others. And there were other ways in which the Irish community contributed. There was an Irish hall next to our centre. We were allowed into there, and into the Irish pubs and dances, to raise money, to speak about the NF as the latest incarnation of British imperialism, and to appeal for support.”

Steve Jeffreys was a member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee:

“We had so many plans for Lewisham. I’ve never been on a demonstration that was so well organized. We knew that coaches were coming from all over the country. We knew from Lewisham that there would be a kind of local uprising. We discussed hiring a lorry, and using that to block the road, but we thought that would put the organizational details in front of the politics. We knew we had the numbers; we didn’t need to militarize the struggle. We planned groups – for when the NF attacked, the police, we had everything planned in advance. There are lots of times that I’ve heard people talk about demonstrating, maybe even confronting the police, but never with the sort of confidence that we had then.”

Ted Parker attended the High Court hearings that discussed whether the National Front march should be banned. He was interviewed in the Lewisham Mercury. ‘I tried to draw parallels with the Battle of Cable Street in the 1930s. Mosley had been anti-Semitic and violent. In Germany, the fascists were allowed to march. But in Britain, at Cable Street, they had been stopped.’ What about the police? he was asked. ‘I said I had a friend in the police who hated the Front as much as I did. But if the Front march, and the police protect them, we’re ready to fight if that’s what it takes.’

Parker’s other jobs included purchasing the rotten fruit to throw at the National Front. ‘We bought marine flares to signal where people were needed – we’d learned that from Wood Green. I went to the market and brought absolutely barrel-loads of rotten fruit. We gave that to people in carrier bags.’ By the week of the demonstration, Parker’s greatest fear was that the NF would somehow get to the demonstrators, by attacking them the night before. He was not the only one to consider that possibility. According to Jerry Fitzpatrick, ‘The day before the march, the police raided the centre. They were looking for megaphones, banners, the things we would need for the demonstration. But they found just two walkie-talkies. We were expecting raids and had already cleared out.’

Parker spent Friday evening in Brockley.

“We looked at the terrain. We were absolutely sure we could win. The plan was simple; we would try to get as many people as possible to Clifton Rise, New Cross Station. We knew the police would try to keep the groups separated, on each side of the railway lines. We’d make some effort there, at the beginning, but it was a feint really. If we couldn’t stop the Front at Clifton Rise, we would let the Front go North along New Cross Road. Smaller groups would ambush them. We’d leave a few people in New Cross to protect the families of the Lewisham 21. But our largest number would turn round and march quickly along Lewisham Way. That’s where we were going to make a real effort. The police would try to stop us getting across the bridges. We’d have to storm any barriers. But we’d then hold Lewisham High Street. There was no way the Front could get through.”

Some of the group later returned from Brockley to Lewisham, in an attempt to drum up last-minute support for the mobilization. Andy was there:

“There were four of us from the leadership, and a group of young black comrades who’d joined the SWP recently. We spent the evening touring round Lewisham. We met people on the estates, black kids, gangs and their leaders. We talked to people. We explained that tomorrow we’d be organizing the biggest march that any of them had seen, that we’d take on the NF, and also the police. Some people didn’t know what to make of us – they were calling us this and that. But we talked to a lot of people. And the day after, you got a real sense. There was a large group of black people. Hundreds, thousands even. They were waiting and watching. And when things really kicked off, they got stuck in.”

Tony Bogues of Flame has similar memories: ‘The night before the demonstration, we drove around the entirety of Lewisham. We knew that the violence was going to happen. We said to the fascists – if you come into our community, we’ll stop you. We knew what would happen.’

The Socialist Workers Party was not the only local group to call an anti-National Front protest. The day began at 11 a.m. with a march called by the Communist Party, Catholic organizations, councillors and members of the All-Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (Alcaraf). Mayor Godsif of Lewisham and Mervyn Stockwood, the bishop of Southwark, led the march. Each of the three main parties was represented. The 4,000 people who took part expressed their opposition to the NF, and then many of them left the scene. According to the Sunday Times, ‘The [marchers] wanted to demonstrate peacefully against the National Front by marching from Ladywell Fields along Lewisham High Street and Lewisham Way to Railway Grove. Although this was perilously close to where the National Front was due to assemble, Alcaraf argued that its march would be over at least 90 minutes before the Front assembled.’[12] Dave Widgery was less kind towards these moderates, ‘The official protest march, including the Catholics, the councillors and the Communists, made indignant speeches against fascism in Lewisham and carefully avoided going within two miles of the fascists who were assembling behind the British Rail station at New Cross where the atmosphere was less forgiving.’[13]

Having taken part in the first demonstration, members of the Socialist Workers Party then handed out a leaflet calling upon the demonstrators to join a second protest, which would assemble at the National Front’s planned assembly point. In Jerry Fitzpatrick’s words,

“In the negotiations leading up to the demonstration, we tried hard to persuade the other groups, the Communists and the church people, not to call a counter demonstration at the same time at a different venue, but to organize theirs in such a way that if people then wanted to march with us, they could. In the event we succeeded because their demo finished in time for the bulk of them to join us at Clifton Rise. There needed to be a broadening of our appeal. If we were seen simply as boot-boys then we would fail. We had to convince the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions to join with us and broaden our support.”

Some refused the call. A Communist Party leaflet expressed that organization’s hostility: ‘We totally oppose the harassment and the provocative march planned by the SWP.’ The leaflet attacked ‘those who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence’.[14] Yet hundreds did join the second march. According to Ted Parker,

“We knew one pivotal thing was to get as many people as possible from the first march up to Clifton Rise. We had lorries on the first march, telling people what the plan was, urging them to join us. The fascinating thing was that people wanted to march to Clifton Rise, but they just wouldn’t line up behind an Socialist Workers Party banner. You could see it. We had the numbers. Eventually, we found some members of some other group like the IMG with a banner for some united campaign against racism and fascism. People agree to group behind that. It taught me a lesson for later – many people would support a united campaign, they didn’t all want just to line up behind the SWP.”

Red Saunders was part of the crowd who joined both the first and second demonstrations:

“What I really remember is that there were all these Christians and Communists, telling us to go home. Most people stayed. But we were all just milling about, when this old black lady, too old to march, came out on her balcony. She put out her speakers, as loud as they could, playing ‘Get up, stand up’. That did it for me.”

Pete Alexander recalls attending the Communist-led demonstration and successfully encouraging many people to march with him and join the second protest at Clifton Rise.

“I was part of the SWP contingent sent on to this march. Not only was this part of our general approach of backing all mobilizations against the fascists (we were very non-sectarian); it was also so that we could pull people to the counter-demonstration at New Cross. Until Lewisham there were still many people – students especially – who were confused about the best way of fighting fascism. We were actually pretty successful. I and the people I pulled arrived at New Cross just as the fun began.”

Angus MacKinnon, a journalist on the New Musical Express, actually missed the first protest, arriving directly at Clifton Rise, ‘On the day’, he wrote,

“I arrived at New Cross and couldn’t get any further. It was about eleven o’clock and there were already a lot of people there – most were trade unionists. It said in the press the next day that there were three thousand, but it must have been twice that number. They said it was the standard rent-a-mob. It wasn’t. Many had come from all over the country, for the same reason as myself – enough was enough.”

Similar feelings were expressed by Bev, a graduate student who came to the demo with socialists and trade unionists from Nottingham. ‘I had no idea what to expect, but there was such a strong feeling that the National Front shouldn’t be allowed to hold their march unchallenged.’[15]

The fighting began near Clifton Rise at 1.30. According to John Rose,

“The whole of New Cross High Road and the top of the Nazis’ intended assembly point, Clifton Rise, was occupied by anti-fascists. It was then that the police made their first, unprovoked attack. Foot police tried unsuccessfully to clear a path for the Nazi march, and then mounted police moved in. They too, were soon forced to retreat – but not before the police had taken revenge by grabbing people at random. Unable to clear the top of Clifton Rise, the police finally made the Nazis move up onto the main road through a side road 200 yards along. The Nazis were allowed through police cordons to join the march by showing their Nazi membership cards. Suddenly, hundreds of police and a score of police horses began to charge down the road clearing a path for the head of the Nazi column. The crowd of anti-fascists exploded. Sticks, smoke bombs, rocks, bottles, were thrown over the police heads at the Nazis.”[16]

Anti-fascists and the local community fight with the National Front and police at Lewisham, 1977: Clifton Rise

‘As the Nazi honour guard swung on to Lewisham High Street,’ Paul Holborow continues, ‘you had the marvellous sight of the master race scuttling away. I remember one on his knees, hiding behind a policeman, himself desperately trying to hide from the bombardment.’

Another activist, Einde, has described the battle that followed. He was a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, from Derry, then studying sociology at City University in north London. Einde recalls joining big crowds at the junction in New Cross, which was located strategically between the two nearby metropolitan stations. It was also the top of a hill, a natural vantage point:

“There was a huge police cordon between us and the NF’s meeting place. As the Front march set off, it had to come out on to the main road at the bottom of the hill. We had linked arms by this stage and were facing the police cordon that stood between us and the NF march. I was with the comrades from the university in about the seventh or eighth line. To be quite honest I didn’t want to be in the first row as I knew what was supposed to happen.

The plan was simple. The fascist march was located downhill from the anti-fascist contingent. As the National Front neared, their opponents would see the march side on. On hearing a signal, anti-fascists would charge down the hill at the NF group.

The sign to attack was delivered by Jerry Fitzpatrick. ‘Jerry had glasses and busy fair hair’, Einde remembers; he was ‘a wheeler-dealer, a magnificent organiser’. Fitzpatrick and other stewards had decided not to confront the main National Front honour guard, composed of the hardened street fighters, marching at the front of their contingent. Instead, the comrades from the SWP would pile into the middle of the fascist procession. Einde remembers Fitzpatrick standing on a box, by the traffic lights, waiting for the NF as they crossed the road at the bottom of the hill.

We charged down the hill against the police cordon. The rows of demonstrators in front of me broke under the strain of the pushing, but by the time our line came to the front, the police cordon had weakened sufficiently and we broke through into the middle of the march. I can remember that we grabbed an NF banner and in a tug of war we managed to get it off them, all the while maintaining linked arms – how we did it I don’t know. Eventually the police managed to push us back, but I remember that there was a hail of bricks from some convenient building sites alongside the route of the march and assorted other stuff, including at least one dustbin.”

The anti-fascists’ charge had a dramatic effect. Pete Alexander recalls, ‘I still remember seeing National Front marchers with green faces. They were so scared. I’d never seen people go green before.’

These memories are confirmed in Dave Widgery’s account:

“In New Cross Road, just down from Goldsmiths’ College, a crowd of 5000 anti-NFers had assembled by midday. People gently milled; here surging forward under banners that sprang and swooped like kites, there breaking out into feminist war whoops, elsewhere shouting recognition in noisy South London patois . . . At the front, a ram-packed contingent of South London Afro-Caribbeans cordially but expertly blocked off the police’s first attempts – uphill and on foot – to open a way for the NF . . .

An officer with a megaphone read an order to disperse. No one did; seconds later the police cavalry cantered into sight and sheered through the front row of protesters.”

So, continues Widgery, it might have ended,

“except that people refused to melt away from the police horses and jeer ineffectually from the sidelines. A horse went over, then another, and the Front were led forward so fast that they were quickly struggling. Then suddenly the sky darkened (as they say in Latin poetry), only this time with clods, rocks, lumps of wood, planks and bricks . . . The Front found it most difficult to dodge this cannonade while upholding the dignity appropriate to a master race inspecting soon-to-be-deported underlings. The NF march was broken in two, their banners seized and burnt.”

According to the report that appeared in the Sunday Times,

“Hundreds of demonstrators attempted to force the police cordon but reinforcements appeared and moved steadily through the stamping crowd in single file. A woman in a green mac was crushed on a [wall] outside a house. In New Cross Road, National Front supporters numbering about 1,000 were met with a hail of bottles, bricks, wood blocks, beer cans, smashed paving stones and smoke bombs. Mounted police charged up, clearing a way for the marchers. Police snatch squads darted into the yelling crowds, seizing missile-hurling youths.”

‘After about 20 minutes of confusion’, the paper continued,

“the police regained control of the whole of Clifton rise and the top of New Cross Road. Their tactics then were to hide the National Front in Achilles Street and then send the marches up Pagnell Street into New Cross Road and on their way to Lewisham. The plan almost worked. The left-wingers were milling around at the top of the Front column emerging from Pagnell Street [But with the police outnumbered on New Cross Road, left-wingers were able to charge through and catch the middle of the National Front demonstration] . . . When they reached the march, a wedge of police tried to hold the two sides apart. But demonstrators simply hurled the ammunition they had collected along the way at the Front and the police protecting them became sitting targets.”[17]

To summarize the events so far: the National Front arrived at New Cross Road at about 1.30 p.m. They tried to assemble at Clifton Rise. There they were attacked, and when they did set off, their march was broken up by the group including Einde and Jerry Fitzpatrick. But the police charged back at the anti-fascist demonstrators, who then broke away. The NF were just about able to reassemble, and then they marched east along New Cross Road in the direction of central Lewisham. Crowds threw fruit at the retreating members of the NF. Smaller groups attacked them from the side streets.

One group of anti-fascists was caught and held by the police at Clifton Rise. Morgan was a young Irish steelworker and a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. His workplace, Reinforced Steel, was a small factory owned by British Steel. Having come out on strike in support of a group of nurses at the local hospital, Morgan’s fellow-workers were then threatened with the sack, and responded by occupying the plant. In the weeks running up to Lewisham, Morgan found himself attacked and threatened by members of the National Front. One work colleague, a former NF supporter, even came to warn Morgan that he was being followed. ‘They attacked us on the High Street, they also attacked Labour. That was regular.’ Two of his work colleagues joined Morgan on the anti-NF protests. But they got no further than Clifton Rise. Arriving there after 2 p.m., Morgan and his friends found themselves penned in by the police, and unable to march. His group was held like that for several hours.

Much larger numbers, however, were able to follow the anti-fascists’ original plan, and march east along Lewisham Way. Ted Parker led on a megaphone, shouting ‘Defend the clock tower!’ Why the clock tower? ‘It’s right in the middle of Lewisham. If we went anywhere else, I was worried the police might pen us in, and lead the NF through by one of the side streets.’ Marching east, anti-fascists were actually walking along a similar route to the National Front – but along a shorter and more direct way – and without the fighting that slowed down the NF march. By 2.30, this large contingent had arrived at central Lewisham, about the mid-way point in the NF’s planned route. In this way, they were able occupy the ground before the NF arrived.

Lewisham: route of the demonstration and counter-demonstrations

David L came from a Jewish background in north London. These protests were part of a life’s struggle against racism. He recalls the diversity of this anti-racist march, the presence of women’s contingents, alongside a few members of the Trotskyist group Militant:

“There was a large contingent from Women against Racism and Fascism. Next to them was a Militant contingent. At one point, the main women’s steward said, ‘Right, women this way.’ Someone from Militant then chipped up, ‘Oh, can I have one?’ It was all the stewards could do to persuade the women, ‘Massacre them next week, it’s the Nazis we’re after today.’”[18]

Charli from the International Marxist Group takes up the story:

“When my contingent reached the police, we couldn’t turn round because at that point the demo came to a complete halt . . . We were the first banner, and marching with no police ‘escort’ at all, but by the time we’d done half a mile there was a group of black youth, generally in the 14 to 20 age range, demoing ahead of us, and this group grew until it was maybe 400-strong as we went along. Big contrast between the all-black youth ahead of us and the 95 per cent plus white contingents from the original demo. There were people hanging out of windows and waving and cheering as we went along. Totally amazing. Made you feel good.”

Jerry Fitzpatrick agrees. ‘There was a buzz on the day, a networking. It wasn’t communicated by posters or leaflets, but by people talking. This was West Indian youth making a stand.’ Where had all the numbers come from? Charli continues:

“There was a difference between April and August, in that Turnpike Lane was predominantly white at the north . . . It is these areas, white ghettoes where there is racist fear but very little experience of actually living among black or Asian people, where the fascists have gained most support and tactically the NF were marching hoping to win support. Lewisham, on the other hand, was a predominantly black area and an NF march there could only be seen as an insult to the locals.”

By 2.30 p.m., the bruised remnants of the National Front march had reached Lewisham train station. The marchers could then look south, where the whole of Lewisham was occupied by the largest group of anti-NF protesters, outnumbering the police and the NF several times over. Not daring to continue along their planned route, the NF headed north towards Blackheath, where they stopped in a deserted car park and NF leader John Tyndall gave a short, concluding speech. Tyndall called for the police to be armed with guns. His followers slunk away.[19]

By 3 p.m., the National Front had been dispersed. Yet the euphoria that greeted this news was diminished as people realized that the police were still determined to clear all anti-fascists from the streets. Ted Parker was now at Lewisham clock tower. ‘There was a tide of people blocking the road. There were no signs of the police at all. Marchers were even redirecting the traffic. Then the police began to appear.’ The Sunday Times blamed the subsequent fighting on the left: ‘The most violent scenes came when some 3,000 demonstrators realized that a secret arrangement between the police and National Front had allowed the NF marchers to slip away. Enraged left-wingers rioted along Lewisham High Street, smashing windows, wrecking police vehicles.’[20] It would be more accurate to say that people were defending themselves from the police.

By 3 p.m., Einde was standing near the clock tower:

“This was where the Nazi march was supposed to come on to the High Street. The police attempted to clear this area several times, but without success. Then they brought out the horses. This was the first time I’d ever encountered police horses. It’s quite a frightening experience, but together with some other comrades we got the people to link arms facing the police lines and retreated slowly and without panic. Shortly after we heard that the National Front had had to break off their march and hold their rally in an isolated car park. At that time the pavements along Lewisham High Street were being newly paved with conveniently sized bricks. These were used to pelt the police. It was quite terrifying at first. We were occupying the street facing a line of police. Behind us were large numbers of young blacks who were lobbing half-bricks over our heads into the middle of the police – miraculously none of us seemed to be hit. The police would charge us, our line would part and the young blacks would simply melt away into the side streets. Then the whole thing was repeated facing in the other direction. At some stage the police brought out the riot shields, the first time they had been used on the ‘mainland’.”

Pete Alexander takes up the story.

“The black youth were especially interested in attacking the cops – after Operation PNH and much else this was understandable, and this is partly why the riot became blacker as the day went on. A lot of SWP members also enjoyed having a go at the police. We were fed up with them defending the Nazis and many of us had been unfairly arrested and intimidated by them, and there was probably a matter of solidarity with the black kids. It wasn’t just the fascists who were beaten; it was also the cops. Heavy drink cans and bricks were used to knock them off their horses and they had to resort to trying to clear the streets using cars at high speed.”

Now that the fascists had left, the conflict that remained was a battle between anti-fascists and the police. Charli was there:

“I saw the riot shields in use outside the Odeon cinema, and later further south towards Ladywell there was a police motorbike abandoned, covered with green paint and on fire. Lots of dented and scratched police transits with big holes in their windows were zooming round, but there was no other traffic whatsoever. There were bricks and stones all over the street, but I saw just one smashed shop window. I heard later that there had been a lot of confrontations between local youth and police in Lewisham that day, obviously related to the huge police presence due to the demo but not directly concerned with it. Just the usual provocations writ large.”

A third of the entire Metropolitan Police force was on duty that day. It was the first time that riot shields had been used on the mainland, and even on their own terms, the police hardly knew how to use them. BBC footage shows the police in gangs, three or four officers at a time, running behind their great over-sized screens. The officers charged, in broken lines, arresting more than 200 demonstrators. People were clubbed, as they stood, grabbed and taken. Police and protesters could reach out and touch. There were no lines, just a mêlée.

John, a teacher from south London, was caught up in the fighting. He was arrested, charged and accused of having planned the events:

“I had been spotted by snatch squads operating at the end of the day as the demonstration was dispersing. I was clubbed, kicked and punched by police armed with riot gear and shields. I ran but was run down by a police motorcycle, and bundled into a Special Patrol Group carrier. As the van raced through the streets, they amused themselves by trying to jump from the seats on to my head. It proved more difficult than they had imagined. They could only break the bones in my hand. I was charged with police assault; the assault of an unknown member of the Metropolitan Police force, who was never produced or named.”

Maeve was a young black teacher, of South African origin. She worked at the same school in south London as John. In the run-up to the events at Lewisham, she recalls sticking up posters for the demonstration. A prominent activist, she was sure that she was going to be arrested. ‘I washed my child’s teddy bear. I took him to my mother’s. I didn’t want her to say anything, if she had to look after him for several days.’ Maeve recalls being at Lewisham Way, as the police lines scattered. ‘I was cut off, round the back from the clock tower. The police were really abusive. One said to me, “If I wasn’t in this uniform, I’d show you, Nigger.”’ Maeve was separated from her brother, who was also marching, and from other activists. By now, the crowd was much younger and blacker. ‘I remember one of the organizers was on the megaphone shouting to us to all link arms, but when I turned to the people next to me, they just laughed.’

The crowd was more divided than it had been earlier. Parts were also angrier. According to Parker,

“The cry went up from the marchers, ‘Let’s go to Ladywell station’, but we meant to go to the train station, to go home. The black youth took it up, ‘To Ladywell, Ladywell police station’. That was the nearest police station. I heard later from people who’d been arrested earlier in the day that just as we were getting ready to depart, suddenly all the cops stopped doing any paperwork. They began preparing the building for what they saw as an inevitable attack. And the black youth did go there. They stoned the station.”

After several hours of fighting, one thing was clear: the National Front had failed to pass. According to Dave Widgery’s Beating Time,

“We were frightened and we were brave and proud and ashamed at the same time. As the day became more brutal and frightening, and the police, furious at their failure, turned to take revenge on the counter demonstrators, there was one big flash of recognition on the faces in the groups: between dread and socialist, between lesbian separatist and black parent, between NME speadfreak and ASTMS branch secretary. We were together . . . the mood was absolutely euphoric. Not only because of the sense of achievement – they didn’t pass, not with any dignity anyway . . . but also because, at last, we were all in it together.”[21]

Maeve’s strongest memory is similar, of an overwhelming feeling of elation that sustained her for weeks afterwards.

The last word belongs to Ted Parker.

“I was on Lewisham High Street, with a megaphone, when I was hit on the head by the police. After that, I was completely groggy, my mind went, my memory. I think I must have bumped into a couple of comrades. They wanted to take me to Lewisham hospital, but I insisted they take me to one in Westminster, so I wouldn’t get arrested. Next thing, I wake up in hospital. I don’t even know what day it is. I was even thinking – maybe it was the Friday, we’d been attacked, and the whole thing never happened. I ask the nurse, the patients. It was OK, it was the Sunday. Was there a riot? There had been. I couldn’t remember a thing. I phoned my wife, and said, ‘I’m in hospital, I’ve lost my memory.’ She said, ‘That’s the tenth time you’ve rung me with the same cock and bull story.’ Then I was feeling shaky again. I phoned Jerry Fitzpatrick from the hospital, and I asked him, ‘How was it? Did I do all right?’ He said, ‘Ted, you were bloody marvellous.’”

Who will defend the communities?

After Lewisham, the media took the side of the police. Daily and weekly newspapers ran with the hundreds arrested and the 50 policemen injured, ignoring the causes of the protest and portraying the conflict as a senseless battle between two parallel sets of extremists. The front page of the Sunday Times reported David McNee, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, condemning the ‘determined extreme element’ of the left for preventing a ‘lawful march’ from taking place.[22] The Sunday People featured the headline, ‘Bobbies pay the price of freedom’. A leader in The Times blamed the Socialist Workers’ Party, ‘whose members and adherents, some of them armed with vicious weapons, came prepared to fight. That their belligerent intent so soon transferred itself from their avowed enemy, the Front, to the police is an appalling indictment of their true philosophy.’ The Daily Mail used a front-page picture of a policeman holding a studded club and a knife, weapons supposedly found at Lewisham, and beside him was the headline, ‘After the Battle of Lewisham, a question of vital importance, now who will defend him?’ The Daily Express went further: ‘We have no time or sympathy for the Front . . . All the same, the Front does not go in for violent attacks on the police or on authority.’ Journalist Hugo Young, then working for the Sunday Times, solemnly announced that the SWP was ‘a forerunner of the forces of darkness’. Tory leader Margaret Thatcher informed the press that ‘Your Communism is the left foot of Socialism and your Fascism the right foot of it.’[23]

Linsday Mackie of the Guardian was no more sympathetic to the demonstrators, only more detached, asking in a strangely dispassionate manner whether the police could claim any sort of victory.

“Mr David McNee, Metropolitan Commissioner of Police . . . advised the Home Secretary, Mr Merlyn Rees, that his force could control events in Lewisham; and the many calls to ban the march were therefore not successful. With 56 of his men injured – 11 of them seriously enough to be detained in hospital – Mr McNee on Saturday night said that the violence in Lewisham was the result of an ‘orchestrated and violent attempt’ by extremists to prevent the National Front march taking place. He said that the police function was to deal ‘effectively and impartially with breaches of the law’ and he said that this was done on Saturday.”[24]

Several Labour Party voices claimed that Socialist Workers Party demonstrators amounted to ‘Red fascism’, an equally despicable counterpart to the National Front. The Daily Mirror claimed that the SWP was ‘as bad as the National Front’, while Michael Foot, a left-winger since the 1930s, insisted that ‘you don’t stop the Nazis by throwing bottles or bashing the police. The most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them.’ The Liberal Party called for a ban on marches by ‘extreme left-wing organizations’. Sid Bidwell, the Ealing Labour MP and a one-time revolutionary socialist, announced that he had time neither for the NF nor ‘for those crackpot adventurers who have yet to take their part in responsibility in the real Labour movement. We cannot counter them by a strategy of trying to out-thug the thugs of the National Front, because we have the strength to do otherwise.’[25] As well as the press backlash, the SWP had to deal with attacks from members of the NF. They threatened known socialists, broke the windows of several SWP members’ homes, then attacked and set fire to the party headquarters in September 1977.[26]

After the deluge

Despite the consensus in the national press, a few voices did attempt to stem the flood of the anti-anti-fascist backlash. The New Musical Express devoted an entire page to a free-wheeling subjective account of the march, written by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons: ‘the unforgettable faces of marching Nazis were the stuff of nightmares; they looked twisted, sick, bigoted, and ultimately pathetic’. Tom Picton of Camerawork observed that the Fleet Street papers blamed anti-racists for the violence at the Lewisham. ‘None of [the papers] will accept that it is a violent act to march through any community, mouthing racist slogans and carrying racist placards.’ Socialist Challenge, paper of the International Marxist Group, announced that Lewisham had been ‘a victory for us, and a defeat for the police and government’.[27] Philip Kleinman penned one of the sharpest comments for the Jewish Chronicle, a paper hostile to the socialist left. Kleinman pointed out that the very purpose of the National Front was to stir up race-hatred. ‘When it marches through an area with a large immigrant population, its purpose is precisely the same as that of Mosley’s blackshirts – to stir up communal strife with the hope of reaping an electoral advantage.’ He concluded, ‘whatever their defects, the Trotskyists have the right attitude to the National Front and should not be left alone to stop its provocations’.[28]

It soon became clear that the main effect of the Lewisham protest had been to boost anti-fascists. John Savage, a historian of punk, describes how Rock Against Racism took on a new urgency, with the Clash now speaking openly against the NF: ‘the National Front had “won on points” [in the press] . . . but Lewisham saw Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party winning hands down in pop culture’.[29]

Socialist Worker showed a front page of celebrating black youths, watching as the National Front were forced to retreat. ‘We stopped the Nazis . . . and we’ll do it again!’ The paper also ran an interview with David Foster, whose son had been one of the original Lewisham 21:

“The National Front have done everything in their power to whip up hatred between black and white. They have brought racial violence and destruction to a peaceful community

On 2 July, when we marched for our children who have been arrested, the National Front showed who are the violent ones.

They attacked our demonstration; threw acid in the eyes of one young girl and broke the jaw of another.

I haven’t heard anyone around here complaining about the violence on Saturday.

What they would say is: If the National Front had been allowed to march, there would have been much more violence in the community.

I don’t agree with everything the Socialist Workers Party says, but they were the only organisation to stand up for the rights of black people here.’”[30]

The Communist Party’s paper, Morning Star, had been fiercely critical of the Socialist Workers Party in the run-up to Lewisham. In the aftermath, its attack was hampered by the fact that many Communist Party supporters had joined the second march. One article again condemned the organizers of the second demonstration while praising the ‘courage and determination’ of those who had taken part. Another article quoted a manual worker from the borough: ‘The National Front won’t be showing up here for a long time.’[31]

The socialist monthly Women’s Voice interviewed Faith Foster, a West Indian woman whose son had been arrested as part of Operation PNH. Faith then attended the Lewisham demonstration, and described her feelings of joy when the police and the fascists were forced back:

“The National Front couldn’t march through Lewisham. We wouldn’t let them. We stuck to our word, ‘They shall not pass.’ I caught the bus into Brookley with my friend to see the end of the march, as I couldn’t go all the way; my daughter had only just come out of hospital after having her appendix out and couldn’t be left for long. We walked down Ladywell Road and what I saw, my heart was laughing inside. I had not been happy for so long . . . I was really, really happy.”[32]

One of the strongest arguments made, even at the time, was that physical confrontation had prevented the National Front from taking control of the streets. In 1976, the NF was able to turn out up to 1,500 members on its marches. By spring 1977, and Wood Green, the figure had fallen to 1,000. At Lewisham it fell again. Afterwards, the NF was never able to march again in significant numbers. The membership simply did not trust their leaders to protect them.

John from south London recalls a mood transformed: ‘After Lewisham, the atmosphere changed. We intimidated them, for the first time. Now you could wear anti-racist badges in public, on the tube or at work. The atmosphere changed entirely.’ According to Ian,

Lewisham raised the profile of the Socialist Workers Party enormously. We were denounced all over the place, but in my workplace that didn’t rub off at all. If you just read the newspapers you would get the impression that SWP members wouldn’t dare show their faces in the street, but I went to work with my badges on, and nobody batted an eyelid.

Jerry Fitzpatrick says that ‘Lewisham was our Cable Street. We had in mind the slogan from 1936, “They shall not pass.” It was our generation’s attempt to stop fascism. It was rugged, scrappy. It got bad publicity. But it was a real success. The NF had been stopped, and their ability to march through black areas had been completely smashed.’

National Front News ran its own version of events, ‘Red Rioters Fail’, maintaining that ‘fine Police organisation’ had enabled their group to march safely to Lewisham. The NF was ‘now poised to inflict a savage revenge on Labour at the next General Election’. Spearhead also neglected to mention the breaking-up of the NF march, with Martin Webster writing that ‘The NF column marched from New Cross in the northern part of the Borough to the prearranged open-air meeting place off Lewisham High Street at the southern end of the Borough’, as if that was all that had happened.[33]

Gerry Gable gives a very different account:

The Lewisham march marked a watershed for the NF. For as long as they could remember they could get away with murder when it came to street conflict with their opponents. Then after weeks of short engagements around the Lewisham street sales, the police moved in and arrested more Nazis than anti-fascists.

A large section of the executive was opposed to going into the streets. They said it would end up with a head-on clash and as the police were already hostile in the area it might be a serious mistake to get on the wrong side of the law. Of course, they were now being challenged on the streets all over the country.

‘A lot came of the events at Lewisham’, writes Dave Widgery.

The black community, who had successfully defended their patch, had had a glimpse of a white anti-racist feeling which was much bigger and more militant than the liberal community-relations tea-parties might suggest. A lot of ordinary people thought it was a Good Thing that the little Hitlers had taken a bit of a stick. Every little racialist was much smaller. Many people who had reservations about direct action found themselves regretting they had not been there too.[34]

‘Two-thirds of the people who marched with the NF at Lewisham’, claims Red Saunders of Rock Against Racism, ‘never marched again. Lewisham pulled back the Union Jack to show the swastika underneath. If you’re not ready for physical confrontation, you never come again.’ According to the paper CARF, such was the scale of the setback that ‘if I was a National Front member I’d be hitting the bottle by now’. The fact that the size of the NF contingent had sharply fallen between Wood Green and Lewisham was taken as evidence that opposition was working: ‘many NF members are bloody angry with the leadership for putting them at risk’.[35] It really was a terrible defeat for the Front.

[1] D. Widgery, Beating Time (London: Chatto and Windus, 1986), p. 45.

[2] These two accounts are taken from D. Renton, K. Flett and I. Birchall, The Battle of Wood Green (London: Haringey Trades Council, 2002), pp. 15–17.

[3] A. Deason, ‘Socialists march where blackshirts ruled’, Socialist Worker, 7 May 1977.

[4] P. Foot, ‘Police on racist rampage’, Socialist Worker, 11 June 1977.

[5] ‘A mugging – but the police look the other way’, Socialist Worker, 25 June 1977.

[6] J. Adams, ‘Behind the “Lewisham 21”’, New Statesman, 9 September 1977.

[7] J. Dromey and G. Taylor, Grunwick: The Workers’ Story (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978).

[8] ‘An appeal for united left action’, Socialist Worker, 18 June 1977.

[9] South London Press, 7 October 1977.

[10] D. Peers, ‘Poison!’, Socialist Worker, 9 July 1977.

[11] ‘Nazis off the streets!’, Socialist Worker, 13 August 1977.

[12] W. Ellsworth-Jones, J. Ball and M. Bilton, ‘214 seized, 110 hurt in clashes at Front march’, Sunday Times, 14 August 1977.

[13] Widgery, Beating Time, pp. 45–7, 45.

[14] C. Rosenberg, ‘Labour and the fight against fascism’, International Socialism Journal, no. 39 (1988), pp. 55–94.

[15] J. Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 393; Widgery, Beating Time, pp. 45–7.

[16] ‘The day we stopped the Nazis . . . and the police ran amok’, Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[17] Ellsworth-Jones, Ball and Bilton, ‘214 seized’, 14 August 1977.

[18] The story is perhaps apocryphal. The size of the WARF contingent is certainly exaggerated. The story is accurate, however, in conveying the confidence and the unruliness of the crowd.

[19] ‘John Tyndall’s vision’, Camerawork, Lewisham: What Are You Taking Pictures For? (London: Half Moon Photography Workshop, 1977), p. 6.

[20] Ellsworth-Jones, Ball and Bilton, ‘214 seized’, Sunday Times, 14 August 1977.

[21] Widgery, Beating Time, pp. 45–7, 45; Rosenberg, ‘Labour and the fight’, pp. 55–92, 75–9.

[22] Ellsworth-Jones, Ball and Bilton, ‘214 seized’, Sunday Times, 14 August 1977.

[23] Sunday People, 14 August 1977; Daily Mail, 15 August 1977; Daily Express, 15 August 1977; New Statesman and Nation, 29 September 1978.

[24] L. Mackie, ‘The real losers in Saturday’s battle of Lewisham’, Guardian, 15 August 1977.

[25] C. Bambery, Killing the Nazi Menace: How to Stop the Fascists (London: Bookmarks, 1992); p. 33; ‘Liberals call for ban on Front marches’, The Times, 15 August 1977; Rosenberg, ‘Labour and the fight’ p. 77.

[26] D. Thomas, Johnny Rotten in his Own Words (London: Omnibus, 1988), p. 22; ‘What the Nazis did to our HQ’, Socialist Worker, 10 September 1977.

[27] T. Picton, ‘What the papers said’, Camerawork, Lewisham, p. 7; T. Ali, ‘The lessons of Lewisham’, Socialist Challenge, 1 September 1977.

[28] The Times, 15 August 1977; A. Callinicos and A. Hatchett, ‘In defence of violence’, International Socialism (1977), pp. 24–8.

[29] Savage, England’s Dreaming, p. 395.

[30] ‘The Battle of Lewisham’, Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[31] Morning Star, 26 August 1977; Rosenberg, ‘Labour and the fight’, p. 77.

[32] Women’s Voice, September 1978; CARF, no. 3, October–November 1977, p. 11.

[33] ‘Labour hysterical as “Smash the NF” campaign flops’, National Front News, no. 11, winter 1978; M. Webster, ‘Establishment conspirators and Red mobs fail to stop National Front advance’, Spearhead, September 1977.

[34] Widgery, Beating Time, p. 49.

[35] CARF, no. 3, October–November 1977, p. 10.

Tony Cliff on Party Democracy

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Prompted by Brian Roper, I repost below Tony Cliff’s considered thoughts on Party and Democracy; a concise section which itself summarises the first volume of his biography of Lenin. There are some among my comrades who would take the last two sentences and skip over everything else which Cliff says. But I prefer to read this passage as a totality, including his emphases on self-criticism within an organisation, on the correction of mistakes, on open debate without resource to administrative (i.e. bureaucratic) measures to silence party critics, and above all on taking party debates to the widest circles of people, far beyond the boundaries of the party itself. For Cliff, moreover, there was no limit on the times when open debate were necessary. Whether conditions were good and the party was in open warfare with the state (“a period of direct revolutionary struggle”) or whether conditions were hostile and ideas were moving rapidly to the right, for a party to survive, its discussions must be open.

The Party as a School of Strategy and Tactics

Questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics held a meaning for Lenin only if the possibility of implementing them, through the revolutionary party, was a real one. He saw the party as a school for strategy and tactics, a combat organisation for the conquest of power by the working class.

How can the revolutionary leadership learn from the masses and know what they think and feel, unless it forms an integral part of these masses, listening to them at their workplaces, in the streets, in their homes, in their eating places? To teach the masses, the leadership must learn from them. This Lenin believed and practised all his life.

The party must not lag behind the advanced section of the class. But it must not be so far ahead as to be out of reach. It must stand at its head and be rooted in it:

To be successful, all serious revolutionary work requires that the idea that revolutionaries are capable of playing the part only of the vanguard of the truly virile and advanced class must be understood and translated into action. A vanguard performs its task as vanguard only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward. [32]

The need for a revolutionary party, as we have already pointed out, is a reflection of the unevenness of consciousness in the working class. At the same time, however, the party exists in order to hasten the overcoming of this unevenness, by raising consciousness to the highest possible level. Adaptation to the average, or even to the lowest level of consciousness of the class is in the nature of opportunism. Organisational independence and isolation from the most advanced section of the proletariat, on the other hand, is the road to sectarianism. Raising the advanced section to the highest possible level under the prevailing circumstances – this is the role of the really revolutionary party.

To learn from the masses, the party must also be able to learn from its own mistakes, to be very self-critical.

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. [33]

The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame. [34]

The masses must be involved in correcting party mistakes. Thus on 21 January 1905, Lenin wrote:

We Social Democrats resort to secrecy from the Tsar and his bloodhounds while taking pains that the people should know everything about our party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its program and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party Congress delegate said at the Congress in question. [35]

Open debate is even more vital and essential during a period of direct revolutionary struggle, as Lenin wrote in a leaflet on 25-26 April 1906.

In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the party are most ruthlessly criticised by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social Democratic proletariat. [36]

He urged repeatedly that debate should not be limited to inner party circles, but should be carried on publicly so that non-party people could follow it.

Our party’s serious illness is the growing pains of a mass party. For there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organisations of the party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built. [37]

Again,

Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free (we remind the reader of what Plekhanov said on this subject at the second Congress of the RSDLP) not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited. [38]

There is a dialectical relationship between democracy within the party and the party’s roots in the class. Without a correct class policy and a party composed of proletarians, there is no possibility of healthy party democracy. Without a firm working-class base, all talk of democracy and discipline in the party is meaningless verbiage. At the same time, without party democracy, without constant self-criticism, development of a correct class policy is impossible.

We have more than once already enunciated our theoretical views on the importance of discipline and on how this concept is to be understood in the party of the working class. We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class. [39]

… the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticise.” [40]

If democracy is essential in order to assimilate the experience of the struggle, centralism and discipline are necessary to lead the struggle. Firm organisational cohesion makes it possible for the party to act, to take initiatives, to direct the action of the masses. A party that is not confident in itself cannot win the confidence of the masses. Without a strong party leadership, having the power to act promptly and direct the activities of the members, a revolutionary party cannot exist. The party is a centralist organisation that leads a determined struggle for power. As such it needs iron discipline in action.

Cliff article here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap14.htm#s5

first published by me here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151388371236269