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]

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One response »

  1. just come across this in 2016. Well done in researching and writing this up. I always thought this was the SWP’s best and most important initiative and I was very proud to have been a part of it.

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