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’.
‘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.