After Whitechapel

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Sadly, the following piece only appears to be available to print subscribers to Overland literary journal, but people may be interested in my article for that magazine, or at least the final sixth or so of it. The reference to “outriders” seems especially timely in light of what went on to happen last Saturday:

“…Looking at UAF in particular, my sense is of a campaign that has lost its purpose, which one day promotes the idea of a dense patchwork of local groups, and the next suggests a propaganda campaign against UKIP. Neither idea is followed through, nor does anyone seem to notice that these tactics point in different directions – and (if done properly) would attract different audiences.

At various points in the past – the early 1920s, the mid-1930s, the mid-1970s, and then again ten years ago – anti-fascism has been in a state of organisational flux, as new groups emerged. Today, there is no immediate counterpart of the Red Shirts of Oxford in the 1930s, or the Grey Shirts in Newcastle, who took part in anti-fascist campaigns before the better known struggles led by the Communist Party. But the situation calls out for that sort of intermediate form, the ‘outriders’ who will presage a shift of strategy.

Part of UAF’s difficulty has been precisely the success that people had 35 years before, which encourages the comforting but false conclusion that replaying the most compelling sounds of the past will produce the same energy.

In 1981, as Rock Against Racism organised its last Carnival, Red Saunders approached the music promoter Richard Branson, who had recently brought out, on his Virgin Records label, the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’, thus beginning the accumulation of the Branson millions.

Branson agreed to support a Rock Against Racism compilation, an album that featured the likes of Steel Pulse, Matumbi, Carol Grimes, and the Gang of Four. It still bears listening to today. Three years later, Virgin Records released a very different compilation, Now that’s why I call Music 1, featuring various singles by well-known chart acts such as UB40, Culture Club and Madness. There was no successor to the RAR album. The Now compilation, by contrast, spawned 83 successors. Counting international spin-offs, the series has now sold in excess of 100 million copies worldwide. Thirty years ago, Now was some kind of innovator. These days, by contrast, the series is the very epitome of uncool and no-one with the shallowest knowledge of music would actually admit to buying a copy. The fruits of innovation, in other words, are strictly limited.

The comparison may be a little unkind, and I am describing what UAF risks becoming, not what it yet is. But in politics, as in other areas of life, mere repetition always ends in exhaustion.

The next successful anti-fascist campaign in Britain will probably have a one- or two-word name rather than a three letter acronym. It may have a cultural “partner” organisation; if it does, that partner will need to have a name coined freshly for the present. The new group will need to get the very same things right which UAF gets wrong.
I don’t doubt that the anti-fascist campaign that we need will repeat the substance of the Anti-Nazi League: its youth, its militancy, the diversity of its support and the scale of the numbers involved. But part of the trick needs to involve giving up more of the form in order to get back to the content of the relationships that were once at the League’s heart.”

You can order the magazine here: http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-212/feature-david-renton/

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One response »

  1. Wow, A really good ans timely piece. Sharply critical yet delightfully constructive. as the pre-eminet historian of the Anti Nazi League David Renton knows his stuff.

    What is mssing tho’ is a critique, nay even a mention of, ‘Hope not Hate’. I probably don’t have the differences with HnH that David has, in 2010 I thought their campaign in Barking for example was exemplary compared to muxy of the posturing that UAF indulged in, But I would want to know David thinks of HnH and learn something ILm sure from his opinions. A future post maybe?

    Mark P

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