Looking in the rear view mirror: the conflicts of the 1970s seen from the perspective of 2017

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Looking in the rear view mirror: the conflicts of the 1970s seen from the perspective of 2017

The two dynamics I want to focus on today are the questions, first, of whether the National Front was in fact a fascist party, and second, whether it was undermined by anti-fascist opposition. Both of these questions require, I believe, more nuanced answers than might have been sufficient, say, ten or even five years ago.

During the recent French presidential elections, Douglas Murray, a centre-right author whose books warns of the danger posed to Europe by Muslim immigration, complained in the Spectator of the tendency of Le Pen and Trump’s critics to describe people holding many varieties of right-wing positions as far right whether they were in fact anti-Islamic, anti-EU, or those he termed ‘actual fascists and Nazis’. Murray suggested that the term far-right had become incoherent. He focussed in particular on the tendency of critics to say that because the Front National had been founded by a generation that included fascists therefore it was by definition always a fascist party. ‘If,’ he wrote, ‘we allow movement on the political left, surely we must allow it on the political right?’

Indeed, looking at the far right today what is striking is its ideological mobility. You can find examples of post-9/11 parties with no discernible debt to fascism, there are also mimetic fascist organisations which insist on copying even the images of the 1930s. Some are becoming more extreme, others (this is a relative term) more moderate.

When I began writing about fascism, journalists and to a lesser extent academics used the term ‘far-right’ principally to refer to what you might term ‘Euro-fascist’ parties, of which the paradigm cases were the FN in France and the MSI in Italy. The latter emerged from the Italian Social Republic (RSI) founded by Mussolini in 1943. The party’s first three leaders all served under Mussolini. From the early 1990s, however, the MSI’s new leader Gianfranco Fini excluded its most aggressive fascists. The party was renamed the National Alliance and in 1994 it entered government as a junior party in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition. Here was a shocking moment, a minority-fascist government for the first time in Europe since 1945. Yet Berlusconi’s government is not remembered today for prison camps but for the corruption of Berlusconi himself. The AN participated in two Berlusconi governments, losing votes to his party. The AN suffered electoral annihilation in 2014, and was dissolved.

Not all far right parties turn in the direction of conservatism. But some do. Of the three parties which came together to form the National Front in 1967 the largest the British National Party (not to be confused with the more recent party of the same name) was originally a neo-Nazi party of Hitler revivalists, including in its membership the widow of arch anti-semite Arnold Leese. The BNP had, however, recently been considering a turn towards electoralism, justified by the 9 percent of the vote the party won at Southall in the 1964 general election. It was this success which drove the merger talks which led to the NF.

One way of thinking about the Front might therefore be as a modernisation project akin to recent Euro-fascism, that is, as a party which was moving in the direction of electoralism, albeit slowly. How far was this transformation complete by, say, 1978?

The classic analysis of the Front’s ideology is Stan Taylor’s book, The National Front in English Politics. Taylor argues that outrider parties distinguish between their esoteric and exoteric ideologies. The exoteric is the public face, the message you might put in a leaflet or a public broadcast, to win new converts. The esoteric is the insider ideology, deployed only with trusted members. This distinction points towards a dynamic in which the NF’s leaders felt obliged to camouflage their message. Even in internal publications, there was a pressure against speaking openly. Through the 1970s, the leader of the National Front John Tyndall was under attack from two sources – his rivals within the NF who in 1974-5 were even briefly able to topple him – and from external critics. His magazine Spearhead was obtained by opponents who did not hesitate to publish extracts from it. Even in Spearhead, Tyndall had good reasons for being less than candid.

Before Tyndall joined the National Front, Spearhead featured openly neo-Nazi messages, there were cartoons of the right’s Jewish opponents, and demands to make every man ‘Jew-wise’ and Britain ‘Jew-clean’. There were repeated Germanisms: Britain was urged to become a ‘volks-gemeinschaft of the Anglo-Saxons – within an Anglo-Saxon Reich’. Spearhead ran advertisements for Hitler portraits and swastika badges. Whole articles were composed simply of long quotes from Mein Kampf. After 1967 and the Front’s formation, Spearhead’s racism remained express. But its fascism became muted.

Issue 100 of Spearhead contained a long article defending Tyndall from accusations that he was a Hitler supporter. This allegation was characterised as ‘the lowest depths of gutter journalism’ and Tyndall was said to be ‘critical of certain of Hitler’s policies, particularly his foreign policy.’ No detail of his supposed criticisms was given.

A follow-up article in October 1978 seemed to go further. Here, Tyndall identified the NF with Hitler’s economic and social policies and with territorial expansion. Unlike in Germany, he insisted, the NF could achieve the same goals peacefully, without needing dictatorship or racial war. Britain could rebuild her African empire by negotiation.

Spearhead told the NF’s members to modernise. Yet this modernisation was posed as a question of presentation rather than belief. In a ‘Message from the Chairman of the National Front’, in issue 94, for example, Tyndall warned the Front’s members against ‘surround[ing] themselves with obscurantist regalia, tap[ping] the sides of their armchairs to martial music and defer[ring] to political leaders of a bygone age.’ In the place of such old-style politics, members were invited to engage in ‘practical, business-like political activity’ while ‘not sacrificing the strength of their inner convictions.’ The Front’s ‘convictions’, the Chairman seemed to accept, were the same as they had always been.

Turning now to the effects of anti-fascism: this August, at Charlottesville, American anti-fascists were confronted with the spectre of between 500 and 1000 alt-rightists, chanting Heil Trump and ‘Jews will not replace us’. For the first time in the recent history of the US the right had control over the streets, significantly outnumbering its opponents. The clashes between the right and its opponents culminated in the attack by James Fields Jr., of American Vanguard, who drove his car into anti-fascist protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Asked about the events, President Trump declined to criticise the white supremacists, saying there was ‘blame on both sides’. In the days that followed Trump was criticised by Republicans and, in an attempt to deflect the criticisms, dismissed his Chief Strategist Steve Bannon the man who embodied the link between Trump and the alt-right. If you were to stop the clock at, say, the end of August 2017 then the judgment would be that the US far-right had overreached itself at Charlottesvile, giving the mainstream right no option but to break all ties with it. Not for the first time in the history of the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists, the left were a minority but by exposing the violence of the fascists succeeded in driving a wedge between the mainstream and the extreme right.

Charlottesville reminds us that the physical battle between left and right and the political battle for the interpretations of the clashes are capable of different outcomes. This insight helps to make sense of the confrontations in Britain in the 1970s. One is the Battle of Red Lion Square on 15 June 1974 when a National Front march to Conway Hall was met with counter-demonstrations and fighting between police and anti-fascists resulting in the death of one protester Kevin Gateley.

There was a public inquiry into the events at Red Lion Square and the NF’s Martin Webster was cross-examined by Stephen Sedley on behalf of the National Union of Students. Under questioning, Webster admitted that he and John Tyndall had a history of anti-Semitism. He recalled the chants used by the Front, ‘The Reds, the Reds, we’ve got to get rid of the Reds,’ and admitted that Front expected their opponents to respond angrily to them. He was asked to describe the Front’s preferred banner poles and accepted Sedley’s description of them as wooden flag poles with pointed aluminium tops (i.e. as weapons).

However Lord Scarman’s conclusions gave to succour to fascists, absolving both the police and the NF of any contribution to his death and concluding that ‘those who started the riot’ [i.e. the IMG] ‘carry a measure of moral responsibility for his death’. This also appears to have been the popular understanding of the events: the NF had accepted police instructions and were standing still even as the IMG and the police fought.

There are also times when the right used the possibility of conflict to demand greater activity from its own supporters. In the archives there is a 1974 circular from the Front’s Birmingham branch. It began with what sounded like a note of complaint, ‘It is doubtful if many members are aware of the intense hostility which our campaign in Birmingham has engendered.’ From there, the tone shifted rapidly to crowing, ‘On Thursday … [the] I[nternational] S[socialists] and I[nternational] M[arxist] G[roup] failed dismally to break up a public meeting in Handsworth … After the left-wing trash was thoroughly trounced by our stewards … we enjoyed a most stimulating meeting.’ The conclusion shifted again to warning, ‘We have received information that another public meeting, to be held on Tuesday 8 October at 8pm, is most certainly going to be subjected to the same treatment by the opposition who are determined to try and “Smash the National Front in Birmingham” … All activists are urged in the strongest possible terms to attend.’

For the left, the most straight-forward examples of victory have come when anti-fascist majorities have been able to take and hold the streets, driving away fascist minorities. The best example of this, in the 1970s, was the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977 when some eight hundred supporters of the National Front attempted to hold an anti-mugging march through Lewisham, but were met by groups of anti-fascists who fought them at their assembly point at Clifton Rise, threw rocks, wood and bricks at their opponents and repeatedly charged the National Front. When the remnants of the Front eventually reached central Lewisham they found it occupied by larger numbers of anti-fascists and were led away by the police, abandoning the streets to the left.

While the Anti-Nazi League presented itself as the party of street resistance to fascism, Lewisham preceded the League’s formation. Indeed the reason the League was formed was that in the immediate aftermath of the events at Lewisham, the 1970s left received almost as much press hostility as today’s right did after Charlottesville.

The Sunday People’s headline was, ‘Bobbies pay the price of freedom’. A leader in The Times blamed the Socialist Workers’ Party, ‘whose members and adherents, some of them armed with vicious weapons, came prepared to fight.’ The Daily Mail used a front-page picture of a policeman holding a studded club and a knife, weapons supposedly found at Lewisham, and beside him was the headline, ‘After the Battle of Lewisham, a question of vital importance, now who will defend him?’ While the usual approach is to see the League as being launched on a high – in the aftermath of a physical victory – it was in reality a defensive manoeuvre, an attempt to bring together all those who were glad to see the Front’s defeat (i.e. to broaden the left and neutralise the political attacks), and to move the discussion on from the press attacks.

So while Lewisham could have weakened the left, the press hostility was neutralised by the formation of the ANL, which seemed to mark a compromise between moderate and militant anti-fascism. The right had to face both the legacy of physical defeat and a popular perception that, in the words of the Front’s John Bean, ‘the NF had marched through an immigrant area deliberately to stir up trouble’. Both sides faced hostile public scrutiny. Unlike the left, the NF failed to evolve to meet it.

Joe Pearce was sixteen at the time of Lewisham. A recent recruit to the NF, his recollection was of feelings of exhilaration in the aftermath of the fighting, mixed with pride in that he had been physically tested but not afraid. A month later, Pearce would bring out the first edition of an NF youth paper, Bulldog. Yet even in Pearce’s upbeat memories, there is a passing acknowledgment of the Front’s future difficulties. He notes that prior to Lewisham, the NF had been capable of pulling together crowds of several thousand supporters. The crowd at Lewisham was younger and smaller. ‘In the future,’ he writes, ‘the older, respectable NF supporters, including the old soldiers, would stay away.’

Martin Webster tried to explain Lewisham to readers of Spearhead. ‘I cannot discuss these matters as Court cases are pending,’ Webster wrote, ‘But it is obvious that the Police were used by the Political Authorities of the State to suppress the right of National Front members to counter-demonstrate.’ He hinted without conviction at the possibility of using overwhelming violence to defeat the Front’s opponents.

Some three-quarters of Webster’s article was given over not to the events at Lewisham or his plans for what would follow but a retrospective justification for calling the march. ‘The Activists’ he wrote, [i.e. the members of the Front who planned the event] ‘felt that as, over years, the Police had always allowed SWP/IS embers, International Marxists and Reds of various other stripes to “militantly demonstrate” against [the Front’s] marches … the Police would give equal counter-demonstration rights to the National Front.’ Incoherent and inadequate, this was Webster best answer to Bean’s criticism that by marching several hundred NF supporters into a black district, the NF had ceded the morality of self-defence, handing the political victory to their opponents.

Through 1978 and early 1979, the balance between left and right shifted in the left’s favour. Under the pressure of repeated opposition, the tone of NF speeches changed from bravado to weary frustration. Here is Martin Webster, again, speaking at a school in Leeds in April 1978 after protests, ‘We have been put on the defensive today by raucous beer can throwing stinking animals. They are in fact an insult to the animal kingdom. Coming to this meeting we had to go through spit, shouts of abuse, kicks, obscenities and filth … They are deluging the public with the impression that the National Front is a jack booted short-moustached organisation.’

By the time of the events at Southall, the thousands who had marched with the Front after Red Lion Square and the hundreds at Lewisham had reduced in number to a single coach carrying just 20 NF supporters to an election meeting. The anti-fascists had also grown in number, with around ten thousand people – the large majority of them from Southall’s Sikh population – coming onto the streets in order to oppose the Front. In order to keep a balance between the two sides a total of 2875 police officers (including 94 on horseback) were required.

It is worth remembering that this very area of West London had been the justification for the right’s previous electoralism. In fifteen years, Southall had moved from being a place of opportunity for the right to somewhere it could no longer organise.

Southall has lived longest in the memory of all the confrontations of the 1970s. Some of this may be down to the intense local support that anti-fascists were able to generate for their mobilisation. Unlike, Red Lion Square Southall was the centre of a politicised black community. After his death, Peach’s body was left in a Southall cinema were it received thousands of visitors. Fifteen thousand people, including former Cabinet Minister Tony Benn, joined his funeral procession. Peach continues to be memorialised to this day, in an annual award presented by the National Union of Teachers and in the name of an Ealing school.

Another reason for Southall’s legacy is that after Blair Peach’s death, unlike the killing of Kevin Gateley, there was a campaign to bring Peach’s killer to justice. While the inquest verdict was death by misadventure, which seemed to exculpate the police from any responsibility, this was an outcome which has failed to stick in collective memory. The police had investigated the killing and identified Blair Peach’s murder; the coroner held back their report and refused to disclose it to the inquest jury.

Re-reading the fascists, it is striking how rarely they describe, even in later memoirs, being cowed or broken by physical confrontation. Of course, the people who publish their memoirs are the movement’s former leaders and they have no reason to give retrospective validation to their former opponents. That said, there are other points at which the fascists seem to acknowledge that their opponents had the better of them.

One is in terms of the Holocaust and its legacy.

John Bean was active on the far right for 25 years between 1952 and 1977 and latterly the Deputy Chair of the Front’s Executive Directorate. Near the end of his memoir and looking back on his political career, he recalled one incident with real regret: campaigning with other fascists in 1961 for the release of Adolf Eichmann. By this point retired from the struggle, Bean admitted that of course Hitler had practised genocide and he spoke of his private ‘shame’: a humiliation which, he admitted, had caused him a recurring nightmare in which he seemed to see the emaciated victims of the Holocaust. He should never have taken part in this action and he criticised himself for having allowed the ‘emotion of a bad taste, sickening, sixth form prank … to dominate the intellect.’

The intriguing word here in Bean’s account is ‘shame’.

The one action which anti-fascists took in the 1970s which seems to have generated a similar reaction was to reproduce photographs of Front Chairman John Tyndall from his Greater Britain Movement days in the early 1960s and in Nazi-style uniforms. The use of this image was a repeated complaint of the right. As early as June 1974, Spearhead complained about the ‘printing and distribution of the criminally libellous “smear” leaflets attacking the National Front which appeared in their hundreds of thousands during the last General Election in constituencies where the NF had candidates,’ and warning that if the police failed to prosecute the individuals responsible for them ‘the National Front will make such arrangements as circumstances indicate are necessary to secure its survival in what will have proved to be an unfree, undemocratic, unfair and violent society provided over by cowardly  or corrupt men.’ If the threat seems hollow, the tone of hurt and anger is unmistakeable.

An anonymous Front defector explained to the East End local journalists in August 1977 that the first time she had questioned consider her membership was ‘when she saw a picture of the NF’s leader John Tyndall wearing jackboots and sporting a swastika. “I won’t stand for any of this ‘Zieg Heil’ nonsense,” she said.’

During the Front’s 1979-1980 faction fight the vulnerability of Tyndall and his ally Martin Webster was a theme of his inner-party critics. They argued that Tyndall and Webster ‘play[ed] the fool in the days when they should have been taking their British nationalist politics seriously – and neither they, nor anyone else for that matter, can sue matter sue anyone or any institution if what is said or written is literally true’.

The problem with the accusation of Nazism was not that it challenged the NF’s patriotism but that it associated the Front with the Holocaust and with a genocide that even the fascists had to admit (albeit only to themselves) was unjustifiable.

It is possible to imagine a far-right party whose members and voters are proud and loyal fascists (think of the Italian fascists in the early 1920s). To say to members of such a group. ‘But you are all fascists,’ would be a pointless tactic. Of course we are, they would say. That’s how we see ourselves. It is also possible to conceive of a far-right party whose members all see themselves as non- or anti-fascist (think a pub of EDL members singing the Dam Busters theme tune). To say to members of such a group ‘But you are all fascists,’ would be equally pointless. They would laugh off the accusation.

The Front was at a particular stage in the history of the post-war right, when (to a much greater extent than today) its most violent militants were unable to think of any coherent basis for a far-right party except in the emulation of the past.

The Front’s members were neither secure in their fascism, nor were they beyond it. They behaved as if it was a private humiliation.

It was their incomplete disavowal of fascism, their shame, which rendered the Front’s supporters vulnerable to their opponent’s reproduction of Tyndall’s photograph and the accusation which lay behind it that the NF were still a party of Nazis.

Judging by what can be found in the memoirs of the Front’s former supporters, it seems that this repeated attack on the NF at its weak point did more to damage its member’s morale than anything else.

The challenge for anti-fascists since has been to find a tactic that might be equally successful in our own – very different – times.

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