The news of the death of Ray Hill (1939-2022), one time-fascist, later Searchlight mole, has left me thinking about ex-fascists, and how few see the journey through.
Among the failures, we can include Ewald Althans, one of the leaders of the Rostock riots in 1992, who was interviewed for television a documentary in 1993, supposedly to prove his determination to leave fascism behind, but in fact used the platform to deny the Holocaust, as a result of which he was convicted and jailed; Tommy Robinson, who quit the EDL in 2013, and briefly worker with the anti-extremism campaign Quilliam, only to re-join the far right and organise in 2018 the largest right-wing street protests Britain has ever seen; or Matthew Heimbach one of the organisers of the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in 2017, who claimed in spring 2021 to have renounced fascism, only to boast weeks later that he was proposing to relaunch his Traditionalist Workers Party.
But, in the case of Ray Hill, we find someone who had been a a leading fascist – only to admit he was wrong, and to see through the journey of undoing the harm he’d caused
A young man living in Leicester in the early 1960s, Hill was attracted to anti-immigration politics. He joined first the Racial Preservation Society, and then the British Movement. Between 1969 and 1979, Hill lived in South Africa, where he found himself slowly antagonised by the dominant values of apartheid and its radical insistence on the separation of black and white. A South African National Front had been founded and Hill was one of its leaders, but started passing information about it to local Jewish groups. He returned to England, met with researchers from the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, and agreed with their backing to join the British Movement. There, he encouraged a faction fight against the party leader Michael McLaughlin. Posing as a more serious Nazi than McLaughlin, the latter responded by expelling him. Hill then sued for readmission. McLaughlin tried to defeat him by pre-emptively closing down the organisation. Ray Hill waited 6 months before outing himself as an infiltrator.
The reason that Hill provides an interesting study in forgiveness is that he had not just been a mere rank-and-file follower of fascism, but an active National Socialist, election agent for Colin Jordan when he stood for Parliament in 1969 and won 4 percent of the vote, and Chairman of the National Front in South Africa, before rejecting its politics.
In 1988, Hill published a memoir, The Other Face of Terror. By far the most important anti-fascist voice mentioned in the text is Searchlight, who are mentioned on 50 of the book’s 315 pages. That magazine was founded in 1975, by two socialists Maurice Ludmer and Gerry Gable. Ludmer was the President of Birmingham Trades Council, of Jewish heritage and a former Communist, who in 1961 who had helped to found the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CCARD) which worked together with the Indian Workers; Association in opposing immigration controls and far right activity. Later, Ludmer was a member of the steering committee of the Anti-Nazi League. Gable was also Jewish, and had also been in the Young Communist League. In 1962 he became intelligence director of the Jewish and anti-fascist campaign, the 62 group, after which his politics best reflect that campaign itself, in which former Communists, people whose main political attachment was to Zionism, and pure anti-fascists mingled on equal terms.
Hill’s decision to leave England for South Africa was occasioned by an incident when he and other supporters of the British Movement had been in a Leicester café where they were spotted by anti-fascist students. A row broke out and the proprietor took the side of the students. Hill punched him on the nose, and was charged with assault and actual bodily harm. He and his wife then fled the country. Later, when he returned to England, he negotiated a deal under which the more serious charge was dropped, he pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence. At a time of his life (i.e. 1980) when he was trying to reintegrate himself into far-right circles, his friends in nationalist circles assumed that the café owner must have been Jewish and that this was yet another instance of bad Jews harassing innocent racists. Hill played up to their fantasies, until the rumour became one in which he had launched a vicious, unprompted attack on a Jewish bystander, a story which did him no harm in posing as the incorrigible Nazi his new career as a mole required him to be.
In South Africa in 1979, at the height of his career as chairman of that country’s National Front, Hill watched with growing unease as his comrades leafleted the mixed district of Hillbrow in Johannesburg. Under apartheid, this had been classified a white suburb, but few whites actually wanted to live there, and a growing number of Indian families had moved in. The Front repeatedly leafleted the district, blaming “money-grabbing Zionist landlords” for the change. After one leafleting campaign, the apartheid police felt a need to take action, and began evicting Indian residents from their homes. Hill saw a family, thrown out of a house, their few possession tied up in baskets. He wanted to speak to them and apologise but could not. Ashamed by what he and his comrades had done, Hill approached “a couple of Jewish chaps,” who he had met previously at the Alberton races. They introduced on to “a leading figure in the Jewish community in Johannesburg”, to whom he passed lists of NF members, and plans for rallies, paving the way for his subsequent work as a mole in England.
In England, Hill’s contacts were initially with a man “Derek” working in Searchlight’s Birmingham office, with whom Hill shared a drink. By early 1981, Gable had replaced Derek as Hill’s main Searchlight contact. Witnessing racist attacks, Hill passed on the details of the perpetrators to the police, leaked to the press plans for a bomb attack on the Notting Hill Carnival, and gathered intelligence on secret Nazi gatherings.
His memoir is presented strictly through Hill’s eyes. We get only a relatively vague sense of how he seemed to those anti-fascists who were tasked with monitoring him. For Derek, we are told, the focus was on what Hill could do to help anti-fascists. Derek asked him what he thought of various fascists here, what would be the consequences of their success, how far he agreed with the Searchlight approach. Hill was promising to break all contacts with British politics; it was Derek, he explains, who encouraged him to become more active. Hill was treated not as a repentant fascist seeking redemption, but more like the sort of young friendly contact who makes an initial approach to an anti-fascist campaign. A handler was allocated to him, bit by bit he was turned into an identifier and an anti-fascist activist. There appears to have been no great awkwardness at the through of recruiting a leader of the far right; rather the question was approached practically – the act of intelligence gathering compelled anti-fascists to open up lines of dialogue to their wavering enemies.
“Think it over,” Derek said, “Why don’t you give me a call in a few days?”
Hill was being asked to submerge himself back into a milieu in which he would witness acts of violence, and should expect the threat of physical harm, whenever he was finally unmasked as an infiltrator, and yet his answer is a study in understatement: “You haven’t left me a lot of choice, have you?” Hill replied.
For anyone interested in the politice of this, check out Shane Burley’s recent piece on fascist exes in the US (https://mobile.twitter.com/sha…/status/1524494474537103361); or the obit of Ray Hill now up on the Searchlight website here (http://www.searchlightmagazine.com/2022/05/rip-ray-hill/). My thanks to Graeme Atkinson for informing me about Ray’s passing.