From the perspective of the EDL, the BNP or UKIP, the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby on Wednesday 22 May 2013 could not have been better scripted. The victim was a white soldier with a two year old son and a plainly loving family. A person who is not moved by their suffering has something seriously wrong with them. Lee Rigby’s killers were Muslim, political Islamists, and of African descent. They tick every demographic or political “box” about which the right has been raging for years. The public location of the killing and its amateur method compound the sense of horror that has in turn energised the fascists, the tabloid press and the state.
We all are familiar with the ways in which our opponents have engaged with the killing, beginning with the EDL Assembly at Woolwich on the evening of the 22nd itself, and the rapid construction of a Facebook page “RIP Woolwich Soldier”, which rapidly received 1.4 million likes, and which appears to have been set up using an EDL template. The main EDL page meanwhile leaped from around 30,000 to over 120,000 likes, before (thankfully) it was taken down by the hackers’ collective Anonymous.
EDL supporters attempted to follow up their original assembly in Woolwich on the night of the killing, with various regional protests, including by turning out over 1000 people in Newcastle on Saturday 25 May, with the Independent reporting that EDL supporters outnumbered anti-fascists there by 4 to 1, and the Sun not even giving any indication, in its coverage, of the numbers gathered by the left. It is possible that these estimates were all wrong. The newspapers usually quote the police, who in turn under-count our side and exaggerate the EDL’s numbers. But even if the balance was subtly less bad than the impression these numbers give, millions of people will have read these reports, and will have drawn the conclusion that the EDL was on the rise.
Socialist Worker responded relatively quickly to the killings, posting a statement on 23 May saying in effect that without the War on Terror, Lee Rigby would still be living: “The US and Britain have murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the “war on terror” over the past 12 years … This is a war which we learned last week that the US administration believes will go on for at least another ten to 20 years. That means decades more of invasions and drones and bombs and torture camps and assassinations. Is it a surprise that some people react in this shocking way?” This statement was followed by a message to all members from the National Secretary of the SWP Charlie Kimber instructing us to oppose the next two, main, EDL and BNP marches.
On Monday May 27, the EDL was outside Downing Street, and on Saturday June 1, the BNP had plans to march in Woolwich. Before assessing the effectiveness or otherwise of these last two protests, and of our collective response to them, it is worth pausing and asking why the EDL in particular has shown such signs of evident life, after a long period in which it was clearly in decline?
Putting the EDL and UAF in perspective
There was a tendency within the SWP especially between about December last year and this March for comrades to speak about Unite Against Fascism as if it had been a model campaign, which had played a unique part in decisively halting what would otherwise have been the inevitable rise of the EDL. A more honest appraisal would begin by admitting that no matter how many anti-fascist events we have held, they were not the sole cause of the EDL’s recent problems. The EDL’s difficulties were also partly self-inflicted. Its demonstrations, which were taking place weekly in 2009 and 2010 had begun to fizzle out before the end of 2010, essentially because there was no discernible progress from one march to the next, and no obvious plan beyond the demonstrations. (You might say that the right was suffering its own counterpart of a problem the left had faced after 2003, i.e. demonstration fatigue). The EDL had to endure deep divisions over its own counterparts to the BNP’s better-known modernisation strategy (i.e. the existence of EDL Sikh, LGBT and Jewish contingents) and the EDL was already in visible decline by late 2010, i.e. before Unite Against Fascism proved capable of repeatedly outnumbering it.
“Billy Blake”, whose book EDL: Coming Down the Road offers the best short guide to the mindset of a local EDL activist, ends his account in August 2011, with (even on his account), the EDL “in disarray”. In his words, “The internal politics and infighting which has plagued the EDL for over a year has undoubtedly contributed to the fall in support. Although English regional identity has contributed, the infighting has been magnified by an intransigent dictatorial leadership and an entrenched sub-leadership, both unelected. Mistakes have been made, but like we see in government, no-one has paid the price. There are people in charge whose main concerns, once their position is gained, is holding onto it, rather than furthering the aims of the EDL.”
The EDL’s situation had not significantly changed between August 2011 and May 2013, prior to Woolwich, if anything the EDL was weaker than it had ever been. But, even in its diminished state, the EDL still carried two things which gave it a distinct edge over its main rival the BNP. First, it retained some degree of brand loyalty among a series of activists who had repeatedly demonstrated over the past five years. By May 2013, most had been inactive for around two to two and a half years, but they were significantly more “battle-hardened” that the BNP, which had not called any national, street mobilisation for more than twenty years.
Second, it had an ideology which appeared dramatically more relevant. The BNP has long been vulnerable to accusations of Nazism. Its leader Nick Griffin will still occasionally call himself a National Socialist (albeit only in front of the right audience). The EDL carries the process of ideological modernisation much further. It parades its tiny number of black members. It has an internal language modelled on the Battle comics of the 1970s; and exults in the victories of English soldiers in 1939-1945 over their German counterparts. It is patriotic, and militantly anti-Islam. It was born out of the War on Terror, and is better shaped to deal with the present crisis.
A tale of two protests
For those of us who were in the thick of Monday’s anti-EDL protest, it is hard to be precise about how badly we were outnumbered, certainly 3:1, and perhaps more. There were more reasons for concern than just numbers. There were very few black faces on the protest, the crowd dwindled rapidly, and there was little leadership at the front. It felt as if we were going back to a previous period, where we should expect to be regularly outnumbered by them, even in central London. At the end of the EDL protest, a group of their supporters made a rush at the UAF contingent, throwing glasses and placard sticks, and we were barely able to hold them back. Had they broken through, many people could have been injured.
The voices of the comrades who were there, and who were writing within hours of the protest, gives a sense of our collective unease at what we had just been through. Here is S G: “I’m worried we’re not winning the ideological argument and have been suddenly shunted back to a position we were in 4 years ago, when the EDL, however disorganised and chaotic, could ride a wave of Islamophobia.”
R D: “We were completely outnumbered today. The EDL are undoing months of antifascist work as they march in their hundreds and thousands across the country.”
R S: “Our tactics didn’t really work though. It was skin deep. A month ago the EDL looked like a spent force. But clearly that was rather superficial, since all it’s taken is a single murder for them to launch multiple mobilisations and outnumber anti-fascists. We seem to have made very little impact on actually undermining the basis of Islamophobia in Britain.”
A comrade who writes under the pseudonym Caliban’s Revenge: “Today, standing against the EDL on Downing Street, was tough. There were some things we couldn’t control about this situation: The far rights ability to remobilise around the Woolwich killing, the difficulty for us to mobilise at such short notice (they redirected the march from Woolwich to downing street on Friday) and the low confidence of Muslims to confront the fascists outside of their communities since the onset of the latest racist backlash … What really troubled me was the lack of organisation on the day. In the past, when I’ve been on UAF demos and we’ve been out outnumbered, in the crowd were people … not just barking instructions to people through megaphones, but talking to a few key people in the crowd and relaying information and instructions that they could then disperse throughout the crowd- especially at the front line. More than once people have come up to me and said “I won’t lie to you, they could break through at any moment and YOU have to hold this line because if you don’t there will be a panic and more people will get hurt”. And even though your shutting, you do because it makes sense and at least you know what’s going on. That didn’t happen yesterday… I turned around and I saw that the initially 400-500 strong crowd, enough to hold, had just disappeared.”
And A J: “off to see a friend in hospital slashed by ‘white youth’ last night, and hope I never again have to see anti-fash retreating from fascists.”
Some comrades responded by trying to play down both the extent of our reverse and the importance of Saturday’s looming protest. Despite the message from coming from Charlie Kimber that Saturday would be a national or certainly a London-wide mobilisation; one UAF full-timer could be heard telling us:
“Can we have a bit more thought and circumspection please? Yes, there were hundreds of EDL in London, 4 reputable people I know who followed them say around 800. 800 too many for sure, but i see one or two saying they had thousands … yes, we were outnumbered. Then, I see Lewisham 1977 being raised re next week. Lewisham took weeks of preparations and can’t be wished into existence, just like that, that’s for sure. We need to re double our efforts and build/re build rooted UAF groups. Walthamstow, Cambridge, Norwich, Leicester, show the way. Urgency for sure, but a mid- to long-term viewpoint is needed and roots in the localities…”
To which one obvious answer would be that if a campaign has been in existence for 10 years, and still lacks local roots; what on earth has it been doing? Or perhaps a kinder response would be to say that while everything I have just quoted would be unobjectionable in a different context, it was hardly an inspiring call to action to make just five days before the BNP were planning to march within a few streets of where Lee Rigby had been killed.
Between Monday and Saturday, it was extraordinary to watch how a younger generation of party comrades (the very ones, it seemed, who had been on the losing side of the recent faction battle) took it upon themselves to organise. They produced their own leaflets; they distributed them by their thousands.
But this flurry of activity “from below” did not seem to be adequately matched by other anti-fascists. The details of the assembly point for Saturday were not published until the morning of 28 May 2013 (so there was no leaflet to hand out for the 28th on the anti-EDL protest in Whitehall). The news of the assembly point was broken on social media, not on UAF’s website but several hours beforehand on a twitter account: “martin@uaf”.
No political argument was given for why Saturday’s protest had been called. There were of course perfectly sensible arguments for focussing on the danger posed by the BNP. By announcing a demonstration to begin at Woolwich, where Lee Rigby had been killed, inevitably they made themselves the priority for anti-fascists. By threatening to march from Woolwich to Lewisham, the BNP was deliberately invoking (and threatening to overturn) the worst defeat that the far right has suffered anywhere on British streets since 1945. These arguments would have armed comrades to deal with the twists and turns of BNP tactics that followed. But rather than explain why were were marching, the membership was addressed with a set of instructions. We were expected to follow a “routine” method (we are the SWP, they are the BNP, we demonstrate against them, that’s just what we do) focussed on internal arguments rather than ideas for engaging with people beyond the ranks of the already persuaded.
On the Friday, as the BNP’s plans changed, the party changed the focus of its intended demonstration from Woolwich to Downing Street. This decision was publicised for the first time, once again, on “@martinuaf”. Three hours passed before the main UAF website was updated.
Meanwhile, it was only too clear that the fascists were becoming bolder; and that Monday’s victory had given the EDL in particular fresh recruits. While the message from UAF headquarters remained that Monday was a temporary aberration and that the EDL remained locked in an inevitable spiral of decline, the words of EDL supporters gave a very different impression. Here for example is Edward Downs explaining why he would be attending an EDL-sponsored wreath-laying event in Islington on 1 June: “I know it’s not strictly an EDL event – just encouraging people to come out and pay respects to Lee Rigby and the disgusting way he was murdered. I was OFFENDED by this and got off my arse and attended the Downing Street demo on Monday. Best thing I’ve done for a long time. I met other people there who were not EDL but felt the same as I did and took to the street. What a great bunch of people, EDL and non-EDL alike. I can only advise people not to listen to the media and to come out in to the sunlight…”
Going into Saturday’s protest, anti-fascists had one main advantage and several weakness. It was to our assistance that the enemy we were facing was the BNP rather than the EDL. To help us; the BNP had no recent experience of street organising. It lacked the branch structure to book transport, etc, in order to be able to turn people out. The BNP does not have a single functioning branch in London. They were likely to be a “relatively” easy target.
On the other hand, there was considerable confusion as to whether the BNP would follow police instructions and assemble in Whitehall or keep to its original plans and assemble in Woolwich or Lewisham. If all the anti-fascists had kept to one location point, while the BNP or EDL supporters assembled elsewhere, we would have had a problem.
Saturday began with around 200 or so UAF supporters assembling outside Downing Street. (Images above). An impressive group of about 100-150 “South London Anti-Fascists” had chosen to assemble at the Imperial War Museum, from where they marched to join the main UAF contingent:
Rather than remaining at Downing Street, these anti-fascists then marched towards the BNP’s intended starting-point, which even as late as 11.30 still had only around 50 people in it. Close up, they looked tired, bored and sullen:
For a time, it seemed that the anti-fascists would be able to occupy the BNP pen, and disperse Nick Griffin’s supporters. But gradually from around 12 or so, the police were able to take control of the situation, bringing vans, dogs and increasing numbers of officers into the area:
The Metropolitan Police drove up two adapted red buses, designed to hold large numbers of detainees before processing them to police stations. Officers began collecting plastic cuffs in order to make multiple arrests:
Over at Downing Street, the main group of UAF supporters had shrunk visibly in numbers. Young supporters of UAF were voting with their feet to join the other anti-fascists. Eventually, UAF took a cue from them and instructed the Downing Street crowd to march towards the BNP pen. For a time, it seemed that their extra numbers might be sufficient to hold back the police, or even allow anti-fascist to make a further attempt on the BNP pen:
The leaders of UAF stationed themselves some way back from parliament:
But the police continued to press; in increasing numbers. By some extraordinary good fortune there was already at Parliament a demonstration against badger culls. The dominant politics seemed to be broadly what we used to consider “hunt sab”, and it was a real pleasure to hear activists shouting “Save the badgers; cull the Nazis”.
Although the BNP was never able to march, by the end of the day, some 58 arrests had been made:
Speaking to other demonstrators, the following opinions of Saturday appear to be shared generally:
1. Anti-fascists needed to seriously outnumbers the BNP after Monday’s debacle. On this test, the day was a success. It seems unlikely that the BNP would dare attempt something similar again. For our part anti-fascists feel lifted.
2. This modest success needs to be kept in broader perspective. The EDL could hardly have been checked by events at Whitehall; they were not there, but at several dozen other places across Britain. Many of these activities were small; in some cases, the EDL turnouts again seem to have been met with larger anti-fascist mobilisations. But the energy remains with them, as compared to the BNP, or indeed with us.
3. The recent difficulties in the SWP continue to mark our intervention as anti-fascists. The vast amount of work put in by younger SWP members did not lead to a significant presence, for example, of non-SWP students. There was very little direction from the UAF full-timers or other long-standing comrades. The party intervention suffered the same vices as those identified by Caliban on the Monday.
4. Many people have been arrested; they all need our solidarity. It is unwelcome that a demonstration in which anti-fascists outnumbered fascists by around 10 to 1 should have ended that 58 of us arrested and none of them.
5. Going beyond this Saturday, we do not seem to have worked out how to readjust from confronting the BNP to the EDL, who have the numbers and the momentum. Nor, assuming the EDL are pushed back sometime in the future , do we have any serious plans (yet) for the second change of focus we will need, to develop a new kind of anti-racist politics capable of damaging UKIP, who are flourishing better than anyone else during the recent crisis and can realistically be expected to top the polls in next year’s European elections.
To be able to get to these more important battles right would require a dramatic break from our present routine.
UAF is not the first time that the SWP has played a role in anti-fascist or anti-racist struggles, nor, if we are honest, has been as effective as our first such campaign, that of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s. One feature of the ANL was its success in bringing together different SWP “generations”, i.e. both the hard-headed political organisers, and the comrades with the greatest sense of cultural politics. Most SWP members took part in the campaign through the ANL: a specific, one-purpose campaign to defeat the National Front, expressed as physical confrontation, public marches and leafleting against NF election candidates. But a large part of the campaign’s dynamism came from the activity of a relatively small group of comrades in Rock Against Racism. They made sure that fascism was never misunderstood as just a very aggressive form of popular racism. They fought all the time to join up the popular racism of the NF to the institutional racism of the police, prisons and courts; its anti-black racism to its simultaneous, swaggering and homophobic masculinity. They fought, in effect, for a broader, more heterogeneous anti-racism.
A reason why the ANL worked was because it was able to win the support in black communities that saw the National Front routed when they attempted to march through Lewisham, or which turned Blair Peach’s killing into a martyrdom. UAF “seems” to take this on board by having a leadership structure which combines at the very top, “black leadership” (it is a part of the campaign’s founding agreement, that all senior office-holders have to be black), and with the visible presence at UAF conferences of very many members of the TUC race relations committee (one reason that UAF conferences are so dull is the need to give everyone on the committee a separate speaking role). But paradoxically, despite this black leadership role UAF seems to have less to say about institutional racism than the ANL once did. And the SWP campaigns far less about racism than it did 35 years ago. You won’t find UAF campaigns about victims of injustice, or economic racism. It is hard to imagine UAF giving the same amount of time as the SWP and the Anti-Nazi League once gave, for example to the Campaign Against Racist Laws.
Another part of the Anti-Nazi league’s victory was its success in drilling roots deep into the trade union movement, between 1977 and 1979, 30 AUEW branches affiliated, as did 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards’ committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. I can recall working in the offices (temporarily) of the much smaller mid-1990s Anti-Nazi League. It had multiple ring-binders full of the details of affiliated trade union branches, which (even then) ran into the several hundreds. Contrast UAF, which has the support of 19 national trade unions; and some local trade union branches, but only one of the latter (Holborn GMB) was so well integrated into the campaign so as to nominate anyone for any position at this year’s conference. Indeed this is only one reflection of the general weakness of those events and of UAF itself. They, and it, feel like a space aimed at accommodating the union bureaucracy. The focus is rarely on the union rank and file.
It is an area of obvious concern that the party leadership (which I do not mean at all only the people in full-time roles at the SWP or UAF head offices), but just as significantly the local leaderships in the branches, is still in purge mode. In the words of one SWP member (writing on 30 May): “The party is not a student debating society. We are not here to listen to endless arguments about our perspectives from a small minority of comrades who are unwilling to act democratically when It does not suit them. I think it is time for those who cannot submit to the democratic will of the party to go so that the rest of us can engage in meaningful political work … I think the leading group in the ‘opposition’ should be expelled at once. I do not see why any of this should be tolerated for a moment longer.” The people who are visibly in the firing line are precisely the comrades who speak out of turn, the ones who write, and the ones who are trying hardest to revive the party’s former iconoclasm.
Rock Against Racism brought more to the table than just a broader anti-racist message, equipping comrades to step from one moment of anti-racist struggle to the next. It was RAR which dreamed up Temporary Hoarding magazine, the Carnivals, etc. “We want Rebel music, street music”, as RAR put it, “Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.” Temporary Hoarding was never just about music, a typical issue would have articles about Steve Biko, the politics of racism, and institutional sexism or homophobia. It was a cultural intervention which took in design, art, etc. Its good slogans were never intended to last for all time.
Of course, no mere effort of will could produce merely “on request” a musical counter-culture as susceptible to left-wing intervention as early British punk; nor a group of comrades as iconoclastic as the RAR generation. But if we are going to have a fresh cultural intervention which recreates the dynamism of 1976-1981, we shouldn’t assume that it will be found only in music, nor that simply replaying the most compelling images and sounds of the past will produce the same energy as they once delivered. Mere repetition is likely to result in diminishing effect. If there is going to be network of cultural producers who play the same role in future that once was played by RAR, they will more effective if they find their own labels, and their own images, rather than through being tied to a slogan (“LMHR”) coined more than 30 years ago.
Another test of a viable campaign is who it has in the key roles. Paul Holborow, the organiser of the Anti-Nazi League, brought several strengths to the campaign. One, which is not always given sufficient weight in accounts of this period, was his very close attention to detail. If you speak to the people who worked in the ANL office, one thing they always report is how incredibly hard Paul worked. He was in the office first thing; he would be there till late. Every evening that he could, he spoke at a local ANL group meeting (and if he didn’t have a speaking role, he looked for an invitation). This sense of urgency came from a conjuncture which was even more desperate than our own. Politics were moving rapidly to the right; the very evening of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 saw an SWP member Blair Peach killed at Southall following fighting between anti-fascists and the police.
If we want to understand why after 10 years there seems to be very few people in any local groups who identify with the UAF beyond of course members of the SWP, the answer is not just down to “formal” politics, but also to the lack of planning, the administrative muddle, and the failure to maintain a membership structure or local groups which have characterised Unite Against Fascism from early on.
Finally, a recurring challenge for ANL Mark 1 was how to stop the National Front without the violent clashes overtaking everything else the campaign had to do. Normally histories of the period read this story backwards, with everything hinging on the eventual expulsion of the people who in 1981 would go on to form Red Action. Their emergence (which, if we are honest, was primarily within the SWP, not ANL) is contrasted with the previous periods when the use of physical force had been a collective rather than a minority experience. But mere common sense suggests that the history was a little bit more complex; that the “squads” must have come from somewhere, if only from a collective need to protect sales or public meetings from fascist attack.
The SWP of the late 1970s had better roots in the manual working-class than it does now or any other group on the British left (this is not to subject the old party to special praise; the whole left then had better roots in working-class communities than it does now). Even that organisation flipped and flopped to some extent between encouraging physical resistance and seeking to curtail it.
Today, every comrade will have memories of recent anti-EDL “protests” which saw groups of several hundred comrades sheltering, 1970s-CP-style, behind metal barricades, while we were addressed by local, religious worthies, while others took the struggle directly to the English Defence League; as well as other activities that have been little better than squad actions, leaving those involved feeling like “cannon fodder”. Squaddism was never the answer, but nor is it to be found in ceding the ground of physical resistance altogether. After all, if we are ever going to force the fascists off the streets, this will involve – inevitably – a degree of physical persuasion. What is needed is greater consistency, a focus on the sorts of mass campaigning that involve the greatest numbers of people working together to resist the far right, and to drive them off the streets altogether, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
[first published here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151397060211269%5D
The Anti-Nazi League campaign was the largest mass movement in Britain since the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s. Between 1977 and 1979, around 9 million Anti-Nazi League leaflets were distributed and 750,000 badges sold. Around 250 ANL branches mobilized some 40,000–50,000 members. On the strength of individual donations, the League raised £600,000 between 1977 and 1980. The ANL conference in June 1978 attracted over 800 delegates. The steering committee raised £70,000 to cover fines and legal expenses for the Southall Defence Fund. Meanwhile, the work of the League was complemented by the activity of Rock Against Racism. In 1978 alone, RAR organized 300 gigs and five carnivals. The following year’s Militant Entertainment Tour featured 40 bands at 23 concerts, and covered some 2,000 miles on the road. Probably around half a million people were involved in anti-racist activity, joining demonstrations, handing out leaflets or painting out graffiti. An extraordinary range of local initiatives took place under a single banner. In Sheffield, one member of the Anti-Nazi League infiltrated the local National Front branch, then left, publishing a pamphlet that revealed the openly Nazi pedigree of local fascists. Meanwhile, 50 Labour parties affiliated to the ANL, along with 30 AUEW branches, 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards’ committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. By the end of the campaign, even Len Murray, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, could be seen addressing anti-fascist rallies in London’s Brick Lane.
Clearly anti-fascism succeeded in mobilizing very many people, but did it work? In the years since the Anti-Nazi League existed, different writers have generated very different accounts. Christopher Husbands believes the League spread the ‘NF = Nazis’ message ‘more widely and successfully than almost any other medium could have done’. Dilip Hiro also comments positively on the League: ‘the role played by the anti-racist whites, belonging either to the mainstream trade unions or to fringe leftist groups, was crucial’.
More critically, another historian, Richard Thurlow, has argued that the Anti-Nazi League was only of secondary importance, and that it was Mrs Thatcher’s racism that played the decisive role in the failure of the National Front, bringing lost right-wing voters back to the Tory fold. Roger Griffin likewise argues that fascism has no place in modern society: ‘what marginalises fascism . . . is the irreducible pluralism of modern society, and not the strength of liberalism as such, let alone the concerted opposition of anti-fascists.’ There may be a grain truth in the argument that Margaret Thatcher undermined the National Front.
In the words of Pete Alexander, ‘The Nazis could complain about immigration, but she could stop people coming into the country. They could talk about patriotism, but she could sink the Belgrano. They could complain about Communism, but she could break its base in the unions.’
The problem comes when people treat this one factor as decisive, placing all emphasis on it, and ignore as a consequence the impact of popular anti-fascism on the NF. Those who place all emphasis on the Tories’ right turn cannot address the evidence that the National Front had grown fastest in earlier periods just as the leaders of the Conservative Party pushed themselves furthest to the right. It was Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that first dragged the NF into prominence, and it was Conservative and press attacks on the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians that helped the NF to build a mass following in 1968 and 1972. If Thatcherism did hurt the National Front, then it did so only because the far right was already in retreat. It was because NF voters and other supporters already saw their own organization in tatters that they defected to the Conservative in droves.
John from south London describes the process: ‘The ANL ended up achieving a split between street fighters and the more respectable racists. It proved that fascism could be confronted on the streets.’ It follows that without the League, the National Front’s organization would have continued and prospered. The NF would have been larger, and although it might still have gone into some gentler decline in the early 1980s, it would then have found it far easier to revive when circumstances were more favourable. Given a context in which broader economic and political processes helped, the Anti-Nazi League was a major factor in preventing the further growth of fascism. According to Ian, another active member of the Anti-Nazi League,
“I think the real achievement was that by confronting the National Front we ensured that only their hard-core thugs came out on the demos. The vast mass of their electoral support was quite different – a lot of pensioners, I think. So we prevented them from turning their electoral support into street support, and they began to decline and collapse.”
Mark Steel rejects as ludicrous the idea that Thatcher stopped the National Front. ‘The argument’, he writes, ‘is classically British, in that it imagines no political action has an impact outside of parliament’:
“Are they saying the millions of leaflets, badges, stickers and placards, the gigs, the carnivals and demonstrations had no effect at all? That disillusioned people considering a vote for the someone appearing to offer something new weren’t influenced by the constant reminders that these people were brutal, violent and fascist? But one speech from Margaret Thatcher and they all changed their mind? What a depressing thought then, if fascist parties return. Because the only way to stop them will be to persuade the leader of the Conservative Party to make a racist speech. Maybe he should chuck a brick through a curry house window. Then the fascists wouldn’t stand a chance.”
It is possible to investigate the argument that without the Anti-Nazi League, fascism would have grown. One way to test this claim is by comparing late 1970s Britain to early 1980s France. In general terms, the conditions in both countries were similar and broadly advantageous to the far right. In both countries there was an indigenous racist tradition, going back at least to the British Brothers’ League in early twentieth-century England, and the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France. By the period in question, both countries were governed by parties of the left, Callaghan’s Labour in Britain, Mitterrand’s Socialists in France. Each left government was judged to have failed its supporters, leading to a right-wing backlash. In both cases, parties of the right were willing to flirt with the small fascist groups, both the Conservatives and the Gaullists believing that this process would work in their favour. Margaret Thatcher’s lurch to the right did have the effect of persuading former members of the National Front to side with the Conservatives, either rejoining the her party or at least voting for it in 1979.
In France, by contrast, similar calculations had the reverse effect. A right-wing pact in local elections in Drieux was followed by the first Front National breakthrough in the 1984 European elections. Unlike the NF, Le Pen’s Front National became a successful and entrenched electoral party with a national profile. What made this breakthrough possible? The difference between France and Britain cannot be explained in terms of a different national history, or a different conjuncture of favourable circumstances, as these were more similar than opposed. It follows that the explanation can only be found in the different tactics of anti-fascist organizations in France and Britain. This is a point made by two historians of the French far right, Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys, who describe the failures of SOS Racisme, the French equivalent of the Anti-Nazi League. Although SOS was at least as successful as anti-fascists in Britain in using music and other media, the organization was far more closely linked to the French Socialist Party. Its organizers, people such as Harlem Desir, spoke of the need to confront fascism on the grounds of French public opinion, precluding physical confrontation:
“The issue of fighting racism is not a left-wing or right-wing issue . . . I think the electors of the right-wing democratic and traditional parties cannot accept any kind of alliance between their party and the extremist neo-Nazi ideology. So we are organising a big campaign all over the country. We show that a majority of the French people, left-wing or right-wing, refuse the idea of racist violence, of segregation.”
The gap between this formulation and the equivalent pronouncements of Paul Holborow or Peter Hain was small, but telling. The ANL combined a political and a physical strategy; SOS Racisme had only the former. Thus it tended to dissipate rather than strengthen grass-roots anti-racist organization. What began as a radical movement against fascism became instead a lobbying organization to raise money for local communities. As ‘SOS-Racisme . . . evolved into a decentralised lobbying organisation sucked into a role of conflict management’, so it turned away from the important task of mobilizing young people against racism, on the streets. At the moment of its breakthrough, the Front National was relieved of the pressure of militant anti-fascism, a pressure that only revived in the mid-1990s. It is striking that the revival of militant anti-fascism in France, following the public sector strikes of 1995, was closely followed by splits in the Front National, from late 1998 onwards. That event would seem to support the argument that mass anti-fascism can work.
The success of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League led to the creation of a number of similar alliances, which were explicitly modelled on British anti-fascism and were unlike the later French campaign. In the United States, this movement took the form of a new Rock Against Racism, involving such bands as the Dead Kennedys. The US Rock Against Racism lasted from 1979 to 1987. In Germany, the 1970s witnessed various counterparts of both the ANL and RAR, including ‘Rock gegen Rechts’.
Those people who took part in the UK campaign generally remember it as a remarkably successful movement. At a time when politics was moving to the right, when racist ideas were becoming more acceptable, the Anti-Nazi League succeeded in isolating the National Front, the most visible carrier of organized racism in Britain. According to Mike from Preston, the campaign ‘played a great part in reducing people’s fear of the NF, the ANL made them look very small and insignificant. It also had a big role to play in making racism indefensible, especially to the young.’
Another former activist who speaks fondly of this time is Owen. Having arrived at Salford University in 1976, he describes himself as having been then ‘politically right-wing’. But the Anti-Nazi League ‘had an impact on me. I was from a white, working-class background, and had never thought about this stuff before.’ Owen attended the Manchester carnivals, and having heard Neil Kinnock address the Cardiff carnival (‘A young firebrand speaker . . . I wonder what happened to him?’), he moved towards the left. The police attacked him during a demonstration in Longsight. His involvement was ‘all pretty low-key stuff’, but speaking to him, there is a sense of someone who helped to challenge racism, and helped to advance the values of democracy and equality. Through the ANL, he judges, Owen contributed to making life better for other people.
Thinking about the campaign 25 years on, most anti-racists from the time are of the opinion that the League worked. According to Einde,
“The ANL and RAR helped to make racism unacceptable in a way that had not been the case. At last an activist campaign said simply racism is unacceptable and fascism of any form is beyond the pale. It was a good feeling for an anti-racist to see all the ANL stickers everywhere. And the badges – this was the great era of badge wearing – gave a sense of identity and strength, because you saw people wearing them all the time.”
Ian’s account is typical of those who took part:
“In the 35 years I’ve been in the SWP, the ANL period was the one where I am reasonably certain that the party’s intervention did have some impact on the course of mainstream politics in this country, by preventing the far right from taking off in a situation that was favourable to them. There have been other times when I have had the sense of being part of a movement that was affecting the course of events – Pentonville Five, Poll Tax – but then the party was merely participating in a broader movement. In the case of the ANL I think our intervention as a party was crucial.”
Jerry Fitzpatrick is similarly proud:
“The events of 1977 and 1978, Lewisham and the two carnivals, they were a unique coming together of music, rock, culture, a spontaneous burst of energy. It was a political action with passion and vision of its time and place. It was an insurrectionary and revolutionary moment post-1968 if you combine the mass carnivals and the determined resistance to Nazi NF marches. OK, the turbulence was sometimes visceral as well as intellectual and political, but for that moment it demonstrated that the left could organize mass action with the potential to change the world. Of course, I’d say all that, I was one of the organizers. But it wasn’t just me or Paul [Holborow]. There was Peter Hain working in ways that are never acknowledged, winning us allies, breaking it away from the usual people. There were the local activists across the country, and people like Mike [working for the ANL]: how many leaflets did he send out, how many hours did he spend stuffing envelopes? There were plenty of individuals who did a huge amount, and it really was one of the most successful moments in the history of the left.”
Graeme is positive about the past, but perhaps more pessimistic about the future, given the decline of trade unionism in the 1980s. ‘If you were to look today and there was a similar recurrence, we would not be able to mobilize the same forces today. That tradition has been lost.’ Mike imagines what Britain could have been like without the anti-fascist movement:
“We forget now that in the late 1970s, the National Front was the strongest fascist organization in Europe. The fascists came here from all over Europe to share in that. Everyone who participated in its defeat can feel that they contributed to something. If the movement had not existed, there could have been a right-wing formation playing a central role in British politics, like the Front National in France, or the Freedom Party in Austria. Who knows what it would have been?”
Even those who did not support the Anti-Nazi League regard it as an important part of their history. Danny remembers that the ANL won young people away from the politics of the right. ‘They made it fashionable to be Anti-Nazi.’ David L was then a young Jewish anti-fascist, primarily active in the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. He thinks that the anti-racism of the League was too narrowly conceived. Yet faced with the argument that Thatcher beat the National Front, David springs to the League’s defence. ‘I don’t buy the argument that Margaret Thatcher pulled the plug on the National Front. People have said that, and belittled the role of the movement. That seems unfair to me.’
A number of the people who now lead Britain’s trade unions first cut their teeth as local activists with the Anti-Nazi League. They include Mick Rix, the former General Secretary of ASLEF, who in the late 1970s was a supporter of Rock Against Racism in Leeds. Billy Hayes of the postal workers’ union joined the Anti-Nazi League on Merseyside. The first political step taken by Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union, was going to watch the Clash play at Victoria Park. Geoff Martin of London UNISON was another to follow this route, as was Billy Bragg, the left-wing songwriter: ‘The first political thing I ever did was to go the Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park.’
One of the most important statements was made at a memorial meeting celebrating the life of Dave Widgery, the East End doctor and Rock Against Racism activist, who died prematurely in 1992. Darcus Howe, the journalist and activist, gave one of the valedictory speeches. ‘Howe said that he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all around them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up “black and at ease”. Darcus attributed her “space” to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to Dave Widgery in particular.’ Another important statement came from an unlikely source. In 1982, as we have seen, Peter Hain brought a libel case against Martin Webster of the National Front. Hain described Webster’s court defence:
“He was still extremely bitter and remarkably candid. The picture he gave, and he clearly believed it, was that prior to 1977, the NF were unstoppable and he was well on the way to becoming Prime Minister. Then suddenly the Anti-Nazi League was everywhere and knocking the sheer hell out of them. He said that the sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on to the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote. It wasn’t just the physical opposition to the marches, they had lost the propaganda war too.”
Several writers have argued that the cultural politics of Rock Against Racism was crucial to the League’s success. One clear effect of the Anti-Nazi League was that it established a tradition that anti-fascist work should be exciting, popular, bold and political. Pete Alexander, then an organizer for the League, argues that it was the combination of defensive confrontation with an alternative politics of hope that proved decisive. ‘The ANL succeeded because it combined mass propaganda against racism, especially the carnivals organized in conjunction with Rock Against Racism, with militant action on the streets.’ Dave Widgery’s Beating Time suggests that it was the cultural politics of Rock Against Racism that enabled the Anti-Nazi League to succeed. At different points, his account offers a changed formulation of the balance between music and politics, but at every stage he insists that the cultural was critical to the success of the operation.
“It was a piece of double time, with the musical and the political confrontations on simultaneous but separate tracks and difficult to mix. The music came first and was more exciting. It provided the creative energy and the focus in what became a battle for the soul of young working-class England. But the direct confrontations and the hard-headed political organization which underpinned them were decisive.”
According to Widgery, the success of the Anti-Nazi League revealed the potential power of any future radical alliance that could combine music and politics:
“Politics is not just about alliances, but the terms on which they are made. Without the post-electronic, youth-oriented input of RAR, the ANL alliance would have had a lesser impact . . . The lessons lie in the connections and political timing. The ideas, the culture, the ingredients, the potential had all been there but they could only be utilised in a genuine crisis . . . The struggle on the streets could set the tempo and the politicians and celebrities support and generalise but not dictate to it. It demonstrated that an unrespectable but effective unity between groups with wide political differences (the SWP, the organizations of the black communities and the Labour Party) can reach and touch an audience of millions, not by compromise but by an assertive campaign of modern propaganda.”
By placing his emphasis on the music as a key to the success of first Rock Against Racism and then the Anti-Nazi League, Widgery raises a number of incidental questions. Could anti-fascism have flourished without punk, or indeed without reggae? Are particular kinds of music particularly relevant for particular social movements? In general, the answer must be no. The meaning of any musical style is set in dialogue with its audience; it is contextual and changes over time. Beethoven’s music must have seemed revolutionary in its epoch; it takes context and sympathy – in short, effort – to find the same characteristics in it today. Member of the British folk music milieu may have judged Bob Dylan’s adoption of the electric guitar a betrayal; few generations since have agreed. The ‘anarchism’ of the Sex Pistols meant something more in 1977 than it did in 1981 – after Malcolm Mclaren and the militant cynicism of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. C
Part of the musical success of bands such as the Clash derived from their ability to import the historical crisis around them into their music, through the adoption of more complex musical motifs, including a partial fusion with reggae. There was an intimate relationship between the music of Rock Against Racism and the politics of the Anti-Nazi League. This is a more modest statement than Dave Widgery’s suggestion that some such musical synthesis was necessary to make the mass movement possible. The fact that punk and reggae combined to make Rock Against Racism possible does not mean that either was a necessary component, or that any other popular style was inherently incapable of fulfilling a similar role. Most RAR staples never made it into the top ten, and some of the most important, such as Carol Grimes, barely charted. The New Wave of the 1980s was frequently less strident than punk, but it produced a series of left-wing bands with best-selling singles, and a consistent audience in at least the hundreds of thousands. The most we can say is not that RAR or the Anti-Nazi League needed punk, but that they needed something – a culture that was new and dynamic, rather than the repetition of settled styles and established acts.
Does any of this matter? Did the campaign add anything to the experience of the people who lived through it, and after? For most of the 20 years after 1981, fascism was irrelevant to British life. By and large, activists concerned themselves with other tasks – challenging Thatcher, Major and the neo-liberal tendencies of New Labour. In September 1993, the British National Party did win a council seat at Tower Hamlets, but it lost the seat less than 12 months later (admittedly on a higher vote, which rose from 1,480 to 2,041). Only in the last decade has the BNP been able to establish any sort of consistent success. Three fascist councillors were elected in Burnley in May 2002. The number of BNP councillors reached five that winter, 16 following elections in 2003, and 21 by May 2004.
The successful anti-fascist campaign of the late 1970s has lessons evidently for anti-fascists alarmed by the electoral success of the British National Party. But it has lessons also for activists involved in other present-day campaigns. The need for new visual imagery, new organizational forms, is common. So are the demands for practical unity among people of different backgrounds, divided by race or politics. So also is the question of how to organize campaigns when the government is Labour, with all the political contradictions that implies.
Ultimately, the best test of the anti-fascist movement is the one that it set itself. Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League both intended to turn back the growth of the National Front. In this, they were remarkably successful. As a by-product of their success, RAR also generated musical styles that had not existed before, while the ANL showed what a mass radical politics could look like. It is their anti-fascist success that should be remembered, above all. In the mid-1970s, British fascism was powerful and growing. The ANL gave the NF a defeat from which its successors have not yet recovered. The rest of us have been left freer to concentrate on the many tasks at hand if the world is ever going to be free of the values of fascism, as well as fascism itself.
The historian is me is intrigued by the decisions that confront the organisers of Saturday’s anti-BNP protests in Woolwich and Lewisham. As I see it, they face three areas of difficulty. 1. The BNP’s original route itself involves an assembly and an arrival point which are implausibly far apart (6 miles). I simply don’t believe that the BNP will actually try to march from one to the other, but will probably rely on what even they describe as mobility (cars, etc) to get from borough to borough. 2. Will the BNP keep to its original plans, or will it follow police instructions and reassemble in Whitehall? 3. How far to prioritise stopping the BNP (who have not marched in 30 years, have very few numbers, etc…) over the EDL (who have numbers, and momentum, and who are planning up to 60 events of one sort or another this weekend, including, crucially, events in central London)?
So far, what this weekend reminds me of best (and it was Sue Sparks who suggested the comparison) is events in Hyde in 1977 – when the NF were still on an upward curve:
[The following is not from my book on anti-fascism in the 1970s, but a separate piece I once published for North West Labour History on anti-fascism in the North West in the 1970s]:
“Activists learned in autumn 1977 that the National Front were planning a march through Hyde, a small industrial town a few miles from Manchester, on 8th October. Protests against the National Front march received the backing of the local left-cultural magazine the New Manchester Review. The September issue ran a long editorial criticising the police for using the Public Order Act against a small knot of republicans who had protested against the Queen during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. The editorial then raised the question of the pending National Front demonstration,
“The NF can claim to be merely exercising its right to make a political point. But even in the absence of any counter-demonstration by the Socialist Workers Party, the avowed policies of the NF which include the forcible repatriation of all Black immigrants, can hardly be calculated to stir sympathy among a significant and hitherto peaceful and industrious section of the community. Even Voltaire would have approved of the use of Section 5 here.”
The follow-up issue (which appeared two days before the planned march) went even further in supporting calls for the National Front march to be banned. “It is also worth recalling for the benefit of members of Tameside Council that Mr Webster is interested not so much in free speech as ‘Kicking our way into the headlines’. That can best be done on marches and rallies such as the NF had planned for Hyde. Victims and traders face being driven off the streets; opponents are determined. Can they really be blamed?”
Tameside Council had given permission for the National Front meeting in Hyde Town Hall. Colin Grantham, the Tory leader of the council, explained that the Front were only marching (in his words), “for free speech and against red terror”. When it came to a vote on Tameside Council the meeting split along party lines – Labour voting against the march, the Conservatives for. In the weeks following the announcement of Tory support the amount of racist graffiti and National Front stickers rose. The small number of Black and Asian people living in the area spoke openly of their worries. One resident, Abdul Jalil, told the New Manchester Review, “We’re frightened, and we’ve never felt that way before in Hyde.”
Geoff, who was to become a full-time worker for Manchester Anti-Nazi League, had recently returned from several years spent working abroad. He suggests that the events at Hyde need to be seen through the prism of the NF’s defeat at Lewisham on 13th August 1977. “Webster was trying to regroup the Front after Lewisham. That’s why they put so much effort into Hyde.” In London the negotiations that would lead to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League were already taking place. But they were not yet complete. Local activists determined to prevent the Front from marching, although there was not yet any one umbrella group to co-ordinate the movement. The local Communist Party specifically turned down the suggestion of joint work with Mick Murray, Secretary of the Greater Manchester Communist Party, stating that they were “are opposed to adventurist and isolationist tactics which only strengthen the forces of reaction.” According to Geoff, “Steve Jeffreys [of the SWP Central Committee] and I walked around Hyde for a day to plan the protest. What we saw was that it would be easy to block any march. The main road goes through a series of underpasses, we would have four opportunities to block the road. [Manchester Chief Constable] Anderton and his assistants must also have done the same, and thought it through like us. I’m sure that’s why they banned the march.”
In response to the protests the Greater Manchester Police announced that the National Front would not be allowed to march in Hyde. This ban was announced publicly, receiving the full support of local press. Even the Communist Party’s paper the Morning Star applauded James Anderton’s seeming about-turn. Mick Murray wrote that the ban “has lifted a storm cloud from over this small northern town.” But in reality the police had done deal with the NF to allow them to march – and receive full police protection – on a different route. Unlike the ban this deal was never publicised, and the agreed route remained, of course, a closely-guarded secret.
Local activists were less willing than the press to take the police announcement of a ban at face value. Different groups continued to build protests, including the Anti-Nazi League, the SWP, the North West Trades Union Congress, the North West Standing Committee Against Racism, Manchester City Labour Party, the Manchester Anti-Fascist Committee and the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism. Geoff remembers buying in flares and £20 of rotten tomatoes from the street market to throw at the NF. “The stallholders could tell what we were up to!” Activists soon realised that some sort of deal had been struck between the police and the National Front, even though the terms only became clear after the event. John was one of the young anti-fascists who attempted to prevent the National Front from marching. He remembers that no-one knew for certain the revised route of the demonstration. Anti-fascists therefore divided into three groups. The largest contingent of anti-fascists, marshalled by the SWP’s national organiser Jim Nichol, headed for Stockport. Press information seemed to suggest that if there was going to be an Front march, then it would begin there. Another smaller section of about 200 people remained in Hyde – in case the National Front attempted to march there. Another group, of about the same number, waited in Manchester town centre. They were to be kept in reserve – in case either of the other two contingents were caught out.
These three groups of anti-fascists were to have very different experiences. The first group of comrades in Stockport found themselves waiting for a march that never happened. Roger was then in his early twenties, and a student at Salford University. This is how he remembers the protest. “The SWP and other groups gathered at the Town Hall, but it was very much a cat and mouse affair, as the planned NF march was re-routed, and most of the afternoon was spent with groups of anti-NF demonstrators scouring Stockport being tracked overhead by police helicopters and on the ground by police squads. Eventually the NF march was discovered but [it was] very well protected by police lines and from where I was there was little which happened.”
The second group were no more successful. In Hyde town centre Martin Webster of the National Front conducted a one-man march, defended by over 2,500 officers (similar numbers were employed at each of the predicted flashpoints, with one newspaper estimating the total police presence at an extraordinary 9,000 officers). As he walked, nervous and sweating past the distant jeers of the protesters, it must have occurred to him that rarely in the history of public order have so few people owed so much to so many. Without the police to protect him, his “march” could not have begun. Ramula Patel of the Asian Youth Movement walked in front of him the whole way with a placard which said “This man is a Nazi”. Anti-fascists were able to heckle Webster and disrupt his parade, but could not prevent such a large contingent of police officers from demonstrating. Declan, a rail worker and member of Longsight SWP, was also involved in the clashes at Hyde. “I got within twenty yards of Webster at one point. He didn’t look much like a Führer to me.”
The third group of anti-fascists – the reserve – found themselves in the thick of the action. Seven hundred members of the NF assembled in Levenshulme. They were dressed up for the day, some in paramilitary fatigues. According to the journalist from New Manchester Review, “One or two NF marchers were warned by their escorts, but there were no arrests for incitement or for the paramilitary uniforms. Even a refrain or two from a Simon and Garfunkel song, perverted as ‘I’d rather be a nigger than a jew’ passed off without comment from the guardians of law and order.” By the time that the word came out that the fascists had assembled in Levenshulme – and were marching to central Manchester – it was too late for the Stockport contingent to prevent members of the Front from marching. Despite the disparity in numbers, the 150 or so anti-fascists in reserve attempted to block the Front. There were scuffles through Levenshulme and along Kirkmanshulme Lane towards Belle Vue. But “road diversions and well drilled marching columns of police four and five deep siphoned off the SWP column into an aimless tour of side roads.”
Owen was another student from Salford University. He had never been in a situation like this before, “There were some NF and that was the first time I had seen the steel pointed Union Jack DMs and shaved heads up close. I had shoulder-length hair and was busy growing my first beard (like you do) when this NF guy made eye contact with me and shouted ‘you’re the next Kevin Gateley, you’re gonna die you long-haired communist bastard’. Needless to say I found this quite disturbing and was somewhat nonplussed by the total indifference of the constabulary standing in between me and this guy.” One of Owen’s friends, Rob, was a Young Liberal form Manchester. “He managed to get in and talk to some of the NF as they were not all shaven haired thugs. He spoke to a couple of very confused older people who had been bussed in by the NF and did not know what they were getting involved in. They expressed concern over urban decay, family of theirs who had been mugged by blacks, unemployment etc.”
Having praised Chief Constable James Anderton’s decision to ban the original National Front demonstration, the local press was outraged when they learned of his complicated deceit. The Stockport Express reported the anger of the local Labour group, and their desire to find out what the police operation had cost. “Now that it is all over”, recorded the New Manchester Review, “the point has been well made that the events in Hyde and Levenshulme were organised not so much by the National Front, but by the police.” The Manchester Evening News was no more endeared to the police. Following a serious assault by the police on one of their reporters Peter Sharples, Dennis Ellam of the Daily Mail told the National Union of Journalists’ newsletter, “I have never, even during two years in Belfast, seen such displays of official aggression towards newspapermen.” Anderton ordered an internal inquiry. Bert Ellison of Tameside TUC sent round a circular letter listing fifteen complaints against the Manchester police, who had frisked anti-fascists, and detained people without arrest. Some officers had even illegally removed their identity-numbers so that they could not be subject to prosecution. Despite these and other protests, Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees declared his support for the police action.”
[published on FB, with discussion, here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151394647786269%5D
And here is Sue’s comment, which took me back to this episode;
“We faced similar issues (not the web pages of course) in the 70s, when the correct emphasis on mobilising to try to prevent the NF from marching began to get distorted into things like finding their addresses, going to their houses and trying to beat them up. Of course, they did things like that to us, but that was not the point. We also spent a lot of time on coaches up and down motorways, tramping round the streets of unfamiliar cities trying to find and stop them. I particularly remember a very long day travelling to The Hyde in Manchester and back to London, with many hours of walking in the rain in between with nary a sight of the bastards. That wasn’t a waste of time, we had to do it, but the truth was that we only got close to humiliating them when the community came out in support, as in Southall and Lewisham. The latter was really kids fighting police racism as much as the NF, but that meant the NF couldn’t rely on the usual degree of police protection.”
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.
The first peak of the anti-fascist campaign came with the events at Lewisham in August 1977, which led to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League and from there to the two Rock Against Racism carnivals. The events at Southall were different. Sustained fighting between anti-fascist demonstrators and the police ended this time with the defeat of the anti-fascists and the killing of one demonstrator, Blair Peach. Peach’s murder resulted in a series of further events: an inquest, a verdict of unlawful killing and the eventual disbanding of the Met’s Special Patrol Group. Within days of Southall, Margaret Thatcher had also been elected prime minister. The Front suffered a humiliating setback. But so did Labour. Both the left and the far right suffered.
The fighting at Southall needs to be set against a background of clashes between the National Front and the left or young Asians. There were places of conflict in west, north, east and south-east London. Anna recalls weekly fighting at Chapel Market in Islington. ‘It got very bad in the winter of 1978 and 1979. You’d see seven or eight Union Jacks on a great spike flag, a hundred fascists at a time.’ So how did anti-fascists respond? ‘We produced leaflets every week, on a Gestetner machine. We were getting support from the local unions. We leafleted every estate. We knocked on every door. The clashes at the market were just at the end of that work.’
Demonstrations now routinely ended in fighting. Early in 1978, the NF attempted to stage its first Young National Front Rally in the centre of Birmingham. Five thousand people protested against them, clashing with police wielding batons and riot shields. In Leicester, on 21 April 1979, an estimated 2,000 anti-fascists mobilized to oppose less than 1,000 NF supporters. The police re-routed the shaken NF march out of Leicester, and then attacked the remaining anti-fascists. The news showed police dogs chasing anti-fascists on to the Leicester University campus. Eighty-two people were arrested, including Balwinder Rana from Southall in west London, who was stopped by four plain-clothes officers and bundled into an unmarked car while on his way home. For Mike from Preston, Leicester was a victory ‘even more clearly than Lewisham’. David from Leeds was less upbeat: ‘The police were completely out of control and I remember discussing that someone was going to be killed soon.’
Many anti-fascists also remembered the role of the police at Wood Green or at Lewisham, when anti-racists had hoped to block marches called by the National Front, but had instead come face to face with the Metropolitan Police, and had been on the receiving end of considerable violence. After Lewisham, National Front News publicly thanked the police for their successful ‘organization’ of the day’s events, which had allowed the march to continue for as long as it did. The following month, Arthur Bailey, secretary of the Lancashire Police Federation, gave a public speech criticizing the Trades Union Congress for its public endorsement of anti-fascism, suggesting that the trade union campaign against the far right marked ‘the beginning of the end of free speech’.
According to David R from Leeds, ‘the police response [to anti-racism] was at best sneering and abusive, and at worst brutal’. For Kim Gordon of the black socialist group Flame, the crucial issue was stop and search – ‘police harassment’ that rose with the soaring black unemployment of these years. The black paper Samaj suggested that young blacks were victims of a police desire for reprisal, following the riots at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. ‘Because there is nothing that the police can find against them, they are being charged for “Sus” (“being suspected persons loitering with intent to steal”) or for “conspiracy with persons unknown to rob persons unknown”.’
In Preston, according to local Anti-Nazi League activists, the National Front openly boasted of having a ‘sympathetic friend’ within the force. Such claims might be dismissed as bluster, were it not for the signs of co-operation between the state and the far right.
In Manchester a defence campaign was created to support Nazir and Munir Ahmed. On 2 July 1978, strangers attacked the Ahmeds’ shop in Longsight. There was racist graffiti up all over the area, and the Ahmeds assumed that the attackers were linked to the National Front. But when the brothers attempted to call the police, they learned that their assailants were in fact plain-clothes officers. Nazir and Munir Ahmed were eventually charged on several counts, including assault on a policeman, wounding with intent and carrying offensive weapons. They could count themselves doubly unfortunate. For most victims of racist attacks, the police merely contributed to the problem; they were not the problem itself.
Steve, the defence lawyer for Nazir and Munir Ahmed, suggests that the Longsight police were operating lynch law. ‘The police were just out of control. That was beyond anything that would have been sanctioned by the top cops.’ After Lewisham, the use of truncheons and riot shields became standard. More resources were given to the Special Patrol Group, more use made of the Public Order Act.
Police from as far away as Birmingham marshalled Martin Webster’s one-man march through Hyde. A young doctor, Annie, recalls watching the pictures of this march on television in Brazil, where she was on holiday. Walking at the head of several hundred police, NF leader Webster’s demonstration looked as much to her like a police as much as a fascist exercise. ‘A Labour government was prepared to use whatever it took to ensure that a fascist could march.’
Manchester chief constable James Anderton was a passionate authoritarian, who believed that God sanctioned his interventions. Anderton attempted to ban gynaecologists from the city (or at least those who allowed abortions), and enforced the harassment of gay men. His officers introduced a ‘preference’ system for journalists, and also prosecuted more obscenity cases than every other force in the country combined. Activists were not pleased to learn in March 1978 that Manchester police had received a special delivery of Armalite rifles and Sterling sub-machine guns. They were later tested in exercises in Collyhurst, a working-class district. The Manchester police were said to possess more powerful guns in greater numbers than even the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast.
Throughout the late 1970s, many anti-racists continued to believe that the police were neutral or even on their side. Bev from Nottingham ‘didn’t get involved in any confrontation during demos’ and generally found the police ‘quite tolerant and unprovocative’. If the police stopped anti-fascists, others argued, then this was only because the fascists were the ones holding the meetings, and the anti-fascists were the ones on the attack. The initiative belonged to the far left. If the situation were reversed, surely the police would protect anti-fascists?
Colin Barnett of the Northwest TUC argued this line through the protests in Hyde. He suggested that, once the first fascist march had been banned, opponents would do better to ignore subsequent provocations and leave the handling of the National Front to the police. Generally, it was the Labour Party and members of business associations who argued this line, but even some socialists attempted at times to avoid permanent confrontation. If the fighting was always between police and anti-racists, as it had been at Lewisham, then the lines dividing left and right might be obscured.
While some anti-racists argued that police hostility was purely a tactic, and that in the last resort the police would come to their aid, others remembered the protest in support of the Lewisham 21 in July 1977, a month before the more famous Lewisham anti-fascist protest. There, it was fascists who had charged and attacked anti-racists. The police still found 23 anti-fascists to arrest.
Others remembered the brutal scenes at Grunwick in July and August 1977, when the police had determined to remove the pickets supporting around 100 Asian strikers. Police officers were observed smashing press cameras, hitting one teenager’s head repeatedly against the bonnet of a car, dragging strike leader Jayaben Desai by her hair through the crowd, and kicking one black worker repeatedly in the face. T
he argument between anti-fascists over whether police racism was accidental or institutional came again to the fore at Southall, on 23 April 1979. It was a full police riot against the left and the Asian community. Southall kids are innocent Southall had a largely Asian population. According to the 1976 census, 46 per cent of the local population had parents born in the Commonwealth or Pakistan, or were born there themselves. The National Front had few supporters in Southall or anywhere in the borough of Ealing. Their intervention was all about muscling into an area from the outside.
The protests began when the Conservative council agreed to let the town hall to the NF, to hold an election meeting. In June 1976, an NF-inspired gang had stabbed Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall. Local young people had responded by turning out in large numbers to remember the dead youth, before marching on the town’s police station. The following weekend, some 7,000 people marched through Southall carrying placards, ‘Powell is a murderer’ and ‘We are here to stay’. They also joined a great demonstration against racist attacks through central London. The memory of the state’s failure to take action against the killers helped to give later events their edge.
Prominent local Anti-Nazi League activist Balwinder Rana remembers reading about the NF meeting in the Ealing Gazette: ‘The news spread like wildfire. People felt very angry and insulted.’ Pete Alexander was a former student and anti-apartheid activist. By spring 1979, he was the Socialist Workers Party west London organizer. Alexander recalls the strength of local organization. Forces included a large Anti-Nazi League group and the Southall Youth Movement (SYM), established in 1976 after the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar. There were also branches of the SWP and a black socialist organization, Peoples Unite, with its headquarters at 6 Park View. Each group worked with the local branches of the left-wing Indian Workers’ Association, led by Vishnu Sharma, who was close to the Communist Party, and his deputy, Labour councillor Piara Khabra. The International Marxist Group also had members in Southall, and the IMG’s leading speaker, Tariq Ali, was a Socialist Unity candidate for Southall in the April 1979 election. The Indian Workers’ Association, based in Coventry, had a branch in Southall, known as the IWA(GB). Better here than elsewhere, Alexander argues, there were organizations that could mobilize popular anger.
We should not exaggerate, however, the warmth of the relationships between different left-wing and community groups. Balraj Purewal was one of the founders of the Southall Youth Movement. He remembers having contact with left-wing parties, and takes pride in the independence that his young comrades kept from a majority ‘white’ left. ‘Even now I don’t know what left and right in Southall means. Every time we tried to protest and give our own identity the left tried to take it over . . . they gave us their own slogans and placards.’ Balwinder Rana, recalls this period differently. He had emigrated from India back in 1964. In 1969, he had been the founding president of the Indian Youth Federation, the first political Asian youth organization in Britain. He joined the International Socialists in 1974 and worked as a full-time organizer. He had also led anti-National Front campaigns at Gravesend in Kent. Today, he remains sceptical of the community movements:
“Before 1979, I felt that people in Southall were not interested. I used to organize coaches to protest marches against the NF everywhere. But it all used to be white people; never more than twenty Asians came. The Southall Youth Movement, when it started, was very good. Locally, they often fought against the fascists and they gave us a hope that we had reached a turning point in our struggles against fascism. But they did not develop politically and became very parochial. They hardly ever went outside Southall to confront the fascists and would often say that the NF would never come to Southall. It was a big shock for people when the NF came into Southall.”
If the left succeeded in mobilizing people, this took hard work and a practical desire for unity. Following the news that the council had agreed to let the hall, local activists decided to call a mass meeting to organize protests. Rana contacted Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers’ Association. Why didn’t they just organize a small activists’ meeting under the auspices of the Socialist Workers’ Party, or the Anti-Nazi League? ‘If the left had called it, the press would have been hostile.’ The plan was to hold a delegate meeting, with no more than two people present from any one organization. ‘We didn’t want the churches or the community relations council taking it over.’
Local socialists toured around the unions, women’s and community groups in Hounslow, Southall, Ealing and Hayes to build support for the meeting. When it gathered, the entire local movement was represented – not just community groups, but engineers, teachers and hospital workers. The meeting itself was divided. Two police officers showed up. A vote was taken to exclude them. Piara Khabra from the Indian Workers’ Association argued that the best tactic would be to call a stay-away. The focus should be on a demonstration before the National Front’s meeting. Yet the Anti-Nazi League and their allies in the unions were determined to confront the NF head-on. Socialists addressed the IWA meeting. Vishnu Sharma was also sympathetic to their ideas. Pete Alexander remembers, ‘We moved a resolution that workers should go on strike and walk out, to stop the meeting taking place. The top table didn’t know how to respond. They went into closed session, and then came back. They agreed.’ A programme was also agreed:
To petition the Ealing Borough Council to request the cancellation of the booking of the hall for the National Front; The petition to be put to the Council on the day before the demonstration, on Sunday 22 April, after a march from Southall to Ealing Town Hall; That all businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. should shut down on 23 April from 1 p.m. onwards.
It was decided that on the day of the NF meeting there should be a peaceful sit-in on roads around the town hall, and that those arrested should comply peacefully. Rana was elected chief steward. The meeting also set up a co-ordinating committee, which distributed some 25,000 leaflets and 1,000 window posters around the borough, stressing that the protest was to be peaceful. As well as these materials, the ANL produced a number of leaflets in English and Punjabi, while Socialist Worker ran a front-page headline, ‘Shut Down Southall’. On 18 April, representatives from the co-ordinating committee met with Merlyn Rees, the Home Secretary, visiting Ealing as part of Labour’s election campaign. Rees insisted that he possessed no powers to ban an election meeting. The Chief Superintendent of Southall Police requested a meeting with ‘community leaders’, including some protest organizers, such as Vishnu Sharma.
Balwinder Rana was also there. ‘When I came in, they were sat there with their hands clasped; it looked like they were praying. The Superintendent made a speech warning that left-wingers wanted to destroy the town: “Next week evil is coming.”’ Rana responded that he only knew one kind of evil, the racism of the National Front. ‘Then Vishnu Sharma jumped up, and supported what I said. Then all the others began to nod their heads in agreement!’
On Sunday, 22 April, the day before the election meeting, 5,000 marched to Ealing town hall to protest, handing in a petition signed by 10,000 people. This was a huge demonstration, with all sections of the population represented, including older women in long white dresses and Sikh men in turbans and beards. But even this march was attacked, with the police picking fights all along the way. Rana recalls his attempts to negotiate with the senior officer in the car park before the demonstration set off. ‘I asked him why there were so many police, and horses. He said that they were for our protection. He had information that the National Front might attack us. I said there’s five thousand of us here, there’s no way the NF are going to try anything. But he wouldn’t take them away.’ In an atmosphere of mistrust, trouble was always likely to break out:
One young demonstrator was playing around. He flipped a copper’s hat off as a joke. But rather than taking it as a joke, they arrested him and dragged him away. I stopped the march, we all sat down in the middle of Southall, outside the police station, and I went in to talk to the chief superintendent. They wouldn’t let him go. So I said, ‘If you don’t let him go, I can’t be responsible for what happens.’ They threatened to arrest me, and I said, ‘Go on then’, and within five minutes, they’d let him go.
At this point, there were 5,000 people in the middle of Southall, with more watching. The police were not going to try anything there. But as the marchers left central Southall, snatch squads grabbed another 20. Despite such provocations, Pete Alexander recalls that protesters remained optimistic about preventing the National Front meeting from taking place. ‘We had wind that the strikes were going to happen. It was clear that the protests were going to be big.’ Black and Asian workers, including staff at Heathrow airport, were at the front of the protests. Activists, including members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, were also able to pull off a strike at Ford Langley. A number of other local workplaces with a predominantly white workforce also backed the strike call, including workers at Sunblest bakery, Walls’ pie factory and Quaker Oats. These were large-scale strikes, uniting black and white workers, to protest against the NF presence in Southall. Maybe more than anything else, they reveal the success of several years’ active campaigning by left and black activists. The Anti-Nazi League provided the opportunity to make unity work.
A very British coup
Monday, 23 April was St George’s Day. To celebrate, the borough council chose this day to fly the Union Jack from Southall town hall. To most passers-by, this decision seemed crass. Why did the council choose this day of all days to proclaim their British nationalism? On closer reflection, the decision seems even odder. If they wanted to celebrate England, the council could have chosen the red and white cross of St George. But the Union Jack was the British flag. To the young anti-racist protesters, such ‘accidents’ felt sinister. As far as they were concerned, just about the only people in 1970s Britain under the age of 50 who spontaneously identified with flag-waving nationalism were the supporters of the Front. It seemed the council had decided that the most appropriate response to the presence of an Asian minority among their own people was to support the violent racists of the NF.
The police began to arrive in Southall early in the morning. Coaches were parked all over the town centre, and officers on horses were seen patrolling the streets. People felt that the presence of such large numbers of policemen, so early in the day, was a provocation. The mood was tense. Local shops, factories and transport closed at 1 p.m., and people began to gather at the town centre from lunchtime.
One problem for the organizers was that the National Front were not even due to start their meeting until 7.30 in the evening. If workers were going to strike against the NF, as many did, then it should be at least a half-day strike. According to Balwinder Rana, ‘the shops closed at 1 p.m. We asked people to assemble outside the town hall at 5 p.m.’
Before the left and the striking workers, young Asians arrived on the scene first. Rumours had spread that the police were already trying to smuggle National Front members into the town hall. Thus members of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) began to assemble outside the town hall from around 12.30 p.m., while others were waiting for the official 5 p.m. starting time. Balraj Purewal led a march of some 30 to 40 members of SYM, along South Road, to the town centre. People joined along the way, so that on reaching the town hall, the SYM contingent had swelled to around 100, and eventually 200 people. They attempted to form a picket outside the town hall and were forcibly dispersed by the police. Soon, up to 40 arrests had been made. Members of the SYM attempted to meet with senior police officers, but were turned away.
The people around the Southall Youth Movement had fallen victim to rumours and were determined to confront both the National Front and the police. According to one activist interviewed by the BBC in Southall, ‘This is our future, right? Our leaders will do nothing . . . our leaders wanted a peaceful sit down, but what can you do with a peaceful sit down here? We had to do something, the young people. We don’t want a situation like the East End where our brothers and sisters are being attacked every day.’ Pete Alexander contrasts the mass tactics of groups such as the Indian Workers’ Association with those of the SYM:
“The IWA mobilised their forces through the afternoon and did march at about 5 p.m. in the afternoon, i.e. on time. The Southall Youth Movement lacked discipline. Responding to the provocation of the police, and in an attempt to show how militant they were, they marched a few hundred youths towards the town hall in the early afternoon. Given their relatively small numbers, it was easy for the cops to deal with. This not only took some of them out of the fray before things had really started; it also gave the cops some justification for occupying the centre of Southall.”
The left set up headquarters initially at the offices of the National Association for Asian Youth, at 46 High Street, close to the centre of town, but far enough to prevent the building from coming under attack. Stewards were provided with red armbands. First aid centres were set up, and there was a legal advice unit and even an unofficial ambulance. The organizers of the protests feared that the police would turn violent.
Paul Holborow recalls that ‘There was a threatening police presence throughout the day. Their only purpose was to intimidate people.’ Pete Alexander goes further: ‘It was a military occupation.’ A Catholic priest, Father Thomas Lloyd, described seeing a police coach with the ace of spades held against the window, and ‘NF’ written by officers on the steamed-up glass. Huge numbers of police, some 2,756 officers in all, were used to break up the anti-fascist protests. By 2 or 3 p.m., the police were in control of the town hall. The members of the Southall Youth Movement were dispersed across the surrounding area, and as new contingents of demonstrators arrived, they too were moved on – frequently by force.
One of the most frightening aspects that Balwinder Rana remembers was the noise that the police made by drumming their sticks against their riot shields. The purpose of the police operation was not to arrest any wrongdoers, but to intimidate and ultimately hurt as many of the protesters as possible. By 3.30, the entire town centre was closed, and the police declared it a ‘sterile’ area, meaning that it was now free of anti-fascists. Meanwhile, rain had begun to fall by the bucket-load, further dampening the mood. In order to keep the town centre secure, the police established a series of roadblocks that nobody was allowed to pass – not even the people who actually lived on the streets that were being closed.
At one stage the police observed that several dozen anti-fascists had boarded a number 207 bus in an attempt to escape through the police lines. The police then boarded the bus and removed demonstrators by force. Several windows were smashed in the fighting.
According to Pete Alexander, ‘Our original headquarters, where we had planned to have medical and legal support, was in the offices of the National Association for Asian Youth, but because of the police occupation we could not operate from there. As a consequence we moved further out, into the Peoples Unite building.’ This community centre was associated with the band Misty and the Roots. It was just outside the main roadblock. By late afternoon, four separate protests had been established at each of the main blocks, with thousands of people at each one.
Balwinder Rana tried to keep people’s morale up, speaking on platforms, working to ensure that as much of the protest as possible could be held together. There should be no repeat of the situation in mid-afternoon, when one group had been cut off from the rest. The situation was desperately unclear. Protesters were still anxious to block the town hall. Police officers meanwhile were refusing to negotiate even with the organizers of the protest. Their orders were that there should be no compromise with the crowd. Rana also noticed that the diversity of Sunday’s protest had not been reflected in Monday’s scene. The older men had not appeared. There were fewer of the women who had marched. Rumours of a fight were keeping many people at home. Pete Alexander recalls the geography of the police riot:
“At the centre of Southall there’s a crossroads: one road going to the west (Broadway), one to the north (Lady Margaret Road, one to the east (Uxbridge Road) and one to the south (South Road). The town hall, where the meeting took place, is on the corner between the north and east streets. The police station is about 80 metres along Uxbridge Road, on the same side of the road as the town hall. After the Southall Youth Movement’s abortive march, the cops took control of the crossroads and the whole area between it and eastwards beyond the police station. When I say ‘took control’ I mean armoured cars, cavalry, the ordinary riot cops in large numbers and helicopters. The Indian Workers’ Association and others blocked the South Road; we – the Anti-Nazi League and others – blocked the Uxbridge Road. Blair Peach and others worked their way around to the Broadway, but we had too few people to the north and the police were able get the National Front in that way.”
The real trouble started as the day turned to dusk. There was still a large group of demonstrators, sitting peacefully on the Broadway, blocking the western route into Southall. One demonstrator, Peter B, was part of this group. In his memory,
“At about 7.30 p.m. the good humour of the crowd was shattered . . . a roar went through the crowd, emanating from the rear. People turned and looked westwards down the street. I saw, to my amazement, a coach being driven fast straight into the back of the crowd. It was a private coach, an ordinary 30–40 seat char-a-banc. At a cautious estimate, I would put the speed of it at 15 m.p.h., which is murderous when it is being driven into a crowd.”
The coach was carrying police officers and some 20 members of the National Front, whose objective was the town hall. From this point onwards, the situation was one of a general mêlée. The crowds were dispersed, the coach broke through. The crowds gathered again. Other police vehicles followed, and demonstrators attempted to block them. They were beaten back. One anti-fascist later reported, ‘Every time people tried to push through the police lines, mounted police on horse-back laid into the demonstrators, beating them to the ground and arresting some of them.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick contrasts Southall with previous protests. ‘After Lewisham, it was much more disparate. The ANL was trying to work with the IWA and with the local community. There was no centralized decision-making. The police were more determined, and willing to use violence. We were broken up too quickly. The police had more control.’ According to Rana, ‘People started to throw bricks. The police used horses. They drove vans into the crowd, and fast, to push us back. They used snatch squads. People rushed back with whatever they could pick up.’
Individuals ran into the park, or sheltered in homes, or in the Peoples Unite building where medical facilities were stretched beyond breaking. The police could see how Peoples Unite on Park View was being used, and determined to clear the building. Officers entered the building, occupied it, and gave instructions to the people sheltering there to leave. They formed a gauntlet along the hall and the stairs, and beat people as they tried to escape. Tariq Ali was in the building, bleeding from his head. Clarence Baker, the pacifist manager of Misty and the Roots, was hurt so badly that he went into a coma. The solicitor John Witzenfeld was inside when the police attacked:
“they kicked in the panel on the door to the medical unit and waving their truncheons told us to get out. I was pushed into the hall with the others behind me. Suddenly I felt a blow to the back of my head and I managed to half-turn and saw a hand holding a truncheon disappearing downwards . . . Whilst we were waiting for the ambulance, two police stood in the doorway with their backs to us whilst people were brought down from upstairs and I saw truncheons rise and fall and I heard shouts and screams from the women.”
The building itself was so badly damaged by the police action that afterwards it was demolished. Officers with batons smashed medical equipment, a sound system, printing and other items. Jack Dromey, a senior official of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, told an inquiry called by the National Council of Civil Liberties, ‘I have never seen such unrestrained violence against demonstrators . . . The Special Patrol Group were just running wild.’ His view was echoed by Mrs Dialo Sandu, a Southall resident who was spat at by one police officer as she watched the riot unfold from the security of her front garden ‘They treated us like animals. It’s the first time I would ever speak against the police. But I saw what happened with my own eyes.’
Between 7.30 and 9 p.m., Southall witnessed a full-scale police riot. Dozens of anti-Nazis were beaten. At least three suffered fractured skulls. Others were kicked until they lost consciousness. There is no doubt that the police sought to inflict as much pain, physical and psychological, as they could. Caroline, then an active member of the Anti-Nazi League in Ealing, spent the night driving between Southall and Heathrow. ‘Many of the Asian kids that the police arrested, they beat them up for a bit, and then they took them out of London. They dropped them in the middle of nowhere, on the side of motorways, nowhere near telephones or anything. These young kids were confused, crying. The police just wanted to humiliate them.’
So why were the police so violent? According to Caroline, ‘They wanted revenge for Lewisham.’ After the storming of Peoples Unite, Balwinder Rana was forced to escape by jumping over a garage, and hid from a street full of police horses. The organizers had the numbers of all the phone boxes in central Southall, and had thought that they would be able to keep in contact. But the police occupied the town centre, including the boxes. Angered, disorientated, the protesters attempted to regroup. Perminder Dhillon described her memories of the day’s events in an article for the socialist feminist magazine Spare Rib.
“Around ten, many of us gathered to watch the news at a restaurant where Rock Against Racism and Indian music had been blaring out all evening, drowning out the National Front speakers inside the town hall. Their wounds still bleeding, people saw the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary, and other ‘experts’ on the black community condemning the people of Southall for their unprovoked attack on the police! As usual, only pictures of injured policemen were shown – nothing of the pregnant women being attacked and the countless other police assaults.”
One historian, Nigel Copsey, has described how the police ‘contributed to disorder’ as the day went on, ‘first by making peaceful protest impossible, and then by attempting to disperse the crowd using aggressive tactics, such as “snatch squads”, charging with riot shields, truncheons and horses, and even driving vans into the crowd’. By the end of the day, according to police records, over 700 had been arrested, and some 342 people charged. This number actually underestimated the number of police detentions. These were the largest arrests in Britain on a single day for decades.
Blair Peach was part of the crowds blocking the western approach, as Uxbridge Road joined the Broadway. Along with his friends, Peach saw the police break a route through for the National Front to hold their meeting. Frightened by the intensity of the police violence, Peach and friends headed south. Beechcroft Avenue was not cordoned off, and it must have seemed a way to escape from the fighting. But Beechcroft Road was no real haven: at its far end, the road led straight back on to Uxbridge Road – back to the police lines. According to one later report:
The police formed up across Northcote Avenue, moved across the Broadway and charged into Beechcroft Avenue, carrying riot shields and truncheons. They were moving at a fast walk, but according to some witnesses broke into a run. Once into Beechcroft Avenue, they made way for two Special Patrol Group vans which drove into a street beside them, went round the junction with Orchard Avenue and stopped inside Orchard Avenue. The police officers moved after them. The vans opened, and now more police officers got out. It was at this time, at the junction of Beechcroft and Orchard Avenues that Blair Peach was attacked and fatally injured.
Peach’s body was found towards the end of the road, on a corner that faced back towards the town hall. The family opposite tried to shelter him, not realizing that he was already dying. Peach had sustained a head injury and was taken to Ealing Hospital by ambulance, arriving at about 8 p.m. Death was pronounced shortly after midnight. By about 10 p.m., the organizers of the anti-fascist protest had succeeded in opening a second headquarters. Most of the protesters had gone, and the police began to scale down their operations. The mood was downbeat. Balwinder Rana heard the news of his fellow demonstrator’s death. ‘I knew Blair Peach. We used to gather every Sunday at Brick Lane. The NF tried to speak there, and we tried to stop them. The police said whoever comes first can have the spot. So we would camp out there Saturday night, even Friday night, to stop the fascists. It was there I met Blair Peach.’ It is one thing to lose a stranger, another to lose a comrade whom you have known in struggle.
In the aftermath of 23 April, anti-fascists were riven by competing feelings of guilt, anger and remorse. The very next morning, at 11 a.m., Commander Cass, who was in charge of investigating the previous day’s events, began by interviewing Amanda Leon, who had been with Blair Peach when he was killed. Leon quickly took the initiative. She told Commander Cass, ‘I saw a police officer strike Blair Peach with an overarm blow with a truncheon . . . I only saw one blow struck. The truncheon made contact on Blair Peach’s head. I don’t know what part of the head the blow fell on. My impression was that it was the back of his head because he was running away.’ She described Peach’s killing as an assault. She said that she herself had been hit on the head with a baton by a police officer and that she had seen a man lying on the ground with a policeman bending over him and hitting him in the testicles. Leon tried to use her interview with Cass to begin a complaint against the police. He, of course, refused to investigate it. Later, the police attempted for seven years to keep the text of their interview secret. It was only released following a High Court injunction.
Blair Peach was a teacher and a member of the SWP. He was 33, a trade unionist and a veteran of campaigns for the participation of the local community in education, in solidarity with struggles in Ireland and South Africa. According to Roger Huddle, ‘He was a very gentle, quiet man. He was absolutely incensed about racism.’ Chris Searle describes Peach in the following terms: ‘there was a particular electricity about Blair’s spoken interventions. He had a stammer that sometimes interfered with his delivery. Yet his personal courage was such that his words and arguments always emerged, forged through a determination that you could feel was willing his voice forward.’ Annie was the doctor in the first aid room. Even today, she holds that Blair’s killing had been given the highest authorization.
What was remarkable on 23 April is that only one person died, given the number of overarm truncheon blows to the head. Those of us in 6 Park View were made to go through a gauntlet of police doing this to each and every one of us as we left the house, and then we were told to go back into the house. Most police would have or should have been trained in the possible effects of blows to the head, and in fact police in general are told to try to avoid hitting on the head, as any blow to the head is potentially fatal. The reason is not only the blow itself, but the after-effects of it, which include bleeding into or around the brain, which may not be detected until it is too late. On 23 April, not only were heavier than normal truncheons used, but police throughout the demo used these heavy truncheons to hit people on the head. Someone somewhere must have said this was OK. Someone somewhere was prepared to see people killed on a demo in Britain. It was perhaps the first time in the twentieth century that this was considered an acceptable result of policing a demo in Britain. After the storm On 23 April, the Metropolitan Police ‘won’. The police succeeded in attacking and hurting as many ordinary people as possible, and also kept Ealing town hall open for the National Front meeting to take place. The Special Patrol Group was fêted for its proud role in having defended democracy from the people of Southall. In the days afterwards, the partisans of British justice took a vindictive approach towards their enemies. Some of the mood that followed can be seen in the account of one of the trials of the anti-racist protesters:
“A 14-year-old Sikh boy appeared before a magistrate at Ealing juvenile court. He had been charged with ‘threatening behaviour’ and being in possession of ‘offensive weapons’ at 6.20 p.m. on 23 April 1979. The sum total of the prosecution case was the evidence of one policeman who stated that he had seen the accused with an offensive weapon . . . The defence produced several witnesses. These included a white doctor, a white solicitor and a white ambulance man. They all testified that the boy, at the time, was being treated for a hand wound and had suffered a severe loss of blood. They knew because they were all in the legal aid room at 6 Park View. I was with them, when the police raided this address and arrested the boy in question and numerous others. But defence witnesses, even respectable ones, are not permitted to obstruct ‘the due process of law’. The boy was found guilty and fined £100. The defence argued that he had no job and no source of income. The Magistrate replied, ‘Let him find a job.’ The defence retorted that it was a criminal act for a 14-year-old to gain employment. But the Magistrate had meant a ‘paper round’ or something like that. The boy in question will be paying 75p a week for the next two years.”
This was not an article from the revolutionary press, but from the liberal Guardian. In the days following Blair Peach’s killing, the police and the courts were arrogant in their defence of power. To be black or Asian, to be young or to oppose racism was enough to constitute a crime.
Mark Steel was a young activist caught up in events at Southall. Back home afterwards, he experienced a complex of emotions, ranging from shock at the news of Blair Peach’s death to remorse that he had been excited by the clashes with the police, and guilt that he had escaped when someone else had died. What angered him most was the press coverage afterwards. ‘Every paper, news bulletin, politician, police officer and respectable member of society was yelping at how this demonstrating mob must be stopped . . . From the way it was reported, there must have been people who thought, “What on earth made those violent Anti-Nazi people want to kill that poor teacher?”’
The papers swung overwhelmingly behind the police. The Guardian was almost alone in the mainstream press in challenging the police riot. The Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Telegraph all covered the story as their front-page lead. The headlines were: ‘BATTLE OF HATE. Election Riot: Police Hurt, 300 arrested’, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’, ‘300 HELD IN RIOT AT NF DEMO’ and ‘300 ARRESTED AT POLL RIOT’. One edition of the Daily Mail went furthest in deliberately confusing the racists and the anti-racists, proclaiming, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’.
What was so offensive about this story, and indeed about the general press coverage, was the way in which it depicted a mixed-race group of young anti-racists as violent, aggressive thugs, as much a threat to society as the National Front. Regional papers were even worse. The Hereford Evening News was critical of Southall residents for responding to the National Front. ‘However understandable the resentment of the large Asian community in the west London suburb where the National Front chose to stage a deliberately provocative election meting, there can be neither excuse nor forgiveness of their violent attacks on the police.’ Yet in some ways this article was untypical. The Hereford paper was almost alone in recognizing that the trouble had not been stirred up entirely by the Anti-Nazi League. The Oxford Mail was yet another paper to speak up for the police: ‘Because this is a free country, where even detestable organisations have to be allowed to hold election meetings to support their candidates, a big force of police was present. The organisers of the demonstration caricatured this as police repression.’ The Swindon Evening Advertiser claimed that ‘The Anti-Nazi League, which was originally sponsored, in part, by a number of respectable people who did not stop to think twice, has now degenerated into an umbrella for extreme left malcontents.’ The Nottingham Evening Post bemoaned the fact that ‘If the extreme political nut-cases want to behave as they have done, in this country of free-speech, there is little we can do to stop them, short of banning them completely.’
A number of papers called for bans against the far left. According to the Oldham Evening Chronicle, ‘the real consensus in Britain is to get the rabble of both Right and Left off the streets’. The Bradford Telegraph and Argus asked, ‘What price the Anti-Nazi League when the people it persuades to demonstrate use Nazi methods?’ The Oxford Mail termed anti-Nazi protesters ‘enemies of democracy’. Finally, the Lancashire Evening Post developed this phrase, suggesting that while the political right were irresponsible, the left were more dangerous. The ANL were an urgent and pressing threat to democracy. ‘In the short term they are more dangerous than the National Front because they hide their revolutionary and totalitarian aims behind a noble cause.’
Yet, in the days that followed, it slowly became clear that the police and their allies had gone too far. It became clear that the vast majority of local people felt an extraordinary sympathy for Blair Peach, the man who had died for them. The Metropolitan Police’s ‘military’ victory crumbled.
The murder of Blair Peach became a symbol of the unjustified use of police violence, and even re-legitimized the Anti-Nazi League within the wider Labour movement. Fifteen thousand people marched the following Saturday, 28 April, in honour of the dead man, with 13 national trade union banners taken on the demonstration, and Ken Gill speaking on behalf of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. Workers at the Sunblest bakery raised £800 for Peach’s widow.
Balwinder Rana remembers that for the next week, protesters were everywhere, flyposting, speaking, organizing, discussing the lessons of the police riot. The police were around, in very large numbers, but they did not dare to stop people from organising. It was almost as if the police were shamed by the enormity of what they had done. One activist Kathy had been unable to attend the Southall demonstrations, but her husband Harry took part, and was badly beaten the police. She knew Blair Peach, and tried to make sense of his death in a poem, ‘We cannot offer words / to express our grief and our anger/ we throw red flowers / in silent explosions of pain … the red arrow of the anti-nazis / fuelled to rocket power with our collective anger.’
Rock Against Racism brought out a special leaflet, Southall Kids are Innocent: ‘Southall is special. There have been police killings before . . . But on April 23rd the police behaved like never before . . . The police were trying to kill our people. They were trying to get even with our culture . . . What free speech needs martial law? What public meeting requires 5,000 people to keep the public out?’ Questions were asked in the Indian and New Zealand parliaments. Even the Daily Telegraph’s reporter described how the police cornered one contingent: ‘Several dozen crying, screaming demonstrators were dragged to the police station and waiting coaches . . . Nearly every demonstrator we saw had blood flowing from some injury.’
For eight weeks, Blair Peach’s body remained unburied. The day before the funeral, he was accorded a ‘lying in state’ at the Dominion Theatre in Southall. Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office had the job of protecting Peach’s body overnight.
“I remember at dawn, we were supposed to open up the building. There was already a queue of people. Later, two police showed up, an officer and a sergeant. They were asking to see Paul. Given what had happened, I was rather unhappy, but I didn’t have the gumption to stop them. After five minutes, the sergeant came out, walking quite quickly. There was the officer, after him, looking straight ahead. Then Paul’s head poked out, ‘And don’t you ever come back!’ In the circumstance of a large community and attacks on a white demonstrator who had been killed, the police quite clearly felt out of their depth.”
People remembered Blair Peach as a fighter. To them, Peach represented the best instincts of the anti-racist left. According to one commentator, Peach’s death had ‘particular reverence for the predominantly Sikh Punjabi community, both as a white man who chose to assist them and thereby defend their right to reside in the country, and as an enemy of tyrannous oppressors whose struggles with the Sikhs are still talked of and remembered in popular bazaar calendar art.’ Finally, on 13 June 1979, Peach was buried. Ten thousand joined the procession. Following this powerful show of support, another 10,000 people marched through Southall again in memory of Blair Peach the following year. A middle school was named after him and further memorials have been organized on anniversaries since. Bringing the police to justice? Faced with such anger, the officials of the state did their best to close ranks. Despite 147 MPs signing a motion calling for a public inquiry, the Labour government refused this request. Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees told Sir David McNee, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that the government gave its full support to his actions. A number of documents were compiled but not published, including an internal Metropolitan Police report by Commander Cass into Blair Peach’s death, a report by Sir David McNee to the Home Secretary, the Linnet Report on complaints against the police, and a report by Deputy Commissioner Pat Kavanagh on the work of the Special Patrol Group. Following the general election, the new Conservative Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw also refused to take action. Justice Griffiths later opposed an appeal, saying that ‘on its worst construction, this is one isolated occasion of a policeman possibly using a weapon he should not have used, and hitting too hard’. The Home Office dragged its heels in opening the inquest into Peach’s death. Writing in the New Statesman, Paul Foot complained of the delays.
I wonder what the reaction would have been if a policeman, not a demonstrator, had been killed at Southall. Would the inquest have been postponed until the middle of the summer holidays? Would there have been almost total silence in the press about the murder hunt? Would the suspects have been left to carry on their jobs without being charged or even cautioned?’
When it opened, the inquest limited itself to the sole question of how Peach had died. Pathologist Professor Mant explained that the damage done to the dead man’s skull involved an instrument that had not pierced his skin. He concluded that the weapon was a cosh or a blackjack, perhaps a police radio. Sitting without a jury, the coroner refused to accept Professor Mant’s findings. In December 1979, Blair’s brother Roy appealed the coroner’s findings, taking the case as far as the Court of Appeal. Represented by the barrister and novelist John Mortimer, the family was successful in obtaining a ruling that the inquest should be carried out in front of a jury. Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, heard the case. ‘When allegations of brutality or misconduct are made against the police’, Denning found,
“and a fatality does occur, then, if the circumstances are such that something may have gone wrong, and there is a danger of it happening again, a jury should be summoned . . . We have to decide it on the hypothetical circumstances that Mr Blair Peach was struck by a policeman with something heavier than a truncheon … On those hypothetical circumstances, Mr Blair Peach’s brother is entitled to say that there must be a jury, however difficult it may be for the coroner to conduct the inquest in those circumstances.”
At the inquest, the police solicitor tried to use Professor Mant’s evidence in support of his employers. If it was true that a baton had not caused Blair Peach’s death, then it followed that Peach could not have been killed by any police officer. The coroner instructed the jurors to release the police from scrutiny. Not surprisingly, then, the verdict passed was not the condemnatory one of unlawful killing but simply ‘death by misadventure’. Yet in addition to their main verdict, the jury added three riders. First, senior officers should supervise the Special Patrol Group more closely. Second, police officers should be issued with maps before major demonstrations. Third, police lockers should be regularly searched. The effect of these three riders was to restore blame on to the police for the Southall riot.
In the words of the Anti-Nazi League’s Paul Holborow, ‘We regard the verdict as establishing beyond any doubt that police killed Blair Peach.’ The Sunday Times published reports based on leaks from the Cass Report. Attention focused on the officers of Special Patrol Group unit 1/1. At least six members of this unit were known to have travelled in the van that held Blair Peach’s killer: they were police constables Murray, White, Lake, Freestone, Scottow and Richardson. When the lockers of unit 1/1 were searched in June 1979, one officer, Greville Bint, was discovered to have in his lockers Nazi regalia, bayonets and leather-covered sticks. Another constable, Raymond ‘Chalkie’ White, attempted to hide a cosh in his anorak pocket. Either of these instruments would have been consistent with the weapon identified by Professor Mant. A brass handle was also found, a metal truncheon encased in leather about 8 inches long, a lead weight and a wooden pickaxe handle.
The National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL) organized an unofficial committee to investigate events at Southall. The members of the committee included Roger Butler of the engineering workers’ union; the lecturer Stuart Hall; Patricia Hewitt of the NCCL; Bill Keys, a member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress; Joan Lestor, the Labour MP; Dick North from the executive of the National Union of Teachers; Paul O’Higgins, a law lecturer from Cambridge University; Ranjit Sondhi from the Asian Resources Centre in Birmingham; Hewlett Thompson, the Bishop of Willesden; and Pauline Webb from the Methodist Church. The Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett chaired the committee. The Metropolitan Police boycotted the committee, giving the excuse that their time would be better spent seeking an improvement in race relations in Southall. The final report attempted to remain even-handed, and at several points its authors explicitly criticized the organizers of the Southall protests. The idea of the committee was to draw lessons from the entire situation on the day. But the final paragraph should be quoted in full:
“The outcome of the police operation on 23 April could hardly have been worse. Many police officers and members of the public suffered serious injury. One person died, apparently at the hands of the police. And the confidence of many people in Southall in the police, and the institutions of the law, was shattered. Those protesters who, deliberately or in the heat of the moment, used violence against the police must carry their share of the responsibility for what happened. But we do not accept that the responsibility was wholly or even mainly theirs. We regard the decision to prevent the demonstration to cordon off Southall as entirely misconceived, and the failure to communicate the decision to the community organisations as disastrous. Those who regard our proposed alternatives as unsatisfactory should seriously consider whether such unacceptable consequences would have flowed from a police operation which respected the community’s right to protest; which kept them informed of the police plans; and which enabled stewards and community leaders to exercise authority over the protesters in order to ensure that, as far as was humanly possible, the demonstration remained the peaceful protest which had always been intended.”
The horror of Southall closely linked to events outside. Five days before Southall, 200 police were deployed to prevent anti-fascist protests in Battersea. Three days before, 5,000 police were used at Leicester. Two days afterwards, over 4,000 officers, including Special Branch, SPG and mounted police, were used against ant-fascists at Newham. Over 1,000 police were employed in West Bromwich on 28 April, and similar numbers at Bradford two days later. One further National Front meeting, held in Caxton Hall on 1 May, required 5,000 police to ensure that it could go ahead. The surrounding area was sealed off all day. With this many police officers used, so often, and with such determination, it was in fact remarkable that only one person was killed. Just as importantly, the National Front public meeting at Southall was held as part of that year’s general election.
As Blair Peach lay dying, a new Conservative government was waiting to emerge. Margaret Thatcher had already staked her claim to the loyalties of former NF voters. Speaking out against immigration, Thatcher had taken up the cause dearest to them. The situation appeared all the more alarming for those young, politically conscious people who led the Anti-Nazi League. Many activists were in their mid- or late twenties. They had been schooled by the events of May 1968 and the victories of the working-class movement in the years between 1972 and 1974. They had seen local cuts and closures. But it was still possible for them to think that this brief downtime might shortly be reversed. Only slowly was the realization dawning that the worse years of the 1980s were ahead. In retrospect, the conjuncture of Blair Peach’s death and Margaret Thatcher’s victory symbolizes the end of an age.
Through 1978, the movement continued. The largest events were the Rock Against Racism carnivals. The strategy was to connect an anti-racist political message to radical music, to separate young people decisively from the National Front’s politics. Peter Hain outlined the method in the Labour paper, Tribune: ‘The carnival[s] point the way to a style of campaigning that is likely to win the emerging rearguard battle which must be waged against the National Front. In the longer term, of course, socialist solutions will be needed to pressed and fought for. But, in the shorter term, we desperately need to undercut the support of the new Nazis.’ This was anti-racism with a new emphasis, on pleasure, on self-activity and on spectacle.
The first carnival took place on 30 April 1978. The date was chosen to highlight the radical ambitions of the Anti-Nazi League. It was 130 years since the huge Chartist demonstration at Kennington Common, the closest that the British ruling class has come in recent times to facing an insurrection. The carnival was fully publicized by the left and in the musical press. Following the lead given by the New Musical Express over the previous year, all the music papers now carried regular features supporting both Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. A year on from the launch of RAR, Melody Maker ran an interview with Syd Shelton and Roger Huddle, Shelton describing the purpose of the movement. ‘We try and use popular culture which we all enjoy to mobilise people, not in a specific way, but just getting them to take a stand against the Front.’ Shelton insisted that RAR’s target audience was not the already convinced but ordinary kids on the estates. ‘There are no jobs for them, they’re living in cities and estates that are closing down . . . Conditions are right for the Front.’
Who came up with the word ‘carnival’? Jerry Fitzpatrick was given the job of organizing the events. ‘I think it must have been Paul. Red Saunders was struggling towards the idea, something even bigger than the Rock Against Racism gigs and the tours. They wanted something to bring together the cultural and political lefts, like the fêtes organized by the Communist Party in France. But it was Paul who capped it.’
“We started planning the first carnival in January 1977, at least three months beforehand. I remember booking the event through the GLC. The form said that if you had more than 10,000 people, you needed portaloos, and all that. So I booked a mini-festival, for 10,000, not more. I knew we had no money. I wasn’t expecting more than 20,000, tops. We made a deal to book the PA; we paid three thousand there and then, four thousand on the day. Paul drew the money out. I had to sew it into the lining of my leather jacket, so it wouldn’t get stolen. There were scaffolders from Donegal who put up the stage. Red and Roger booked the bands. Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson got X-ray Spex. Two weeks before the carnival, we started trying to book the Clash. I went to a meeting with their manager Bernie Rhodes, then one with the band. Red and Syd [Shelton] were absolutely brilliant. But I remember Mick Jones flicking ash in my hair. Finally Joe Strummer spoke, and said, ‘Fuck it, we’ll show them!’ That was just two weeks beforehand. The word went round the streets of London. After their songs ‘White Riot’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’, the Clash were huge. They brought the youth.”
Local anti-fascists put out leaflets for the carnival. Mike from Preston booked coaches: ‘Wherever you went, you sold tickets. Punk bands played gigs for the coaches, all sorts of people got involved. You really knew something was happening.’ Eighty coaches were organized from Manchester. According to Geoff, ‘I don’t think that the left has organized a larger number of coaches to anything in London, ever, and most of those coaches were full.’ Twelve coaches were sent from Sheffield, 25 from Leeds, a train from Glasgow. Keith remembers being stopped by a policeman flyposting for the first carnival on Tottenham High Road. ‘We said we hadn’t done that many and anyway it was for a worthwhile cause, and he just walked off and left us to it.’ These young anti-racists were astonished when the officer left them alone to get on with sticking posters. ‘This was not a usual occurrence!’
The carnival began with a march to Victoria Park, starting from Trafalgar Square, and going via the Strand, Fleet Street, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green Road and Old Ford Road. According to Dave Widgery,
“At 2 a.m. on the night before the demonstration, a group of RAR stalwarts including Tasmanian journalist Philip Brooks and the New York poet and club doorman Haowi Montag, who inhabited a labyrinthine eighth-floor squat on Charing Cross Road, began to hear crowds chanting through the downpour. And by 6 a.m. the following morning there were already 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square.”
The organizers deliberately avoided placing the carnival in London’s Hyde Park, the traditional destination of such protests, choosing instead Victoria Park, which was situated between Hackney and London’s East End. The march went close to Brick Lane, scene of many conflicts between left and right, and the main centre for Asians living in the East End. The area also had a resonance with the anti-fascism of the 1930s and especially the famous 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when Mosley’s blackshirts had been prevented from marching. The National Front’s John Tyndall had recently announced that he planned to stand in South Hackney, a constituency that included the park. On the day, left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo explained why Victoria Park had been chosen. ‘In the East End, fascists have done their traditional work of dividing one group of workers from another group of workers. There are too many people in the labour movement who believe if you leave it, it will go away.’ David R was a young socialist in Leeds: ‘The first [carnival] was brilliant, but the most exciting bit was the march to Victoria Park where we were reclaiming the streets of the East End, which had been swamped by fascists at an earlier demo organized by local anti-fascist groups.’
Marching to the carnival
Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office recalls some of the planning discussions: ‘Roger Huddle from RAR came into the office to argue with Paul that there needed to be a bigger, higher stage for the carnival – thank Christ they did – they understood the need for security, which none of us did.’ Roger Huddle himself would be stage manager on the day: ‘The first band started, and the crowd rushed the stage. Four people passed out. We took them round the back, and just fortunately they came to. We were so naive, we didn’t have security, we didn’t have ambulances.’
A special issue of Temporary Hoarding was produced – an A1 sheet folded three times to A4 size. Inside was a giant poster of the main acts of the day, Steel Pulse, Poly Styrene, Tom Robinson, replete with anti-National Front quotes, including one from Mick Jones of the Clash, ‘I’m half Jewish so I suppose the NF will try to send half of me back to Lithuania.’ Another large poster asked, ‘How did race hate happen?’: ‘when vote KKKatcher Thatcher makes speeches about the “threat” of alien culture; when Labour MPs sign a parliamentary report which recommends identity cards for all black citizens; when a Ku Klux Klan gang leader can shoot his mouth off on TV – race hatred becomes respectable. Don’t let’s be fooled. Race hate divides us when we most need to stand together – against the real enemy.’
The march was led off by giant papier-mâché models of Martin Webster and Adolf Hitler built by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, the people who would later make Spitting Image, while the Tower Hamlets Arts Project provided clowns, stilt-men and street theatre. There were dozens of banners, ranging from old-style trade union signs that took four people to carry, to home made spray-painted sheets: ‘Karen, Kate, Anna and Jill Against Racism, Fascism, Sexism.’ There was a steel band, and thousands of people carried the Anti-Nazi League’s distinctive yellow lollipop placards. ‘They were so different from the usual placards you would see on demos,’ remembers Geoff from Manchester. ‘At the first carnival we were giving lollipops away; by July you could sell them.’ Alongside the ANL lollipops were many more conventional Socialist Worker placards, blocks of text in Helvetica, against a background of green and purple swirls, ‘Stop the Nazis, No Immigration Controls.’
The march was due to set off at 1 p.m., but long before then Trafalgar Square was full, and the marchers set off under their own steam. Mike from the ANL had been given the job of making sure that the giant puppets of Tyndall and Webster were at the front of the march. ‘We had to run through the crowd, to try and get the heads and get them out, and we were the organizers . . . There was an enormous degree of spontaneity.’
Einde had arranged to meet friends between the Strand and Trafalgar Square.
“When we got there it seemed that tens of thousands of other people had also arranged to meet at the same corner. Eventually enough of us found each other and we unfurled our banner along with the thousands of other banners . . . We looked like a bunch of hippie desperados, to be quite honest – how could we wear such dreadful clothes? It was a glorious day and despite the long walk to Victoria Park I wouldn’t have missed it, one of the most enjoyable demonstrations I ever attended and the music was great, too.”
According to the report in the next Monday’s Guardian, ‘Police spokesmen said they were “astonished” at the size of the event. The tail of the march had still not left Trafalgar Square as the front reached journey’s end at Victoria Park.
‘Outside a couple of pubs near Brick Lane’, according to Dave Widgery’s history, Beating Time,
“there were a few Fronters with their mates, the sort of beer-gut and Page Three brigade who have an I love virgins sticker in the back of their off-brown resprayed Rover saloon and two kids whom they hit. They had come for a good laugh at the do-gooders. Three hours and 100,000 demonstrators later, the smiles were well and truly wiped off their faces and their bloated egos had evaporated into the swill at the bottom of their glasses.£
Peter Hain watched the crowd as it reached the park. ‘I remember the whistles, everyone in the crowd had whistles, also the ANL lollipops, they were new. It gave me a bubbly feeling that I had last experienced eight years previously on the Stop the Seventy campaign.’
Red Saunders compèred, wearing a cap covered in Rock Against Racism badges and a ‘Mr Oligarchies’ cape, an outfit from one of the Kartoon Klowns’ plays:
“The first carnival took place just a day or two after my daughter was born, and I was horrified that my beloved Nina wouldn’t be able to make it. The equality of the sexes, wasn’t that what we were supposed to believe in? Laurie Flynn, to his credit, made sure that all that day, whenever Nina wanted anything or needed anything, there was always someone from the SWP on hand to help her.
By 8 a.m., I was waiting in Trafalgar Square, absolutely pissing myself. I’d been up half the night with the baby. Syd and Ruth had been staying at some squat, and they were absolutely stoned. I was worried about the weather – would it rain? I went for a bacon butty. By the time I came back, I saw the first coaches arrive, and disembarking these dusty-eyed punks. Where are you from, mate? Liverpool. It would be big, then, I knew! We had 10,000 whistles we gave out free, thanks to Tom Robinson. We had the papier mâché models of Tyndall and Webster – we stuck them by the lions at the bottom end of Trafalgar Square. The weather was lifting. By the time people were sitting off, it had lifted.
At Victoria Park, we had the stage. It was very amateur compared to the ones you see these days – put up by a whole bunch of comrades working through the evening. Paul Holborow and I drove down to the park in a white transit van. There was Jerry Fitzpatrick, still finishing the stage. You could see big Rastas chatting to very straight St John’s ambulance men, all sorts of dialogues.
The park began to fill up. I ran on, and the first thing I shouted was ‘This isn’t Woodstock. It’s the Rock Against Racism carnival!’ and there was this huge cheer!”
The Clash, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex played to an audience of at least 80,000 people. Pink Floyd loaned their PA to the organizers. The Clash agreed to play, despite their manager’s protests. ‘They can do it,’ Bernie Rhodes said, ‘if you let them buy a tank for Zimbabwe.’ Publicity for the carnival put Aswad as the headline act, and Tom Robinson second. The Clash felt that they should have been given the best slot. But Robinson was higher in the charts. According to Roger Huddle of Rock Against Racism, ‘The Clash threw a wobbly and refused to stop playing when their time was up. Red Saunders had to pull their wires.’
The carnival’s platform included Peter Hain, Miriam Karlin, Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers’ Association, and Ray Buckton, general secretary of the rail union ASLEF and a member of the TUC General Council. Another trade union leader, Ernie Roberts, remarked, ‘None of the speakers could have addressed a crowd quite like this before. Dressed in an assorted garb of leather and satin, with hair of green or purple or pink, the teenagers gave them an enthusiastic welcome.’ Tariq Ali told the New Musical Express, ‘Lots of people will come for Rock Against Racism today and see that it should be Rock Against the Stock Exchange tomorrow.’
X-Ray Spex took the stage at 1.30, and were followed by the Clash and then Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson played his song ‘Winter of ’79’, predicting the news if complacency got its way and the National Front was allowed to prosper, ‘All the gay geezers were put inside / the coloured folks were getting crucified / a few fought back and a few folk died / in the winter of ’79.’ The threat of fascism was urgent, Robinson warned, ‘but now they’ve got no chance’. The last song brought each of the bands back on stage, for a one-off Tom Robinson number, ‘We Have Got to Get It Together’. The carnival was the lead story on that evening’s ten o’clock news.
John from south-east London had been arrested at the anti-fascist protests at Lewisham and sentenced to three months in jail. He was still in prison when he heard of the numbers attending the carnival:
“As the news came through of the numbers assembling in Victoria Park, our wildest expectations were exceeded. Ten thousand, then twenty, then thirty, then forty thousand. Earlier one of the fascist screws had jeered through the cell door, ‘Where’s your nigger friends now then, Johnny?’ Now he was quiet. The other cons on the wing didn’t support my ideas but they knew that something was happening against the system that crippled their lives. Radios were our contact with the real world. Everyone was listening and with every new announcement they cheered. As the final numbers came through, we were told that 100,000 people, black and white, had marched from Trafalgar Square to east London. All the cons on my wing, many of them racist, cheered and banged on the pipes. It’s a memory I will take to my grave.”
Gavin Weightman described the carnival in New Society: ‘There was something unreal about the sudden flowering in London of all the yellow and red anti-nazi propaganda – as if CND, lying dormant all these years, had bloomed again in different clothes and different colours.’ Richard from Football Fans Against the Nazis was ‘flabbergasted’ by the size of the event: ‘We expected 10 or 20,000 people, which would have been excellent, a big rise in the numbers who came on the marches and the demos. But on the day there were tens of thousands of people there.’ John S from south London was also ‘utterly amazed at how big it was. No-one expected it to be so big.’ Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party drew an upbeat conclusion, ‘The Anti-Nazi League is more than just a campaign – it is a mass movement.’ The historian Raphael Samuel, a member of the Communist Party from his early youth, described Victoria Park as ‘the most working-class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion.’
According to Rock Against Racism’s Sharon Spike,
“What was amazing was all the different people enjoying it; skinheads, punks, teds, Rastas, some old hippies, Greasers, disco-kids ands loads of middle-aged people and all. There were quite a few dogs. There was such a big turn-out that people at the back felt it hard to hear what the bands on stage were singing. But it didn’t matter too much because it was all so interesting just to walk around. It is very hard to describe what it felt like. Not Love and Peace and all that rubbish. It was more than music. Feeling all together. Not being scared of one another. Making you feel strong in a good way.”
Socialist Worker was no less ecstatic:
“At dawn on Sunday in Victoria Park, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism put the final touches to all their hard work. A young park-keeper watching the stage and tents and stalls going up said, ‘We’re expecting five thousand, but we’re ready for ten.’ And more came. Fifty thousand stretched from Trafalgar Square to Hackney. The kids had joined the march . . . Eighty thousand thronged the park, celebrating the rise against the fascists. ‘We’re black, we’re white, we’re dynamite’, they sang. They stood in the sun together. Eighty thousand. No trouble. Magic. The next day the National Front held a walk through London’s East End. Nearly two hundred attended. It was secret. It rained all the way. Even God has joined the Anti-Nazi League.”
Pop or politics?
This first carnival was followed by local carnivals in many areas. Thirty-five thousand came to a Manchester Carnival, 5,000 attended the next in Cardiff, 8,000 came to Edinburgh, 2,000 to Harwich and 5,000 to the carnival in Southampton. It was also in the aftermath of the first carnival that the Communist Party finally gave its official support to the Anti-Nazi League, hushing in retrospect its earlier criticism of the Socialist Workers’ Party’s tactics at Lewisham.
The May local elections were a considerable setback for the National Front, which secured disappointing votes in areas of previous strength, including Bradford and east London. The NF lashed out. A Bangladeshi garment worker, Altab Ali, was murdered on his way home. On 14 May 1978, following the murder, around 6,000 young Bengalis took part in a protest against racism in Brick Lane. It was the biggest Asian demonstration in British history. Older men brought macs and umbrellas; the younger activists created makeshift headgear from the round ANL lollipops to cover them from the rain. Placards asked, ‘How many more racial attacks? Why are the police covering up?’ Askan, one of the march organizers, was interviewed by Rock Against Racism’s Dave Widgery: ‘These racial attacks, they are getting worse all the time. Worse since National Front on the scene. Worse still since Mrs Thatcher. We’re not getting co-operation with the police. Mr Callaghan and his colleagues, do they realise what is happening all the time to our people?’
Working as a doctor in the area, Widgery observed countless examples of petty racism – an elderly Asian porter sacked for looking ill, a Bangladeshi woman sectioned in the seventh month of pregnancy, a white trade unionist driven to insomnia by window bashing, after he defended his Asian neighbour. For Widgery, the death of Altab Ali threw ‘into harsh relief the general level of racial violence in the East End, the indifference of the police and the prejudices of the non-Asians’.
On 11 June, following a series of tabloid stories announcing that the GLC planned to move Bengalis to housing ‘ghettos’ in east London, some 200 National Front supporters went on the rampage, attacking people and shops along Brick Lane. The following Sunday, 4,000 anti-racists marched again through the East End. John S was then a college lecturer in south London. They were the first demonstrations on which he had seen so many Sikhs: ‘It was so different from the meek image of law-abiding Asians.’ Tassaduq Ahmed, an educational worker in the East End, also commented on the growing self-organization among young Bengalis living around Brick Lane:
“The bare facts of assaults and killing of Asians in the East End by the National Front’s bully boys are known; what is not being sufficiently stressed is the strong multi-racial response that these acts have evoked, in particular among the Bengali youth, who have joined enthusiastically with their white friends in combating a menace which in its ultimate form will spell the death knell of a democratic Britain.”
On 7 July, David Lane, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, paid his first visit to Brick Lane, receiving considerable publicity. A series of demonstrations in August culminated in a 5,000-strong march to remove the National Front presence permanently from the area. White and Asian activists worked together to occupy the street each Saturday and guard it from the NF. Jerry Fizpatrick’s memories of this time are vivid:
“Brick Lane was a serious example of how the Front were providing their supporters with a public focus, to organize racist attacks, and as a rallying point for their members. We tried to respond. I remember waking up every Sunday morning, getting ready to go down to Brick Lane. It was skirmishing on skirmishing. But the fact that we were protesting against the Nazis, I know that gave confidence to the Bangladeshi youth. They became more cohesive, you could see it.”
The Manchester carnival took place on 15 July 1978. The following day saw a giant protest of black, white and Asian people, demonstrating against the Nazi Front, who had previously been able to sell their newspaper on London’s Brick Lane. Socialist Worker spoke of ‘a barrier of men and women against the Nazis who peddle their poison in the street market every week’. The same weekend saw the ANL carnival in Cardiff, and a large Anti-Nazi contingent at the Durham Miners’ Gala.
A second national Rock Against Racism carnival took place in Brockwell Park on 24 September 1978, with Sham 69 headlining. ‘The second carnival’, Paul Holborow explains, ‘was booked for when we thought would be slap bang in the middle of the election.’ Alongside Sham 69, other bands, including Crisis, Charge, Eclipse, Inganda, RAS, the Derelicts, the Enchanters, the Members, the Ruts and the Straights, played from floats along the course of the march. It was a huge event, even larger than the first carnival, with 100,000 involved. Joe Garman, chair of NORMANCAR, the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism, described the day in vivid terms:
“The music blared, slogans were shouted, some old some new. I liked ‘One, two, three and a bit, the National Front is a load of shit.’ The ‘Queen’ waved to us, all dressed up as she sat on the throne perched on the top of a bay window. There were lots of kids, some in pushchairs, some perched on dad’s shoulders. There was a Notts collier in pit clothes, his enemy was the National Front even tho’ his ‘blackness’ washed off.”
At the end of the march from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park, Garman described his aching feet – ‘yet another reason for hating the Nazis’.
For many of those who took part, this carnival was every bit as exciting and jubilant as the first. But the success of events in Brockwell Park was partly clouded by news of a National Front mobilization in east London. This was the story that captured the interest of the press.
Called only after the carnival had been publicly announced, the National Front march was simply intended to embarrass the organizers of the anti-fascist event. Within the Socialist Workers’ Party, people were warning Paul Holborow and others to make sure that the NF was prevented from marching. ‘For weeks before,’ Andy recalls, ‘lots of us were trying to make sure that Brick Lane was covered. The ANL wanted to keep an eye on just one thing, the carnival. They didn’t think we could spare people, but we could.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick disagrees:
“I felt that the success of the march depended on us going through Brixton. That was more important than any stunt the NF pulled. Even if we had sent more numbers to Brick Lane, it couldn’t have been enough. The police always had it covered. The Front were contained. We were always going to be contained, which is in fact what happened. We had to keep our eyes on the prize, on the carnival.”
Some on the left insisted that the entire carnival should be called off, and that the vast numbers of people present should be sent instead to chase the 250 fascists marching through the East End. Members of the Spartacist League told carnival-goers that they were ‘SCABBING on the struggle’. Although there would not have been any point in sending the whole crowd against a small National Front march, certain numbers did need to be sent. The leadership of the Anti-Nazi League were caught in a dilemma. How would they know that enough people had been sent? And what could be done if the numbers were too low? On the day, confusion grew, and Paul Holborow, the national organiser of the ANL, admits that the leadership simply failed to send enough people to stop the NF demo. ‘We collectively bungled it.’
Two hundred and fifty National Front marchers assembled in the East End. According to Steve Tilzley, ‘The National Front marched practically unopposed through the East End and held a rally in Curtain Road, off Great Eastern Street. There had been a small, token anti-racist presence in the area to protest against their presence but they were heavily outnumbered by the Nazis and the police.’
Tilzley’s memories were written up more than 20 years later, as part of a longer critique of the Anti-Nazi League, and so should be read with a certain caution. A counter-demonstration did in fact take place and involved several hundred people, but it arrived late and failed to disperse the National Front group. Mike from Preston was at Brick Lane and remembers ‘the sectarian left’ criticizing the League, while themselves ‘refusing to actually organize physically against the very young NF kids’.
David L’s memories are Pythonesque:
There had been demos before along Brick Lane, and lots of people came out when the NF were leafleting there. But this time it was much smaller. What I remember . . . was bizarre. The RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] were out in force. But in all, the left was outnumbered roughly two to one. What I remember is the RCP starting a chant of ‘Police protect the Nazis’. Generally, that’s my analysis. But this time, the police were protecting us!
Dick was sent from Brixton to support the anti-racists isolated in east London. It took him hours to reach Brick Lane, and by then it was too late. ‘Yes we did mess up. I remember quite a lot of bitterness being addressed to people who had been at the carnival.’
The organizers of the carnival did not have enough forces in the East End; nor had they established good enough communication links to keep fully abreast of a changing situation. There were no mobile phones to enable people to exchange news quickly. According to Dave Widgery, ‘The transport logistics were not worked out and the anti-fascists who did attempt to block off the Front in Brick Lane were demoralised and easily pushed about by the belligerent police pressure. The Front were harassed but not stopped and by the time reinforcements had arrived by Victoria line from Brixton, the National Front had dispersed.’
According to Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office, ‘The main people we were relating to were people who were willing to put themselves on the line, to defend meetings, to defend marches. The carnival showed that we could relate to much wider groups of young people, ones who wouldn’t show themselves in the same way.’ While it might have been possible to divert some of the organizers to Brick Lane, he argues, the ANL’s mass audience was not malleable in the same way. Tony Cliff took a full page of Socialist Worker to apologize for his party’s handling of events at Brick Lane.
“Under the threat of mobilising thousands of anti-fascists into Brick Lane, Commander Hunt of Scotland Yard announced on Friday that the NF would not be allowed East of Shoreditch High Street into the Brick Lane area. This statement led to a complacency among the mass of ANL supporters. There was too a terrible failure of communication. Three thousand ANL supporters did come from Brockwell Park to Brick Lane . . . they arrived far too late. At 6 o’clock or so. But the 2000 anti-racists who held Brick Lane throughout the day – an extremely arduous and frustrating task – all anti-fascists owe a tremendous debt. Thanks to them a mass anti-fascist movement has been kept intact. Thanks to them the Carnival was able to go on.”
Back in Victoria Park, the music continued. Red Saunders was the compère again. He had swapped his cape from Carnival One for a ‘much more thought out’ uniform: ‘Yellow boiler suit covered in RAR stencilled slogans with a huge stove pipe hat with the Love Music, Hate Racism slogan all over it. Plus shades, of course.’ Sham 69 had been rattled by a series of death threats, and Jimmy Pursey took the stage to explain that his band could not play. Instead Stiff Little Fingers opened the set. We can quote Dave Widgery again:
“When Jake Burns took off his specs and donned his leathers he transmogrified himself into one of the most stinging vocalists and fiery guitarists punk ever possessed. The Stiffs’ incendiary songs bought in the Irish dimension so important to any movement against racism in Britain, even though Burns denounced troops out. But better, they did punk homage to Bob Marley’s classic Johnny Was.”
Bernie was standing by a Rock Against Racism stall when he found a backstage pass that had been left unattended. He sneaked backstage and watched Elvis Costello playing Nick Lowe’s song ‘What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?’ ‘Lowe had tears in his eyes.’ Aswad played into the night.
Labour MP Tony Benn walked with the crowd from Park Lane to Piccadilly: ‘the youngsters were rushing along and pushing ahead – it made me feel like an animal in a herd! By the time we got to Brixton there must have been a hundred thousand people gathered.’
Mark Steel attended the carnival with his friend Jim, who came from Swanley. It was their first march: ‘neither of us had any idea what would happen when we got there. What is a march, we pondered? Do you actually march, in step, with someone yelling at you to get in line?’ For these young punks, the carnival was no disappointment.
“100,000 ambled joyfully from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park in Brixton. All the scenes which would become so laboriously familiar, the hordes of leaflets thrust at you from all angles, the flamboyant but awful drumming costumes, the chanter screaming into a megaphone and becoming increasingly, thankfully hoarse, it all seemed so thrilling. And there was Aswad and Tom Robinson and Elvis Costello, and instead of feeling angry I felt jubilant because now I was doing something. ”
Geoff from Manchester felt a similar sense of elation. At the time of the first carnival, he recalls, it was not clear whether the National Front would be defeated, but ‘the second was a victory march’.