Tag Archives: anti-racism

Southall

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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.’

Whose police?

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.

Blair Peach

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.

Even God has Joined the Anti-Nazi League

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Through 1976 and 1977, a number of attempts were made to form anti-racist alliances. Rock Against Racism was one of many to get started at this time, although even RAR only took off in 1978. The Communist Party had its own All-London Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which played a part at Lewisham. Another coalition was the All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee, set up after the protests at Haringey.

In 1977, Danny was working at the Institute of Race Relations. A former member of the International Socialists, he threw himself head first into the campaign against fascism. Danny remembers this period as one of growing struggles and occasional left-wing collaboration. ‘Seventy-six was quite a turning point. You had Grunwick, the Notting Hill Carnival riots, and Enoch Powell’s speeches. You had the National Front and the National Party demonstrating all over the country. In every area, local anti-racist groups were formed. Sometimes the initiative came from political parties, sometimes informally from local youth groups or meeting halls.’ The first chance for this collaboration to succeed came, Danny argues, in Haringey, with the preparations for the Wood Green protest. ‘We worked together well in Tottenham. People came from all different backgrounds and for a time there was good co-operation.’ Then in May 1977, 23 anti-fascist committees in London came together to form an All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ALARAFCC), which adopted CARF, the paper of the Kingston Campaign against Racism and Fascism, as its bi-monthly journal.[1] Members of the Socialist Workers Party and other left groups took part in this initiative. Danny became the first secretary of the campaign.[2]

As far as Danny was concerned, the immediate task was to build a national movement.

“We tried to organize a big conference at Middlesex Poly. Loads of people came, but somehow it didn’t gel. Perhaps we were too liberal. We allowed resolutions from all over. There were so many motions, compositing, it felt like student politics. There were lots of different elements represented, old Communist Party, trades council types, women’s groups, and the gay movement, which was very hostile to the left. Everyone was trying to come together, but the movement was too disparate. We needed to have a healthier pulling together before that could happen.”

So why did the conference fail? Even now, Danny is unsure what went wrong. ‘We were trying to organize from the bottom up. We were local groups with scant resources.’

If ALARAFCC and CARF failed to create a single, unified campaign, then this failure was not apparent at the time. Instead, it only became evident with the rise of the Anti-Nazi League, the one organization that did establish a national profile in the campaign against the National Front.

From protests to organization

‘After Lewisham’, recalls Roger Huddle, ‘it was obvious that an organization as small as the SWP was incapable of stemming the tide. So we set up a united organization, which anyone could join. It had a single demand. The Anti-Nazi League mobilized tens of thousands of people, Rock Against Racism could mobilize thousands of young people on one issue alone – stopping the Nazis, that’s what it was all about.’

The idea of another, bigger anti-fascist alliance had first been mooted a fortnight before Lewisham in the Stoke Newington back garden of Jim Nichol, then the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party and later a successful campaigning lawyer. Events at Lewisham clearly gave the discussions a new urgency. Nichol carefully sounded out a range of activists and politicians in order to gauge the potential of this new movement. Dave Widgery takes up the story:

“Nichol went first to the late Douglas Tilbey, Quaker Labour Party member, magistrate and OBE, ‘a really nice guy, very principled on the question of race and always had a bit time for the SWP’. Tilbey thought it was an excellent idea. Then Nichol put the scheme to Tassaduq Ahmed, a middle-of-the-road Bangladeshi who had been in Britain since 1963 . . . Tassaduq relayed to him the concern he also felt about the number of factions that existed within the black communities. The next barometer was Michael Seifert, the lawyer and Communist Party member, because of his links with trade-union bureaucracy people like Ken Gill, George Guy and Alan Sapper – whose blessing was also going to prove essential. Nichol recalls, ‘I said, “Mike, this is only really going to work if it gets the support of the CP and the left TU leaders. What do you think?” Mike said, “I think it’s a bloody great idea. But I’m sorry, the CP won’t, they’ll crucify you. So I’ll not mention it to anyone.””[3]

But Nichol was determined that the alliance should be established. And as the anti-Lewisham hysteria subsided in the press, so the conviction grew among all parts of the left that further confrontations were required.

Paul Holborow, recently the Socialist Workers’ Party’s district organizer in east London, and described by Dave Widgery as combining ‘the Charterhouse air of clipped command with the concern for accuracy of an artillery officer’,[4] approached two members of the Labour Party, Ernie Roberts, the trade unionist, and Peter Hain,[5] the anti-apartheid activist, in order to establish a leadership for the new movement. Hain originally declined, pleading time and other commitments. But he was soon persuaded. Together, Hain, Roberts and Holborow agreed to launch the Anti-Nazi League. Holborow himself takes up the story:

“The aftermath of Lewisham was the essential catalyst for the formation of the Anti-Nazi League. Lewisham received absolutely saturation coverage. It was the silly season, and there wasn’t anything else to put in the papers. Michael Foot was the Deputy Prime Minister and he condemned us. There was blanket publicity, plus our strategy of uniting the left and the anti-racist organizations. Imagine the SWP National Office. The phone never stops ringing with people saying, ‘I want nothing to do with the SWP, but you’re completely right to be taking on the Nazis.’”

“Jim was not just National Secretary of the SWP; he was also manager of the Socialist Worker print shop. He knew people with whom we had printing contracts, who were sympathetic, but who didn’t want to give money to the Socialist Workers’ Party. Jim put the scheme to me, and suggested that Nigel Harris and I should be central to it. Jim also coined the name, Anti-Nazi League; it played on the traditions of the labour movement.”

Peter Hain was another key figure. ‘He had an excellent reputation for fighting apartheid’, Paul Holborow recalls,

“and was a bridge to the left Labour milieu. Peter brought a vital dimension; he opened up doors to the Labour Party. He also brought experience of running a press campaign – which we didn’t have at all. He had excellent antennae. He and I got on extremely well. He taught me the importance of making your formulations exact. He and I drew up the founding statement.”

In 1977 Peter Hain was a trade unionist and anti-racist in his late twenties. He had first arrived in Britain some 11 years earlier, as a young exile from apartheid South Africa. As a student, he became one of the best-known activists in the Stop the Seventy campaign against the touring South African rugby side. He was also for several years a leader of the Young Liberals. In September 1976, he had begun working as a research officer for the postal workers’ union (today the CWU). A year later, he had joined Labour, and it was in the days immediately following that Hain was invited to join the Anti-Nazi League. ‘If I hadn’t joined the Labour Party,’ he reflects, ‘I doubt I would have been approached. The labour movement was key to the strategy of the League.’

“My view was that we had a big problem. With the decline of the Labour government, the National Front were pushing the Liberals into fourth place. There was a lot of concern about racist violence. For some working-class youth, the skinheads, the National Front were becoming fashionable. We had to go into places that no party could reach. If the Anti-Nazi League hadn’t been launched, the National Front could have made real advances among youth in particular.”

After Peter Hain, Paul Holborow’s next contact was Ernie Roberts.

“I met Ernie at Centrepoint in Hackney. He had been assistant general secretary of the engineering workers’ union for 30 years. He had always been interested in the political dimension of building the rank and file. He had cut his teeth in the Coventry tool-room disputes of the 1940s. He had an immense following on the left. For years, he had been editing Engineering Voice, which functioned as the broad left in the industry. He was never in the Communist Party, and never identified with the Soviet Union, but worked closely with the Communists. He took the statement to the Labour Party conference in 1977, and signed up 40 Labour MPs and many trade union leaders. That was our arrival.”

Many left-wing Labour MPs signed up to the League, as did well-known anti-fascists such as Maurice Ludmer, the editor of Searchlight, who later joined the League’s national steering committee.

A launch meeting was held in November 1977, at the House of Commons, with various sponsors. An ad hoc steering committee was elected, and the three executive positions of organiser, press officer and treasurer were taken by Holborow, Hain and Roberts. Of these, Holborow was the only full-time salaried official with the Rowntree Trust pledging £600 a quarter until the general election.[6] Jerry Fitzpatrick, who became national secretary, comments that ‘Paul Holborow was a very cool organizer. He could be very inspirational and politically courageous. He did come from a public school background, and had a manner that could be austere. He followed the party line closely but was prepared to be flexible.’ Paul didn’t follow music like the RAR people, but he had the modesty to bring in others when required. ‘He really was a good leader. He was the nuts and bolts of the Anti-Nazi League.’

Other members of the committee included four MPs, Martin Flannery, Dennis Skinner, Audrey Wise and Neil Kinnock, former Young Liberal Simon Hebditch and Maurice Ludmer of Searchlight, as well as Nigel Harris of the Socialist Workers Party and the actress Miriam Karlin, who had made her name playing working-class Jewish women in sitcoms.[7] A seat was also reserved in case the Communist Party decided to join.[8] Peter Hain describes the different individuals involved:

“I had lots of contacts with local Labour parties. Ernie Roberts was linked to the traditional labour movement. He was close to the Communist Party, that tradition in the labour movement. Neil Kinnock had a very non-sectarian approach – he didn’t want to spend ages debating racism. He wanted the movement to work. Dennis and Martin brought the Tribunite MPs. Audrey completely threw herself into the movement. Miriam was very important in the Jewish community. She was completely frustrated by the sectarianism – you don’t just see it in the left parties, it was there in the Labour Party, in the Jewish community.”

Peter Hain explains how the committee began as a small group with common purpose.

“We didn’t start off by calling a conference. We would have just paralysed ourselves with argument. Debate is important in its own right, but not when it stops you from acting. We had to get together a group of people who were politically sussed. You build support from there. We wanted to get away from that sectarianism, when people only defend their own position. We made the focus action.”

Holborow agrees:

“It was a very hands-off steering committee, more a point of reference than a decision-making body. The key decisions were taken in face-to-face meetings with myself and Peter and Ernie. I always took great care to make sure that Peter ratified everything I wanted to get done. I think he found it quite exciting, in contrast to the anti-apartheid movement, which was now slow and cumbersome and unimaginative.”

Mike was a member of the 7/84 theatre group, and often unemployed. Shortly after the launch of the Anti-Nazi League, he was invited to work in its office with Paul Holborow. ‘I was largely responsible for distributing leaflets. Soon we were having so many calls for leaflets that it became a kind of despatch room, packing leaflets, tying them together with string. There were just three of us in the office.’ What was it like, working there? ‘Paul was very easy to work with, very clear in what he was doing, giving roles, but you could always talk to him.’

Roger Huddle argues that Holborow’s great strength was a grasp of spectacle.

“Paul had a fantastic ability to organize. I remember one time, we were in Walthamstow, it must have been ’77 or ’78. The NF called a demonstration against the local mosque. Paul got us all there, with banners, strung out in a great long line. He went into the mosque, and persuaded them not to be afraid, but to turn out too. It was a long line, very long. As the NF turned round a corner, marching towards us, suddenly they realized how many of us there were. They just turned and ran.”

Paul Holborow recalls with gratitude the work done by the Anti-Nazi League’s two full-time office workers, Joan and Mike. ‘I must have been hell to work with. I did no administration ever. I used to bark orders at Joan, write this letter, do this, do that. It was so completely helter-skelter; there was just no time in the office. Joan was absolutely brilliant, and Mike as well. They in turn organized large teams of volunteers.’

Nigel Harris was research director for the League. An academic and journalist, he attempted to persuade the well-known faces of the left to join the campaign. Some of those he approached were supportive, while others were hostile. It was hard to predict who would go which way. Among other targets, Harris wrote to Edward Thompson and John Saville, the two former-Communist historians who had launched the first New Left in 1950s Britain. ‘Thompson wrote back saying, “This whole thing is a front for the Socialist Workers’ Party, and you must think I’m an idiot to ask me.” Saville wrote back, “Of course it’s a front, but it’s a good cause, and its alright by me.”’ The greatest hostility that Harris remembers came from the chair of the Jewish Board of Deputies.

“I went to see him, to talk him round. He was a hard nut. He kept on coming back to the point that the SWP did not support the state of Israel. I said that Israel was not going to be an issue for the ANL. He told me, ‘We are as likely to support the National Front as the Anti-Nazi League.’”

Nigel Harris recalls his colleagues vividly. ‘Kinnock was a left shadow rider.[9] Hain had just come from the Liberals on a very militant campaign against apartheid. Roberts was part of the old order and would back anything.’ But what was the glue holding together this diverse set of personalities? The crisis of the times clearly impelled people to work together. But Harris goes further, singling out the role played by Paul Holborow for special praise. ‘Paul was very presentable, smooth, charming, very good at relating to different occasions. I don’t remember any great divisions. Paul was a great operator, good at talking to people before meetings and securing consensus. There was never any embarrassment; the worst it ever got was the threat of embarrassment.’

The launch of the Anti-Nazi League was recorded in the Guardian newspaper. Neil Kinnock was interviewed, saying that it was no longer true that the National Front would go away if it was ignored, ‘The popular belief that their support would dwindle is not true, and the silence of democrats can only help it. We have to give up our silence.’ Peter Hain stressed that the League would be broad-based, recruiting from all sides of the political spectrum. ‘We hope to extinguish their potential. I don’t think banning them is the whole answer. Hitler was banned. Our major aim is to make the public aware of their Nazi credentials.’[10]

Many existing anti-racist activists felt wary of the new campaign. Danny of Haringey CARF was wary of SWP involvement in the new campaign. ‘You’ve got to remember that lots of lefties were already alienated, not just politicos but black activists and gay activists in the movement.’ David L had been a member of the International Marxist Group for about five years. By 1977, he was mainly active in Islington Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. He felt protective towards the campaigning links that his group had already established, and was (like many of his friends) very suspicious of the new movement.

“It took me by surprise. At the time of Lewisham, the Anti-Nazi League hadn’t been formed. It was only set up soon afterwards. I didn’t know it was going to happen. I realize now that the SWP had played an important role at Lewisham, but that wasn’t at all clear at the time. Other groups took part in Lewisham, women, lesbian and gay organizations. Then suddenly there was the Anti-Nazi League. I think we were a bit fed up, really. There was a lot of rivalry between the different groups. Some of it was a bit silly. Islington Anti-Nazi League broke up fascist paper sales at Chapel Street market, but we in Islington CARF didn’t really get involved. There were lots of people who should have been working together. But there was too much suspicion.”

The magazine CARF was guarded in its welcome of the new movement.

“There have been certain fears expressed by local anti-fascist campaigns that such a large national body might swamp local activity and initiative. But since the Anti-Nazi League is specifically geared towards fighting fascism at elections and will most probably dissolve after the next general election, the aims of local campaigns seem to complement rather than compete with the aims of the Anti-Nazi League . . . Campaigns can in fact take this opportunity to make full use of the propaganda available from the Anti-Nazi League. It is after all the local campaigns which will have to stand the test of time.”[11]

Nigel Harris insists that groups like the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism had nothing to fear from the League.

“There were always tensions with the anti-racists. They could feel a bit like the dog in the manger, slogging away for years, horrified as the new flashy car of the Anti-Nazi League took over. They thought we were taking away their audience, but the reality is that the League brought new people in. Long after the Anti-Nazi League was wound down, their campaigns would continue.”

In autumn 1977, it was by no means clear that the ANL would overcome the sectarianism that had long shaped the British left. If that happened, and this book suggests that it did, the change only became clear later, once the new movement had been fully established on the ground.

Designing the movement

Although the Anti-Nazi League was founded on the initiative of members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, it received the support of around 40 Labour MPs and sections of the broader left. Prominent members included Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group and Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers, as well as Hain, Roberts and Kinnock. The League’s founding statement was sent to the press in November 1977.

“For the first time since Mosley in the thirties there is the worrying prospect of a Nazi party gaining significant support in Britain . . . The leaders, philosophy, and origins of the National Front and similar organisations followed directly from the Nazis in Germany . . . They must not go unopposed. Ordinary voters must be made aware of the threat that lies behind the National Front. In every town, in every factory, in every school, on every housing estate, wherever the Nazis attempt to organise they must be countered.”[12]

Bernie was then a young activist in the Socialist Workers’ Party. Having cut his teeth on the Right to Work marches in Manchester, he wondered what this new movement would be like. ‘The Anti-Nazi League all kicked off with a signed ad in The Times. It looked so boring, just MPs and worthies signing up. But from that, it mushroomed. Within a few months, everywhere you went people had the badges on, the Anti-Nazi League became part of the fashion, everyone I knew got involved.’

The organizers of the Anti-Nazi League wanted to sign up as wide a range of people as possible, to show that a majority of people actively despised the National Front. Crystal Palace manager Terry Venables signed up, with Nottingham Forest’s manager Brian Clough, actors Arnold Wesker and Keith Waterhouse, and several hundred trade unionists, community activists, musicians and other celebrities. Warren Mitchell, who played the bigot Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, joined in, as did Compo from BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine. Dozens of local Anti-Nazi League groups were set up, including ‘Vegetarians and Football Fans Against the Nazis’. Patrons of a pub in Rusholme, Manchester, even set up their own group, ‘The Albert Against the Nazis’, with a badge and banner. Badges also proclaimed ‘Aardvarks Against the Nazis’, ‘Skateboarders Against the Nazis’ and so on. This was a remarkably diverse movement, which attempted to undermine NF support in all spheres of life.

One of the tasks was to come up with a visual language that would mark this movement off from the routine tradition of left-wing protests, and show it to the world as something new. Dave King drew up the blueprints for many of the Anti-Nazi League leaflets and stickers. A graphic designer who worked for the Sunday Times, he was also a long-standing, independent activist on the left and a collector of Soviet-era photographs and images. It was Laurie Flynn, editor of Socialist Worker, who suggested King. Paul Holborow emphasises King’s contribution:

“Another crucial part of the movement was the quality of the propaganda. Dave King was the editor of the Sunday Times colour supplement, and an extraordinary designer. He taught us about over-printing in different layers, to give a real depth to the colour. I was always dropping in to his house to see how the latest leaflet was being developed.”

King designed a number of posters with a deliberate montage effect, modelled on the style of John Heartfield, the anti-Nazi artist. He also designed the Anti-Nazi League arrow, which was also based on the historic symbols of German anti-fascism. The earlier image had been three arrows, a symbol invented in 1932 by Sergej Tschachotin and Carlo Mierendorff to link the struggles against capitalism, fascism and reaction. The German anti-fascist Iron Front, an alliance between SPD, free trade unions and the SPD’s Reichsbanner, employed the image. Austrian Social Democrats also used it before 1934.[13] The Anti-Nazi League designers took the older symbol of the three separate arrows and abbreviated it, producing the new symbol of one arrow with three quills.

King’s other innovation was the Anti-Nazi League yellow ‘lollipop’, unveiled at the first Rock Against Racism carnival in summer 1978. King saw these placards as a deliberate attempt to get away from the traditional black-and-white A2 rectangles carried by the left. Different stories explain the image. Some thought King wanted to copy old CND symbols; others that the idea went as far back as Russia in the 1920s. Whatever their origin, the lollipops helped to give a visual sense of the League’s novelty.

Where did the ANL’s name come from? Paul Holborow credits Jim Nichol with the inspiration for the title. The idea was to remind working-class people of the reality behind the NF. According to Roger Huddle, ‘It was necessary to remind people of the history in Germany. No one had said that they were Nazis till we did. If it had been called the Anti-Fascist League, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.’ To call the NF Nazis was to point to genocide as the goal of their movement.

Elections

Although the National Front was never simply an electoral party, there was a sense in which elections acted as the main barometer of its growth. The Anti-Nazi League was forced to respond, covering local areas with leaflets warning of the NF threat. The first test came in November 1977, with the by-election at Bournemouth East. Paul Holborow takes up the story: ‘The president of the students’ union at Bournemouth College of Education was brilliant; he turned out significant numbers. Two east London businesses donated paper to the campaign: it showed up by the lorry-load. Alexis Grower and Michael Seifert organized meetings of Jewish groups. We produced 50,000 leaflets. The Nazis’ vote was derisory.’ Kenneth McKilliam of the NF secured just 725 votes.

Another test came during the by-election at Ilford in spring 1978. According to Holborow,

“The Nazis were going to march, but they were banned. We were banned from counter-marching. This was a big test for us, and for Peter Hain. Traditionally, the Socialist Workers Party would have defied the ban. This time, we accepted it. But we took 2,000 people and leafleted the entire constituency. Peter was with me the entire afternoon. A steward with maps had responsibility for each ward. He was very impressed by our capacity to mobilize people, and also by our discipline. By then, the ball was rolling.”

The Anti-Nazi League was now up and running, but the National Front was far from defeated: its candidate won over 2,000 votes.

Exposure

Anti-Nazi League leaflets and stickers consistently exposed the fascist politics of the National Front. The strategy of the ANL was to focus on the most extreme expressions of racism, in order to demonstrate that racism of all sorts was wrong. Dennis Potter’s play, Brimstone and Treacle (1978), explains this method in a dramatized form. A suburban family, Mr and Mrs Bates, are visited by a stranger, Martin. Mr Bates dwells longingly on the England he used to know, and admits his membership of the NF. Martin responds by suggesting, and it seems innocently at first, that blacks should be placed in special camps. Mrs Bates says ‘like Butlins’. Then Martin continues,

“Camps. Any camps for the time being. Oh think of it! . . . Hundreds of thousands. Millions. Rounded up from their stinking slums and overcrowded ghettos. Driven into big holding camps, men, women, picconinnies . . . You’ll see England like it used to be again, clean and white. They won’t want to go . . . They’ll fight, so we shall have to shoot them and CS gas them and smash down their doors . . . Think of all the hate we’ll feel when they start killing us back. Think of all the violence! Think of the de-gra-dat-ion and in the end, in the end, the riots and the shooting and the black corpses and the swastikas, and the . . .”

Bates begs him to stop, promising to leave the NF. Uncomfortable, confronted by the end results of racism, he is compelled to rethink what he believes.[14] This is how the Anti-Nazi League tried to work.

When it came to exposing the leaders of the National Front, the support of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight was invaluable. Its editor, Maurice Ludmer, had been seconded to the War Graves Commission and visited Belsen concentration camp in 1946. According to one report,

“It was a year after the liberation, the place had been cleaned up, but there was still more than enough evidence of the unbelievable atrocities that had happened there, in the heart of Europe, in the middle of the twentieth century. And there and then, the young soldier pledged himself, wholeheartedly and irrevocably, to seeing that this could never happen again.”

Maurice was a founding member of the Anti-Nazi League, along with another Searchlight stalwart, the journalist Gerry Gable.[15]

Searchlight archives held an enormous quantity of material on the leaders of the National Front, going back to the 1950s and 1960s when many had been members of openly Nazi parties. John Tyndall was shown on leaflets wearing a Nazi uniform and swastika. Tyndall and Martin Webster were exposed through the words they had used. Martin Webster’s article, ‘Why I am a Nazi’ was used against him. ‘Mein Kampf is my doctrine’, Tyndall had said, and he was reminded of it. Other ANL articles described the history of Nazi Germany and what life was like there for women or for Jews. The point of these articles was not simply to dig up the history of the 1930s, but much more to demonstrate what the NF stood for in Britain, 40 years on.[16] Yet ANL activists did not assume that exposing the supporters of the NF as fascists would be enough to ensure that movement’s decline. As Malcolm Cottram, an experienced anti-fascist from Sheffield, pointed out, many members of the NF were comfortable with the tag ‘Nazi’, and it took more than that to discredit their politics. ‘Yelling “Nazi scum” and “Sieg Heil” may bring home to passers-by that the NF have affinities with Hitler and are therefore nasty, but this doesn’t deter the Front – it only hardens them.’[17]

Having exposed the fascist pedigree of the National Front, Anti-Nazi League leaflets went on to show that the NF’s ‘solutions’ were lies. Typically, they argued that black people were not the cause of unemployment, bad housing and crime, but the victims of them. ‘It is not black people who caused 300,000 building workers and 8,000 architects to be unemployed.’ The crimes of the system were blamed on capitalism, and a message of class unity was argued in place of racial division.[18]

Students Against the Nazis

As the Anti-Nazi League grew, it quickly developed spin-off campaigns, involving particular groups of people depending on where they lived or worked. An impressive list of student unions affiliated to the Anti-Nazi League. They included Bedford College, Bradford University, Bristol University, Ealing College of Higher Education, Edge Hill College, Essex University, Exeter University, Liverpool Polytechnic, Loughborough University, Manchester Polytechnic, Newman College, St Peter’s College in Oxford, Central London Polytechnic, the Polytechnic of Wales, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Surrey, Sussex University and Teesside Poly. Twelve national student societies also affiliated, including the Union of Liberal Students, the Union of Jewish Students, the National Organization of Labour Students and the Federation of Conservative Students. The FCS endorsement was unwelcome. Most Anti-Nazi League activists judged that the racism of the National Front found its echo in the policies of the Conservatives in Parliament. The Federation was never denied membership, but when its subscription came up for renewal, the FCS was encouraged not to reapply.

How did student activists build a base for the League in their colleges? Chris and Simon, members of the Socialist Workers Party at Bristol University, helped to set up an Anti-Nazi League group there. First they contacted the Anti-Nazi League national office and ordered enough badges and posters to distribute. They organized stalls and raised the campaign in student union meetings. Then a proper founding meeting was called, at which a team was elected to co-ordinate the League’s activity between larger meetings. ‘From the beginning, we emphasized the activity orientation of the ANL. From the first meeting we elected a small co-ordinating committee, a non-decision-making body. We distributed 4,000 leaflets around the university and involved large numbers of people in this. We contacted lecturers in several departments and got their financial support for the ANL nationally.’ One of the important jobs done was to help set up the Anti-Nazi League at other colleges by taking displays and propaganda to them and talking to other students. ‘We have contacted two Tech colleges so far in this way. We have also arranged to give 500 ANL school student leaflets to [the National Union of School Students] in Bristol and to work with them . . . The ANL sent a coach to counter the Nazi Youth rally at Birmingham, and has mobilized a militant picket against the racist Monday Club MP, Jonathan Guinness.’

David R was a member of Leeds Students Union: ‘I worked on the ANL stall which we put on frequently in the Union building. Our main job was to sell badges and promote the ANL literature. Students were generally very receptive.’ Students from Leeds University also took part in leafleting the football ground and the town centre.

Einde was on the executive of the City University Union Society. ‘We won affiliation of CUUS to the ANL right from the beginning, despite opposition from some of the Broad Left members of the executive and some leading members of the Jewish Society – they weren’t happy about the SWP’s anti-Zionist position.’ Most students were friendly to the Anti-Nazi League, Einde recalls. Indeed, without an atmosphere that was generally supportive, they would not have won affiliation from the City University students’ union. ‘It was a predominantly a technological university with a large number of traditionally apolitical engineers and scientists and a much smaller number of social scientists who tended to be more progressive. There was little overt hostility, except from the real right-wing Tories, who were died-in-the wool racists anyway.’

John helped to organize the Manchester carnival from offices in the students’ union. Although not a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, he was a supporter of its student group, NOISS. ‘At one meeting of the Poly branch of the ANL, members of the International Marxist Group showed up, to argue about tactics.’ The IMG members were guardedly critical of the Anti-Nazi League, arguing that as much energy should be devoted to fighting all forms of racism, not just fascism. ‘The debate was had. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It was important to understand why the Anti-Nazi League and not something broader. There is a need to oppose all forms of racism, but when the far-right are organizing you must do something about that.’ What convinced him that the IMG was wrong? ‘I was at a meeting, which was attacked by the NF.’ Having seen the National Front at close hand, John was persuaded that the left needed to defend its own spaces, and the only way to do that was by confronting the NF head on.
Football Fans Against the Nazis

As the Anti-Nazi League grew, it quickly developed spin-off campaigns, involving particular groups of people depending on where they lived or worked. The National Front had long been targeting football supporters. John Berry of the magazine Leveller describes attending Spurs games at White Hart Lane. Berry described hearing chants of ‘TIN-DALL . . . TIN-DALL’ – ‘a regular feature on Saturday afternoons.’ Berry interviewed ‘Martin’, an openly identified NF supporter on the terraces:

“Martin H is twenty-one. Half of that time has been spent in children’s homes, detention centres, community school and Borstal. His parents are divorced. He never went to school except when he was in care and barely able to read. Most of the time he reads war comics in which gigantic and heroic British army sergeants single-handedly decimate battalions of Huns to whom they frequently refer as ‘Nazi scum’. Martin wasn’t recruited at a football match. He joined the NF about 18 months ago with ‘a friend’ but admits to persuading several mates to join at matches and that is something which is generally encouraged. In his own words Martin joined because ‘the Front stands up for English people. The socialists want more niggers and Pakis here because they vote for them. We kick the fuck out of the wogs. The reds are always stirring up trouble. Someone’s got to stop them.”[19]

Tottenham Hotspur was not a major NF base. Far from it: the club had its heartlands in south Tottenham, which included Jewish areas like Stamford Hill. Spurs fans termed themselves ‘Yids’ or ‘Yiddos’. The club became the launching pad for an anti-fascist campaign.

The original Football Fans Against the Nazis group was set up in Tottenham, on the initiative of John Deason, a member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee, a Spurs fan and secretary of the Right to Work campaign. The first Spurs Against the Nazis leafleting took place on the High Street in Tottenham, and only later outside the Spurs ground. The first time they went, many activists were nervous. Richard was a young architect and Spurs fan. He remembers the fighting that took place, the second time the group put out a leaflet: ‘There was a group of National Front supporters leafleting outside the ground as well, and there were a lot more of them, than there were of us. We had all these old Jewish men walk up to us, and say “You’re doing a really good job, lads”, and then walk off.’ It was worrying until ‘we saw a crowd of about fifty teenagers, quite young, they were running towards us. We were really scared. But they ran right past us, charged into the National Front lot, and kicked them off their pitch. After that, it was fine.’[20]

The leafleting was a great success. Sixty people attended the first public meeting. The editor of the Hornsey Journal was the father of Kim Gordon from Lewisham, and he gave the group publicity, especially when Spurs’ directors attempted to sue the group for breach of copyright, for using the Spurs’ logo in its leaflets. Spurs Against the Nazis also celebrated the arrival of Oswaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, as a victory against immigration controls, ‘Ardiles and Villa – You’re Welcome Here’. The group also organized a five-a-side football competition, in October 1978, which involved some 44 teams, including one from the band Aswad, and which was won by a group of workers from Tottenham bus garage, while Peter Cook and Bill Oddie were referees.[21]

Football Fans Against the Nazis (FFAN) was established out of the success at Spurs. Around 15 local groups were set up, including groups of fans at West Bromwich Albion, Swansea, Oxford, Barnsley, Coventry, Everton, Manchester United, Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday, Norwich and Arsenal. Simon of Owls against the Nazis described the work of the group in Sheffield:

“There was good reason to launch the campaign at Wednesday. Racist chanting was becoming common, and an NF slogan painted up right next to the players’ entrance had remained untouched for nearly a season. Meanwhile [pro-National Front] badge sellers outside the ground were doing a roaring trade in a badge saying ‘Sabella is a Paki’ (Sabella is the Argentinean whizz-kid signed recently by rival Sheffield United). Ninth December was the first leafleting, and despite a shortage of bodies, a group of about a dozen of us got an excellent response from the crowd. People took the leaflets, read them and came back for a badge. 2000 leaflets and 200 badges went on that first Saturday.”

The majority of fans supported Owls Against the Nazis. Indeed, the only problem that Simon could find to report was the attitude of the club itself. Although manager Jack Charlton had publicly backed the Anti-Nazi League, Wednesday refused to let their fans sell anti-racist badges outside the ground. Even the club program contained warnings to leave anti-Nazis alone.

Meanwhile, Leeds Supporters Against the Nazis was established in September 1978, and involved a regular group of between 40 and 100 people in leafleting outside Elland Road, through the winter of 1978–9. The local activities of the different groups were featured in Time Out, Socialist Worker and the Morning Star, whose sports editor Richard Weekes welcomed the Anti-Nazi League as a ‘positive force’ that ‘attempts to unite [fans] against the divisive racists and chauvinists’. In Nottingham, there was no permanent group, but as Bev remembers, ‘signing up Brian Clough and Peter Taylor [to the League] was seen as a terrific coup. I remember SWP comrades being more excited about this than any number of politicians or “serious” public figures who joined.’ Richard from north London suggests that Football Fans Against the Nazis played a part in refocusing the anger felt on many terraces: ‘It helped to turn racist football hooligans into anti-capitalist football hooligans.’ He also stresses that FFAN was part of a wide range of ANL activities: ‘everything was linked. It wasn’t just about football. The Anti-Nazi League had a massive impact on youth culture at the time. Our slogan was “NF = No Fun”, all our activities were based around that.’[22]

After football supporters and young music fans, another important area of anti-Nazi activity was among school and university students. Joe Pearce of the National Front had established an NF youth paper, Bulldog, and the Anti-Nazi League was determined to counter the media claim that young people were turning towards the racists. A group called School Kids Against the Nazis (SKAN) was established. Its paper sold 8,000 copies per issue, and readers’ groups were set up in Sheffield, Enfield, Reading, Canterbury, Brighton and High Wycombe.[23] The magazine published articles, poems and letters, one from Cathy, a 15-year-old former NF supporter from Derby:

“I do not like their violent ways of dealing with people and their rules set down. I wouldn’t like to see everyone in uniform or going into the army upon leaving school. I like people who like to be individuals, in clothes and mind. If everyone followed the NF Nazis we would be like cabbages, doing everything the same as everyone else . . . PS If the NF took Football or Punk away, I’d commit suicide.”[24]

SKAN was closely allied with the National Union of School Students, and prominent members of the NUSS also played a role in SKAN. One was Rehad Desai, a young activist whose father had been a leader of the Pan African Congress in South Africa. Cait from Leeds remembers designing a ‘Dennis the Menace and Gnasher against the Nazis’ badge for the NUSS. The campaign also persuaded him to support his dad’s club Liverpool, rather than his home team. There were ‘too many nasty fascists at Leeds for my eight-year-old brain’. SKAN teams took part in the Spurs Against the Nazis tournament. There was an even larger campaign among university students.
No more normals any more

The strategy of the Anti-Nazi League was to demonstrate the consequences of racism. Although the League was primarily an anti-fascist movement, it did see itself as more than just a defensive process. In demonstrating that the bigotry of the National Front was abhorrent, the ANL hoped to show that all forms of prejudice were wrong. If racism was to be smashed, and all the racists with it, then the fight against fascism would have to be broadened out until it became a fight against the racist institutions of capitalism as well. Dave Widgery made this point in an article, published in the first issue of Temporary Hoarding.

“The problem is not just the new fascists from the old slime, a master race whose idea of heroism is ambushing single blacks in darkened streets. These private attacks whose intention, to cow and to brutalise, won’t work if the community they seek to terrorise instead organises itself. But when the state backs up racialism it’s different. Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with the cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid’s pride is a challenge.”

In the opinion of many Anti-Nazi League activists, immigration controls were a similar problem to the racism of the National Front. In the words of Bob Pennington, ‘there is an inescapable conclusion, once you accept the need for immigration controls, and that boils down to the argument that there would be more jobs, more houses, better schools and better hospitals, if black people did not come to Britain’.[25] Popular racism fed state racism and state racism fed popular racism. Both were wrong. Miriam Karlin, interviewed by Women Against the Nazis, criticized the press and the Conservative Party, as much as the NF. ‘It’s like a dustbin where you know there are maggots. It’s better that people know it’s not acceptable for them to make racist remarks, that they won’t be tolerated. “Bringing it out in the open”, as Margaret Thatcher claims to be doing, really means making racialism respectable.’[26]

Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League publications did not limit themselves to a language of mere anti-fascism, or even mere anti-racism, but went out of their way to protest against all forms of oppression. Some of the range of RAR’s interests can be gathered by looking at its magazine, Temporary Hoarding. A typical issue features an interview with Benji Arambi, an article about homophobia, an interview with Polystyrene of X-Ray Specs, an account of the murder of Steve Biko, three pages of letters, an interview with the Tom Robinson Band and a feature on Wolf Biermann, the dissident East German poet and songwriter. The middle of the Tom Robinson interview was a collage of cinema-reel photographs of gay men holding hands, Windsor Castle, two hands in chains, and a banner proclaiming ‘no return to back street abortions’. Tom Robinson himself was quoted defending the Lewisham march, but also insisting that the greatest threat came from the ‘grey forces of the right’, as he put it, ‘The National Front are evil which is why we do RAR gigs. But they are not the real threat to our liberty. I think the Conservative Party is, the right wing of the Conservative Party.’[27]

Other supporters brought their own concerns into the Anti-Nazi League’s work. Plenty of lesbians and gay men, including Tom Robinson, took part in the anti-racist movement. As well as Gays Against the Nazis, there was also Gays Against Fascism, based around the North London Gay Socialist Group. This group argued that fascism was only one extreme symptom of a violently homophobic society. At least nine gays were murdered in hate attacks between January 1977 and February 1978, and for Gays Against Fascism, the National Front represented simply ‘the most oppressive form of male heterosexual society imaginable’.

Vegetarians against the Nazis launched at the 1978 meeting of the Hunt Saboteurs Association. Within a year it had sold 4,000 badges, and recruited similar numbers of anti-fascists. It could boast the support of the Young Indian Vegetarian Society and the Gay Vegetarian Society. Given space in the Anti-Nazi League’ss first Newsletter, members of the group were proud to advertise their activities. ‘Why not invite VAN to your meetings? We can help you with details of diet or even just good eating-places. Ask us if you want to sabotage a foxhunt. If you are expecting pale faced sandal wearers who wouldn’t say Boo to a Nazi, forget it!’[28]