The historian is me is intrigued by the decisions that confront the organisers of Saturday’s anti-BNP protests in Woolwich and Lewisham. As I see it, they face three areas of difficulty. 1. The BNP’s original route itself involves an assembly and an arrival point which are implausibly far apart (6 miles). I simply don’t believe that the BNP will actually try to march from one to the other, but will probably rely on what even they describe as mobility (cars, etc) to get from borough to borough. 2. Will the BNP keep to its original plans, or will it follow police instructions and reassemble in Whitehall? 3. How far to prioritise stopping the BNP (who have not marched in 30 years, have very few numbers, etc…) over the EDL (who have numbers, and momentum, and who are planning up to 60 events of one sort or another this weekend, including, crucially, events in central London)?
So far, what this weekend reminds me of best (and it was Sue Sparks who suggested the comparison) is events in Hyde in 1977 – when the NF were still on an upward curve:
[The following is not from my book on anti-fascism in the 1970s, but a separate piece I once published for North West Labour History on anti-fascism in the North West in the 1970s]:
“Activists learned in autumn 1977 that the National Front were planning a march through Hyde, a small industrial town a few miles from Manchester, on 8th October. Protests against the National Front march received the backing of the local left-cultural magazine the New Manchester Review. The September issue ran a long editorial criticising the police for using the Public Order Act against a small knot of republicans who had protested against the Queen during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. The editorial then raised the question of the pending National Front demonstration,
“The NF can claim to be merely exercising its right to make a political point. But even in the absence of any counter-demonstration by the Socialist Workers Party, the avowed policies of the NF which include the forcible repatriation of all Black immigrants, can hardly be calculated to stir sympathy among a significant and hitherto peaceful and industrious section of the community. Even Voltaire would have approved of the use of Section 5 here.”
The follow-up issue (which appeared two days before the planned march) went even further in supporting calls for the National Front march to be banned. “It is also worth recalling for the benefit of members of Tameside Council that Mr Webster is interested not so much in free speech as ‘Kicking our way into the headlines’. That can best be done on marches and rallies such as the NF had planned for Hyde. Victims and traders face being driven off the streets; opponents are determined. Can they really be blamed?”
Tameside Council had given permission for the National Front meeting in Hyde Town Hall. Colin Grantham, the Tory leader of the council, explained that the Front were only marching (in his words), “for free speech and against red terror”. When it came to a vote on Tameside Council the meeting split along party lines – Labour voting against the march, the Conservatives for. In the weeks following the announcement of Tory support the amount of racist graffiti and National Front stickers rose. The small number of Black and Asian people living in the area spoke openly of their worries. One resident, Abdul Jalil, told the New Manchester Review, “We’re frightened, and we’ve never felt that way before in Hyde.”
Geoff, who was to become a full-time worker for Manchester Anti-Nazi League, had recently returned from several years spent working abroad. He suggests that the events at Hyde need to be seen through the prism of the NF’s defeat at Lewisham on 13th August 1977. “Webster was trying to regroup the Front after Lewisham. That’s why they put so much effort into Hyde.” In London the negotiations that would lead to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League were already taking place. But they were not yet complete. Local activists determined to prevent the Front from marching, although there was not yet any one umbrella group to co-ordinate the movement. The local Communist Party specifically turned down the suggestion of joint work with Mick Murray, Secretary of the Greater Manchester Communist Party, stating that they were “are opposed to adventurist and isolationist tactics which only strengthen the forces of reaction.” According to Geoff, “Steve Jeffreys [of the SWP Central Committee] and I walked around Hyde for a day to plan the protest. What we saw was that it would be easy to block any march. The main road goes through a series of underpasses, we would have four opportunities to block the road. [Manchester Chief Constable] Anderton and his assistants must also have done the same, and thought it through like us. I’m sure that’s why they banned the march.”
In response to the protests the Greater Manchester Police announced that the National Front would not be allowed to march in Hyde. This ban was announced publicly, receiving the full support of local press. Even the Communist Party’s paper the Morning Star applauded James Anderton’s seeming about-turn. Mick Murray wrote that the ban “has lifted a storm cloud from over this small northern town.” But in reality the police had done deal with the NF to allow them to march – and receive full police protection – on a different route. Unlike the ban this deal was never publicised, and the agreed route remained, of course, a closely-guarded secret.
Local activists were less willing than the press to take the police announcement of a ban at face value. Different groups continued to build protests, including the Anti-Nazi League, the SWP, the North West Trades Union Congress, the North West Standing Committee Against Racism, Manchester City Labour Party, the Manchester Anti-Fascist Committee and the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism. Geoff remembers buying in flares and £20 of rotten tomatoes from the street market to throw at the NF. “The stallholders could tell what we were up to!” Activists soon realised that some sort of deal had been struck between the police and the National Front, even though the terms only became clear after the event. John was one of the young anti-fascists who attempted to prevent the National Front from marching. He remembers that no-one knew for certain the revised route of the demonstration. Anti-fascists therefore divided into three groups. The largest contingent of anti-fascists, marshalled by the SWP’s national organiser Jim Nichol, headed for Stockport. Press information seemed to suggest that if there was going to be an Front march, then it would begin there. Another smaller section of about 200 people remained in Hyde – in case the National Front attempted to march there. Another group, of about the same number, waited in Manchester town centre. They were to be kept in reserve – in case either of the other two contingents were caught out.
These three groups of anti-fascists were to have very different experiences. The first group of comrades in Stockport found themselves waiting for a march that never happened. Roger was then in his early twenties, and a student at Salford University. This is how he remembers the protest. “The SWP and other groups gathered at the Town Hall, but it was very much a cat and mouse affair, as the planned NF march was re-routed, and most of the afternoon was spent with groups of anti-NF demonstrators scouring Stockport being tracked overhead by police helicopters and on the ground by police squads. Eventually the NF march was discovered but [it was] very well protected by police lines and from where I was there was little which happened.”
The second group were no more successful. In Hyde town centre Martin Webster of the National Front conducted a one-man march, defended by over 2,500 officers (similar numbers were employed at each of the predicted flashpoints, with one newspaper estimating the total police presence at an extraordinary 9,000 officers). As he walked, nervous and sweating past the distant jeers of the protesters, it must have occurred to him that rarely in the history of public order have so few people owed so much to so many. Without the police to protect him, his “march” could not have begun. Ramula Patel of the Asian Youth Movement walked in front of him the whole way with a placard which said “This man is a Nazi”. Anti-fascists were able to heckle Webster and disrupt his parade, but could not prevent such a large contingent of police officers from demonstrating. Declan, a rail worker and member of Longsight SWP, was also involved in the clashes at Hyde. “I got within twenty yards of Webster at one point. He didn’t look much like a Führer to me.”
The third group of anti-fascists – the reserve – found themselves in the thick of the action. Seven hundred members of the NF assembled in Levenshulme. They were dressed up for the day, some in paramilitary fatigues. According to the journalist from New Manchester Review, “One or two NF marchers were warned by their escorts, but there were no arrests for incitement or for the paramilitary uniforms. Even a refrain or two from a Simon and Garfunkel song, perverted as ‘I’d rather be a nigger than a jew’ passed off without comment from the guardians of law and order.” By the time that the word came out that the fascists had assembled in Levenshulme – and were marching to central Manchester – it was too late for the Stockport contingent to prevent members of the Front from marching. Despite the disparity in numbers, the 150 or so anti-fascists in reserve attempted to block the Front. There were scuffles through Levenshulme and along Kirkmanshulme Lane towards Belle Vue. But “road diversions and well drilled marching columns of police four and five deep siphoned off the SWP column into an aimless tour of side roads.”
Owen was another student from Salford University. He had never been in a situation like this before, “There were some NF and that was the first time I had seen the steel pointed Union Jack DMs and shaved heads up close. I had shoulder-length hair and was busy growing my first beard (like you do) when this NF guy made eye contact with me and shouted ‘you’re the next Kevin Gateley, you’re gonna die you long-haired communist bastard’. Needless to say I found this quite disturbing and was somewhat nonplussed by the total indifference of the constabulary standing in between me and this guy.” One of Owen’s friends, Rob, was a Young Liberal form Manchester. “He managed to get in and talk to some of the NF as they were not all shaven haired thugs. He spoke to a couple of very confused older people who had been bussed in by the NF and did not know what they were getting involved in. They expressed concern over urban decay, family of theirs who had been mugged by blacks, unemployment etc.”
Having praised Chief Constable James Anderton’s decision to ban the original National Front demonstration, the local press was outraged when they learned of his complicated deceit. The Stockport Express reported the anger of the local Labour group, and their desire to find out what the police operation had cost. “Now that it is all over”, recorded the New Manchester Review, “the point has been well made that the events in Hyde and Levenshulme were organised not so much by the National Front, but by the police.” The Manchester Evening News was no more endeared to the police. Following a serious assault by the police on one of their reporters Peter Sharples, Dennis Ellam of the Daily Mail told the National Union of Journalists’ newsletter, “I have never, even during two years in Belfast, seen such displays of official aggression towards newspapermen.” Anderton ordered an internal inquiry. Bert Ellison of Tameside TUC sent round a circular letter listing fifteen complaints against the Manchester police, who had frisked anti-fascists, and detained people without arrest. Some officers had even illegally removed their identity-numbers so that they could not be subject to prosecution. Despite these and other protests, Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees declared his support for the police action.”
[published on FB, with discussion, here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151394647786269%5D
And here is Sue’s comment, which took me back to this episode;
“We faced similar issues (not the web pages of course) in the 70s, when the correct emphasis on mobilising to try to prevent the NF from marching began to get distorted into things like finding their addresses, going to their houses and trying to beat them up. Of course, they did things like that to us, but that was not the point. We also spent a lot of time on coaches up and down motorways, tramping round the streets of unfamiliar cities trying to find and stop them. I particularly remember a very long day travelling to The Hyde in Manchester and back to London, with many hours of walking in the rain in between with nary a sight of the bastards. That wasn’t a waste of time, we had to do it, but the truth was that we only got close to humiliating them when the community came out in support, as in Southall and Lewisham. The latter was really kids fighting police racism as much as the NF, but that meant the NF couldn’t rely on the usual degree of police protection.”