A year and a half has passed since I published Never Again which tells the story of the National Front, and two groups which fought it in the 1970s, Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. The book had decent reviews in the New Statesman and the Spectator, and was the excuse for a book tour which took me up to Glasgow, to Chicago, Melbourne, and Auckland. Of all the talks I gave, the one I enjoyed best was at May Day, a year ago, for tube workers in the RMT, a glorious, drunken, affair
Thirteen years before, I had published a “first run” of the same book, “When we touched the sky.” Although a number of the stories which were in the older book reappear in Never Again, the content of the latter is four-fifths new. In Never Again, I give a brief explanation of why so much changed. Here, I thought I’d do the same in more detail
Reappraising the enemy
One of the weaknesses of “When we touched the sky,” is that the National Front is a shadow in the story. The way I wrote that book was by conducting interviews with more than sixty people who has taken part in the anti-fascist campaign and supplementing them from documents. I selected interviewees along the lines of the people that I was able to meet as a member of the left in Nottingham, Liverpool and Sheffield, and involved in the anti-racist campaigns I knew.
Although I interviewed two or three anti-fascists who had always specialised in information gathering (Gerry Gable, ML, GA), most members of this milieu had been hazy about their opponents. The National Front were “Nazis,” an analysis proved by the famous image of John Tyndall in a Nazi-style uniform. That’s all they needed to know. Many understood how the Front worked in their particular city, few had any sense of the clashes within that organisation or how it was changing, nationally, over time.
The largest piece of research I carried out for Never Again was to bring together as much archive material I could find about the National Front and its leaders, in order to test whether sustained opposition had had a significant effect on the Front’s morale. I searched for memoirs, for anything I could find which would enable me to see the same events through the Front’s eyes. The conclusion I draw is that physical opposition succeeded in demoralising the Front’s opponents, but not immediately,
In about 1974, by which time it was already perfectly possible to be a full-time anti-Front campaigner driving from protest to protest and filling your evenings and weekends with just this one form of political activity – left-wing protests buoyed the Front, made it feel important, and gave its own members a sense of purpose. They were a challenge but one with which the Front was able to surpass. By 1976-7, opposition had started to wear the Front down and change that party: converting it into a smaller movement of young, male, physical streetfighters often from a skinhead milieu. The Front survived by transforming itself into something less than it had been and which was inevitably going an ineffective and unlikeable electoral party.
“When we touched the sky” saw the history in the way the left liked to tell it: as a heroic narrative of a correct form of organisation (the anti-fascist United Front) emerging, and in a relatively short period of time overcoming.
Never Again gives a very different but I hope truer version: of a gritty incomplete struggle, in which no single tactic is ever the perfect form of anything, and anti-fascists suffered all sorts of setbacks along the way.
Were the NF ever fascists?
In my original book, I followed the approach of the anti-fascists from the time for whom it was simply axiomatic that the Front was an attempt to relaunch Hitler’s NSDAP in the not-very different conditions of 1970s Britain.
But at the same time as writing Never Again, I was also working on a second new book The New Authoritarians. This encouraged me to see the National Front in a much longer perspective. One message of that book is that – although unemployment, racism and the like didn’t end in the 1930s, the postwar history of the far right is of successive attempts at renewing those politics. And that the further we go from 1945, the more different these strategies (initial copying, later a shallow disavowal, more recently authoritarian populism) have been from fascism.
It’s a strange thing rereading the story of the National Front with the knowledge that the future belonged not to Nick Griffin but to Nigel Farage. From that perspective, you learn to see how much of today’s non-fascist but far-right politics was already there.
Tyndall was able to join the National Front, after a period when he was excluded, only by promising to pack his uniforms away. Years had to pass before he became the leader of that party. He was a divisive figure, constantly under attack by others without the Nazi baggage but closer in style to either the more electoral or even the more violent wings of today’s far right. They were able to topple him for a leader as a while. His opponents even called themselves, “Populists.”
I’m not suggesting that leftists were wrong to label the Front “Nazis,” but rather that this was a deliberate process in which anti-fascists simplified the enemy they faced, in order to make it more objectionable. The left was consciously trying to change the story, stopping the press and broadcasters from treating the Front as ordinary politicians. Seeing the Front as it looked in 1974 or 1975 – as something more ideologically diverse, harder to pin down and therefore better capable of achieving a breakthrough – helps to explain how hard-fought the victory really was – and how much more relevant to today.
Rebalancing the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism
When I wrote “When we Touched the Sky,” I was conscious that there existed any number of memoirs of Rock Against Racism, and it seemed sensible therefore to bring out a different sort of book, one which focussed on its ally, the Anti-Nazi League.
But behind this simple choice, there were also sort of politics which I hadn’t yet fully grasped. I was a member of the SWP between 1991 and 2003 and again between 2008 and 2013. There I absorbed an analysis – the “party history” of the 1970s in which the Anti-Nazi League was the most important part of the anti-fascist coalition.
From the point of view of the SWP, this made sense. The Anti-Nazi League was, like the SWP itself, a “political” organisation, and one indeed under effective SWP control, with one of the two main full-timers an SWP appointment, and (below a steering committee in which the SWP had only a minority), almost the entire organisation of the alliance run at a local level by members of that party. It was something easier to understand and much capable of being repeated in the 1990s and beyond.
Between Never Again and The New Authoritarians, there is a barely sketched and unspoken space, where the question is hardly ever posed directly, but it was there all the time in my head: if mass anti-fascism was an effective way of combating the National Front why it has been so consistently ineffective ever since?
Both books give different hints of an answer – in Never Again, I argue that 1970s anti-fascism might not have worked, were it not a genuinely innovative cultural ally.
It took me years to grasp how important Rock Against Racism although this should have been obvious: RAR was there a whole year before ANL, it was RAR which provided the contacts and the know-how which made the Carnivals happen, and it was RAR which capable of speaking to the cultural politics of the time in a way which almost no anti-fascist campaign has since in Britain or anywhere else.
Putting the SWP in the rear-view mirror
Even in “When we touched the sky”, I tried to give voice to people from many different political backgrounds – anarchists, anti-political punks, members of the Labour Party and of almost every left-wing group of the time. In Never Again, I am more systematic about broadening the story to two groups who were underemphasised in the original: black Marxists from groups like Race Today, and the SWP members (“squaddists”) expelled when the ANL was wound down.
As for the SWP itself, in the seventy-plus years of its existence, the Anti-Nazi League is (along with the Stop the War coalition of c2003) one of that party’s two real achievements. Indeed, the Anti-Nazi League was greater since, unlike StW, it won.
Yet if you think of all the vices for which the SWP has become notorious, its need to exaggerate its own importance, its insistence on crowding out other traditions, its leadership’s control-freakery, all of these were also present, in embryo form, in 1976-9.
One part of the themes of Never Again is the need for principled organising, and I tell this story through two events, both from summer 1978 (the aftermath of the first Carnival), to show how different parts of the anti-fascist coalition either managed to remain principled or failed. The two examples are a Rock Against Racism gig in Brighton where the audience was shocked to hear a band playing a series of sexist songs; and the second London Carnival in 1978 to which the Front responded by staging a pogrom of its own in East London. These two incidents are the moral centre of the book: RAR saw what was going on, changed, and immersed itself in anti-sexist campaigning; the SWP/ANL leadership made a tactical mis-step in letting the NF march, then compounded it by lying and by offering an insincere apology.
As for Rock Against Racism, one of the chapters which disappeared between the 2006 and the 2019 versions of the two books was a piece in which I argued that the SWP had been uniquely well-placed to tap into the cultural politics of the 1970s. In “When we touched the sky” I argued that its “state capitalist” (i.e. hostile) analysis of the Soviet Union had shielded it from the approach of most other leftists which had been to folk over rock music, which was assumed to be a malign US import. I give examples of such cultural misunderstanding in Never Again (punks going along to hear Leon Rosselson lecturing them that punk was no good) but they really aren’t the main point.
What’s clear to me now is that the cohort of artists and designers who made RAR possible were rank-and-file members of the SWP many of whom had joined from other traditions. They brought all sort of extraordinary personal strengths, reading, and dissident politics. Reducing this to their shared membership of the SWP is to diminish them.
But there was a victory, yeah?
I don’t want to end on that note. In the 1970s the left were the cultural and political innovators: RAR connected anti-fascism to a majority consciousness, or at least a majority among the young. My book celebrates its and the ANL, and the wider anti-fascist milieu of which they were both just a part.
In the last ten years, however, that dynamic has been largely reversed. It’s the right which has found a “growth space” in a politics poised between conservatism and fascism. It’s the far-right which is better rooted today outside politics – in meme culture, in sites such as youtube, so that even non-entities such as Tommy Robinson can build an audience far greater than anything the left has.
RAR and the ANL set the forces of British fascism back by fifteen years. But in the struggle between fascism and anti-fascism there are no epochal victories, no moments when you can stop and tell yourself that the war has been finally won.