Tag Archives: Rock Against Racism

Never Again: 18 months on


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.

Never Again: more links


An update on the book; in the last week there has been a review in Scotland’s Herald newspaper plus I’ve written a piece for Red Wedge on Rock Against Racism and whether and how the movement could be repeated. I gave talks over the weekend in Edinburgh and Glasgow; the first is a chronological summary of the book while the second deals (again) with the question of revival: what a mass anti racist movement might look like and how and where it could establish a relationship to popular culture. No more talks this week but in Cambridge next week, Nottingham later this month and then Oz, Nz and the US over weeks to come.



Never Again


Readers may enjoy a couple of interviews I’ve done this week. One was for the Allston Pudding music blog in Boston, and they’ve kindly posted both the interview itself and a transcript. We talk about migration, colonies, the police in Manchester – and the way in which Labour politicians worked behind the scenes to cover up for them. Link here.

The other thing I want to share is an interview with Joe Mulhall from the Hope not Hate podcast. It’s available by clicking the image, above or if you have a generic fruit based device via “podcasts”. Before Joe worked for HnH he was a historian, and with this interview (especially in the second half) he takes the story to places that aren’t obvious:

How can we know for sure that the 100,000 people at the first RAR carnival were there for the politics rather than the music?

Why have I’ve argued that the Coroner at Blair Peach‘s inquest prevented that from being in any way a fair hearing?

How do we know that it was the political anti fascist movement rather than, say, Thatcher that defeated the NF?

What did physical force anti-fascism contribute?

Is it really fair to argue that in the last fifteen years anti fascism has been overburdened by the memory of our victories at the end of the 1970s?

The interview is here.

The book itself can be ordered here.

Next week I’m speaking in Edinburgh and Glasgow. PM me if you’d like details.

Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League


More tasters for my book Never Again:

A video kindly made for me by Steve Davidson of Cardiff Momentum:

Never Again has had a first review, in The Spectator.

And, on the RS21 website, a piece in which I talk about Rock Against Racism, why the movement was so special and why it’s wrong to try to recreate it: “What anti-fascists need, it follows, is a step away from past models. That was the spirit in which I wrote my book, in the hope that by understanding what was compelling and successful about the past, future generations might think away from it. That they could create something new, relying on different cultural politics better suited for our moment. That if they understood the anti-racism and anti-fascism of the 1970s, they could be even bolder than the generations of forty years ago.”

Learning from the past, so that we do it differently – and even better – next time


By 1976, the National Front had become the fourth largest party in Britain. In a context of national decline, racism, and fears that the country was collapsing into social unrest, the Front won 19 percent of the vote in elections in Leicester and 100,000 votes in London.

In response, an anti-fascist campaign was born, which combined mass action to deprive the Front of public platforms with a mass cultural movement. Rock Against Racism brought punk and reggae bands together as a weapon against the right.

At Lewisham in August 1977, fighting between the far right and its opponents saw two hundred people arrested and fifty policemen injured. The press urged the state to ban two rival sets of dangerous extremists. But as the papers took sides, so did many others who determined to oppose the Front.

Through the Anti-Nazi League hundreds of thousands of people painted out racist graffiti, distributed leaflets, persuaded those around them to vote against the right. This combined movement was one of the biggest mass campaigns that Britain has ever seen.

This book tells the story of the National Front and the campaign which stopped it.

“I was gripped and loved the way it took me through different elements of popular culture, personal reflection, policy. It is the best account of the relationship between punk and the Anti-Nazi League / Rock Against Racism.” Lucy Robinson, Professor in Collaborative History, University of Sussex.

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the post-war history of racist and fascist movements and the strategies of resistance to them.” Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of Angry White People.

“Dave Renton’s book helps us understand a pivotal moment in the defeat of fascism; it addresses the militant tradition of anti-fascism with real consideration.” Louise Purbrick, contributor to Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism.

Never Again will be published in February 2019. It is available for order here.




Through 1978, the movement continued. The largest events were the Rock Against Racism carnivals. The strategy was to connect an anti-racist political message to radical music, to separate young people decisively from the National Front’s politics. Peter Hain outlined the method in the Labour paper, Tribune: ‘The carnival[s] point the way to a style of campaigning that is likely to win the emerging rearguard battle which must be waged against the National Front. In the longer term, of course, socialist solutions will be needed to pressed and fought for. But, in the shorter term, we desperately need to undercut the support of the new Nazis.’  This was anti-racism with a new emphasis, on pleasure, on self-activity and on spectacle.

The first carnival took place on 30 April 1978. The date was chosen to highlight the radical ambitions of the Anti-Nazi League. It was 130 years since the huge Chartist demonstration at Kennington Common, the closest that the British ruling class has come in recent times to facing an insurrection. The carnival was fully publicized by the left and in the musical press. Following the lead given by the New Musical Express over the previous year, all the music papers now carried regular features supporting both Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. A year on from the launch of RAR, Melody Maker ran an interview with Syd Shelton and Roger Huddle, Shelton describing the purpose of the movement. ‘We try and use popular culture which we all enjoy to mobilise people, not in a specific way, but just getting them to take a stand against the Front.’ Shelton insisted that RAR’s target audience was not the already convinced but ordinary kids on the estates. ‘There are no jobs for them, they’re living in cities and estates that are closing down . . . Conditions are right for the Front.’

Who came up with the word ‘carnival’? Jerry Fitzpatrick was given the job of organizing the events. ‘I think it must have been Paul. Red Saunders was struggling towards the idea, something even bigger than the Rock Against Racism gigs and the tours. They wanted something to bring together the cultural and political lefts, like the fêtes organized by the Communist Party in France. But it was Paul who capped it.’

“We started planning the first carnival in January 1977, at least three months beforehand. I remember booking the event through the GLC. The form said that if you had more than 10,000 people, you needed portaloos, and all that. So I booked a mini-festival, for 10,000, not more. I knew we had no money. I wasn’t expecting more than 20,000, tops. We made a deal to book the PA; we paid three thousand there and then, four thousand on the day. Paul drew the money out. I had to sew it into the lining of my leather jacket, so it wouldn’t get stolen. There were scaffolders from Donegal who put up the stage. Red and Roger booked the bands. Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson got X-ray Spex. Two weeks before the carnival, we started trying to book the Clash. I went to a meeting with their manager Bernie Rhodes, then one with the band. Red and Syd [Shelton] were absolutely brilliant. But I remember Mick Jones flicking ash in my hair. Finally Joe Strummer spoke, and said, ‘Fuck it, we’ll show them!’ That was just two weeks beforehand. The word went round the streets of London. After their songs ‘White Riot’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’, the Clash were huge. They brought the youth.”

Local anti-fascists put out leaflets for the carnival. Mike from Preston booked coaches: ‘Wherever you went, you sold tickets. Punk bands played gigs for the coaches, all sorts of people got involved. You really knew something was happening.’ Eighty coaches were organized from Manchester. According to Geoff, ‘I don’t think that the left has organized a larger number of coaches to anything in London, ever, and most of those coaches were full.’ Twelve coaches were sent from Sheffield, 25 from Leeds, a train from Glasgow. Keith remembers being stopped by a policeman flyposting for the first carnival on Tottenham High Road. ‘We said we hadn’t done that many and anyway it was for a worthwhile cause, and he just walked off and left us to it.’ These young anti-racists were astonished when the officer left them alone to get on with sticking posters. ‘This was not a usual occurrence!’

The carnival began with a march to Victoria Park, starting from Trafalgar Square, and going via the Strand, Fleet Street, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green Road and Old Ford Road. According to Dave Widgery,

“At 2 a.m. on the night before the demonstration, a group of RAR stalwarts including Tasmanian journalist Philip Brooks and the New York poet and club doorman Haowi Montag, who inhabited a labyrinthine eighth-floor squat on Charing Cross Road, began to hear crowds chanting through the downpour. And by 6 a.m. the following morning there were already 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square.”

The organizers deliberately avoided placing the carnival in London’s Hyde Park, the traditional destination of such protests, choosing instead Victoria Park, which was situated between Hackney and London’s East End. The march went close to Brick Lane, scene of many conflicts between left and right, and the main centre for Asians living in the East End. The area also had a resonance with the anti-fascism of the 1930s and especially the famous 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when Mosley’s blackshirts had been prevented from marching. The National Front’s John Tyndall had recently announced that he planned to stand in South Hackney, a constituency that included the park. On the day, left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo explained why Victoria Park had been chosen. ‘In the East End, fascists have done their traditional work of dividing one group of workers from another group of workers. There are too many people in the labour movement who believe if you leave it, it will go away.’ David R was a young socialist in Leeds: ‘The first [carnival] was brilliant, but the most exciting bit was the march to Victoria Park where we were reclaiming the streets of the East End, which had been swamped by fascists at an earlier demo organized by local anti-fascist groups.’

Marching to the carnival

Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office recalls some of the planning discussions: ‘Roger Huddle from RAR came into the office to argue with Paul that there needed to be a bigger, higher stage for the carnival – thank Christ they did – they understood the need for security, which none of us did.’ Roger Huddle himself would be stage manager on the day: ‘The first band started, and the crowd rushed the stage. Four people passed out. We took them round the back, and just fortunately they came to. We were so naive, we didn’t have security, we didn’t have ambulances.’

A special issue of Temporary Hoarding was produced – an A1 sheet folded three times to A4 size. Inside was a giant poster of the main acts of the day, Steel Pulse, Poly Styrene, Tom Robinson, replete with anti-National Front quotes, including one from Mick Jones of the Clash, ‘I’m half Jewish so I suppose the NF will try to send half of me back to Lithuania.’ Another large poster asked, ‘How did race hate happen?’: ‘when vote KKKatcher Thatcher makes speeches about the “threat” of alien culture; when Labour MPs sign a parliamentary report which recommends identity cards for all black citizens; when a Ku Klux Klan gang leader can shoot his mouth off on TV – race hatred becomes respectable. Don’t let’s be fooled. Race hate divides us when we most need to stand together – against the real enemy.’

The march was led off by giant papier-mâché models of Martin Webster and Adolf Hitler built by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, the people who would later make Spitting Image, while the Tower Hamlets Arts Project provided clowns, stilt-men and street theatre. There were dozens of banners, ranging from old-style trade union signs that took four people to carry, to home made spray-painted sheets: ‘Karen, Kate, Anna and Jill Against Racism, Fascism, Sexism.’ There was a steel band, and thousands of people carried the Anti-Nazi League’s distinctive yellow lollipop placards. ‘They were so different from the usual placards you would see on demos,’ remembers Geoff from Manchester. ‘At the first carnival we were giving lollipops away; by July you could sell them.’ Alongside the ANL lollipops were many more conventional Socialist Worker placards, blocks of text in Helvetica, against a background of green and purple swirls, ‘Stop the Nazis, No Immigration Controls.’

The march was due to set off at 1 p.m., but long before then Trafalgar Square was full, and the marchers set off under their own steam. Mike from the ANL had been given the job of making sure that the giant puppets of Tyndall and Webster were at the front of the march. ‘We had to run through the crowd, to try and get the heads and get them out, and we were the organizers . . . There was an enormous degree of spontaneity.’
Einde had arranged to meet friends between the Strand and Trafalgar Square.

“When we got there it seemed that tens of thousands of other people had also arranged to meet at the same corner. Eventually enough of us found each other and we unfurled our banner along with the thousands of other banners . . . We looked like a bunch of hippie desperados, to be quite honest – how could we wear such dreadful clothes? It was a glorious day and despite the long walk to Victoria Park I wouldn’t have missed it, one of the most enjoyable demonstrations I ever attended and the music was great, too.”

According to the report in the next Monday’s Guardian, ‘Police spokesmen said they were “astonished” at the size of the event. The tail of the march had still not left Trafalgar Square as the front reached journey’s end at Victoria Park.
‘Outside a couple of pubs near Brick Lane’, according to Dave Widgery’s history, Beating Time,

“there were a few Fronters with their mates, the sort of beer-gut and Page Three brigade who have an I love virgins sticker in the back of their off-brown resprayed Rover saloon and two kids whom they hit. They had come for a good laugh at the do-gooders. Three hours and 100,000 demonstrators later, the smiles were well and truly wiped off their faces and their bloated egos had evaporated into the swill at the bottom of their glasses.£

Peter Hain watched the crowd as it reached the park. ‘I remember the whistles, everyone in the crowd had whistles, also the ANL lollipops, they were new. It gave me a bubbly feeling that I had last experienced eight years previously on the Stop the Seventy campaign.’

Red Saunders compèred, wearing a cap covered in Rock Against Racism badges and a ‘Mr Oligarchies’ cape, an outfit from one of the Kartoon Klowns’ plays:

“The first carnival took place just a day or two after my daughter was born, and I was horrified that my beloved Nina wouldn’t be able to make it. The equality of the sexes, wasn’t that what we were supposed to believe in? Laurie Flynn, to his credit, made sure that all that day, whenever Nina wanted anything or needed anything, there was always someone from the SWP on hand to help her.
By 8 a.m., I was waiting in Trafalgar Square, absolutely pissing myself. I’d been up half the night with the baby. Syd and Ruth had been staying at some squat, and they were absolutely stoned. I was worried about the weather – would it rain? I went for a bacon butty. By the time I came back, I saw the first coaches arrive, and disembarking these dusty-eyed punks. Where are you from, mate? Liverpool. It would be big, then, I knew! We had 10,000 whistles we gave out free, thanks to Tom Robinson. We had the papier mâché models of Tyndall and Webster – we stuck them by the lions at the bottom end of Trafalgar Square. The weather was lifting. By the time people were sitting off, it had lifted.
At Victoria Park, we had the stage. It was very amateur compared to the ones you see these days – put up by a whole bunch of comrades working through the evening. Paul Holborow and I drove down to the park in a white transit van. There was Jerry Fitzpatrick, still finishing the stage. You could see big Rastas chatting to very straight St John’s ambulance men, all sorts of dialogues.
The park began to fill up. I ran on, and the first thing I shouted was ‘This isn’t Woodstock. It’s the Rock Against Racism carnival!’ and there was this huge cheer!”

The Clash, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex played to an audience of at least 80,000 people. Pink Floyd loaned their PA to the organizers. The Clash agreed to play, despite their manager’s protests. ‘They can do it,’ Bernie Rhodes said, ‘if you let them buy a tank for Zimbabwe.’ Publicity for the carnival put Aswad as the headline act, and Tom Robinson second. The Clash felt that they should have been given the best slot. But Robinson was higher in the charts. According to Roger Huddle of Rock Against Racism, ‘The Clash threw a wobbly and refused to stop playing when their time was up. Red Saunders had to pull their wires.’

The carnival’s platform included Peter Hain, Miriam Karlin, Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers’ Association, and Ray Buckton, general secretary of the rail union ASLEF and a member of the TUC General Council. Another trade union leader, Ernie Roberts, remarked, ‘None of the speakers could have addressed a crowd quite like this before. Dressed in an assorted garb of leather and satin, with hair of green or purple or pink, the teenagers gave them an enthusiastic welcome.’ Tariq Ali told the New Musical Express, ‘Lots of people will come for Rock Against Racism today and see that it should be Rock Against the Stock Exchange tomorrow.’

X-Ray Spex took the stage at 1.30, and were followed by the Clash and then Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson played his song ‘Winter of ’79’, predicting the news if complacency got its way and the National Front was allowed to prosper, ‘All the gay geezers were put inside / the coloured folks were getting crucified / a few fought back and a few folk died / in the winter of ’79.’ The threat of fascism was urgent, Robinson warned, ‘but now they’ve got no chance’. The last song brought each of the bands back on stage, for a one-off Tom Robinson number, ‘We Have Got to Get It Together’. The carnival was the lead story on that evening’s ten o’clock news.

John from south-east London had been arrested at the anti-fascist protests at Lewisham and sentenced to three months in jail. He was still in prison when he heard of the numbers attending the carnival:

“As the news came through of the numbers assembling in Victoria Park, our wildest expectations were exceeded. Ten thousand, then twenty, then thirty, then forty thousand. Earlier one of the fascist screws had jeered through the cell door, ‘Where’s your nigger friends now then, Johnny?’ Now he was quiet. The other cons on the wing didn’t support my ideas but they knew that something was happening against the system that crippled their lives. Radios were our contact with the real world. Everyone was listening and with every new announcement they cheered. As the final numbers came through, we were told that 100,000 people, black and white, had marched from Trafalgar Square to east London. All the cons on my wing, many of them racist, cheered and banged on the pipes. It’s a memory I will take to my grave.”

Gavin Weightman described the carnival in New Society: ‘There was something unreal about the sudden flowering in London of all the yellow and red anti-nazi propaganda – as if CND, lying dormant all these years, had bloomed again in different clothes and different colours.’  Richard from Football Fans Against the Nazis was ‘flabbergasted’ by the size of the event: ‘We expected 10 or 20,000 people, which would have been excellent, a big rise in the numbers who came on the marches and the demos. But on the day there were tens of thousands of people there.’ John S from south London was also ‘utterly amazed at how big it was. No-one expected it to be so big.’ Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party drew an upbeat conclusion, ‘The Anti-Nazi League is more than just a campaign – it is a mass movement.’ The historian Raphael Samuel, a member of the Communist Party from his early youth, described Victoria Park as ‘the most working-class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion.’

According to Rock Against Racism’s Sharon Spike,

“What was amazing was all the different people enjoying it; skinheads, punks, teds, Rastas, some old hippies, Greasers, disco-kids ands loads of middle-aged people and all. There were quite a few dogs. There was such a big turn-out that people at the back felt it hard to hear what the bands on stage were singing. But it didn’t matter too much because it was all so interesting just to walk around. It is very hard to describe what it felt like. Not Love and Peace and all that rubbish. It was more than music. Feeling all together. Not being scared of one another. Making you feel strong in a good way.”

Socialist Worker was no less ecstatic:

“At dawn on Sunday in Victoria Park, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism put the final touches to all their hard work. A young park-keeper watching the stage and tents and stalls going up said, ‘We’re expecting five thousand, but we’re ready for ten.’ And more came. Fifty thousand stretched from Trafalgar Square to Hackney. The kids had joined the march . . . Eighty thousand thronged the park, celebrating the rise against the fascists. ‘We’re black, we’re white, we’re dynamite’, they sang. They stood in the sun together. Eighty thousand. No trouble. Magic. The next day the National Front held a walk through London’s East End. Nearly two hundred attended. It was secret. It rained all the way. Even God has joined the Anti-Nazi League.”

Pop or politics?

This first carnival was followed by local carnivals in many areas. Thirty-five thousand came to a Manchester Carnival, 5,000 attended the next in Cardiff, 8,000 came to Edinburgh, 2,000 to Harwich and 5,000 to the carnival in Southampton. It was also in the aftermath of the first carnival that the Communist Party finally gave its official support to the Anti-Nazi League, hushing in retrospect its earlier criticism of the Socialist Workers’ Party’s tactics at Lewisham.

The May local elections were a considerable setback for the National Front, which secured disappointing votes in areas of previous strength, including Bradford and east London. The NF lashed out. A Bangladeshi garment worker, Altab Ali, was murdered on his way home. On 14 May 1978, following the murder, around 6,000 young Bengalis took part in a protest against racism in Brick Lane. It was the biggest Asian demonstration in British history. Older men brought macs and umbrellas; the younger activists created makeshift headgear from the round ANL lollipops to cover them from the rain. Placards asked, ‘How many more racial attacks? Why are the police covering up?’ Askan, one of the march organizers, was interviewed by Rock Against Racism’s Dave Widgery: ‘These racial attacks, they are getting worse all the time. Worse since National Front on the scene. Worse still since Mrs Thatcher. We’re not getting co-operation with the police. Mr Callaghan and his colleagues, do they realise what is happening all the time to our people?’

Working as a doctor in the area, Widgery observed countless examples of petty racism – an elderly Asian porter sacked for looking ill, a Bangladeshi woman sectioned in the seventh month of pregnancy, a white trade unionist driven to insomnia by window bashing, after he defended his Asian neighbour. For Widgery, the death of Altab Ali threw ‘into harsh relief the general level of racial violence in the East End, the indifference of the police and the prejudices of the non-Asians’.

On 11 June, following a series of tabloid stories announcing that the GLC planned to move Bengalis to housing ‘ghettos’ in east London, some 200 National Front supporters went on the rampage, attacking people and shops along Brick Lane. The following Sunday, 4,000 anti-racists marched again through the East End. John S was then a college lecturer in south London. They were the first demonstrations on which he had seen so many Sikhs: ‘It was so different from the meek image of law-abiding Asians.’ Tassaduq Ahmed, an educational worker in the East End, also commented on the growing self-organization among young Bengalis living around Brick Lane:

“The bare facts of assaults and killing of Asians in the East End by the National Front’s bully boys are known; what is not being sufficiently stressed is the strong multi-racial response that these acts have evoked, in particular among the Bengali youth, who have joined enthusiastically with their white friends in combating a menace which in its ultimate form will spell the death knell of a democratic Britain.”

On 7 July, David Lane, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, paid his first visit to Brick Lane, receiving considerable publicity. A series of demonstrations in August culminated in a 5,000-strong march to remove the National Front presence permanently from the area. White and Asian activists worked together to occupy the street each Saturday and guard it from the NF. Jerry Fizpatrick’s memories of this time are vivid:

“Brick Lane was a serious example of how the Front were providing their supporters with a public focus, to organize racist attacks, and as a rallying point for their members. We tried to respond. I remember waking up every Sunday morning, getting ready to go down to Brick Lane. It was skirmishing on skirmishing. But the fact that we were protesting against the Nazis, I know that gave confidence to the Bangladeshi youth. They became more cohesive, you could see it.”

The Manchester carnival took place on 15 July 1978. The following day saw a giant protest of black, white and Asian people, demonstrating against the Nazi Front, who had previously been able to sell their newspaper on London’s Brick Lane. Socialist Worker spoke of ‘a barrier of men and women against the Nazis who peddle their poison in the street market every week’. The same weekend saw the ANL carnival in Cardiff, and a large Anti-Nazi contingent at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

A second national Rock Against Racism carnival took place in Brockwell Park on 24 September 1978, with Sham 69 headlining. ‘The second carnival’, Paul Holborow explains, ‘was booked for when we thought would be slap bang in the middle of the election.’ Alongside Sham 69, other bands, including Crisis, Charge, Eclipse, Inganda, RAS, the Derelicts, the Enchanters, the Members, the Ruts and the Straights, played from floats along the course of the march. It was a huge event, even larger than the first carnival, with 100,000 involved. Joe Garman, chair of NORMANCAR, the North Manchester Campaign Against Racism, described the day in vivid terms:

“The music blared, slogans were shouted, some old some new. I liked ‘One, two, three and a bit, the National Front is a load of shit.’ The ‘Queen’ waved to us, all dressed up as she sat on the throne perched on the top of a bay window. There were lots of kids, some in pushchairs, some perched on dad’s shoulders. There was a Notts collier in pit clothes, his enemy was the National Front even tho’ his ‘blackness’ washed off.”

At the end of the march from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park, Garman described his aching feet – ‘yet another reason for hating the Nazis’.

For many of those who took part, this carnival was every bit as exciting and jubilant as the first. But the success of events in Brockwell Park was partly clouded by news of a National Front mobilization in east London. This was the story that captured the interest of the press.

Called only after the carnival had been publicly announced, the National Front march was simply intended to embarrass the organizers of the anti-fascist event. Within the Socialist Workers’ Party, people were warning Paul Holborow and others to make sure that the NF was prevented from marching. ‘For weeks before,’ Andy recalls, ‘lots of us were trying to make sure that Brick Lane was covered. The ANL wanted to keep an eye on just one thing, the carnival. They didn’t think we could spare people, but we could.’ Jerry Fitzpatrick disagrees:

“I felt that the success of the march depended on us going through Brixton. That was more important than any stunt the NF pulled. Even if we had sent more numbers to Brick Lane, it couldn’t have been enough. The police always had it covered. The Front were contained. We were always going to be contained, which is in fact what happened. We had to keep our eyes on the prize, on the carnival.”

Some on the left insisted that the entire carnival should be called off, and that the vast numbers of people present should be sent instead to chase the 250 fascists marching through the East End. Members of the Spartacist League told carnival-goers that they were ‘SCABBING on the struggle’. Although there would not have been any point in sending the whole crowd against a small National Front march, certain numbers did need to be sent. The leadership of the Anti-Nazi League were caught in a dilemma. How would they know that enough people had been sent? And what could be done if the numbers were too low? On the day, confusion grew, and Paul Holborow, the national organiser of the ANL, admits that the leadership simply failed to send enough people to stop the NF demo. ‘We collectively bungled it.’

Two hundred and fifty National Front marchers assembled in the East End. According to Steve Tilzley, ‘The National Front marched practically unopposed through the East End and held a rally in Curtain Road, off Great Eastern Street. There had been a small, token anti-racist presence in the area to protest against their presence but they were heavily outnumbered by the Nazis and the police.’

Tilzley’s memories were written up more than 20 years later, as part of a longer critique of the Anti-Nazi League, and so should be read with a certain caution. A counter-demonstration did in fact take place and involved several hundred people, but it arrived late and failed to disperse the National Front group. Mike from Preston was at Brick Lane and remembers ‘the sectarian left’ criticizing the League, while themselves ‘refusing to actually organize physically against the very young NF kids’.

David L’s memories are Pythonesque:

There had been demos before along Brick Lane, and lots of people came out when the NF were leafleting there. But this time it was much smaller. What I remember . . . was bizarre. The RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] were out in force. But in all, the left was outnumbered roughly two to one. What I remember is the RCP starting a chant of ‘Police protect the Nazis’. Generally, that’s my analysis. But this time, the police were protecting us!

Dick was sent from Brixton to support the anti-racists isolated in east London. It took him hours to reach Brick Lane, and by then it was too late. ‘Yes we did mess up. I remember quite a lot of bitterness being addressed to people who had been at the carnival.’

The organizers of the carnival did not have enough forces in the East End; nor had they established good enough communication links to keep fully abreast of a changing situation. There were no mobile phones to enable people to exchange news quickly. According to Dave Widgery, ‘The transport logistics were not worked out and the anti-fascists who did attempt to block off the Front in Brick Lane were demoralised and easily pushed about by the belligerent police pressure. The Front were harassed but not stopped and by the time reinforcements had arrived by Victoria line from Brixton, the National Front had dispersed.’

According to Mike from the Anti-Nazi League office, ‘The main people we were relating to were people who were willing to put themselves on the line, to defend meetings, to defend marches. The carnival showed that we could relate to much wider groups of young people, ones who wouldn’t show themselves in the same way.’ While it might have been possible to divert some of the organizers to Brick Lane, he argues, the ANL’s mass audience was not malleable in the same way. Tony Cliff took a full page of Socialist Worker to apologize for his party’s handling of events at Brick Lane.

“Under the threat of mobilising thousands of anti-fascists into Brick Lane, Commander Hunt of Scotland Yard announced on Friday that the NF would not be allowed East of Shoreditch High Street into the Brick Lane area. This statement led to a complacency among the mass of ANL supporters. There was too a terrible failure of communication. Three thousand ANL supporters did come from Brockwell Park to Brick Lane . . . they arrived far too late. At 6 o’clock or so. But the 2000 anti-racists who held Brick Lane throughout the day – an extremely arduous and frustrating task – all anti-fascists owe a tremendous debt. Thanks to them a mass anti-fascist movement has been kept intact. Thanks to them the Carnival was able to go on.”

Back in Victoria Park, the music continued. Red Saunders was the compère again. He had swapped his cape from Carnival One for a ‘much more thought out’ uniform: ‘Yellow boiler suit covered in RAR stencilled slogans with a huge stove pipe hat with the Love Music, Hate Racism slogan all over it. Plus shades, of course.’ Sham 69 had been rattled by a series of death threats, and Jimmy Pursey took the stage to explain that his band could not play. Instead Stiff Little Fingers opened the set. We can quote Dave Widgery again:

“When Jake Burns took off his specs and donned his leathers he transmogrified himself into one of the most stinging vocalists and fiery guitarists punk ever possessed. The Stiffs’ incendiary songs bought in the Irish dimension so important to any movement against racism in Britain, even though Burns denounced troops out. But better, they did punk homage to Bob Marley’s classic Johnny Was.”

Bernie was standing by a Rock Against Racism stall when he found a backstage pass that had been left unattended. He sneaked backstage and watched Elvis Costello playing Nick Lowe’s song ‘What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?’ ‘Lowe had tears in his eyes.’ Aswad played into the night.
Labour MP Tony Benn walked with the crowd from Park Lane to Piccadilly: ‘the youngsters were rushing along and pushing ahead – it made me feel like an animal in a herd! By the time we got to Brixton there must have been a hundred thousand people gathered.’

Mark Steel attended the carnival with his friend Jim, who came from Swanley. It was their first march: ‘neither of us had any idea what would happen when we got there. What is a march, we pondered? Do you actually march, in step, with someone yelling at you to get in line?’ For these young punks, the carnival was no disappointment.

“100,000 ambled joyfully from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park in Brixton. All the scenes which would become so laboriously familiar, the hordes of leaflets thrust at you from all angles, the flamboyant but awful drumming costumes, the chanter screaming into a megaphone and becoming increasingly, thankfully hoarse, it all seemed so thrilling. And there was Aswad and Tom Robinson and Elvis Costello, and instead of feeling angry I felt jubilant because now I was doing something. ”

Geoff from Manchester felt a similar sense of elation. At the time of the first carnival, he recalls, it was not clear whether the National Front would be defeated, but ‘the second was a victory march’.