On 23 April 1977, a twelve hundred-strong National Front march through Wood Green was opposed by some 3,000 anti-racists, including delegations from Haringey Labour Party, trade unionists, the Indian Workers’ Association, local West Indians, members of Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party. While Communists and churchmen addressed a rally at one end of Duckett’s Common, a contingent composed of more radical elements in the crowd broke away and subjected the NF column to a barrage of smoke bombs, eggs and rotten fruit. Eighty-one people were arrested, including seventy-four anti-fascists.
The following account of the Battle of Wood Green was taken from the pamphlet The Battle of Wood Green, published in 2002 by Haringey Trades Council and the London Socialist Historians Group to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the demonstration (Republished in 2017.)
We should say, we do not entirely agree with some of the analysis of the rise and decline of the NF, especially Ian Birchall’s conclusion at the end. The role of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism needs some questioning. And the account relies heavily on the ‘labour movement’ and left groups as the backbone of the movement that faced down the NF, while downplaying the – harder to pin down – part played by a wider counter-cultural milieu, by feminists, black communities organising autonomously… All of which was important in events at Lewisham later in 1977, in Brick Lane and the wider East End through this whole period, and in Southall in 1979…
The immediate background lay in the experience of a right-wing Labour government caught in a climate of global recession. The Labour party won the two 1974 elections on the back of a left-moving popular mood, and its manifesto was the most radical in the party’s history. Tony Benn and Michael Foot joined the Labour cabinet, while TUC left-wingers, including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, were brought into close contact with the government. But the hopes of transformation were squandered. Unemployment rose sharply. The government actually cut spending on public services, closing hospitals, and demoralising many of its most ardent supporters. Bitter struggles continued through the five years of Labour rule, but the overall result was to reduce the levels of militancy within society. Society shifted to the right, preparing the ground for the Tories’ victory in 1979.
The most important popular grievance against this Labour administration was the rise of unemployment under Wilson and then Callaghan. In January 1975, there were 678,000 people jobless. By the end of the year, this number had risen to 1,129,000. In September 1977, it stood as 1,609,000. The jobless rate was two times higher among blacks than whites. Such levels of unemployment had not been seen in Britain since the 1930s. Young workers were alienated from the system, and looked to more radical politics for a solution.
The National Front gained from the failure of the Labour government and the general disillusionment with the left. First set up in 1967, the NF grew in prominence though 1968. That year Enoch Powell gave his infamous and racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, calling for the repatriation of black workers. London dockers and Smithfield meat porters struck in support of his racism. Although out-manouevred in 1968 by Powell’s organisation within the Tory Party, the National Front was able to stand in ten constituencies in the 1970 election, reaching an average of 3.6 per cent of the vote. The NF grew under Heath’s government, and claimed 17,000 members in 1973, but only really took off under Labour. In 1976, the Front received 15,340 votes in Leicester. The following year, it achieved 19 per cent of the vote in Hackney South and Bethnal Green, and 200,000 votes nationally.
The leading cadre of the National Front were career fascists. The first chairman was A.K. Chesterton, a former ally of Oswald Mosley in the 1930s, who had been more recently the leader of the League of Empire Loyalists, a, imperialist entry-group within the Conservative Party. Many of the leading NF members had been active in the neo-nazi milieu o the 1950s: Andrew Fountaine in the National Labour Party, Colin Jordan in the National Socialist Movement, John Tyndall and Martin Webster in the Greater Britain Movement; and so on. These organisations were all small and all extremely violent. They acted as the open carrier of racist ideas in the inner cities. Partly as a result of NF activity, thirty-one black people were killed in racist murders between 1976 and 1981.
Racist anti-immigrant stories in the tabloid press assisted the Front’s growth. The anti-fascist newspaper Searchlight has estimated that the NF’s membership doubled between October 1972 and July 1973 following the arrival of refugees from Uganda. A similar impetus was provided in 1976 by the arrival of the Malawi Asians. The national press ran dozens of racist stories, with the Sun claiming that refugees were being put up in four-star hotels. The National Front recruited around 3000 new members. By winter 1976-7, the fascists could feel – with confidence – that their best time was to come.
But Labour’s declining hold over its core voters did not only benefit the far right. It also enabled the emergence of a radical left, which would not restrict itself to parliamentary opposition to fascism. The radicalisation of the 1960s was expressed in anti-Vietnam protests, ban the bomb, student struggles and by a growing willingness of younger workers to take militant forms of industrial action. This trend towards militancy was demonstrated in the 1972 strikes which broke Heath’s Tories. This process of radicalisation was to create many new political formations, and give a boost to the fortunes of existing revolutionaries. Tiny organisations including the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group mushroomed into sizeable organisations. The Labour and Communist Parties faced for the first time large forces to their left which were able to exploit the mood of popular anger.
As well as the socialist left, other forces were also involved in the conflict. Between 1948 and 1958, some 125,000 West Indians and 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis had come to Britain. The arrivals were British citizens. Many of whom had been educated to believe the myths which the British state had put out in its own defence. Yet on their arrival, Black and Asian people in Britain were received with contempt. Homes, hotels and pubs were barred to them. By the late 1970s, younger Blacks and Asians – the second generation – did not share their parents’ naïve sympathy with British democracy and the principles of British justice. Clashes between police and black youth at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival saw three hundred and twenty five police officers wounded, sixty people arrested and charged.
As 1976 continued, the clashes between the left and the NF grew ever more frequent. In February, 1500 anti-racists opposed a National Front march in Coventry. In April, two large marches confronted an NF demonstration through Manningham in Bradford, while in May there were large anti-racist marches in Birmingham, Portsmouth and Southall. In June, there were more protests in East London, Southall and Brixton. In Central London, 15,000 supported marches called by the two Indian Workers Associations in July. Four thousand people protested against the National Front and the National Party in Blackburn in September. In October, 250 people picketed the Front’s AGM, while a weekly confrontation began between NF paper-sellers and members of the International Socialists in Brick Lane. In November 25,000 joined a TUC march against racism, and another thousand demonstrated in support of Asian immigrants fleeing to Britain from Malawi.
The clashes spread into other spheres, including the music scene, which was still coming to terms with the angry nihilism of punk. In August 1976, Eric Clapton interrupted a gig to tell his audience ‘Vote for Enoch Powell, stop Britian becoming a Black colony, get the foreigners out…’ Following Clapton’s outburst, Red Saunders, Peter Bruno and David Widgery wrote to the press to launchRock Against Racism: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is Black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism. P.S. Who Shot the Sherriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’
All the time, then, the pollical temperature was rising. The National Front was growing, but so were the size and confidence of the anti-NF opposition. The scene was set for a number of set-piece conflicts between left and right. The largest was to take place at Lewisham in August 1977, but the fist important battle came at Wood Green that April.
What happened at Turnpike Lane?
Narrative: Keith Flett
The National Front demonstration in Wood Green on Saturday 23rd April 1977 was totemic. The confrontation which took place between fascists and anti-Nazis on that day, together with events at Lewisham on 12th August 1977 led to the foundation of the Anti-Nazi League and the marginalisation of the National Front as a political force.
Wood Green is also remembered as the first of a number of set piece confrontations, but one where the police, who were later, of-ten in huge numbers, to frustrate attempts by Anti-Nazis to stop fas-cist marches, had not yet developed tactics to deal with physical force against fascists. Hence there was a highly effective counter-demonstration at Wood Green which partly broke up the National Front march.
This confrontation did not happen spontaneously, although there were elements of spontaneity about it. It required both detailed organisational planning and extensive political argument and mobilisation before 23rd April.
Beforehand: considerable planning went into building the counter-demonstration both in terms of tactics and support. The Trades Council and Labour Party members both supported physical confrontation, not automatically, but after debate and argument in meetings. There was a planning committee for the anti-fascist mobilisation some of whose members still live in the area. From discussion it seems clear that much of the work of building the protest was a familiar routine to them and, indeed, would be familiar to anyone organising a demonstration today. Leaf-lets were handed out on high streets to members of the public and Turkish and Greek cafes on Green Lanes and West Green Road were leafleted and visited several times to mobilise this section of the community.
Organisationally, testing of red smoke flares tool place on Tottenham Marsh and quantities of flour, eggs and fruit were prepared. Some activists have suggested that the preparation had a degree of gender specificity to it, which would be much less usual in the labour movement 25 years on. For example, women were responsible for flour and eggs, while men did the testing of the smoke flares. However, members of the planning committee recall that the main aim was not to perfect military tactics but simply to get as many people there as possible. It was the mass mobilisation of local people not clever tactics that would defeat the fascists. Indeed, it appears that some of the tactics discussed would not have worked in the first place. One idea was to sabotage the traffic lights at the junction of Green Lanes, Wood Green High Road and Turnpike Lane until it was pointed out that the police were unlikely to stop the fascist march because a traffic signal was stuck at red.
On the morning of the march preparations were made at the house of a local activist. Bags of flour and rotten eggs and tomatoes were assembled ready to be handed to people in the crowd to throw at the fascist marchers.
On the day: attempts were made to smash the windows of NF coaches as they took fascists to the assembly point on Duckett’s Common. Not unusual in itself, this does however highlight an important point about the march and opposition to it. In general, the National Front marchers were not local people and there was a general resentment, summed up in the pages of the Hornsey Journal the following week, that fascists should not be allowed to bring their message to an area where it was not wanted and had little local support. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the anti-fascists at Turnpike Lane were entirely drawn from the immediate local area. The National Front march was seen as a challenge across North London. One person who had been on the planning team for the counter-demonstration recalls that, following an anti-racist demonstration in Islington on that Saturday morning, numbers had taken the tube to Turnpike Lane to join the anti-NF protest. One respondent mentions NFers and anti-fascists both directing people at Turnpike Lane tube. Fascists were directing people to Duckett’s Common at Turnpike Lane tube station, but they were out-numbered by anti-fascists directing people to the counter-demonstration.
A large number of Haringey Councillors, mostly Labour, but even the odd Tory, appeared on Duckett’s Common with a large banner opposing fascism. A picture of the Councillors and the banner appeared the following week in the local paper The Hornsey Journal, whose front page headline read: “Forty years on, the fear of fascism fouls our streets”. An editorial comment questioned why the police had allowed such a provocative march. One of the Labour Councillors at the time, and an organiser of the counter-demonstration, was Jeremy Corbyn, then a trade union official, now a Labour MP [where is he now?!- ed]. It was not just Labour Councillors who were there. Discussions with Leyland Grant, the brother of the late Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, suggest that local activists from the Workers Revolutionary Party were also present. The WRP at this time was noted for usually not appear-ing on broad based protests, often preferring to call its own. In a sense to even suggest divisions at a local level, between Labour lefts, the far left and others is wrong. Political disagreements there certainly were, but many of the activists knew each other socially and were prepared to work together.
As soon as the NF march moved into Wood Green High Road, counter-demonstrators attacked and the march was split, with some NF supporters scattering. Memories of the use of flour and eggs are very common. As the NF moved into Wood Green High Road they were bombarded with flour, eggs, tomatoes and the shoes from racks outside the front of a shop on the High Road. Whether the shoes were later collected up by the shop owner, or whether they were left there deliberately in sympathy with the march is not known. Carol Sykes recalls carrying some balloons filled with paint or inky water, and some marine flares in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, she notes “the old brown paper sort, not the plastic ones you get today”, and handing the bag over to someone at the corner of Wood Green High Road and Turnpike Lane. She then joined the main counter-demonstration.
The police then moved in behind the remainder of the march and tried to prevent counter-demonstrators from following. There were running scuffles as the police blocked the way of anti-fascist protesters. The police even stopped people walking along the pavement alongside the march. Remember, this was a busy North London shopping street at the height of Saturday shopping. John Robson recalls that “many of us were caught at the building works for the shopping city, where Boots now is. The police have let through the march, but we were kept from following.”
Robson argues that Tariq Ali led one group [the wrong way] down Alexandra Road back to Turnpike Lane and towards Hornsey and recalls telling him that the quickest way to Wood Green tube station was down Lymington Avenue. Robson says that “I got to the station for the passing of the march, but those who followed Ali never saw the march again as they got hopelessly lost”. Even so an account of the day published in the following week’s New Society does suggest that Tariq Ali did eventually man-age to lead a group of anti-fascists close to the NF meeting point. He is described as speaking “from a traffic-light junction box, with a loud-hailer.”
Some protesters were able, eventually, to follow the remains of the NF march to its destination. There were flights between fascists and anti-fascists in Broomfield Park and in Aldermans Hill, Palmers Green. Some of these may have been mobilised from Enfield and not been at the beginning of the march. A sizable number of anti-fascists did make it to near Arnos School in Wilmer Way where the NF held their rally. Significantly this was in Enfield, then Tory controlled, not Haringey. By this stage it was late afternoon.
Some people can’t remember anything that happened; others recall being there but that’s it. Nigel Fountain, who some participants recall being there, does not recall it himself, but has suggested a follow up volume on socialist amnesia. Tariq Ali has pointed out that this was a period of several years of such demonstrations and it is difficult if you participated in a number of them to be entirely sure whether you were at a specific event. This does suggest that this pamphlet has a very particular ‘take’ on events. Namely that most of the contributors were local participants, activists and leaders in 1977, and while they may have moved on politically and personally in the intervening 25 years, still either live in the area or have links with it. For them, 23rd April 1977 is not just a piece of political history but of personal history as well.
One respondent felt that there was a clear, and sexist, division be-tween men and women on the counter-demo and hoped that we were not producing a hagiography [we’re not!]. Photos of the demo do in-deed suggest that the counter-demonstration was male dominated and this may have reflected the general profile of the left 25 years ago.
Although we have not sought to discuss the events of 25th April 1977 with any fascists who were present on the NF march that day, the project has been widely publicised in North London and beyond. We had anticipated that one or two fascists, might at this distance have abandoned their dalliance with Nazism and have been prepared to come forward. However, none have. The only record we have therefore of the NF marchers is the New Society account published the week afterwards. This notes that “A striking feature of the NF supporters on Saturday was the number of teenage boys in the ranks”. Of the assembly of the fascist march on Duckett’s Common the report notes that “Groups of teenage lads wearing red roses on their denim jackets turned out of the Queen’s Head like guests at a skinhead wedding. Greasy-haired rockers with hunched leather shoulders, wore red roses. So did prim middle-aged couples, the wives in tweedy suits”. This last group, it may be suggested, were unprepared for what they were to meet as they turned into Wood Green High Road.
Hidden from History
Some felt that some of the things they did were personally or politically too embarrassing or awkward to appear in print even 25 years on. The Anti-Nazi League, for example, still exists and still has to mobilise regularly against Nazis. This pamphlet is a history of a local demonstration with some wider political implications, not a chapter in the history of the ANL. Such a history will need to be written one day, but not while the job of fighting fascism is on the agenda still.
Hence one activist, who was managing a socialist bookshop at the time, told us that he had been specifically asked not to go because of the danger of arrest and the implications this would have for the running of the bookshop. Others told us that they had been due to attend a delegate meeting of the International Socialists [now SWP] on the day and had been specifically told not to go, but had bunked off the meeting at lunch-time and gone to the demonstration. Another issue, perhaps the most puzzling to arise in the researching of this pamphlet is what route the fascist demonstration took when it left Wood Green tube station. The ‘common sense’ view amongst those that were there was that it continued straight on.
Down Green Lanes to the Cock at Palmers Green, took a left turn into Bowes Road and then turned right at the junction with Wilmer Way and the North Circular Road where the venue for the fascist rally was. However, for a variety of reasons – police blocking the way or a focus on the ambush at Turnpike Lane – very few anti-fascists made it past Wood Green tube to ac-company the Nazi march. One that did was Dave Morris, then a North London postman, later known as an anti-McDonalds activist and a member of Haringey Solidarity Group. A photo that he has of the march not only suggests that far more fascists were able to re-group after the Turnpike Lane ambush than previously supposed [certainly several hundred] but that the route was different. It appears that the march continued on past the Cock at the North Circular Road to Palmers Green triangle. Here Enfield Trades Council and some local Communist Party activists rallied in opposition to the fascists. The NF then continued down Powys Lane into Wilmer Way from the north, skirting the edge of Broomfield Park. At least one person who has contacted us has referred to fighting between fascists and anti—fascists in the park itself.
Even less well known is what happened at the fascist rally itself. A report in New Society [28 April 1977] by Gavin Weightman noted that “Two men in khaki anoraks came out of the school, one, a barrister, nursing a bloody nose. They had been allowed into the meeting as observers. Then they were turned on, called ‘commies’, kicked and punched. Some NF members out-side jeered and laughed when they saw blood”. We have obtained some rare testimony from one of the people involved in this incident which is printed below, together with details of a further previously unknown confrontation which took place after the end of the fascist meeting at Turnpike Lane tube.
One of the hardest tasks of the historian is to capture what it was actually like and how people saw things for the period we are covering. That we are looking at an event in relatively recent living memory does not necessarily make things much easier. However, while we may want to draw some political parallels and lessons from the events of 25 years ago, historically some things were different.
Wood Green was one moment in the rise of a fascist movement in 1970s Britain that culminated in 1979 and went into decline for a period thereafter. Yet the presence of fascists in North London had been felt for several years before 1977, they were an uncomfortable and unwanted part of the political landscape. The left of 1977 was much more engaged in fighting fascism than its counterpart 25 years later. Some of this is well captured in Nigel Fountain’s left-wing crime thriller novel Days Like These, published in 1985 which is set in North London and deals with the historic roots of British fascism. In 1977, unlike in 2002, socialists might well wonder if the people coming towards them in the street, or drinking at a nearby table in a pub were fascists. The threat of attack and confrontation never appeared far off, and did indeed, from time to time, actually happen. The shadow of fascism and fascists was ever present in the mind if not physically.
How the State reacted was different then too. Pictures of Wood Green show police shrinking back in the face of smoke bombs and missiles. They are pictured defending themselves with their helmets. There were no riot shields, visors or any of the semi-military equipment that later protesters were to find. But if the police were taken by surprise by the tactics of anti-fascists at Wood Green, so were the anti-fascists themselves. David Widgery in his book Beating Time estimates that even a year earlier protesters would not have attacked the fascist march. That they did was per-haps a semi-surprise to them as well, even though they had planned for it.
The testimony of these who were there, however, suggests that the National Front was now seen as a very serious threat to the left and that the violent tactics employed at Turnpike Lane were not only necessary but would need to be repeated.
How they saw it: memories and assessments from 23rd April 1977
From Beating Time, David Widgery et al, London 1987
P43: “The NF’s first big demonstration of 1977 was planned for April through a multi-cultural inner city suburb where long-standing Jewish and Irish citizens has been joined by post-war immigrants from the Caribbean, Cyprus, India and Pakistan – Wood Green. A loose alliance of political and ethnic groups including the local Labour and Communist parties united to oppose the Wood Green march. But there was considerable disagreement about tactics, with the leadership of the Labour Party and the Communist Party and the official ethnic bodies concentrating on pressure to get the march banned while they held a separate protest rally. The SWP led the argument for direct confrontation which was not, as a North London SWP organiser recalls, at all easy:
we were quite clearly the best organised. We always had the leaf-lets out first, we knew the terrain and we knew where we were going.
…while the worthies addressed a rather small audience in a local part the Front and their police protectors were faced with much more numerous better organised and determined opposition armed with smoke bombs, flares, bricks, bottles and planned ambushes. At Duckett’s Common where the pre-vious year the anti-NF forces would probably have been content to jeer there was a spontaneous move to block the road and physically attack the Front.
…A batch of dogged student lefties stoically chanting the NF is a Nazi Front were shocked into silence by the sight of a squad of black lads accurately hurling training shoes borrowed from Free-man, Hardy and Willis street display baskets. A smoke bomb bar-rage obliterated the honour guard’s spiked Union Jacks. For a moment the police line weakened and it looked as if they would not pass.”
John Robson, later trade union Chair of the London Underground Trains Council recalls that 25 years ago: “I was unemployed and re-member spending weeks prior to the march going around cafes and clubs in Green Lanes and West Green Road, delivering leaflets and post-ers. We visited hundreds of Greek and Turkish establishments and work-places to drum up support for the anti-Nazi counter-demonstration”.
Daniel Birchall, the son of a political activist, then aged six, recalls of the day that “I was taken off to Alan Watts’ house where everyone had gathered to put flour, tomatoes and eggs into brown paper bags. Some [people] were going to hide in the crowds and pretend to be passers-by rather than join the counter-demonstrations and then launch their attack on the NF from the sidelines. Some of the tomatoes and eggs might even have been rotten”.
Dave Morris, a member of Haringey Solidarity Group notes: “I was on the demo with some other anarchist colleagues. My memories are hazy but I recall being involved with a bit of a fracas in the High Road as police blocked public and protesters from walking down the pavement, alongside the march.
Somehow I got through, seemingly the only one who did at the time. For half an hour I walked alongside the fascist demonstration as it completely dominated the streets, protected by police who cleared away most of the public in general. It was eerie – chilling in fact. After getting increasingly funny looks from cops and marchers despite my innocent whistling and hum-ming and pretending to admire the cracks in the paving stones, I sloped off.
I resolved that I would help mobilise for, and take part in future efforts to physically confront and prevent fascist marches. I had tons of arguments with NF sympathisers where I worked as a postman in the Holloway sorting office. There was at the time a 100-strong NF postal workers branch in the main Islington sorting office, and fascism seemed to be a real and growing threat.
However, going to Lewisham later in the year was a real turning point for me – the fascist march there was successfully attacked and then shepherded away by cops to the middle of nowhere… then thousands of mainly black local residents, and many of the anti-fascists, tool over the streets in a show of force against the NF and the police that sent out an uncompromising message: ‘fascist activities will be crushed – the streets being to the people’.
The next day at work sympathy for the NF and overt racism seemed to have evaporated somewhat and gradually fell out of favour. Meanwhile postal workers all over London were taking solidarity action with the striking Asian women of Grunwicks, as company mail seemed to be continually getting diverted to New Zealand…”
David Bennie, one of the two anti-fascists mentioned in the New Society report has provided his diary entry for 23rd April 1977: “We walked to Turnpike Lane where the counter-demonstration was assembling in the presence of vast numbers of police. The rally had been banned but the local council yet was being attended by the vice mayor, the local Labour candidate Ted Knight [a fine battling leftist on Lambeth Council] and even a representative of the Tory opposition on Haringey Council. We met up with Steve and watched the Front march form up a hundred yards away, with plenty of verbal exchange between the two sides. It seemed incredible to me that the police could allow such an obviously explosive confrontation to occur.
The march started off and we were aiming to intercept. Soon I had lost Robin but managed to maintain contact with Steve. A little way along Wood Green High Road the march was attacked. Red smoke bombs filled the air and a battle was soon underway. Everything that could be thrown was thrown at the fascists in an attempt to stop the march. Police Horses appeared on the pavement, if shoppers got in the way that was their hard luck. I crossed the road to give myself more freedom of action. I picked up a policeman’s helmet and used it as my first missile of the day. I grabbed a Front flag, intending to throw it at them but others wanted to burn it. If they had man-aged to set it on fire I would have thrown it, the bastards should have been stopped. We didn’t stop the march but it was harassed every inch of the way.
Police horses separated the two groups some distance from the school where the Front was assembling and then a violent hailstorm dispersed the remnants of the counter-demo. We found ourselves walking past the school and I suggested that we try and go inside. The stewards at the ground’s entrance seemed amused at the idea and let us in. At this point Steve said we were crazy and left. There was some dispute at the door about whether to admit us but we finally got in and I heard a couple of minutes of the meeting. “If they’re black, send them back.” The atmosphere was one of rabid anti-intellectualism, clearly thought was a sign of weakness. Then somebody said, “they’re commies” and we were recognised as anti-fascists, which I thought was obvious anyway.
The mood was ugly so we made to leave but they weren’t able to re-strain themselves, we were jostled and pushed out. Robin, a yard behind me, received a number of blows and kicks until blood was coming from his nose. Some of this happened outside but police stood around nearby, ignoring it. As we left a guy writing for New Society interviewed us about what had happened.
We caught the tube at Arnos Grove but when it stopped at Turnpike Lane we heard shouts of “everybody off the train”. Soon the whole plat-form echoed to the chant of “The National Front is a Nazi Front, SMASH the National Front”. It seems that a few fascists had attacked a comrade with a bottle. I saw one large guy, barely able to stand, with blood running from his face and understood that two others were hurt. The fascists’ compartment was besieged; we were not prepared to let the train leave until the thugs were arrested for assault. Robin recognised one of them as one of our denouncers in the hall. They stood there, umbrellas in hand, trying to repulse us, with crazed looks on their faces, like bit part players from A Clockwork Orange until the police took them away. It was a marvellous experience of revolutionary solidarity against our most dangerous enemies.
It had been quite a day. I’d never been through a demonstration like it and left it determined that the National Front must be opposed with absolute ruthlessness wherever it dares to appear. Any illusions I may have had about non-violent means of opposing them were destroyed in that school”.
Early in 1977 a Guardian journalist, Martin Walker, published a book on The National Front (Fontana). Walker had no sympathy for the NF, but was impressed by its achievements, and believed that the NF could grow electorally, and even ‘conceivably explode into power’. The perspective was not wholly unrealistic; economic crisis, unemployment, cuts and a deeply unpopular Labour Government offered the NF unprecedented opportunities. If the left had failed, the NF might well have entered the political mainstream, as its sister parties did in several European countries.
At Ducketts Common the NF had been wounded, but not incapacitated – a very dangerous situation. The summer of 1977 was marked by Nazi violence; in July racists fire-bombed a West Indian youth club in South East London [This was the Moonshot Club in New Cross – past tense note]; there was a wave of attacks on socialists in Leeds. The police often gave the impression of backing up the racists; in June Lewisham police launched a dawn raid, arresting around sixty black youth. Within police ranks the operation was called ‘Police Nigger Hunt’.
But after Ducketts Common the labour movement was responding to the challenge. The following week journalists on the Hackney Gazette struck for three days against the publication of an NF advertisement. The editor of the print union SOGAT journal told an anti‑racist conference: ‘If I see a disease-ridden rat crawl up from a sewer I don’t get down on my hands and knees and hold a discussion with it; I put the boot in.’ Most important of all, the summer saw a series of mass pickets at the Grunwicks factory in North London, where strikers – mainly Asian women – were demanding union rights. They got massive support from across the labour movement – the tide was now flowing towards working-class unity.
The NF faced a major problem. Though it aimed for electoral ‘respectability’, it was not simply another electoral party, but a fascist organisation. It proposed to make its voters into activists who could one day challenge the power of the working-class organisations. However, if every demonstration were to be confronted on the streets, then only the most thuggish and bone‑headed would continue to march.
In an attempt to reassert their control of the streets, the NF called a demonstration in Lewisham on 13 August. Despite ill-concealed support from the police and the foot-dragging of the ‘official’ left, they were confronted by a broad alliance such as had appeared at Ducketts Common – but bigger and more militant. In the words of Socialist Worker (20 August 1977) there were ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of cable street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists…’ The result: ‘The Nazis remained in the back-streets, cowering behind massive police lines, until they were finally forced to abandon their march before it was half completed.’
The NF did not roll over and die. In September racists made an arson attack on headquarters of the SWP – but resort to individual terrorism is a sign of weakness. If the first two confrontations of 1977 were high drama, the third was farce. The NF planned a march through Hyde, Manchester on 8 October. Tameside Council, fearing a rerun of Ducketts Common and Lewisham, banned it. NF leader Martin Webster staged a one-man protest – accompanied by 3000 police. And following what The Times called ‘a pact between the police and the National Front’, a handful of Nazis marched through Levenshulme. But though the location was secret, anti-racists pursued them across Greater Manchester, with help and encouragement from the local population. The whole shambles involved 9500 police and two helicopters, at a cost of £250,000.
Now the NF were on the defensive. In November the Anti-Nazi League was launched, involving leading Labour Party figures like Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain. If its most spectacular achievements were the big carnivals, organised with Rock Against Racism, it also won widespread trade‑union support, and created innumerable local groups which painted out Nazi graffiti and picketed every pub and school where the Nazis tried to meet.
The deep divisions within the NF, which had been glossed over in the period of success, now became increasingly visible. Margaret Thatcher made her notorious speech warning that British people might be ‘swamped’ by other cultures. Doubtless she drew back to the Tories some voters who preferred Cliff Richard, Trevor Bailey and pies and mash to Bob Marley, Viv Richards and kebabs. But the NF had already lost momentum; Thatcher was merely picking up the pieces.
In the 1979 General Election the NF got 191,267 votes (0.6%), as against 114,415 (0.4%) in October 1974, though they contested three times as many seats in 1979. They held on to their core vote, but completely failed to make the leap into the mainstream that so many had feared. In Haringey the NF vote fell sharply as against 1974 – in Tottenham 8.3% to 2.9%, and in Wood Green 8.0% to 2.8%. By the early 1980s the NF had vanished from the scene. There were no fascist gangs to attack the striking miners or Wapping printworkers.
Racism survived, but primarily in the form of the institutionalised racism of the police. In Haringey it was the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid that provoked the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, and since then it is police racism, not that of the extreme right, which has been the main problem in Haringey, though the Nazis have attempted to regroup in the East End and Cheshunt.
Fascism will not disappear until the destruction of what it feeds on, the inequality, poverty, unemployment and poor housing and public services engendered by decaying capitalism. As the recent success of the British National Party in certain Northern towns shows, the threat endures. The lesson of Ducketts Common and 1977 – that Nazis must be confronted politically and physically wherever they appear – remains valid.
Ian Birchall’s conclusion deserves a bit of scrutiny. As a former leading member of the SWP, (until he rightly resigned in 2013 in the wake of the rape allegations against ‘Comrade Delta’), his view follows the SWP line through most of the 80s – that the threat from organised fascism was low and thus anti-fascist organising was a ‘distraction’ from more important struggles. The SWP maintained this line until 1992, when all of a sudden the view was reversed, and the Anti-Nazi League was revived. Ironically the Birchall’s final line was written as this about turn was being performed.
Fascism didn’t disappear from the streets in the way he describes. Although fighting state racism was vital in the 1980s, for many communities targeted by Nazis, self-defence against street violence from British Movement, NF and BNP members remained necessary. That the police could always be expected to protect the fascists wherever they gathered, and to arrest anyone who fought back (especially if they were black) illustrated where the sympathies of many of the boys in blue lay. Anti-fascists whether black or white had few illusions that state racism was any less of a problem than bonehead racism –a continuous thread of influence, association and common cause could be drawn from the Nazis on the march through the rightwing of the Conservative Party to big business and elements within the state.
In contrast Anti-Fascist Action evolved from the section of the left and anarchist scenes that continued to physically opposed fascism and recognise the threat nazi organisation posed to black communities, workers’ struggles, trade unions and the left… AFA was not without its own issues (as we hope to discuss later in another post), but its presence on the streets helped to keep the myriad fascist sects from gaining much traction…
Read a more detailed and more nuanced view of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 70s-early 80s from a former ANL activist, as well as a summing up of the organisation’s 1990 ‘revival’…
This excellent critique of the ANL in both of its incarnations is worth paying attention to. The first ANL evolved in response to a real threat, and contained many committed activists, but foundered in the inability of the SWP leadership to cope with the realities of the daily struggle against racist violence, and its pursuit of high profile celebrity events… The revived version in the 1990s was a dilettante farce from the start, able to gather hundreds of students but generally standing on the sidelines when any serious confrontation had to be faced. ‘Here come the lollipops’ was a popular bitter remark at this time, inspired by the round ANL placards…
Its worth remembering the street battles of the 1970s and 80s in the UK, as we see another of the periodic waves of rightwing organising on the rise. Brexit and austerity has helped fuel the swivel-eyed fires among reactionaries of all classes – the Brexit project itself is clearly partly born from the rosy-eyed imperial nostalgery of dislocated white working class, still eyeing ‘darkies’ and now eastern Europeans with an empty hate – handily supplying ground troops for the second of the UK ruling class which thinks richer pickings are to be had from operating outside the EU. The latter may benefit from Brexit – little will trickle down to the disgruntled UKIP voters or crap hooligans of the DFLA.
Join your local anti-fascist group – but keep your eyes on the rich too…
An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online