Today in London anti-fascist history, 1974: the death of Kevin Gately, opposing National Front demo

On 15 June, 1974, Kevin Gately, an anti-fascist demonstrator and student at Warwick University, was killed during a demonstration in Red Lion Square, Holborn, London, in a clash between police and anti-fascist demonstrators opposing the National Front’s meeting at Conway Hall.
He was the first person to die in a public demonstration in mainland Britain for at least 55 years, (since the British Army shot two looters dead in Liverpool during the riots associated with a police strike in August 1919).

On June 15, 1974, the rightwing National Front had organised a march through London, ending at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. The Front’s influence was growing; from their origins as a merger of three far right splinter groups in 1967, run by men with long histories in neo-nazi organising, the NF had played populist nationalism to the max. In an era where full employment and the hopes of the 60s were giving way to recession, unemployment and increased industrial action by workers, the NF whipped up fears that migrants were threatening the ‘British Way of Life’, taking white workers jobs etc. Ably abetted by tory and some Labour politicians and many a media front page… Refugees like the Uganda and Kenyan Asians were hysterically held up as scapegoats; workers fighting for better wages and conditions were also painted as a threat to order.

At this point, in the early 1970s, the Front was concentrating on trying to win middle-class support, among traditional Conservative supporters disillusioned with tory policies from a rightwing perspective: a demographic nostalgic for empire and everyone knowing their place.

Rightwing violence, racist attacks were on the rise. NF candidates were winning larger shares of the vote in elections. But many on the left were determined to oppose the Front.

The National Front planned a march from Westminster Hall, handing in a petition as they passed Downing Street, to their meeting in Conway Hall. The Front had been using Conway Hall for meetings during the previous four years, but anti-fascist pickets began in October 1973. On 15 June 1974, they planned a meeting entitled “Stop immigration – start repatriation”.

Freedom of expression was Conway Hall’s mantra – coming from a long history of freethought – but should this be extended to fascists? If most on the left were prepared to demonstrate their opposition to fascism, but not to physically fight it, a growing minority had come round to the position of ‘No Platform’ for fascists; while in practice this was “about denying the NF venues to speak and was not interchangeable with the opposition on the streets”. “Essentially ‘no platform’ was an extension of the successful anti-fascist strategy that had been developed since the late 1940s. As well as physically combating fascist agitation in the streets, one of the major strategies was campaigning for local governments and other institutions to prevent fascists from using public places to speak or meet. Between 1972 and 1976, the ‘no platform’ concept dominated anti-fascist strategy, supported by the Communist Party, the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group (IMG), as well as becoming policy for the National Union of Students (NUS), which was considerably influenced by the IMG and the CPGB. The ‘no platform’ strategy was not limited to petitioning local councils and institutions to deny the NF access to meeting places, but included physical opposition to the NF organising in public.” (Evan Smith)

However, how ‘No Platform’ was interpreted varied among the different organisations…

Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) organised a counter-demonstration that was to end with a meeting outside the hall, which was supported by most of the larger groupings on the left – including the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialists (now the SWP), the International Marxist Group (IMG) and many other groups within the labour movement.

Liberation, not intending to try to prevent the NF meeting, booked a smaller room at Conway Hall for a separate meeting, to be preceded by a march along a route agreed in advance with the police, starting at the Thames Embankment to avoid the route of the National Front march. The police agreed that both marches could end at Red Lion Square. An open-air protest meeting was planned on the north side of the square, to the west of the National Front meeting in Conway Hall, with an address by Syd Bidwell, then Labour MP for Southall.

However while Liberation and others were content to march in protest,  the International Marxist Group planned to organise a mass picket at the main entrance of the hall, to deny the NF access.

When the Liberation demo of around 1,200 people came from the east, having marched westwards along Theobald’s Road and turned into Old North Street to enter Red Lion Square, a police cordon blocked the way to the left, east of Old North Street, to allow the National Front march to reach Conway Hall.

The NF march of around 900 people approached from the west, marching down Bloomsbury Way to the west side of Southampton Row, accompanied by an Orange Order fife and drum band. The march arrived at Southampton Row around at around 5:50 pm, where they were stopped by the police.

A group mainly composed of the IMG moved to block the doors of Conway Hall. The police, with what Lord Scarman later described as a ‘concern… with maintenance of public order’, attempted to disperse the IMG contingent. The IMG members refused to be dispersed and according to Lord Scarman’s report, ‘when the IMG assaulted the police cordon there began a riot, which it was the duty of the police to suppress, by force if necessary’. The cordon was reinforced by members of the Special Patrol Group and by mounted police, who eventually forced the demonstrators back and then cleared the square, with liberal use of police truncheons.

During this initial violent clash between police and militant anti-fascists, lasting for less than fifteen minutes, Kevin Gately, a student from Warwick University, was fatally injured. Gately died from a brain haemorrhage, resulting from a blow to the head.

The following description of the moment of his death was published in the Guardian two days later:

“Kevin Gately, the Warwick University student who died after the violence in Red Lion Square, London, on Saturday, was left prone and motionless on the ground as the police drove demonstrators back. We saw his body emerge, rather as a rugby ball comes slowly out of a scrum, as the police cordon gradually moved forward. He appeared to have fallen whilst being involved in a fracas near the front line of the demonstrators who clashed with the police. Above him the police were engaged in a pushing match with a mass of demonstrators.

Both sides were packed tightly together and it seems to us inconceivable that he was not at least trampled upon. He was lying on the ground amid a litter of broken placards, torn banners and lost shoes. Almost immediately he was carried away by policemen holding his outstretched limbs. He appeared to be unconscious. But last night there was no clear evidence of why he collapsed in the first place. A post-mortem examination at St Pancras mortuary was adjourned until today after proving inconclusive. Further tests are to be carried out but the indications are that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. The police maintained that there were no marks of physical injury but he must have been at the very least tightly crushed in the melee before he fell. And although we saw policemen making every effort to avoid standing on him as they struggled with the crowd he was carried by his arms and legs before being laid on a stretcher about 10 yards away. A bitter row over the police conduct at the demonstration started yesterday with demands for an inquiry and questions being tabled in the House. Mr Tony Gilbert, who organised the march for the Central Council of Liberation, said yesterday that Mr Gately, aged 21, had in effect been murdered by the police. “When you get police diving in with truncheons and horses and somebody is killed in circumstances like this I would call it murder.” Other Left-wing spokesmen accused the police of unwarranted brutality. Miss Jackie Stevens, a fellow student, said that she had been next to Mr Gately linking arms with him. Their line was the first in the march which turned into the police cordon by swinging left when they entered Red Lion square, instead of right. Organisers of the demonstration claimed that they had agreed with Scotland Yard to turn left and only found out at the last moment that they were being made to turn right. This was flatly denied by Scotland Yard. Miss Stevens claimed that the police had charged the marchers. “We tried to get through to Conway Hall. The police charged us and drew their batons. They charged into us with their horses. I fell. I was trodden on by a police horse and had my head kicked by a policeman.

“I find it very hard to believe that Kevin could not have been touched. There was blood all over the place, people screaming, and teeth all over the ground. It was horrific.” She said Mr Gately had never been on a demonstration before, and was not a member of any political group.”

There were other altercations nearby close to Southampton Row. Clashes between police and anti-fascist demonstrators went on for most of the day, with the end result being that ‘one person died, 46 policemen and at least 12 demonstrators were injured, 51 people arrested and the whole police operation had cost an estimated £15,000’. The CPGB and Liberation emphasised the peaceful nature of their march, quoting Gilbert as saying, ‘At least 99.9 per cent of the 2,000 people there were absolutely peaceful and they were attacked’.

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Kevin Gately was born in England to parents of Irish descent. He had red hair and was approximately 6′ 9″ tall; contemporary photos show him standing out above the crowd because of his exceptional height. He became a mathematics student at Warwick University, and was in his second year in June 1974, three months before his 21st birthday.

An inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court later concluded that Gately’s death was caused by a brain haemorrhage resulting from a blow to the head from a blunt instrument.

In the days following the demo, there were calls for an inquiry into Gately’s death. NUS President John Randall said, ‘We now know that Kevin Gately died as a direct result of police violence’. By the end of the month, Lord Scarman had been placed in charge of a public inquiry, conducting a tribunal with witnesses throughout September 1974, eventually reporting in February 1975. Scarman’s report whitewashed the police actions and criticised the demonstrators, primarily putting the blame for the violence – and Kevin Gately’s death – on the IMG, and criticising the naivety of Liberation. The report was ‘unable to make any definition finding as to the specific cause of the fatal injury which Mr Kevin Gately suffered’.

The coroner’s inquest heard that the cause of his death was a subdural haemorrhage caused by a modest blow to his head, and the jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure on 12 July 1974 by a majority of 10-1. He was found to have a small oval bruise behind his left ear, and had collapsed shortly afterwards, only 10 feet from the edge of the police cordon. Possible causes for the injury were a blow from an implement, such as police truncheon, or from a projectile, or from being kicked after falling to the ground. His exceptional height led several newspapers of the time to allege that his death may have been the result of a blow from a mounted police truncheon. Neither a coroner’s inquest nor the Lord Justice Scarman inquiry were able to find evidence to prove or disprove this claim.

Gately was buried in Surbiton on Friday 21 June. The same day, 500 students marched through Coventry with black armbands. The following day, Saturday 22 June 1974, thousands joined a silent march retraced the route of the Liberation counter-demonstration from the embankment to Red Lion Square. The march was led by personal friends of Gately, followed by University of Warwick students and then by students from many other universities and colleges as well as contingents from many of the left wing groups that had taken part in the original march. This march also received widespread media coverage. There’s a very short snippet on youtube

The events of 15th June 1974 raised questions of how fascism was to be opposed – questions the Communist Party (CP) addressed by getting all the answers wrong. The CP had supported the counter-demonstration, claiming 5-600 who attended were CP members. In the Morning Star (the Communist Party newspaper) on 15 June, 1974, an article urged people to support the counter-demo, including an appeal by leading trade unionists, stating that the NF’s ‘poisonous ideas are a threat to all that is best in our society’. In the aftermath, the Morning Star declared that “blame for what occurred… must be placed where it belongs – on the authorities for permitting it, and the police for brutality”. The CP position was that the march by the NF was in violation of the Race Relations Act, and should have been banned. As London District Secretary Gerry Cohen wrote in the Morning Star, “The police, like the National Front, are on the side of the exploiting class. They operated on that side with thoroughness and with fury on Saturday in Red Lion Square. And Kevin Gately died”.

The CP’s stance – appealing to the repressive apparatus of the State, such as the police, the judiciary and the Home Office, to deal with fascists – showed some extreme naivety. Suggesting the police and the wider State could be persuaded to counter the NF, (despite long experience of the police’s hostility to the left, preparedness to use force against pickets, demonstrations etc, and growing evidence of police rank n file sympathy for NF politics), was a non-starter as anti-fascist strategy.

The logical extension of this liberal stance was that the CPGB also slagged off the IMG for aiming at confrontation with the NF. They took the view that the anti-fascist movement needed to appeal to the broader progressive and labour movements, “but what this small section of the march did was to make this more difficult”. Physical confrontation, they suggested, ‘played into the hands of all those in the key positions of establishment…aimed at destroying our basic democratic rights’. The CP seemed concerned to distance themselves from the physical opposition [As the CP hierarchy had also done organisationally on the 1930s in many cases, despite the widespread participation of CP members on the ground – check out Joe Jacobs book Out of the Ghetto for some of the conflicts within the CP in East London around this].

In a press release, the CP stated that, “At no time did our Party contemplate, nor did it take part in any discussions that contemplated of bringing about any physical confrontation with the police or anybody else at this demonstration’; tactics like the IMG’s blocking of the doors they called ‘the adventurist tactics of a minority’. According to the Party, there was ‘absolutely no reason why the police could not have contained the situation peacefully at all times’ and the police had ‘undoubtedly mishandled the situation”.

This blatantly ignored the reality of organising against fascism, whether in the 1930s, the 1970s, or today. It was physical confrontations that forced the British Union of Fascists onto the defensive at Cable Street and beyond; it was to be mass physical opposition later in the 70s that was to defeat the BF on the streets (if politically they were also undermined by the tories moving to the right under Thatcher). This analysis reflects the reality of later anti-fascist mobilising, in which the CP organisationally played little part. (In fact, the IMG would also not play as significant a role again, being eclipsed by other groups like the International Socialists, before declining and imploding…) Some parts of the state and the capitalist class will often happily allow fascist groups to grow, as a counter-weight to workers struggles, especially (as in 1974) when industrial struggles are rising and elements of the upper class feel a strong fascist movement can be used against the working class (or as possible footsoldiers in the event of a rightwing coup, which some were contemplating). In the event the NF were not necessary, as but that was not obvious in 1974. But given the widespread support for the NF among the police rank and file, and a more concealed preference for fash over commies at most levels of the British establishment, the CP’s demands were laughable.

Scarman’s report reflected the ‘nuanced’ establishment response – the police were ‘right not to ban the National Front demonstration’, but the Race Relations Act needed ‘radical amendment to make it an effective sanction’, the anti-fascists were ultimately responsible for the trouble and Kevin’s death, and the anti-fascist movement should ‘co-operate with the police’. The CP and Scarman had more in common than they disagreed on… Though the CPGB were critical of Scarman’s dismissal of the failure to ban the National Front march under the Race Relations Act, they also demanded that demonstrations that ‘conflict with the law…should be banned’. Yeah cause that’ll never be used against the workers, eh?

The CP seemed unable to see the contradiction between condemning the police’s actions and demanding that they be given more powers…

The NF’s electoral fortunes did not grow exponentially – their profile brought them “notoriety but no tangible gains”. In response the more street-oriented elements of the NF pushed the organisation towards more street marches and confrontation, and attempted to orient their politics more towards a working class audience. This NF campaign chimed with, and contributed to, an increase in violence against Britain’s black population, including racist attacks and murders. But this led to a broad culture of resistance to the Front, to the events of Wood Green, Lewisham and Southall; the Front were vastly outnumbered on the street.
In fact, in the aftermath of Red Lion Square, numbers at anti-fascist demonstrations increased dramatically and continued to rise throughout the mid-to-late 1970s. As Nigel Copsey wrote, ‘despite adverse publicity that the Red Lion Square disorder had generated for the left, more anti-fascists than fascists could be mobilised at street level’.

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At this time there were three Social Demonstration Squad undercover police spying inside the International Marxist Group, as well as at least 4, maybe 5, inside the International Socialists. That’s the ones that the Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing has admitted to so far… More are to come, we would guess. Undoubtedly, the SDS were probably infiltrating the National Front too, though this has not yet been revealed, and may not be. How much information did the police have on the IMG’s intentions beforehand…? Were there also undercovers marching with the NF? A later anti-fascist demo (at Welling in October 1993) saw at least four undercovers, some marching with anti-racists, and one (at least) inside the bookshop of the British National Party. There have long been suggestions that the Welling march was set up by the police, to ensure rioting, to try to discredit the anti-racist movement… We’re not sure, and probably never will be. Wonder if similar questions could possibly be levelled at the events at Red Lion Square in June 1974?

In the end though it doesn’t change the necessity for opposing fascism physically and no platforming fascists wherever they raise their heads.

In memory of Kevin Gately
18 September 1953 – 15 June 1974

Lots of this post was nicked from here

And here is an interesting account of left groups and opposition to fascism in the 1970s, which covers the decline of the CP’s influence in antifascist organising…

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