The Anti Nazi League and the mass movement it generated in the late 1970s is one of the great achievements of the revolutionary left in post-war Britain. The experience is particularly important today with the growth of the far right internationally. Paul Holborow, organising secretary of the Anti Nazi League in 1977-1980, and today an activist in Stand Up to Racism, talked to Alex Callinicos and Esme Choonara.
AC: The Anti Nazi League (ANL) was launched in November 1977. So tell us first something about the context in which it was launched.
PH: There are three aspects to the context. The first is the immediate threat of the National Front (NF). The second is the activities of the International Socialists (IS, from 1977 onwards the Socialist Workers Party, SWP), in the five preceding years. The third part of the context, which is always ignored by other commentators, is the development of the SWP’s industrial strategy and its relationship to the Communist Party.
So if we take the first aspect, we need to remember that the NF fed on a broad racist climate. Enoch Powell made one of his most vicious speeches in January 1976 threatening “racial civil war”. Bob Mellish, the Labour chief whip echoed him, declaring in the House of Commons in May 1976 to Labour and Tory cheers: “enough is enough—rehabilitation of Indians back to India”.1
The electoral figures that the National Front achieved are very important. In 1977, they obtained 119,063 votes in the Greater London Council (GLC) election, 5 percent of the overall vote, up from 0.5 percent in 1973. They stood in 85 out of 92 London constituencies, and knocked the Liberals into third place in a third of the constituencies. It was on that basis that Martin Webster and John Tyndall, the two leaders of the National Front, could announce that they were going to run around 320 candidates at the general election, which people expected in the autumn of 1978 but actually took place in May 1979. That was symbolic because, had all the candidates won, it would have given them a majority in parliament.
We also have to remember that in 1976 the National Front had already scored very significantly in Leicester where they got 44,000 votes, 18.5 percent of the total. Together with the National Party (a split from the NF), they had also polled 48 percent of the total in the Deptford parliamentary by-election, and had done extremely well in the council elections in Blackburn, where the NF and the National Party won a combined vote of 38 percent and two National Party councillors were elected including former NF chair John Kingsley Read.2
It’s important to realise that this threat was greater than that which Oswald Mosley mounted in the 1930s in electoral terms. So it was against that background that the ANL was launched. But of course there were also the two crucial anti-National Front demonstrations in the spring and summer of 1977. The first one is marked but is often not really properly referenced. This was the Battle of Wood Green on 23 April 1977, which Jeremy Corbyn, who helped to organise the protest together with Phil Marfleet, SWP organiser in North London at the time, commemorated on the 40th anniversary in 2017 at Ducketts Common. Wood Green was significant because it was the first major direct confrontation with the National Front. It was highly successful and involved on our side 3,000 or 4,000 people who were determined the Nazis would not pass.
But the event that really shifted the atmosphere on our side was the confrontation in Lewisham on 13 August 1977. Lewisham was interesting from two points of view—first that there was a spontaneous reaction by the inhabitants of Lewisham, which was a strongly African-Caribbean area at the time, against the prospect of the National Front marching through that area. However, there’s no doubt that it was the SWP that gave focus to that opposition, both in terms of propaganda and of mobilising. So in the run up to the demonstration, we set up an organising centre in a house in the area and the night before the demonstration, one of the other London organisers, Jerry Fitzpatrick, and I spent the whole of that Friday evening going around in a car with a megaphone and so on and rallying our side to assemble in Clifton Rise.
But the second aspect of the importance of Lewisham was, and this is often forgotten now, that this was done in the teeth of opposition from both the Communist and Labour Parties. The argument from the SWP was that we were trying to follow the experience of the great anti-Mosley Battle of Cable Street of October 1936 and we were roundly and strongly denounced by the Communist Party as being adventurist, ultra-left and so on.
The test of the two approaches came with two demonstrations that were called on that Saturday. One was the so-called Bishops’ March which was led by the mayor of Lewisham with many people in the Labour Party, faith groups and so on and they had a significant demonstration of around 4,000 people. We leafleted and agitated within that demonstration to draw people to Clifton Rise where the National Front were assembling. We drew probably three-quarters of that demonstration to our demonstration, which was made up of many local people, both middle aged and youngsters, and the SWP.
The clash at Lewisham was absolutely decisive in shifting the atmosphere on our side, because if you remember the electoral figures, people were really scared about the success of the National Front. I should add that as the East London organiser of the SWP, we had several physical confrontations with the National Front as they sold their paper both at Brick Lane, but also out in Ilford, in Newham, in Barking and elsewhere. There was a female comrade whose face was severely injured by a woman in the National Front who swung a handbag at her with a brick in it. It was really vicious both in East London and more widely. So the concern on our side was not just an electoral one. It was also the clear growing influence of the National Front and their physical commitment to challenge us on the streets. And that was the point of their provocative march in Lewisham.
So for us to stand up to them and successfully disperse them was a famous victory. And again, it’s worthwhile remembering that we were roundly denounced by leaders of the Labour Party. Ron Hayward, the general secretary of the Labour Party, said that we were the red fascists. Michael Foot, who was then deputy prime minister and had a left-wing Tribunite reputation, said: “You don’t stop the Nazis by throwing bottles or bashing the police. The most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them.” So we were condemned, but we stood our ground and said that a mass mobilisation against the fascists to contest their right to march was essential and justified.3
That happened on the Saturday, and when I went into the national office of the SWP on the Monday morning the phone rang incessantly and the message was identical from all parts of London and parts of the country. They said that what you did on Saturday was completely brilliant and we fully support you, but we don’t agree with the wider policies of the SWP. And it was really on that basis that the then national secretary of the SWP Jim Nichol came up with the idea of forming the Anti Nazi League.
AC: I had just come onto the Central Committee (CC) of the SWP then and I remember at the first Marxism festival—Marxism 1977, which would have been in early July, before Lewisham, there was a discussion about launching something broader. We were preparing for Lewisham, but I remember Jim and also Chris Harman talking about creating a broader anti-fascist movement. So even before Lewisham people were talking about it.
I was completely unaware of that, but that is very interesting.
AC: What you’re saying is that Lewisham crystallised the idea.
Yes, that was the catalyst. What you say is interesting because some comrades on the CC were very lukewarm about the Anti Nazi League and this then fed into the tension around whether or not, as the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff argued from early 1978 onwards, a downturn was developing in the industrial situation.4
AC: I think that at least initially the Anti Nazi League was doing something a bit different from what we’d done at Lewisham, in the sense that in Lewisham you had this very successful alliance of the revolutionary left and crucially local African-Caribbean youth that stopped the Nazis. But part of what the ANL initially did was to create a much broader kind of propaganda campaign to create a mass movement. And I think the controversies that you’re referring to were partly about the relationship between building the wider movement, this very broad movement, and the street mobilisations.
I understand what you’re saying, but that wasn’t what I was referring to. Actually, there was a clear view put forward that this was a move away from the industrial orientation. That’s really what I’m referring to, but I do take your point. The ANL was an attempt to broaden the movement and the question of the relationship between confrontation and propaganda was an ever-present concern at every meeting of the ANL. This was only resolved in 1979 at Leicester and at Southall.
AC: That’s right, but I think it was that tension that concerned some comrades on the CC. It wasn’t about industrial strategy (even though they may have initially disagreed with Cliff’s downturn argument).
EC: This presumably was a big shift for the party to put all its resources into the ANL to make that such a big success. Any big turn in the party usually causes some tensions—did the shift cause an argument?
It didn’t produce as much tension in the party as you might expect for two reasons. First, it was phenomenally quick and a very speedy success and we were up and running within three or four months. Secondly, the ANL was self-financing from the beginning. So that for instance I think on the second or third day after Lewisham, we got the phone call from some East London newsprint suppliers. I remember I went to see them in Stratford and they said if you get a broad campaign going we will pay for all the newsprint that you can use between now and the general election. Corbridge Works, which was the location of the SWP’s print shop, would have these massive deliveries of newsprint, which was the most expensive item of the ANL campaign, which eventually ran into several million leaflets and posters.
Unusually therefore for campaigns on the left, financing the ANL was never a problem. An example of this was when the fantastic designer David King, who died a few years ago, and was a perfectionist, insisted on a particular overprinting method—brown on red which produced black—and to my eye one batch was about a quarter of a centimetre out and we had printed 100,000 leaflets. David came down to the print shop and said “scrap that”, and we could do it because we just phoned up and said we unfortunately need more paper and more came.
So we then drew up a founding statement. The critical breakthrough came when Ernie Roberts went to the Labour Party Conference in the autumn of 1977 and, beyond our rather modest expectations, he got about 45 Labour MPs to sign it. Ernie was a complete gem in the ANL.
AC: Ernie Roberts was the assistant general secretary of the engineering union, one of the main unions of the day at the heyday of union strength.
Absolutely, and it was interesting that Ernie Roberts was a fellow traveller of the Communist Party. But, as he had led the apprentice strike in Coventry during the Second World War, he had been influenced by Trotskyism (only the Trotskyists supported wartime strikes). He was always completely supportive of anything the ANL did and he agreed to be our treasurer.
The other essential person in establishing the ANL was Peter Hain, who had just left the Young Liberals and had a big reputation for the Stop The 70 Tour, which forced the English cricket authorities to cancel a tour by an all-white team from apartheid South Africa. Peter was a three-way bridge between the direct action people, some sections of the Liberal Party, and the left wing of the Labour Party. Importantly, he gained the support of Neil Kinnock, who at the time was the most rebellious of the left-wing MPs in the 1974-9 parliament, had a big reputation and was a brilliant speaker. With his background of successfully resisting the apartheid regime in South Africa and experience of relentless campaigning, Peter was indispensable to the building of the ANL and we were very fortunate that he agreed to take the key position of ANL press officer.
So we had made a promising start. We then mounted a number of publicity stunts, one of the most important of which was when neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Manfred Roeder, who wrote a sympathetic history of the Waffen SS, came to Britain to launch the book. By this time David King (who was the first design editor of the Sunday Times colour supplement) had produced for us five magnificent posters. (He subsequently designed the iconic ANL badge and the yellow ANL lollipop.) At the press conference, which was covered by both television and many newspapers, I managed to hold up one of these posters behind his head. That was important in terms of projecting what sort of organisation we were going to be.
This was reinforced when the high court judge Neil McKinnon instructed a jury to acquit National Party leader Kingsley Read of incitement to racial hatred after Read responded to the killing of a young Asian boy by saying: “One down, a million to go”. I was able to disrupt the court after McKinnon’s summing up which brought further welcome publicity to the ANL.
AC: Plus there was the David Edgar play Destiny about neo-Nazis in Britain, which was shown on the BBC in January 1978.
David Edgar was a very early signatory of the founding statement and was very supportive of the ANL.
We then committed ourselves to the first ANL Carnival on 30 April 1978.We didn’t decide to do that until probably the end of January. It was quite late. As well as the founding statement, we established a steering committee which involved a broad range of people, including crucially the actress Miriam Karlin, who was really important for her Jewish connections, two other Labour MPs and both wings of the Indian Workers’ Association—the one in Derby and the one in Southall. We then encouraged SWP branches to set up similar committees at local level which had the immediate focus of building the Carnival.
The rationale of the ANL in the statement was to encourage anybody who was concerned to join us in opposition to the Nazis in whatever way they felt appropriate. Our aim, particularly after the first Carnival, was to say that no racist remark in any workplace or community gathering would go unchallenged, which had not been the experience previously. The Carnival was absolutely decisive in shifting the situation.
This was for example acknowledged by the Fourth International paper Socialist Challenge, which carried an editorial after the Carnival headlined “Hats Off to the SWP” written by the editor, Tariq Ali. We had no idea what size the Carnival was going to be—we thought 5,000, 6,000, 10,000 max. The reality was beyond all our expectations. It has gone down in mythology as 80,000. I don’t know what the exact figure really was, but it was huge—in the tens of thousands and filling Victoria Park. I can remember a prominent SWP member who had been hostile to the idea coming up to me and saying, “wow, this thing really has got legs on it”.
AC: Let’s emphasise two things that emerge from that. The first is that, and it’s one of the most remarkable things, the SWP launched this at a time when the party itself was quite internally divided. We were having tremendous rows about electoral strategy and industrial strategy, but somehow we still managed to get it going and one of the difficulties that you had as the organising secretary of the ANL was to front this while this row was going on.
Secondly, you have described how the ANL was a very serious united front involving people from the Labour Party, but also as the thing got going, the Communist Party got involved and this was a time when the Communist Party was still very formidable with a very big industrial base and so on and having pursued, as you brought out, quite a different strategy in relation to the fascists. So maybe you could say a bit about what it was like leading the ANL as a genuine united front with very strong left reformist forces involved in it.
Although the ANL was Jim’s idea, the real person in the SWP that I always related to was Cliff. So three or four times a week, I would discuss with Cliff the most intimate tactical details and he was unfailingly on top of what the united front meant. Basically, we ran the ANL as a slightly detached operation from the party. I didn’t ever go to the SWP Central Committee. I didn’t think to report on it.
When I became active in the early 1970s, the industrial landscape, as you say, and the left more widely, was highly influenced by the Communist Party. I was always looking to relate to and involve them. This only happened after the first Carnival. Then Bill Dunn, the London industrial organiser, agreed to come on to the steering committee, replaced by their national organiser Dave Cook later on, and I had good working relations with both of them. We ran the ANL on an informal, consensual basis, usually via long telephone conversations. We would then decide to do something and then take it to the Steering Committee for formal endorsement. There were of course disagreements and some tense moments but the Steering Committee was always very supportive, for which I was always very grateful. We were helped by the rapid pace of events and in a sense the ANL ran like an express train as there was such an enthusiastic, energetic and imaginative response from our wonderful supporters across the country. Members of the SWP undoubtedly played a central but by no means exclusive role here.
The two key people that I related to were Tony Cliff and Peter Hain and really Peter and I discussed every initiative so that for instance, and this comes back to the propaganda discussion, in March 1978 there was an Ilford North by-election where the NF was standing. To demonstrate our commitment to opposing the Nazis wherever they attempted to organise, we decided to flood the constituency with hundreds of our supporters delivering leaflets door to door—quite a risky exercise given the established presence of the NF in East London. Understandably Peter was anxious about this because he thought SWP members were going to be drawn into skirmishes with the Nazis, bearing in mind the concerns over confrontation. I reassured him that on this occasion it was a propaganda exercise and afterwards Peter told me how impressed he was with the disciplined behaviour of the SWP.
So that’s how we ran the united front. We were constantly under attack from the Jewish Board of Deputies and so Miriam Karlin, who was a prominent actor on both stage and screen, was a source of great strength. Although a committed supporter of the state of Israel she understood the need to unite against the Nazi threat irrespective of other political differences. Nigel Harris, the other SWP member on the ANL Steering Committee, was important in that respect because Cliff said, “Nigel is a doctor [he had a PhD!]. Everybody will respect him.” Nigel was very good in dealing with the Jewish Board of Deputies, who were suspicious because of the SWP’s anti-Zionism.
Another important factor in the success of the ANL was the reputation of the SWP in fighting the fascists over the four or five years before. It had long been established in the SWP and its forerunners that opposition to fascists had to involve physical confrontation as their ultimate goal was to use the democratic process in order to destroy it—in particular all forms of working class organisation.
We put that approach into practice from the early 1970s onwards. If you look at Socialist Worker between 1974 and 1976, it is full of reports from up and down the country of how we picketed the Nazis and tried to break up their meetings. On occasions the price of this approach was painfully high. Kevin Gately, a student from Warwick University, was killed on a demonstration against the National Front in June 1974 at Red Lion Square in central London. But there were other initiatives, for example, on the docks in East London. The interesting thing to remember about the dockers was that they had marched in support of Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. But in 1974 when I was East London IS organiser, we got a statement out against the National Front circulated in the Royal Group of Docks, which we published in Socialist Worker.
So by the time we got to Wood Green and Lewisham, we had a solid reputation in our opposition to the Nazis. The rest of the far-left disagreed with us politically over a number of issues but they knew we had the hard won credentials to be the catalyst to launch the ANL. That was important because we could weather the criticism of those who argued the ANL was a retreat from physical confrontation when opposing the Nazis.
But perhaps one of the most significant considerations about how the ANL got established so quickly and widely as a grassroots organisation is what the SWP or the International Socialists had done industrially, really since the first miners’ strike in 1972 and before. Crucially we had 22 rank and file papers that were an essential part of our industrial strategy of developing a rank and file movement that could fight independently of the trade union bureaucracy.5 This enabled us to very quickly establish sizeable groups of manual and white collar workers in their places of work—firefighters, carworkers, civil servants, busworkers, dockers, teachers, engineers, council workers and many others. Perhaps the most impressive example of this was when miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and I spoke at a 200 strong delegate conference and the next Monday 60,000 Yorkshire miners went to work with the yellow ANL sticker on their helmets.
Within months, in the lead-up to the Carnival, we had Civil Servants against the Nazis, Nalgo (local government workers) against the Nazis, and so on, and that was only possible because of the rank and file network the SWP had developed in industry. This was based on our reputation as good rank and file activists in the trade unions, you know, and the Rank and File conferences we had organised. People have totally ignored the fact that the ANL did not come from nowhere. It was made possible by our industrial strategy.
It is this aspect of the ANL with its roots in the workplace and trade unions that gave the ANL its vibrancy and energy, but which has been almost entirely ignored in other accounts.
EC: Before we move on, we’ve heard a lot about the ANL’s relationship with other organisations on the left. Can you tell us more about the relationship with the Labour Party? Were there Labour party rank and file members involved in the ANL and were there tensions working with the Labour Party?
There were no tensions with the Labour Party after the establishment of the ANL although of course there had been around Lewisham. This was partly because of the prominent involvement of Peter Hain, Ernie Roberts and Neil Kinnock, and also because Labour was concerned at the threat the NF posed to their electoral base. In 1978, the Labour Party produced a hard hitting party political broadcast against the National Front. And of course in January 1978, you had Margaret Thatcher’s interview where she said: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”.6 My memory is that there were not many constituency Labour or ward parties formally involved in the ANL although of course many individual Labour members were highly active and committed. But we have many more Constituency Labour Parties, MPs, MEPs and councillors involved alongside Labour Party members with Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) today. We really got the ANL support through the rank and file industrial network and of course through the various migrant and community organisations.
AC: You mentioned briefly the criticisms from the far left that form the other side of creating this very successful mass movement. And I think there were two in particular. First, it’s worth saying from the point of view of context that there was a variety of different local anti-fascist and anti-racist committees that had grown up in the preceding few years. Very often these were influenced by the idea that it was necessary to focus on fighting racism and that taking on the Nazis was incidental to that. This was a criticism that for example, I remember the playwright David Edgar raising. Secondly, there’s the criticism that is articulated most influentially by Paul Gilroy in his book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack that what the ANL did was to play on Second World War patriotism, anti-Nazism in a sense of the wartime Tory-Labour coalition under Winston Churchill.7 Can you tell us what you think about those criticisms?
We called it the Anti Nazi League because we wanted to unite the maximum number of people who were against the Nazis. We specifically did not make it a condition of the ANL to adopt the position of the SWP, which was opposition to all immigration controls. Indeed, there was a 1,000 strong ANL conference in the summer of 1978 where I as an SWP member argued the conference pass a resolution that we are in favour of no immigration controls, but this is not a condition of membership of the ANL. We were criticised from the left and right for taking that position, but we won the conference overwhelmingly. By its nature a united front is not an expression of a fully formed revolutionary approach but a means whereby revolutionaries can make common cause with people who still look to reformism.
There was also another problem with the ANL focusing on broader questions of racism. There were huge disputes on the left about how to handle this, because there was tension between the black nationalists and people who argue for black and white unity and this was the time where the embryo of black sections in the Labour Party was beginning to be discussed. We in the SWP took the view that if the ANL was a more general anti-racist organisation, it would be paralysed by a wide range of disputes over strategy and tactics.
The ANL therefore maintained an approach that focused on uniting the maximum number of people on fighting the fascists. However, I have absolutely no doubt about the positive influence of the ANL in challenging wider racism. For example, we issued a huge number of leaflets—probably around two million—countering 10 myths about immigration which took on the arguments. So effectively we said migrants were not to blame for unemployment, over-crowded classrooms, bad and inadequate housing and so on, delivering much the same arguments as we use in Stand up to Racism today. We were very hard-hitting and uncompromising about that.
EC: It is also worth remembering Darcus Howe’s comments about the ANL at the memorial meeting for SWP member David Widgery, a leading figure in Rock against Racism. Howe talked about how the ANL changed the whole culture around racism. This is how Paul Foot reported his speech:
In a brilliant and moving tribute to David… Darcus Howe said he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all round them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up “black in ease”. Darcus attributed her “space” to the Anti Nazi League in general and to David Widgery in particular. It is difficult to imagine a more marvellous epitaph.8
I think in a way that sums up what the ANL achieved and is a tribute to the thousands of our supporters up and down the country who helped to bring that about.
AC: But it is particularly interesting coming from Darcus Howe because he was a strong opponent of the SWP at the time, so it’s a tribute from a critic.
The other thing to note about the arguments about racism is the important role played by Vishnu Sharma from the Indian Workers’ Association (who was also a Communist Party member). He was unstinting in his support for the ANL, as was Prem Singh from the Derby IWA. Of course the murder of Blair Peach also undermined the arguments that we weren’t serious about challenging racism. The argument about us not taking on racism was a very narrow and sectarian point, you know, because we did alter the atmosphere.
When it comes to Paul Gilroy’s argument about patriotism, I have never quite understood the point. It’s true that the Second World War was fought by Churchill for imperial and patriotic reasons. But ordinary people were persuaded to fight in the Second World War partly because of their abhorrence of Hitler and fascism. And the fact that the National Front was associated with that ideology and the horrors it gave rise to was a fatal weakness in their appeal. We emphasised this again and again, and in so doing managed to separate the hardened racists and Nazis from “soft” racists who were utterly unwilling to be associated with the genocidal legacy.
AC: Can you tell us about the ANL’s cultural front, and about Rock Against Racism in particular?
Rock Against Racism (RAR) was an essential component of the campaign against the Nazis. It was actually founded a year before the ANL in 1976 as a result of the response to Eric Clapton’s statement of support for Powell at a concert in Birmingham.9 The fact that they had wide support both from big names such as the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Specials and grassroots bands was incredibly important. Red Saunders, a close fellow traveller of the SWP, and Roger Huddle and David Widgery, SWP members, were indispensable driving forces of RAR.
The reality is that without the ANL, there would not have been the Carnivals on the size and scale that they occurred—Manchester 35,000, several thousands in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds and Southampton, to name but a few, and of course 100,000 again in London in Brockwell Park on 24 September 1978. But on the other hand Rock Against Racism was an essential component when it came to the music and relating to punk and youth culture. The cultural influence of Rock Against Racism was extremely important up and down the country in terms of mobilising the youth and that was really epitomised by Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 and Steel Pulse saluting the crowd together at the carnival in Victoria Park. It was very important for a layer of people and of course David King also designed the Rock Against Racism badge and that cultural aspect of the thing was essential. The ANL and RAR also encouraged an explosion of self-activity along the lines of “let 100 flowers bloom” giving rise to Skateboarders, Schoolkids, Vegetarians and many other groups against the Nazis.
One thing I should add is that now political campaigns think the key to getting an audience is the music, but that is only partially the case. Many on the left were nervous at our decision to gather for the first Carnival in Trafalgar Square and then march to Victoria Park in East London for five and a half miles—a route that took us though the so-called NF stronghold. Actually our supporters, many of them young, turned out in their tens of thousands, and it was one of the most joyous and vibrant demonstrations I have had the privilege of participating in. It was made even sweeter to see the expressions on the faces of groups of Nazis as we streamed past them.
The other thing that was in the back of my mind was the contrast between the ANL on the one hand and the Anti-Apartheid Movement on the other. The Anti-Apartheid Movement led by the Communist Party was very cautious and sought to be respectable, perhaps more of a popular front than a united front. The ANL was so different—thanks to our grassroots, bottom up approach absolutely full of action, élan and imagination. It’s true, of course, we had businessmen and the showbiz people and so forth and they were welcome and important. But the crucial thing is that you have to have a political approach that seeks to draw on the energy and experience of ordinary folk like us all. Otherwise any campaign, however necessary and important, is likely just to simmer away and be much less effective.
AC: You’ve already touched on the fact that although the ANL started off with propaganda and the carnivals and so on, it did lead to direct mobilisation against the Nazis and perhaps it’s worth emphasising that the National Front combined the “Nazis in suits” strategy of seeking electoral credibility with attempting to dominate the streets and marching through immigrant areas. So the street mobilisation was extremely important. So do you want to say something about how the ANL led to some major confrontations?
I think we have to wind the clock back to the launch of the National Front in 1967 because this was a conscious attempt to unite both the street and the electoral wings. Remember that in the West Bromwich by-election in 1973 the National Front got 16.2 percent of the vote, so the electoral strategy was to the fore. They tried to march in Lewisham and at Wood Green. They saw it was counterproductive to that electoral strategy and so the National Front didn’t want to march actually in the run up to the 1979 election as they were trying to prove their respectability.
There were minor confrontations after the ANL was launched, but not many, and the question of confrontation didn’t seriously come up. The first time it arose was at Leicester, 21 April 1979, at the weekend before the May 1979 election where the National Front did march and there was a very violent confrontation. Busworkers, some in crash helmets, from Manchester were very effective in physically breaking up their march, which was also pelted with missiles of various sorts. But there was little comeback from Leicester, probably because it was in the provinces from the press point of view.
AC: Can you just say something about the numbers in Leicester?
I think 3,000 or 4,000 on our side and probably 1,500 National Front. So it was a serious confrontation.
Southall, 23 April 1979, was really a police offensive—the police laid into the demonstration; it is well described elsewhere.10 It wasn’t mainly a confrontation with the National Front, actually. It was a confrontation with the police because the NF had hired Southall Town Hall for an election rally and the police defended it brutally, killing our comrade Blair Peach in the process. The protests in Southall were extremely diffuse—it went on for several hours, and it was really characterised by repeated skirmishes with the police.
AC: But relating to the larger narrative about the ANL, it showed that the ANL now could mount something like Lewisham in the sense that it was an alliance of anti-fascists and local people that confronted the Nazis and the police. And once again, there wasn’t a backlash, critically because the police killed Blair Peach and that led instead to the huge funeral, which I will never forget.
This is a serious point because Southall was completely overlaid by the murder of Blair and therefore it was inappropriate really even for the right-wing mainstream press to say, what are these hooligans doing?
It wasn’t quite the same as Lewisham. But the reaction to the Blair Peach murder was very impressive. Blair’s body was laid in state at the Dominion Cinema Southall and thousands filed past to pay their respects. When I recently spoke at a 40th anniversary commemoration in Southall, many people came up to me who had been there. We took Blair’s hearse across to East London where Blair had been a teacher. Thousands more followed the funeral cortège to the East London Cemetery and at his graveside among the speakers were Ken Gill, President of the TUC and a leading Communist Party member, Neil Kinnock MP and Tony Cliff of the SWP.
This was not only a fitting tribute to the ultimate price that our comrade Blair had paid in the fight against fascism but an indication of how the ANL had won widespread support.
EC: You mentioned that in the ANL, you were working with forces to the right of the SWP who were wary about a strategy of confrontation. So in the run-up to Southall and Leicester, were there arguments inside the ANL?
There were no arguments at all because we presented both events as peaceful counter-picketing. We also stuck to the original formulation in the founding statement that you should oppose the Nazis in whatever way you feel is appropriate. So we were never prescriptive, which helped to get us off the hook over the question of confrontation. I remember that statement took me days to write—it’s only about 150 words, but every word was measured.
EC: So working with people to the right didn’t hamper the strategy at all?
No. We worried about the question of confrontation, because we were attacked over that in the run up to the launch of the ANL, and we were nervous about it. But it never really turned out to be a problem and the original founding statement was not prescriptive in telling people how to oppose the Nazis, merely encouraging them to oppose them in whatever way they felt was appropriate.
AC: Can you give an overall assessment of what the ANL achieved?
We have to be modest, but I do think it’s fair to say that the ANL is probably one of most successful united fronts since the Second World War. The first achievement of the ANL was that it really broke the National Front in half. They dissolved into warring factions. Their vote fell. In the 1978 local elections the NF vote was down by 54 percent in Leeds, by 77 percent in Bradford and by 40 percent in the East End of London. In the 1979 general election the average vote for NF candidates was 633, compared to 1,265 in 1973. And really it took the Nazis more than 10 years to recover, till the early 1990s and that is important.
Secondly, I think you can understand the importance of the ANL by comparing it to the situation in France. Both countries have disgusting records of racism and imperialism. However, because there was equivocation, to put it at its kindest, in France in how to oppose the Front National, we see the result today, with Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front (now Rassemblement) National, winning a third of the vote in the second round of the 2017 presidential election and coming first in the recent Euro elections. In the UK on the other hand the fascists, despite trying a variety of tactics from the NF, the BNP, the EDL and Tommy Robinson and UKIP have been unable to make a breakthrough. Of course we will now have to deal with Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party which could pose the most serious threat yet, so there’s no reason for complacency. But our experience in the ANL, Unite Against Fascism and SUTR should give us confidence that we can face down this challenge too.
Finally, the ANL influenced a whole generation of young people many of whom remain active and involved to a greater or lesser degree to this day. It had a particular impact I think on a number of BAME young people who were immensely encouraged that the NF could be repulsed by black and white joining together. Weyman Bennett, co-convenor of SUTR, frequently refers to this when he was a 16-year-old African-Caribbean student in East London.
AC: One thing that we haven’t mentioned is the initiative in football which involved people like Brian Clough—the most famous football manager of the day. That just underlines how many fronts the ANL was operating on.
Yes, Brian Clough was brilliant and very important in stimulating the growth of many Footballers against the Nazis ANL groups and there were many other areas of work, including around culture, that we haven’t had time to discuss.
EC: How do you respond to the argument that it wasn’t the ANL that stopped the NF, it was the shift rightwards by Thatcher?
By the end of 1978 we had inoculated soft racists against the Nazis through a mass campaign, not only of carnivals but also massive on the ground activity in the workplaces and so on in every area. This meant that when Thatcher made her “rather swamped” speech in early 1978 the NF vote had already begun to decline. In contrast across Europe when politicians bend to the racist rhetoric to undercut the far-right vote, the latter’s vote tends to go up. In Britain, where we have had consistent mass mobilisations against the far right across four decades and more, they still remain marginal.
AC: One way of looking at it is how the ANL denied the NF public space—I mean both in the sense of physical space on the streets but also their ability to express themselves politically was drastically constrained. RAR was very important in that the Nazis, a bit like today with the alt-right, were trying to present themselves as youthful and rebellious but the Carnivals and RAR killed that.
EC: It’s clear that the mass movement broke the back of the NF before Thatcher’s election. The NF organiser Martin Webster admitted in a libel case against Peter Hain in 1982 that the sheer pressure of the ANL made it impossible to get NF members on the street, squeezed their recruitment and cut their vote. By 1979, the NF vote had fallen dramatically. The ANL’s huge reach into workplaces and the cultural world in the way that you have described broke the NF’s organisation.
AC: Finally, what lessons can we take for the present?
I think the first lesson, and it’s been taken up in Europe, is that the ANL is a useful model to deal with, in my view, what is now the much greater threat of the far right today. So in Austria, in Germany, Greece and to some extent in Spain, comrades are campaigning using the ANL model.
Today we come up against the argument that the people on the far right today are not Nazis—this is not all that dissimilar to the argument in the 1970s where people said of course, we know they come from the Nazi background, but they’re changing—they’ve entered the electoral system. This was what the NF and the BNP tried to do and no doubt will try again but we should not be taken in.
AC: It’s worth mentioning here Guardian journalist Martin Walker’s book The National Front, which was published in 1977. Walker was quite an important opinion former who really treated the NF as potentially a major political party or what we would now call a right-wing populist party. He said that “to think of National Front members as fascists in the classic sense of the 1930s is silly” and predicted that the NF could become “the fourth party in the country”.11 And so it was, as you say, that same process we see today of accepting the way the Nazis were repackaging themselves.
EC: This is important because looking backwards people just assume it was easy to see the NF were Nazis, whereas now it’s more complicated, but what you’re saying is that this same argument existed in the 1970s.
Exactly. We should use the argument put by Mark Thomas in International Socialism that Marine Le Pen, like her father, is a very consummate politician, a skilful politician who feeds titbits to two different constituencies.12 So, you know, they are ploughing two furrows—one looking to elections and respectability, the other to building a street fighting force. The situation in Austria illustrates this and should be of concern to us all. And it is the same thing with the fascist wing of the AfD, for example. These politicians know exactly what they’re doing—they’re repackaging themselves. So I think that is one of the key lessons of the ANL—we need to call them out for what they are.
AC: Today the SWP, along with others in the Labour Party, is building Stand Up to Racism. So we’re taking on the broader question of racism. So what thoughts do you have about that different approach today?
When John McDonnell last summer said we need to build an ANL-type movement, I think he was in spirit completely right, but the context today is so different to what it was 40 years ago. Then, there was a militant rank and file movement. Britain was in turmoil and the opposition to the ruling class was much more extensive and articulate. We are building in a completely different time, in the era of neoliberalism and all the ravages that this has produced for the labour movement. This makes it in many ways more necessary than ever to have an ANL-type organisation, but also more complicated.
Today there is a generalised racist offensive that embraces the state, the major parties and the fascists themselves. A continuity with the 1970s is that we still face anti-migrant racism, but now it takes predominantly the form of Islamophobia. So there is a close connection between the domestic stereotyping of and discrimination against Muslims by both the mainstream political class in the UK and the imperialist strategies of the United States and the other major Western capitalist powers. We see this most sharply in France, but the picture is fundamentally the same here.
So we face an enemy that takes a diversity of forms. The neoliberal centre continues to dominate most Western capitalist states and to sanction and enforce Islamophobia. The resulting state racism embraces the more routine bigotry and bullying by the police, prison warders, immigration officials, some teachers and academics, and so on. Then we have the ascendant far right—Farage, Matteo Salvini, and their like, who stir up anti-migrant racism to win votes and drag the neoliberal centre rightwards. And then we have the fascists and the alt-right fringe, sometimes nestling within broader parties, sometimes with their own “post-fascist” parties, but benefitting enormously from the overall climate.
So today we need united fronts that can confront these diverse forms of racism, rather than targeting the fascists specifically, as the ANL did in the 1970s. This is what Stand Up to Racism does in Britain, alongside, among others, Keerfa in Greece and Aufstehen gegen Rassismus in Germany. Islamophobia, as the dominant racism in British society, needs to be systematically opposed. This is what Stand Up to Racism pre-eminently does. Of course, we’re against antisemitism and we counter it wherever it raises itself, but you need a movement like Stand Up to Racism which deals not only with UKIP and Tommy Robinson, but also with the causes that they espouse—above all, Islamophobia. I think that this is going to be an ever greater challenge over the next few years. But this is an evolving project now facing the prospect of a rampant Brexit Party bolstered by their success in the Euro elections and very possibly by an influx of new members from UKIP, Tommy Robinson supporters and the far right. We also face the emergence of Generation Identity on a disturbing number of university campuses.
I think we can draw strength and confidence from what many of us did in the ANL and are now doing with new forces in Stand Up to Racism and elsewhere across Europe to face whatever challenges lie ahead.
Paul Holborow was organising secretary of the Anti Nazi League in 1977-1980, and is an activist in Stand Up to Racism.
1 For sources and more background information for this answer, see Rosenberg, 1988.
2 John Kingsley Read was the former chair of Blackburn Young Conservatives. He left to join the National Front in 1973 and was chair of the NF between 1974 and 1976, when he split to form the National Party.
3 For example, Callinicos and Hatchett, 1977.
4 For more on the history of the SWP in the 1970s, see Birchall, 2011, especially chapters 8 and 9.
5 For more on the SWP’s industrial strategy in the 1970s, see Callinicos, 1982.
6 Thatcher, 1978.
7 Gilroy, 1987, pp133-134.
8 Foot, 1992, p122.
9 Huddle and Saunders, 2016.
10 Grant and Richardson, 2019.
11 Walker, 1977, pp9 and 224.
12 Thomas, 2019, pp42-45.