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The Anti-Nazi League 1977-81

The history of the left is a history of campaigns. Some have been successful, many have not. Only rarely have the campaigns created a genuine unity, a lasting sense of what could be achieved when people from different political backgrounds come together for a definite end. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was set up in 1977, at a time when politics was moving to the right, and when racist ideas were becoming more acceptable, yet it succeeded in its aim of marginalising the National Front which had acted as the open carrier of organised racism in Britain. Many of those involved had been active for years in different campaigns, against the Vietnam War, in support of the French students, or the miners, against unemployment and the Social Contract. Yet these activists remember the ANL period as one moment when their intervention was of decisive importance.

The birth of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League needs to be placed within the broader context the Labour government of 1974-9. The Labour Party won the two 1974 elections on the back of a left-moving mood, and its manifesto was the most radical in the party's history, promising increased taxes on the rich to pay for better public services. 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. Bitter struggles continued through the five years of Labour rule, but the overall result was to reduce the levels of militancy within society. The government cut spending on public services, closing hospitals, and demoralising many of its most ardent supporters. So the Wilson-Callaghan government was a period of popular disillusionment, in which society shifted to the right, preparing the ground for the Tories' election victory in 1979.

One party which gained from the failure of the Labour government was the National Front. First set up in 1967, the NF grew under Heath's government, and claimed 17,000 members in 1973, but only really took off under Labour. In 1976, the NF 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 across the country in local elections. The real strength of the organisation was on the streets. By 1976 and 1977, the NF had more activist members than ever before. It was more visible, putting up graffiti and leaflets. Its cadres waged a violent race war, committing dozens of racist attacks. Thirty-one black people were killed in racist murders in Britain between 1976 and 1981.

In August 1976, Eric Clapton, the rock guitarist, interrupted a Birmingham concert to make a speech supporting Enoch Powell, the racist Tory MP. The photographer Red Saunders wrote a reply, which was subsequently published in a number of papers including the New Musical Express and Melody Maker. The letter led directly to the formation of Rock Against Racism, 'When we read about Eric Clapton's Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. 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... P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!' Dave Widgery, Saunders, Roger Huddle and others followed up the letter by organising a series of anti-NF concerts. The message was angry, exciting and compelling, effective at reaching the young. This editorial in the first issue of Temporary Hoardings was RAR's manifesto, 'We want Rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.'

Rock Against Racism was the first modern movement to have been built on the basis of radical music, or as John Hoyland and Mike Flood Page put it, the first to understand pop music 'from the inside'. These were the years of punk, when the old millionaire stadium bands of the 1970s lost touch with their audience, and a new music sprang up, based on simple cord sequences, music that anyone could play. It was a music which was itself libertarian and anarchistic, in the best sense of those words. As Caroline Coon wrote, in the Melody Maker, in August 1976: 'Punk rock sounds simple and callow. It's meant to. The equipment is minimal, usually cheap... There are no solos. No indulgent improvisations... Participation is the operative word.'

Part of the ANL's political radicalism lay in its total acceptance of punk's rough sound, the music of bands like the UK Subs, Ian Drury or Jimmy Pursey's Sham 69. Yet Rock Against Racism did not simply adapt itself to the existing punk sound. Rather it sought to change and develop punk music. RAR brought together white punk rockers and black reggae bands, Jimmy Pursey alongside with Rasta group Misty, Tom Robinson with Steel Pulse. As Rock Against Racism developed, so did the sound of the main RAR bands. The Clash, brought out a single, 'Police And Thieves', based on a Jamaican tune which was said to have blared out over the anti-racist riot in Lewisham. The Ruts also tried to fuse reggae and punk styles, while Sham 69 mixed together South American protest music with football terrace chants to produce, 'If The Kids Are United', which was first played on an ANL platform. The Slits sang about the blandness and boredom of ordinary women's lives. Siouxse and the Banshees, having worn swastikas in 1976 and 1977, now wrote 'Metal Postcard', based on the collages of the German anti-fascist Johnny Heartfield.

Precisely because of its musical radicalism, Rock Against Racism was taken up by young punks, including those who were not socialist, or did not consider themselves political. Caroline Harper was then aged nineteen, and living in a squat in London. She heard about the first RAR gig, and was attracted by the music, and the anti-establishment feel of the event, although she described herself either as 'unpolitical', or 'an anarchist' and never fully identified with the full politics of RAR or the SWP: 'We naturally identified with other people getting harassed by the police. It was when the sus laws were was at their heights. It didn't matter if you had green hair or were black, you would be stopped by the police, for any reason... We felt like victims of an authoritarian state.'

Caroline Harper's description of RAR points to a genuine tension within RAR. From its inception, Rock Against Racism received its greatest support from members of the Socialist Workers Party. However, the SWP did not take over RAR or the ANL. The SWP certainly did provide the founder members of both organisations, but it was always scrupulous in giving each an independent role. So, although Widgery, Huddle and other members of the SWP threw themselves into RAR, they never regarded it as their possession, nor would they allow other members of the SWP to impose themselves on the new movement. RAR was set up and run for people like Caroline Harper, not for the sake of the structures of the pre-existing left.

On 13 August 1977, thousands of anti-fascists, including large numbers of local black youths, prevented the NF from marching through Lewisham. The original National Front demonstration was publicised as an anti-mugging march, a crude attempt to intimidate the many Afro-Caribbean residents in the area. Angus MacKinnon, an NME journalist, took part in the counter-demonstration: 'Like a lot of people I didn't think the Front march was a good thing. On the day, I arrived at New Cross and couldn't get any further. It said in the press the next day that there were three thousand, but it must have been twice that number. They said it was the standard rent-a-mob. it wasn't. Many had come from all over the country, for the same reason as myself: enough was enough.' After several hours of street fighting between the anti-fascists and the police, one thing was clear, the National Front had failed to pass.

After Lewisham, the media took the side of the police. Daily and weekly newspapers featured the 200 people arrested and the fifty policemen injured, ignoring the causes of the protest, and portraying the conflict as a senseless battle between two parallel sets of extremists. The Daily Mail ran with a front page picture of a policeman holding a studded club and a knife, weapons supposedly found at Lewisham, and beside him was the headline, 'After the Battle of Lewisham, a question of vital importance: now who will defend him?' Several Labour Party voices claimed that SWP demonstrators amounted to 'red fascism', an equally despicable counterpart to the National Front. The Daily Mirror claimed that the SWP was 'as bad as the National Front', while Michael Foot, a Labour left-winger since the 1930s, publicly insisted that, '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.'

The Anti-Nazi League was set up in the days following Lewisham. There are different accounts of how and when exactly it was formed, but it is clear that Paul Holborow, the SWP's district organiser in East London, approached two prominent left members of the Labour Party, Ernie Roberts, the trade unionist and Peter Hain, the anti-apartheid activist, and the three of them together agreed to launch a movement. Holborow then became National Secretary of the ANL. Although the Anti-Nazi League was originally set up on the initiative of members of the Socialist Workers' Party, the ANL did receive the support of the Communist Party and sections of the broader left. Prominent members of the Anti-Nazi League included Tariq Ali, of the International Marxist Group, Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers', Peter Hain the anti-apartheid activist, and Ernie Roberts, of the engineers' union and later a Labour MP. The ANL's founding statement was signed by Brian Clough, Arnold Wesker, Keith Waterhouse, Warren Mitchell, and several hundred trade unionists, community activists, footballers, musicians and other celebrities. Dozens of local ANL groups were set up, including Aardvarks Against The Nazis, Left-Handed Vegetarians Against The Nazis, and Football Fans Against The Nazis. Patrons of a Manchester pub, the Albert, even set up their own group, Albert Against The Nazis.

The largest RAR/ANL events were the huge Carnivals. The first took place on 30 April 1978, and was fully publicised, not only by the left but also in the musical press. The Carnival began with a march to Victoria Park, where the Clash, Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex and others played to an audience of at least 80,000 people. Richard Buckwell was involved in the organising team, and remembers being 'flabbergasted' by the size of the event, 'We expected 10 or 20,000 people, which would have been excellent, a big rise in the numbers who came on the marches and the demos. But on the day there were tens of thousands of people there.' John Shemeld was also 'utterly amazed at how big it was. No-one expected it to be so big.' This first Carnival was followed by local Carnivals in many areas. Thirty-five thousand came to the Manchester Carnival, 5000 to Cardiff, 8000 to Edinburgh, 2000 to Harwich, and 5000 to the Carnival in Southampton.

The second Anti-Nazi League Carnival took place in Brockwell Park, on 24 September 1978, with Sham 69 the headline band. It was a huge event, even larger than the first Carnival, with 100,000 people attending. Unfortunately, the events of the Carnival were partly overshadowed by an NF mobilisation in East London. Called only after the Carnival had been publicly announced, the NF march was simply intended to embarrass the organisers of the event. Some on the left took up this theme, insisting that the Carnival should be called off, and that the 100,000 present should be sent to the East End. One small sect even told Carnival-goers that they were 'SCABBING on the struggle'. Although there would not have been any point in sending the whole crowd against a small NF march, the leadership of the ANL was caught in a dilemma, and unable to decide how best to go ahead. On the day, confusion grew, and Paul Holborow, admits that the leadership of the ANL failed to send enough people to stop the Front demo, 'We collectively bungled it.' Two hundred and fifty NF marchers assembled in the East End, but the counter-marchers were badly organised, arrived late, and failed to disperse the NF group. So, although overall the second carnival was still a success, it does not seem to have had the extraordinary atmosphere of the first.

This whole period, from 1976 to 1979, witnessed a succession of anti-fascist demonstrations. On 14 May 1978, following the racist murder of Altab Ali, around 7000 young Bengalis took part in a protest march against racism in Brick Lane, which was then the biggest demonstration by Asians that had been seen in Britain. On 18 June 1978, 4000 supporters of the ANL and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks, a short-lived alliance between three major Bengali youth organisations, marched again through the East End. John Shemeld remembers these demonstrations, the first time he had seen large numbers of Sikhs taking part in a public protest, 'It was so different from the meek image of law-abiding Asians.' Tasaduq Ahmed, an educational worker in the East End, also commented on the growing self-organisation among young Bengalis living around Brick Lane: 'What is not being sufficiently stressed is the strong multi-racial response that these acts have evoked, in particular among the Bengali youth, who have joined enthusiastically with their white friends in combating a menace which in its ultimate form will spell the death knell of a democratic Britain.'

The next conflict to turn violent, was at Southall on 23 April 1979. Here the police Special Patrol Group brutally attacked Anti-Nazi League demonstrators, again failing to force a way through for the fascists. Their only success was in killing Blair Peach, a teacher, and a member of the ANL and SWP, who was walking away from the march when he was killed. Fifteen thousand people marched the following Saturday in honour of Blair Peach, with 13 national trade union banners taken on the demonstration, and Ken Gill of the TUC General Council spoke at his funeral.

Between 1977 and 1979, at least nine million ANL leaflets were distributed and 750,000 badges sold. Fifty local Labour Parties affiliated, along with 30 AUEW branches, 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. The cumulative effect of all this campaigning was that the NF were forced onto the defensive, and thoroughly routed. Its activists were unable to put their message across, their graffiti was painted out, and they could not march. As early as the winter of 1978-9, Colin Sparks, one of the most acute observers of fascism, and also an active member of the ANL, felt confident to predict that NF would not be the source of future reactionary developments within British capitalism. As important was the threat from right-wing Conservatism. In the April 1979 general election, Thatcher's Conservatives won a 40-seat majority. Meanwhile, the NF received a mere 1.3 per cent of the vote. Demoralised, it split into three rival factions and the Front's support on the streets crumbled.

With fascism in retreat, there seemed to be less need for an anti-fascist movement. RAR and ANL campaigners took up different radical causes, including the Right to Work marches and CND. Meanwhile, many of the RAR bands moved into the more glamorous and rewarding world of chart music. Thatcher's victory also had an effect, not only in further demoralising the NF, but also in confusing many left-wing ANL activists who could see that the brief political moment of the ANL had now passed. The last RAR Carnival took place in Leeds in 1981, with 30,000 attending, while the ANL was officially wound down in autumn and winter 1981.

RAR and the ANL intended to turn back the growth of the NF. In this, they were remarkably successful. In the mid-1970s, British fascism was powerful, growing, and a positive influence on fascist further retreating. The ANL gave the NF a defeat from which its successors have not yet recovered. As a by-product of their success, the RAR also generated new musical styles which simply had not existed before, while the ANL showed the possibility of what a mass radical politics could look like. Indeed, one effect of the ANL was that it established a tradition that anti-fascist work should be exciting, popular, bold and political. Dave Widgery's book, Beating Time argues that it was the radical and cultural politics of RAR which enabled the ANL to succeed: 'It was a piece of double time, with the musical and the political confrontations on simultaneous but separate tracks and difficult to mix. The music came first and was more exciting. It provided the creative energy and the focus in what became a battle for the soul of young working-class England. But the direct confrontations and the hard-headed political organisation which underpinned them were decisive.'