Anti-immigration and racism is on the rise, a racist party is riding the wave and looking like becoming the third party in British politics. Anti-racists and anti-fascists have to stop them. Whilst this might sound familiar, the year is 1978 and the party is the National Front. Colin Revolting remembers being a punk school kid and getting involved.
April 1978 In the middle of 70,000 young people who’ve come to rock against racism, me and two school friends join everyone around us singing, “Sing if you’re glad to be gay…” If we dared utter these words at school we’d be beaten up – which is what happened to two lads caught kissing in the bushes. There’s no sense of threat in this crowd today, singing along with Britain’s first openly gay pop star Tom Robinson. We’ve marched five miles from Trafalgar Square waving Anti-Nazi League lollipop placards to be part of this Carnival Against the Nazis and we will be leaving having expressed our solidarity with gay people. What an amazing day.
Leaving the area is not so much fun. As hundreds of coaches pull away from Victoria Park handfuls of racists crawl out of pubs to heckle the thousands leaving. They are hardly brave to shout at departing vehicles, but the three of us have lost our gang of school friends so we slip past the racists searching for a bus home to South East London. Meanwhile skinheads in a pub in Deptford make one of the local punk bands play “Happy Birthday” for Adolf Hitler. The majority of Deptford voters put their cross against anti-immigrant Nazi parties in the 1976 local elections. People are divided. May 1978 Our 6th Form is 98% white. Racism is not as bad as it was in lower years, but there’s fear and ignorance about immigration.
Inspired by the carnival, me and some school friends agree to leaflet Eltham High Street against the NF. We meet outside the library (we are sixth formers) and an ANL man arrives on a motorbike with a pile of leaflets. As we hand them out some people are hostile, some welcome the leaflets and most don’t react at all. One bloke sees the swastika on the leaflet say National Front is a Nazi Front and sees red. “I fought against the Nazis in the war,” he spits. “We’re Anti-Nazis,” we say. “I don’t care what kind of Nazis you are, bugger off!” When we manage to clear up the confusion and he tells us about chalking slogans on the streets in the 1930s against Mosley’s Blackshirts and sticking posters on the backs of buses.
June 1978 Despite being busy with exams, me and my mate Neal go to a gig at the Albany in Deptford. It’s a Rock Against Racism (RAR) gig, raising money for local black kids arrested under the SUS stop and search laws, and we’ve come for punk band Alternative TV. Also on the bill is reggae act Misty in Roots, from Southall. Reggae is too slow for us but there’s a toughness to Misty’s music, “See them ah come, but we naa run.” The Albany is a good venue and home to the local music scene which is growing under the jokey slogan Today the Albany, Tomorrow the World! July 1978 I finish my exams and, without any plans of college or career, sign on the dole. There’s a real fear of unemployment amongst kids at school. The far right have been using this fact to blame immigrants and now Margaret Thatcher, new leader of the opposition, makes a speech about people feeling “swamped by an alien culture.”
Racism is moving right into the main stream. The Sex Pistols sing of No Future… I wonder what ours will be. The Albany is fire bombed on 14th July. The next morning a note is pushed through the door of the gutted building which reads, ‘GOT YOU’. Within days the Albany fly-posted all around Deptford a poster showing the burnt out dance floor where we’d enjoyed the gig two weeks ago. Today the Albany, the poster says above the image and below it, Tomorrow the World? It’s no longer a joke.
August 1978 My 19 year old brother, Stuart, has joined the Socialist Workers Party and encourages me to go to a Rebel weekend of talks and workshops for young people. In the Polytechnic of Central London, there’s about 40 or 50 teenagers and students in their twenties. Stand out speaker is a little old man with wild hair and an almost impossible accent – he’s full of energy and even funny at times. The discussion about fighting the fascists is a mix of bravado and paranoia. I have a go at the dismissive tone one of the students takes towards my brother, but my brother takes the guy’s side. That confuses me. When I get home my A level results are waiting – D and E. Lucky I have no plans to go to college.
September 1978 At the Rebel weekend I heard about a five day march for the Right to Work (RTW). Work? Who needs it? My ambitions lie in my punk band. My brother argues, “Without the right to work you’ll never have the right not to work.” I join the RTW march from Bethnal Green Hospital occupied by staff against cuts, heading towards the TUC conference in Brighton, calling on the trade unions to save jobs, stop cuts and fight unemployment. The march is like the 1930s Hunger march of the unemployed from Jarrow, this time the lead banner reads Anger on the March. Following the reggae band Misty on the back of a lorry, four hundred teenagers and twenty-something’s from Lancashire and Glasgow and south Wales pound a path across London dressed like a rag tag army in bright orange jackets. RAR provide bands and discos in the evenings and everyone sleeps in huge circus marquees. One night the tents are pitched together and a stirring speaker whips up a storm like a old time religious preacher. After five years of betrayal by the Labour government most people present are well aware that Labour will not solve their problems, instead he argues the way to defeat unemployment, racism and sexism is socialist revolution. A debate ensues but I’m exhausted and fall asleep. On the last night before reaching Brighton Tom Robinson arrives and under a huge oak tree gets everyone singing his radical rock songs. During the song,“Glad to be Gay,” joyous kissing breaks out amongst the marchers. This is a very long way from school and I’m glad I’m here.
The next morning all four hundred of us pour down the hill into Brighton in our orange jackets like a stream of red hot lava. Anger on the March. The sense of solidarity is now so strong that when the police harass us we respond as one – and the cops get much more than they bargained for. But they punish us with arrests when we refuse to leave town – only releasing the detainees until they do. I return home to find a letter confirming I have been successful in my job application as Computer Operator for Lewisham council – yet I have never touched a computer in my life. Looking at the letter I remember the saying, “If you liked school, you’ll love work.” In Part Two of this account, the NF outwit the anti-fascists, local council workers go on strike in the Winter of Discontent and the campaign against the Nazi’s intensifies as the election approaches.