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. The year is 1978, the party is the National Front. Colin Revolting remembers being a punk school kid and getting involved. 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. In case you missed it, here’s Part One
September 1978. The first ‘Carnival Against the Nazis’ was such a success that 6 months later there’s another one in South London. But this time the NF outwitted the anti-Nazis.
While thousands of us dance and march behind bands on the back of lorries all the way from Hyde Park to Brixton, the Nazis hold a rally in Whitechapel, the age-old immigrant area of London and where the fascist Black Shirts were stopped in Cable Street in 1936.
An admission of the mistake and apology is in the following week’s Socialist Worker.
October. My family are always out at meetings – my Dad often goes to more than one each evening. There’s no way I’d do that, but because of my love of music and hatred of racism I go to a RAR organising meeting in Lewisham – plus I’m hoping to get a gig for my punk band.
Sitting in a circle twenty people discuss bands, venues and PA hire companies. One of the punky kids has a clear plastic bag over his head for the first part of the meeting, everyone ignores him even as the bag steams up. Suddenly he tears a hole in the bag and speaks… “Some of the punks in Bromley where I live are Nazis like my cousin and some are anti-nazi like me and my sister. You should put on a concert there.” Despite some chuckles at the plastic bag, people agree to do the gig.
November. I start shifts working on the town hall’s computer. I join the union, which should be easy as my dad is the Branch Secretary. But I haven’t spoken to him for nearly a year.
The council’s social workers go on all-out strike. The rest of us council workers are not on strike, but the social workers set up picket lines to get solidarity from Posties and other workers bringing deliveries. Hoping to spread the action the Branch Secretary refuses to cross the picket lines and management threaten to suspend him.
A mass meeting of over a thousand members votes to take action unless the threat is lifted. Am I about to be on strike for the first time?
Management step back, which leaves the strikers fighting alone. They stay out for what is called the Winter of Discontent – the final bitter months of a Labour Government who were elected when the Tories were beaten by the miners in 1974. After three months they win a 30% pay rise and their conditions are transformed.
February 1979. I hear talk that Rock Against Racism is considered by other anti-fascists to be the soft end of the movement. Our motley crew are drawn together because of our love of music more than our ability to physically confront Nazi’s, but each month we make ourselves a potential target for the local fascists by putting on gigs in the very places the Nazi’s are gaining a foothold.
A good example is the gig we set up at in suburban Bromley’s Labour Club for the Punk In The Plastic Bag. The night includes a couple of Bromley punk bands alongside a reggae sound system from Deptford and luckily draws a big enough crowd of black and white youth to make the Nazis keep their distance. The Nazis hate seeing the white and black kids dancing together and the night helps to break down barriers and create unity.
April 1979. Back in 1977 when the NF marched through Lewisham the anti-fascists were divided. Some argued for ‘peaceful protest’ while others called for physical confrontation with the Front’s march. In what became known as the Battle of Lewisham, the local black youth joined the militant lefties and knocked the NF off the street. Since then blocking and stopping of the Front has been the accepted approach.
Leicester is where the National Front had one of their best results in the previous election and are hoping to secure their place as the third party of British politics. They plan to march through the town centre with flags flying and drums beating. Anti-fascists have other ideas.
Coaches from both sides pour into Leicester all morning. Thousands of our side take over the city centre and rain rocks down on the master race when the cops stupidly parade them past a building site. (“I got hit by a rock against racism,” moans a copper when he later catches us fly-posting for RAR).
Two nights later in Southall a protest outside an NF meeting sounds like it’ll be a quiet affair compared to our riot in Leicester, so I spend the evening printing pages for our punk fanzine including our report from Leicester. But my mate Neal, and my brother Stuart, make the journey across London and feel like they’ve entered an occupied city, with police vans patrolling as local Anti-Nazis fill the streets in anticipation.
Stuart says, “That was a wild night. The police were like a conquering army, I got so fed up of the police transit vans trying to run me over, that I threw a can of paint across their windscreen. I was quite scared that night, we were getting the shit kicked out of us.”
Neal and Stuart got out just as the police’s Special Patrol Group were let off the leash.
I am asleep when my Mum bursts into my room the next morning – what is she doing? – she never comes into my teenage bedroom and anyway I am on the late shift at work.
“They killed one of us,” she says.
My Mum knew Blair Peach as a ‘nice gently spoken man’ as they were both in the National Union of Teachers Rank and File group. She told me Blair taught ESN (“Educationally Sub-Normal”) kids and that National Front members had pulled him off his bike whilst cycling to and from the school in East London.
Going on anti fascist marches and protests has always exhilarating and terrifying, adrenalin-fuelled affairs – but from that day on they feel different again… It isn’t a game.
The general election is the first time I have the right to vote. On the candidate notice outside the polling station NAZI SCUM is scrawled helpfully against the name of the National Front candidate. That makes me smile, especially as I recognise my brother’s terrible handwriting.
In the polling booth, as I pick up the pencil tied to a piece of string, I remember Paul Foot saying at the Rebel weekend – “They say they are trusting you to choose who runs the country, but they don’t even trust you with the pencil.”
All the campaigning, marches, gigs, leafleting and protests has had an effect and the National Front get a knock back which they never recover from. But Thatcher wins the election and you probably know how that turns out…
‘Who Shot the Sheriff?’, a documentary about the 1978 concert in Hyde Park, is an excellent piece of audiovisual history. You can watch it below.