A history of violence

Partisan and gloatingly brutal, a new chronicle of British hard-left activism still provides salutary warnings for the present day

Police protect participants in a National Front march from left-wing demonstrators hurling missiles in the South London borough of Lewisham in 1977.
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Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action
Sean Birchall
Freedom Press

The Britain of the late 1970s and 1980s was gripped by recession, debilitating cuts to local services and rising unemployment. As such, it was a crucible for extreme politics.

Looking back on this period, Sean Birchall, a long-time left-wing activist, attempts to record the exploits and motivations of one of the UK's most militant underground groups, from his perspective as a man who participated in the most violent battles between the far-right and left the country has ever seen.

Rather than a simple memoir of radical thuggery on long-forgotten front lines, though, Beating The Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action offers a conflicting, yet candid analysis of a history that rapidly appears to be repeating itself.

Birchall traces the roots of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) to the Lewisham Riot of 1977 - a pivotal event in which direct-action squads from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) fought a pitched battle against the right-wing National Front (NF) on the streets of the South London borough.

He begins his story by detailing the racist right's systematic rise to mainstream prominence: "By linking up with, and recruiting from, existing community-based anti-immigration groups, as well as exploiting the electoral experience of disillusioned ex-Tories, the NF began to acquire public support… As the postwar economic boom bust, the NF broke into the political mainstream, appealing to the middle classes with a traditional 'law and order' message on the one hand and the working classes on the other by casting the blame for growing levels of unemployment on to immigrant communities."

The NF's targets, mainly comprising immigrants from former British colonies invited to the UK to fill postwar labour shortages, were notably different to those of British fascists in the present day, but the means of their victimisation were just the same - verbal and physical intimidation and abuse.

Most importantly, Birchall makes especially lucid the links between the old guard of the extreme right and its contemporary incarnations, from prominent NF figures such as John Tyndall and Patrick Harrington to Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, the current leader and deputy leader of the British National Party (BNP).

Following a decision made by Griffin, shortly after ousting Harrington as leader in 1999, to steer the BNP to a strategy of "suits not boots", the party has made similar moves toward political legitimacy to those of the NF in the late 1970s.

After several years doing little more than providing a series of punchlines to its own existence (the best of which came in 2004, when the organisation's Central London branch unwittingly booked a black DJ to play at its Christmas party), the BNP got serious.

Training its sights on economically challenged areas with high racial tensions such as Loughton in Essex and Burnley in Lancashire, it donned jackets and ties, knocked on doors and fielded candidates in a variety of elections.

Now, it boasts 25 local councillors nationwide, briefly secured a place on the London Assembly and has two seats in the European parliament (held by Brons and Griffin, despite the BNP's anti-European policies).

While even a single vote cast for a racist organisation - let alone enough to gain it a voice at any level of government - is regrettable, a closer look at the BNP's "rise" fortunately reveals its victories to be less emphatic than they initially seem. After five years of intense campaigning, the party's share of the ballot in the 2010 general election still only stood at an aptly marginal 1.9 per cent.

Despite Griffin's efforts in Barking, Essex - a constituency widely viewed as a BNP stronghold - it failed to win a single seat in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, those council appointments are hardly impressive when considered in context: more than 22,000 such positions exist in the UK. Moreover, the party suffered a net loss of seats in 2010's local council elections.

Add to these facts a litany of recent PR disasters and the BNP no longer looks quite so healthy. In 2009, a challenge by the Equality and Human Rights Commission resulted in a protracted legal battle that forced the party to open membership to non-whites. This year came allegations of corruption and financial irregularities, a failed leadership challenge and a bizarre episode in which the party's former director of publicity, Mark Collett, was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill Griffin.

However, as Birchall sketches out in intricate detail, vicious infighting and ideological schisms have long been the lifeblood of both the extreme right and the hard left, and should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness in either instance. Published by the anarchist imprint Freedom Press and written by a hardline socialist, Beating the Fascists is far from an objective history. It does, however, provide something rare: a clear map of the tangled web of activist groups existing on both sides of the fence, from the late 1970s through to the 1990s.

On one hand, the SWP can be seen splintering into Red Action and AFA. On the other, the NF erupts into a dizzying array of factions, from Blood & Honour and the British Movement to the BNP. But while the chronic disorganisation and endemic squabbling of British radical political groups may dissuade sympathisers from coughing up membership dues, as Birchall notes, such statistics bear little relation to the extent of their ideological spread.

The potency of extreme nationalism is derived from the illusion of power and personal agency it creates for its followers. Key to this is direct action. Often with a high level of crossover in membership, electorally focused fascist organisations have long divided themselves into political branches and grass roots street-fighting wings: see everything from the once-BNP-affiliated neo-Nazi skinhead group Combat 18 to Griffin's calls for the establishment of a new "security force" and, earlier this month, the BNP's announcement of an increasingly militant stance against the building of mosques in the UK.

Regardless of any efforts toward popular legitimacy that the far right makes, these connections always seem to resurface, backing fascism's confrontational rhetoric with the threat of violence and propagating a broader atmosphere of racial and ideological intolerance.

As Birchall explains: "Ever since the 1920s, it was broadly accepted in anti-fascist circles that a decisive weapon in the arsenal of their opponents was the securing of unfettered control of the streets by force. If this analysis was correct then the equation was a simple one: fascist violence had to be met with anti-fascist violence." Accordingly, mirroring the tactics of the NF and taking inspiration from the writings of Leon Trotsky, AFA's "physical-force activists" drew their numbers from extreme political movements (the revolutionary left and anarchist tendencies in this instance), but also from criminal gangs and football-hooligan firms.

Birchall recounts AFA's clashes with nationalist activists in bone-crunchingly vivid prose. From the SWP squadists' routing of the NF in Manchester's city centre in the early 1980s to London's Battle of Waterloo Station in 1992, in which 1,000 anti-fascists assembled to prevent a large group of Blood & Honour supporters attending a concert by the Nazi-punk band Skrewdriver, the tales are also told with discomfiting relish.

When concentrating on such matters, Birchall's writing often feels like it has come straight from the terraces, too: "Hit full in the face with a plate of spaghetti and gassed, [Dessie Clarke, Skrewdriver's drummer] fled the [cafe] leaving his companions, one of whom was stabbed in the buttocks with a fork as he made an attempt to jump through a serving hatch into the kitchen." The style frequently resembles one of any number of popular hard-man autobiographies published in the last decade, but where it differs is the way in which its recreations of the past offer warnings for the future.

As Britain finds itself in the grip of another severe economic downturn, organised street-level racism is alive and very much kicking. The English Defence League (EDL) was formed in response to a March 2009 protest in Luton, Bedfordshire, against Royal Anglian Regiment troops returning from the Afghan War staged by the now-banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun. It has now become the nation's fastest-growing far-right presence.

Despite its claims to be a non-racist pressure group dedicated to the opposition of extremist Islam, the EDL's marches through provincial towns have all descended into violence and are characterised by Islamophobic sentiment aimed at the entire Muslim community. Even though Griffin banned BNP members from joining the EDL last year, links between the two groups run deep. BNP extremists such as Chris Renton, the man behind the EDL's website, are often visible at EDL marches. Tellingly, the Nazi salutes of the 1970s are a common sight once again, too.

Although anti-fascist groups, by their very nature, are prone to exaggerate the threat posed by the extreme right, and although it is easy for many to object to AFA's violent methods, the fact remains that the existence of extreme-right movements such as the BNP and EDL have a grave impact on the freedoms of minority groups.

For proof of this one need only look to the rising hostility in provincial British towns where the far right has established itself. To name but three, Oldham, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent have all witnessed spikes in racially motivated violence; Stoke experienced an arson attack on a local mosque earlier this month.

These footholds were not carved out by distant figures in Westminster but by local activists preying on the fear and disenfranchisement of local people. As Birchall proposes, the only way to combat this is for concerned parties to follow a similar pattern and "set about the task of bringing the marginalised working class in from the political cold".

Dave Stelfox works on The Review. His writing has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Village Voice.