In the run up to the summer of riots across the UK in 1981, there were smaller disturbances throughout the late 1970s – normally a result of battles with the National Front or fights between the police and black youth. Wood Green in north London would see one such riot in 1977.
The National Front was in the ascendant during the late 1970s exploiting the economic troubles to blame immigrants, especially from the New Commonwealth (black and Asian) and whipping up fears over the arrival of Asian migrants expelled from Uganda.
The NF took to holding regular marches brandishing the Union Jack (then the flag of choice of the extreme Right) and the theme would be something deliberately provocative like opposition to ‘mugging’, which they characterised as a crime committed by black youth. A stereotype amplified by some sections of the media and politicians.
In 1977, the NF decided to march through Wood Green. I lived there for about ten years and it’s a very multi-ethnic area. Big Greek, Turkish and Kurdish communities around Wood Green. Afro-Caribbean and African heritage communities near Tottenham. As well as Asian and Jewish communities. So, a deliberately inflammatory gesture by the NF.
This was in April, 1977 – so three months before the infamous ‘Battle of Lewisham‘ where the NF was prevented from marching that August despite a massive Metropolitan police presence.
There was a great deal of anxiety about the NF at the time. Hard to believe now but the NF leaders – John Tyndall and Martin Webster – were household names. Mates of mine at school who weren’t that political knew who they were. And the NF had managed to get about 20% of the vote in certain London boroughs at recent local elections. In fact, 1977 and 1978 were their high water mark in terms of electoral performance.
Wood Green ended up being a heave-ho between NF skinheads and activists with the police in the middle and a mix of Labour Party, trade union, Anti-Nazi League and local youth on the other side. The Wood Green riot led to fifty arrests and thirteen injuries as a result of broken bottles, stone throwing and smoke bombs.
Reportedly, something resembling a bullet was fired through a shop window and one witness claimed a National Front marcher had been aiming at two black children – an unsubstantiated allegation I should point out.
One press report said the Wood Green riot was the biggest “race demonstration” since a notoriously violent fracas in Red Lion Square in 1974 when a student was killed fighting the NF. In Wood Green, the police line broke several times and demonstrators got to lash out at each other at close range.
During the 1979 General Election, the NF continued to be a very vocal presence and provoked a riot in Southall, London. But after the Thatcher victory, the NF diminished as a force and after various splits and fall outs, the British National Party would eventually emerge as the main far right party.