The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Shoreditch was once a centre for both skinhead and National Front activity - a big contrast to its hipster image today

Hard to believe now but trendy, hipster Shoreditch was once the epicentre of British neo-Nazism. Thirty five years ago, the area was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists. Incredibly, the fascist National Front set up its headquarters on Bethnal Green Road from where it hoped to dominate the street politics of the East End. The HQ was only a stone’s throw from Brick Lane with its large Bengali community. Week after week, white racist boot boys felt confident enough to swagger through the area like they owned it.

You now stroll through Brick Lane browsing the stalls and trendy shops in a peaceful, multi-cultural setting. How different it was in 1978. There was a blend back then of Bengali run businesses, traditional East Enders selling their wares, a diminishing Jewish presence and around the underground station, a very sad scene of homelessness. I would go down there as a child with my father and it was very buzzy but felt like it was still recovering from the pounding the East End got in the Second World War.

Around 1978, thuggish boot boys would strut down Brick Lane shouting overtly racist slogans and smashing shop windows. To anybody under the age of 50, it’s really hard to convey how different things were. When the police did arrest anybody, it was overwhelmingly the anti-racist counter-demonstrators who ended up in the police station and not the National Front or British Movement instigators of violence. As for the attacks on local Asian Britons, there would be nothing by way of a proper investigation and the incidents would invariably be downplayed in terms of their racist nature. There is no evidence this was racist – was a familiar trope from both police and sadly, coroners.

The late 1970s saw a surge in support for the extreme Right. Unemployment was rising, manufacturing industry was in decline, and immigrant communities were an easy target for anger. Add to this that the 1974-79 Labour governments of Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan lurched from one crisis to the next. As things got desperate, the United Kingdom went down on its knees to the International Monetary Fund begging for assistance. This led some working-class youth to reject Labour as their natural political home and head rightwards towards neo-Nazism.

The UK’s main fascist party, the NF, reaped the benefits. In the May 1977 local elections, the National Front fielded about 85 candidates out of a possible 92 in the greater London area. It expected, by its own boasts, to get 100,000 votes. In fact, it exceeded that figure gaining 119,000. In 33 London seats, it beat the Liberals. On a national basis, if Britain had operated a proportional representation voting system in the late 1970s, the NF would have had 25 MPs sitting in parliament.

As a sign of its growing confidence, the National Front set up its new headquarters at Excalibur House, 73 Great Eastern Street in 1978. No doubt the word ‘Excalibur’ with its Arthurian connotations appealed to the NF. This fascist fortress became its UK centre of operations. And obviously a target for anti-racist and anti-fascist demonstrations. The NF had previously been based out in the suburbs at Teddington. But they now saw an opportunity to exploit tensions between the mainly white working class area of Shoreditch and the Bengali community around Whitechapel.

There was also, no doubt, a yearning to re-stage the 4 October 1936 ‘Battle of Cable Street’ when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were prevented from marching down Cable Street by counter-demonstrators. The NF believed it was returning to some kind of spiritual home. Convinced it could become the voice of London’s ‘white working class’. I never tire of pointing out to people of a liberal disposition that even though many on the left have insisted on using this dreadful ‘white working class’ term, effectively demonising them, the working class (black, white, and Asian) voted overwhelmingly Labour throughout this period and afterwards. Most ‘white working class’ people didn’t stand behind the NF.

The fascist present in Shoreditch

Excalibur House became this brooding presence on the high street in Shoreditch. A constant reminder of the fascist threat. There were so many clashes around the NF’s HQ that on 20 December 1981, the Hackney North Labour MP Ernie Roberts asked the Tory Home Secretary William Whitelaw in parliament how many times the police had been required to deal with disturbances around that building. Whitelaw refused to be drawn saying that the “information could be obtained only at disproportionate expense”.

As is the case today – the extreme Right was by no means united. There were a myriad grouplets all claiming to be the inheritors of Hitler’s mantle. The main fascist protagonists seemed to perform different functions in their struggle to succeed.

The NF was the semi-respectable face running in elections and conducting media interviews although it had a Strasserite wing that conducted a campaign of terror on the streets. The British Movement was busy infiltrating the skinhead scene and trying to emulate the success of Rock Against Racism by developing a neo-fascist musical alternative. And then in the shadows, the sinister Column 88 that glorified violence and specialised in sending anonymous warnings to left-wing activists in the post.

DISCOVER: What motivated skinhead attacks in the 1970s?

The Anti Nazi League carnival annoys some anti-racists

In the spring of 78, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a huge anti-racist carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End – which I attended with my school mates. In our group was the son of Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a fellow pupil at my school. On what was a magical day, we watched The Clash play in the park as well as the Tom Robinson Band – not a combo remembered much by anybody aged under 50. At a time when the National Front was a depressing constant in our lives, this carnival raised our spirits.

Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But this event caused a certain amount of anger among anti-racists and the political Left. In effect, the Anti Nazi League was diverting attention from Brick Lane to its big celebration south of the river. As the leaflet above makes clear, the duty of anti-racists was to forget about the carnival in Brockwell Park and get over to Brick Lane. Because if they didn’t, the National Front would take over the streets.

As I was 15 at the time and living in north east London, I’ve got no idea who was right. But on balance, I think the ANL was correct to take the fight against the NF south of the river and to other cities. The NF wasn’t just an East End problem. Plus, anti-racists couldn’t realistically be expected to be omnipresent in Brick Lane just in case the NF showed up.

In all of this, the government run Commission for Racial Equality proved to be pretty useless. And its key message to local people was to place their confidence and trust in the police. Nobody listened to that sage advice. Instead, thousands of people blockaded the top of Brick Lane on 16 July 1978 to prevent the NF selling their papers down there and making life generally miserable for the local population.

In the same way that Jewish people had been active participants in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, local Bengali organisations took a leading role in pushing back the NF. Accounts of events at this time can make it look as if liberal, white anti-racists rescued the Bengali community. The reality was a coming together of trades unionists, left-wing activists, and Bengalis. And of course, there were overlaps between these three constituencies – a growing number of Bengalis, for example, were trades unionists.

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