The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

We worry today about various kinds of extreme Right activity – especially online. The impact it has on young people. The divisions it creates in communities. The violence it inspires. During the 1970s, British fascism experienced a horrific upsurge on the back of rising unemployment and fears stoked around immigration. It offers a lot of sobering lessons to us today.

Looking back at the 1970s (in my teens in the late 70s), I have to remind myself that we were only thirty years away from the end of the Second World War. All my head teachers (or “headmasters” as they would have insisted on being called in those days) had fought in the war against Hitler. Born in the 1920s, they were scarred by the experience of the Great Depression and had witnessed Europe fall under the heel of fascism. And yet – despite that strong memory of the war and Hitler – the 1970s saw a very marked revival in fascist activity.

Exit Oswald Mosley

Of course, it had never gone away. Oswald Mosley was the leading light of British fascism from the 1930s to the 1960s. Younger audiences will have been introduced to him via the drama series Peaky Blinders. A hugely ambitious figure who got into parliament as a Conservative, crossed the floor to become a Labour MP before setting up a semi-militarised fascist party. Mosley’s dangerous charisma was never matched by the oddballs who came after him.

The emergence in the 1960s of new figures like Colin Jordan has been dramatised by the BBC recently in another series, Ridley Road. Two of Jordan’s lieutenants would go on to become almost household names in the 1970s: John Tyndall and Martin Webster. The gaunt Tyndall and obese Webster could have been mistaken for Laurel and Hardy on a foggy day. But there was nothing very amusing about them. To terrifying effect, they managed to briefly unite British fascism around one party: the National Front (NF).

DISCOVER: The NF in Bradford in the 1970s

Tyndall and his ‘youthful indiscretion’

Born in 1934, Tyndall was a grammar school boy with a patchy academic record who served in the Royal Horse Artillery between 1952 and 1954. In 1962 he was convicted and served six months in prison after a police raid on the offices of the National Socialist Movement, a Hitlerite group of which Tyndall was national organiser. Evidence was discovered that Tyndall and others were involved in building a paramilitary organisation plotting violent attacks.

Tyndall in the 1970s would brush this aside as a youthful indiscretion.

DISCOVER: Southall riot in 1981 began with skinhead gig

Tyndall and Webster take over British fascism in the 1970s

Compared with far right political groups today, the NF was stridently white supremacist, anti-Semitic and vehemently opposed to feminism and LGBT rights. Its tactics veered from provocative demonstrations laced with violence to participation in local and national elections. Their overtly racist message was bolstered by the so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered by the maverick Conservative politician Enoch Powell with dire predictions of what would happen if Britain became a multi-racial society.

And one issue was a godsend – the admission of thousands of people of south Asian descent from the former British colony of Uganda, in east Africa in 1972. President Idi Amin ordered a massive expulsion of the Asian population as part of a xenophobic Uganda for the Ugandans campaign. Ironically, the response of the NF wasn’t a million miles from Idi Amin’s position! Just replace Uganda with Britain.

Their virulent stance on the Ugandan Asians saw the NF win 18% of the vote in Leicester – ironically a city that would be transformed (positively) by…..Ugandan Asian businesses.

Much of the NF’s propaganda was echoed in the tabloid press – not because journalists or media proprietors were NF supporters but for the simple reason that newspapers fed their readers’ prejudices and in those days, comments that would now be unacceptable or even illegal, were read by millions of people.

The NF, though, took the prevalent racism of the time to new lows. In one pamphlet, they claimed that British Asian families living in London burned their dead and scattered the ashes on the Thames “while British families picnicking on the banks looked on in amazement” (sic). And that Nigerians were running a cannibal’s kitchen in North Kensington. The NF also had no qualms about spreading discredited theories about the supposed intelligence of different races. Some of the NF’s visuals on posters are still shocking today.

Europe, hanging and ‘spongers

In the mid-1970s, there was growing anxiety as post-war economic growth faltered. Unemployment began to soar and inflation climbed upwards created a very 1970s phenomenon: ‘stagflation’ = inflation + stagnation. The NF responded with populist slogans calling for a ‘crack down on law and order’, ‘bring back hanging’ and ‘stop the sponging on social security’. Many NF supporters were on the dole in the late 70s but they never regarded themselves as ‘spongers’. That term was reserved for non-white Britons claiming benefits.

The NF also adopted a fiercely anti-Europe stance as the UK voted in 1975 on whether to join the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union). The vote went in favour in stark contrast to the 2016 Brexit referendum on Europe. Much of the language used by the NF on Europe wouldn’t look that out of place today. It’s sadly moved into the mainstream.

Despite becoming in effect the fourth political party in the UK after the Conservatives, Labour and Liberals, the NF was constantly riven by tensions within its own organisation. Whether to favour street-based intimidation over elections. And conflict between those who were more overtly Nazi (in private) hankering for a global fascist order versus ultra-nationalists.

Splits and the British Movement

From the mid-1970s, those who liked their fascism more in tune with the Third Reich and with a jackbooted edge, gravitated to the British Movement (BM). The BM had no interest in running for elections and losing deposits. Its British Patriots Publications propaganda arm produced a catalogue in 1980 with the Nazi slogan, misspelt: ‘Eind Volk, Eind Reich, Eind Fuhrer’. Predictably it sold copies of the anti-Semitic Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s autobiographical rant, Mein Kampf.

The BM arguably more closely resembled the white supremacist organisations that typically get banned in the United Kingdom and United States today. It engaged in Holocaust denial and was very active in recruiting among white skinhead youth. Having seen the success of the political left in harnessing music and pop culture to oppose fascism during the 1970s (the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism), it set out to do the same on the post-punk skin scene.

On the even more violent fringe, the UK saw two other groups emerge in the 1970s, Column 88 and SS Wotan.

It’d be lovely to say that this is all ancient history – but as we are only too aware, it’s definitely not.

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