I was at school with the son of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) boss Len Murray and together with a mate of mine, Mark, and some other kids, we all went down to the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978. It now seems like an epoch ago but was an incredibly exciting day.
The extreme-Right National Front had been gaining ground on the streets and in terms of votes in London. Since the mid-70s, the economy had been on a downward slide, the mainstream parties were failing to inspire young people and racism was being fuelled by sections of the media. It was a perfect storm for the neo-Nazis.
Even in my school in the east London suburbs, there were individuals who felt empowered to be openly racist. One pupil, who had been a mate of mine a year or two earlier, joined the British Movement. The target of their hate, where we lived, were Jewish and Asian people.
This documentary from the time gives a real flavour of how a movement arose through the Labour Party, trade unions and pressure groups to push back against the NF and the purveyors of race hate.
Found this in my parent’s attic. A local newspaper report from 1978 describing how two skinheads had beaten up an Asian youth. It was yet another example of something described at the time as “paki bashing” – assaults by racist skins on mainly Asian youth.
While the article below quotes a community relations spokesperson saying attacks like this were becoming more frequent – there’s no mention of this being a racist incident. This was typical at the time. Both the media and police were reticent to point out what was blindingly obvious – that this 14 year old had been hospitalised because of the colour of his skin.
Many of the public also didn’t want to acknowledge the problem. But anti-Asian sentiment had been stoked for years by groups like the National Front and British Movement. The influx of Asians from the former British colonies of Kenya and Uganda, expelled by dictators who had taken power in those countries, was greeted with tabloid press hatred. This provoked appalling and senseless thuggery.
In the 1970s, the National Front saw Bradford as a fertile recruiting ground. The far right thought it could benefit from the misery caused by industrial decline coupled with the influx of immigrants from the Commonwealth. There was a plethora of racist and fascist organisations that sprang up around this time including the Bradford based ‘British Campaign to Stop Immigration’.
NF activity culminated in a huge stand off between their supporters and anti-fascists in 1976 dubbed the ‘Battle of Bradford’. This may have been the party’s high water mark in the city.
The NF speaker was their leader John Tyndall – an acid-faced fuhrer who is mercifully no longer with us but was a household name in the late 1970s alongside his tubby fellow leader Martin Webster.
In the 1979 general election, a local Liberal campaigner came round to our family house and as a chatty, politically obsessed 15 year old, I got into a long conversation with her. She was convinced that the electorate would reject the right wing economics being proposed by Margaret Thatcher as too extreme. Most people, she continued, didn’t wish for a rupture with the post-war consensus – they just wanted it to work better.
I was very sceptical. Pessimistic even. I had no doubt as a political swot even by that tender age that Labour was doomed. My school was trending heavily Tory. At a mock election, the Labour candidate was treated like a leper or pariah. The Liberal was jeered and sheepishly exited the school stage as if expecting to be lynched. The Tory, by marked contrast, was cheered to the rafters. That told me everything I needed to know.
But – Jim Callaghan fought a brave campaign. And even managed to narrow the Tory lead. However….it was too little, too late.