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 1998, St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel was renamed the Altab Ali Park. The church of St Mary’s that once stood there had been completely destroyed in the Blitz and the new name was felt to be more relevant to the area’s growingly confident Bangladeshi community.
But who exactly was Altab Ali?
Visitors to the nearby Brick Lane market can glimpse the new park gate with its Bengali design surmounted on what’s left of the old church wall. They might attribute it to the emergence of what’s been termed BanglaTown, the vibrant immigrant success story of today’s east London.
However, in 1978, the name of Altab Ali hit the local headlines as yet another victim from an embattled community. Twenty five year old Altab, a clothing worker, had been on his way home from work when three white youths attacked and killed him.
If this had been an isolated incident of “paki bashing”, it might not have triggered the wave of fury that now burst out of this corner of the East End. Ten days after his death, thousands of Bangladeshis filed behind Altab’s coffin, on the 14th May, as it was carried all the way to Hyde Park for a demonstration.
This was about as public a display of being fed up as London had ever seen. To understand the depth of feeling behind this long funeral cortege, it’s worth flicking through a dossier that the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council published that year aptly titled ‘Blood on the Streets’.
It’s a dispiriting catalogue of far right violence combined with either police ineptitude or indifference – it’s hard to tell which. The list of thuggish incursions in to the area begins with a hundred and fifty skinheads storming Brick Lane in a show of strength just a month after Altab Ali’s murder.
On 11th June, they rampaged down the street terrorising market stallholders and shopkeepers. What might have riled them was the emergence of Asian youth organizations that were taking a more strident stance against fascist hooligans. For the first time, Bengali boys were hitting back and the skinheads did not approve.
The white youths mustered at the top of Brick Lane. Seeing them gather, the owner of a sari shop phoned the police begging for assistance. None came. Nobody from the local constabulary would arrive till after the mob had run amok with their excuse being that the phone call to the station had come during a change over of shifts.
The next month saw an attack that was far more audacious and would spark off an area wide strike by Asian workers and a one day shut down of businesses.
On the 6th July, thirty white men turned up at the Charrington Bottling Plant in Bow armed with clubs and bricks. Incredibly, they began setting about the sixty or so Asian workers at the plant causing several injuries. Police were to claim afterwards that there was no discernible racial motive involved.
September brought a report in The East London and Hackney Advertiser about an Asian family forced to live in a back room of their own house for six weeks as it came under sustained bombardment with various objects. The police had been called and visited but said they were otherwise powerless to stop the damage being done or prevent the death threats.
In many of these cases there was perceived to be a marked unwillingness by the police to investigate alleged crimes or to prosecute attackers. For example, one Asian motorist attacked by a white van driver was curtly informed that the police would look in to the matter of dangerous driving by his assailant but the assault itself was a civil, not a criminal matter.
In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:
The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps. The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.
The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”. Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.
As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.
The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury. There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.
Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am. After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened. His full report was only made public three decades later.
A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution. However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.
On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched. In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.
There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.
But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit. He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.
The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s. The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth. In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.
The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation. But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.
There’s increasing concern about neo-fascist infiltration of school playgrounds today – so it’s worth having a quick glance back to what the situation was like in the late 70s and early 80s when neo-Nazis were very active among school pupils.
Football terraces were recruitment grounds for the extreme right but schools were another arena of activity. In one report, there was a quote from a fascist group:
We welcome young people. We make or break them. Many are coming to us with the rise in unemployment. Skinheads are prime material – raw and aggressive. They need an identity. The whole point of getting children is to indoctrinate them. We are building a Nazi society through the youth of today.
Chilling stuff. The British Movement and National Front were particularly active. I recall one pupil from my school returning from a BM conference (from memory in Brussels in 1980) replete with skinhead cut and a perma-snarl. He walked up to me in the school library and informed me that I was a “pinko…leftie…etc”.
John Tyndall, chairman of the NF in the 70s said that “until children reach an age at which they are able to determine their own values, some sort of values have to be instilled into them”. According to the 1974 NF manifesto, schools were to be segregated on the basis of race and liberal studies – or “academic Marxism” as they called it – would be banned.
The NF’s youth wing took over the magazine Bulldog and that became its main recruiting tool in schools. It included a campaign to remove “red teachers” from the classroom.
They sometimes found themselves competing with other far right groups like Viking Youth, led by Paul Jarvis – who was also looking for recruits in the Scout movement! The BM produced a publication called Fact Finder, which included a “Lie Detector”. According to this, the heroes of the Nuremburg Trials were those on trial! Needless to say, holocaust denial featured highly.
Reported incidents in 1980/81 included:
May 1980 – black pupils at a Camden school attacked by skinheads from the National Socialist Party of the United Kingdom
October 1980 – BM recruiting at schools in Dartford, Kent
October 1980 – Young National Front campaign against a teacher at a Dover school
February 1981 – Manchester school daubed with swastikas and NF symbols
March 1981 – 33 pupils, mostly Asian, leave a classroom at a Birmingham school before a fire-bomb explosion – racist attack suspected
Digging up this National Front filth from my archives, I was struck how far to the right the mainstream political parties have moved these days.
There was the NF calling on Britain to leave the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) and we’ve now gone the whole hog and voted for Brexit.
On immigration – the main parties haven’t advocated repatriation but the assumption that immigration is a ‘bad thing’ has become the conventional wisdom.
Back in the 70s, the NF wasn’t shy about talk of “sending THEM back” – even if the people they were referring to were second even third generation black and Asian Britons. Today, UKIP has called for the children of immigrants to be classed as migrants and all parties have promised to ‘get tough’ on immigration and remove benefits.
The NF made great headway spreading lies about immigrants grabbing social housing – yet that assumption goes unchallenged today by many mainstream politicians. Ditto the health service being overrun by so-called “health tourists”.
And we’ve had British jobs for British workers rhetoric from politicians on the left that would have been screamed down as utterly racist 30 years back.
Even in a lifetime, parts of London can change dramatically and Shoreditch is a huge transformation story. Thirty five years ago, it was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists.
National Front supporters would strut through Brick Lane intimidating the local Asian population and spray painting swastikas and racist graffiti. And in 1978, the NF set up its headquarters in deepest Hoxton – 73 Great Eastern Street to be precise.
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 40.
Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But the word went out that while the capital’s anti-racists were watching some great bands – the Nazis would be taking over the east end. The call went out for some of those who opposed the NF to forego the music and counter-demonstrate against the far right in Shoreditch.