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.
Wood Green is dominated by a great red brick hulk of a 1970s shopping centre, called Shopping City (or at least it was when I lived there in the 1990s). It’s been Riot City in the past. One major disturbance was in 1977 when the far right National Front marched through an area that then, as now, was ethnically mixed and very cosmopolitan.
The result was inevitable. Throughout the late 70s, fascists and anti-fascists faced off up and down the country as racist parties thrived in an atmosphere of economic decline and growing unemployment. The Wood Green clash 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 incident 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.
For years, I remembered the 1978 Anti-Nazi League carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End with a big warm glow – The Clash, Tom Robinson Band and X-Ray Spex and many others played. I was fifteen years old and it was amazingly excited.
The demonstration started in Trafalgar Square and when I arrived at Embankment tube station, loads of punks leaped over the barriers while tube employees tried to hold them back. Round every street corner were big police vans full of coppers waiting to pounce.
And then Trafalgar Square. In those days, Nelson’s column was covered in soot and the buildings seemed darker and greyer – they all got a clean up in the 1980s. But it was the noise that gripped my attention.
Somebody yelling on a megaphone and then X-Ray Spex belting out a number. The whole mass of people moved off and we marched for what seemed like an eternity to Mile End.
There wasn’t just the one carnival that year. Another carnival rocked south London and – I’d quite forgotten – there was a Walthamstow carnival. This followed a racial attack in the area, one of several acts of thuggery by racists against the local Asian community. Here was the poster from that Walthamstow event – some bands on it I really can’t recall.
That may not be how many would wish to remember the year but at the time, it was hard to ignore skinheads. Much maligned or did they get the criticism they deserved? Putting it crudely, there were skinheads who were bad and skinheads who were broadly good.
Bad skins supported the National Front, caused trouble on football terraces and if you saw a group walking down the road towards you – it was best to think of an exit strategy. Skinhead punk bands featured prominently as cheerleaders for fascist politics and one group undoubtedly played a major role in provoking the 1981 Southall Riot – though they whined to the NME afterwards that it was all a terrible mistake.
Good skins weren’t necessarily helping little old ladies across the road but they were more likely to be adopting a style they knew was associated with Jamaican music. I knew skinheads on the far left of British politics and of course, the skinhead look was already being adopted by the gay scene – though some within the gay scene were heavily critical of the look.
Here’s how the Observer in 1980 reported on the year of the skinhead.
Very grim according to veteran 1980s boxer Errol Christie. I filmed Errol in the boxing ring at Gymbox in Holborn talking about his memories of racism, street violence and fascist thuggery. Below is the great man’s perspective on 1979.
Sadly, Errol died of lung cancer in 2017 having never smoked in his life. But he always complained to me of having to box as a youth in smoke filled halls and driving around in a van where everybody was puffing away. He was only three weeks younger than me and it’s a terrible loss to all his friends and his family.