Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Return of Battles on the Streets of Britain?

I did think of titling this 'Panic on the Streets of Britain' but thought that would imply this was something about records by the band The Smiths. Ironically I was recently told about a single released by comedy trio The Goodies (Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie) in 1975 called 'Panic' which apparently sums up the British response to crises which seemed as prevalent in the 1970s as they do today, notably concerning over-population, oil prices and industrial unrest and as a response to all three, shortages. Today's topic is very much about the concerns of living in Britain and is more serious than these media examples focus on. This is the potential for street battles involving fascist groups, notably the English Defence League (EDL) and anti-fascists and the police (who sometimes take up a position in the middle). The well-known plan last Sunday was for the EDL to disrupt the annual Quds Day march from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in London, concerning the Palestinian situation notably by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. You can read reports on what happened all over the internet. The Metropolitan Police skills in handling demonstrations may not be highly skilled as the murder at and the poor handling of the anti-G20 demonstration this year showed, but fortunately were capable enough of keeping the small groups of EDL away from the demonstration though they were still able to shout abuse at the marchers. There were about 40 anti-fascists who had arrived to interpose themselves, and appear to have been welcomed by the marchers (who themselves included members of the Stop The War (in Iraq) campaign) and the police said they could not guarantee their safety, but fortunately the day passed off without the violent clashes that the media had feared.

An interesting eye-witness report from one one of the anti-fascists can be seen at: The blog is called Lenin's Tomb and seems to be run by an old-fashioned British Communist (or maybe more accurately Bolshevik) but does not get hysterical. The report by Sadie Gray in 'The Independent' gives quite a different impression of what happened: indicating that the Quds March ended up in Pall Mall on police direction with the fascists holding Trafalgar Square. Fortunately the numbers of EDL seem to have been limited.

Obviously there have been fascist movements in the UK bubbling in the background and flaring up as in the 1970s and again in the early 2000s. I am sure that the degree of success of the BNP (British National Party) in the last European Parliament elections and Nick Griffin their leader scheduled to appear on BBC1 political show, 'Question Time' in the next few months, has given heart to fascists. It is a shame that the BNP has not been faced with legal challenges on the basis of its racially restricted membership, as was raised back in 2004. However, as we have single-ethnic professional groups (as the BNP pointed out itself in reference to the Black Lawyers' Association) as well as single-gender ones, I guess that it would have been hard to make such cases stick.

Current developments seem to be alarming politicians. I suppose that this is because the EDL is a new kind of fascist grouping, not seeking the respectability of the BNP and yet far more visible than terrorist (or would-be terrorist) groups like Combat 18 (the 18 comes from the numbers of the letters AH in the alphabet; AH standing for Adolf Hitler). The fact that the Greater London Authority (GLA) diverted the Quds Day march from Trafalgar Square where it has assembled since 1982 indicates to some extent the fear of racial battles. To some degree the GLA under Boris Johnson is a captainless ship and never knows how to cope with real issues as opposed to sentimentalist, headline grabbing initiatives. The GLA's playing with control of the Metropolitan Police and so many of Johnson's aides having to resign must be distracting them from effective approaches to the issues which are arising as the recession persists.

John Denham, Secretary of State for Communities, so in charge of governmental response to racial issues did point to the history of fascist marches in East London through Jewish areas in the 1930s, notably the so-called Battle of Cable Street. I used to live very near Cable Street, though in fact the 'battle' was spread right over a large area of East London from Aldgate underground station, North-East to Victoria Park and then South to the Burdett Road-Mile End Road junction where a tram was turned over and farther South to Cable Street itself, now a quiet street primarily distinguished by the commemorative mural (interestingly there had been race riots in the area as early as Summer 1919). Back in 1996 I took part in an anniversary march through Whitechapel then round to Cable Street. It attracted a wide range of people and I was most privileged to meet three German volunteers who had fought on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War thus risking death both in Spain and if they ever returned to Nazi Germany.

The Battle of Cable Street is a complex event. The battle was not really between Sir Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists and anti-Fascists but between each of these two groups and the police. Anti-Fascists secured Victoria Park as the rule was whoever was speaking there first had the right to remain there, so they occupied it from 6 a.m. to keep the Fascists out. The park had long been used for political rallies, especially around dock strikes and is still a venue for liberal-minded events. Police were seized by anti-Fascists and some had hot water poured on them from houses, some were locked in garages and had their helmets confiscated. The police remain as popular in the area today! However, the fact that police persuasion and direction kept the two groups apart actually reduced the danger of a full-scale riot. What could have happened was seen after the war in the Nottingham and Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Of course, the absence of full-scale riots tends to blind us from the day-to-day racially motivated violence that happens against individuals and small groups. We also seem to have very short-term memories about race riots and those of us not living in the particular towns have already forgotten the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001. The pattern of racial riots is also becoming complicated by fighting between British Asians and newer immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe. Denham is right to remind us of Britain's troubled history, but there are more recent examples he can point to as well.

Unlike the BNP, the EDL established by football hooligan groups, notably from Luton, is looking for confrontation by carrying out marches and notably contesting Islamic and Islamist demonstrations. Their focus is very much anti-Muslim rather than anti-Black but this may simply reflect the nature of the towns members are drawn from. The BNP has distanced itself from the EDL but unsurprisingly former BNP members are members of the EDL. As the BNP becomes seen as more 'respectable' those young men who want an excuse for a fight will turn to other more active groups. There have been clashes in Luton, Birmingham (on two occasions, leading to 125 arrests) and London, notably in Harrow which has a large South Asian population. At the Harrow Central Mosque 2.000 Islamic youths gathered to defend the location from an EDL march.

It is unsurprising that as in the 1930s, with unemployment high (today reaching 2.47 million, the highest since 1995), there are numerous young men around, brought up in the very macho culture for males (ironically influenced heavily by rap culture from American blacks) and now with little hope of work. They see foreigners as being to blame and easily equate local Asians with recent immigrants. Of course, propagandists from the fascist groups give them that easy lie. In fact people from ethnic minorities can be four times as likely to be unemployed as their white equivalents, but may have more family support. Football hooliganism always appealed to such men, especially in the 1970s before it became an issue of dressing in designer wear to carry out violence as it became in the 1980s, but the desire for violence remains. Give the tacit racism which is so prevalent in the UK, these men can even feel they are doing 'the right thing', something noble that will be respected by their white neighbours. For these men, to some degree unlike the 1930s Fascists, there is not really any political creed just a hatred that has been stoked up. Social networking sites can make members feel they are part of a large and sophisticated organisation which may keep them loyal and active whereas in the past their interest may have wavered.

In addition, the government has played right into the fascists' hands since 2001. By trying to alarm us to the supposed dangers of Islamist terrorism as basis for a war to secure Iraqi oil, they have legitimised racist attitudes towards Asians, whether they are Muslim, Hindu or Sikh or even atheist. When you see the prime minister going on about the threats and you hear about policies to make entrance into Britain harder and teachers and university lecturers are expected to monitor their students for extremist activity you are almost compelling British people to be prejudiced. Naturally this fans the flames of anger and violence in those predicated to being racists anyway. When the government says it is alright to combat Islamists and to a great degree suggests that anyone from an Asian background can be under suspicion, then naturally fascists feel they have no need to curb their behaviour; they have a green light from the government.

Are we going to see a repeat of the 1930s as Denham expects? These things were never as severe in Britain as they were say in France or certainly Germany of the 1930s and the British never seem to adhere to any kind of political extremism for long. Rioting in Britain typically occurs during hot summers and the desultory weather of the past couple of years has probably dampened the kind of violence we might have seen if the promised heatwave had actually appeared this year. What happens next depends on many factors, not simply the weather. If the war in Iraq really begins to wind down, and more importantly people like Gordon Brown and even Tony Blair who has recently been whining on about how terrorism remains the greatest threat, stop seeking to scare the population and using Islamic people as an easy target we may stand a chance of dousing the current fad for anti-Islamism. There will always be extremists in any population, they reckon at any one time 3-4% of the UK population is on the extreme right and the same percentage on the extreme left politically, though that balance seems to have shifted a great deal and the fascist figure is probably climbing well above the revolutionaries' one. Of course, only a fraction of this fraction will be out of the street with the others being sympathisers providing funds and succhor to the real radicals.

Referring back to the 1930s, Denham forgets one key factor, one that was even present in the 1970s and that was popular anti-fascism. I came across an Anti-Nazi League badge from the 1970s in a retro shop the other day. I remember slogans like 'Black and White Unite Against Racism' and that is an important element, it cannot simply be white liberals (if there are any left) to oppose racism, there needs to be an alliance across races and generations. This is what the commemorative Cable Street march showed in 1996 and why we have seen success with campaigns as diverse as opposing power stations, the Iraq War and even in support of fox hunting. Of course, the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) formed in 1977 and still in existence today is an adjunct organisation to the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) a Trotskyite revolutionary party, but an incredibly visible and active radical party in the 1970s and 1980s not least in being the key supplier of placards for protest marches. SWP have a broader revolution than simply contesting fascism but formed a bedrock for such activity.

Not associated with any political party, it is vital to mention the monthly anti-fascist magazine 'Searchlight' which started in 1975 and has links across Europe to anti-fascist groups and UK trade unions: ACCORD, ANSA, AMICUS-AEEU, AMICUS-MSF, AMO, ASLEF, BFAWU, BECTU, CWU, CYWU, CONNECT, FBU, GMB, GPMU, MU, NAPO, NASUWT, NUM, RMT, NUT, PCS, PFA, T&GW, TSSA, UCU, UNIFI, USDAW and UNISON, helped by their Trade Union Friends of Searchlight (TUFS) campaign which began in 2004 and which has its own periodical. It has support from people like Glenys Kinnock, MEP and the General Secretary of the TUC (Trades Union Congress). For more information see:

From this site I followed a link to Philosophy Football, a company which makes political teeshirts: The ones I find most interesting are those with designs drawn from banners and slogans of the Soviet side of the Eastern Front of the Second World War (which seems rather hypocritical as even though Stalin was fighting Nazis, he was a tyrant and racist). More appopriate appear to be those from the Spanish Civil War, I imagine Clement Attlee (UK prime minister 1945-51) never envisaged he would have his name on a teeshirt in the 21st century via the Banner of the Number 1 Major Attlee Company, British Battalion of the International Brigade. Attlee had been a major and was leader of the non-National Government Labour Party at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Someone said that fascism often wins supporters by its 'glamour' and so I suppose in attracting young people anti-fascists have to at least appear 'cool'. Money from the sale of these teeshirts goes to the International Brigades Memorial Trust.

Since beginning this posting I have been looking at the group, Unite Against Racism (founded in 2004; acronym UAR), possibly sceptically because I feared that they might be a front for another revolutionary party, but given the backing of various unions (who are usually not revolutionary, in fact can be pretty conservative in outlook): Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), National Association of Schoolmasters and Women Teachers (NASUWT), National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), National Union of Teachers (NUT), National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), University and College Union (UCU) and UNITE (many of whom also back 'Searchlight') and the fact that the email connects to a UCU email address suggests this is really a Guardian-reading kind of group. They even have a list of pop bands who are allied to the movement, more mainstream than those that backed Rock Against Racism (RAR) in the late seventies and early eighties. Some I have never heard of and some you would expect like Madness, Bernard Butler, Jarvis Cocker and Franz Ferdinand; perhaps David Gray and the Kings of Leon are less expected. I have also just noticed that there is also a list of MPs which usually suggests it is not a Trotskyite body!

The point I was going to bring out about the difference from the 1936 or 1977 to today is how little political activity there is today. The people selling 'Socialist Worker' newspaper on Saturdays in shopping precincts or at campuses have long gone. In student elections there are no political parties, just individual independent candidates. Grass roots political parties seem non-existent. The most political activity is focused on environmental concerns such as power stations and airport expansion and conversely opposing wind farms and in support of fox hunting. In some ways environmental concerns, though vital, are apolitical and certainly can straddle across a wide spectrum of people. What I fear is lacking over contesting fascism in the past are the people to get out on the streets and oppose it. I am not saying we should have street battles as in Germany of the early 1930s, what I am saying is that people need to show that fascism is unacceptable in every town and that people opposing it are not just from ethnic or religious minorities but from all sectors of every community. The absence of that kind of resistance means that it is more likely that violence will appear. In addition, the police attitude seems to remain as ambivalent as when ANL member Blair Peach was murdered in 1979. I am not expecting special privileges for the anti-fascists over the fascists, just equitable treatment and to not see every protest as inherently violent and thus needing to be met with pre-emptive violence as was the case at the G20 protest. However, I think that in our apolitical age, when people are referring to Socialism as extinct and thinking about your society and people in it does not even cross the mind of the bulk of the population, the EDL and other extremists will find minimal or no resistance to their marches and if they do it will only be on the basis of self-defence from minorities rather than founded on disgust on the part of broader society.

UAR is not a cool, radical group that young people want to be part of, partly because our society has had politics flushed from it and they simply think about their own comfort. Even students now have to worry about getting to their job to pay their fees rather than protesting against prejudice and injustice. Middle Britain, never happy with anything politicised, thinks it likes it that way, but seems oblivious to the fact that it has drained away the balance that extremism has to face if it is not to spread further and so, in turn, those Middle Britons will find cars in their street smashed, they will find the corner shop burnt out, they will find strict police regulation that they will get caught up in. Thus, to John Denham's statement about a risk of returning to 1936, I would argue that if it went back to what happened in 1936 it is not going to be half as bad as what I fear may happen in 2009 with only 40 protestors against rising numbers of fascists. I am not one for censoring fascists, they can hang themselves by their own statements, but the government is wrong if it thinks that as in 1936 popular resistance and time will make the problem go away.

Researching this posting I noted that Garry Aronsson, a leading member of the BNP lists as one of his hobbies: 'devising slow and terrible ways of paying back the Guardian-reading cunts who have betrayed the British people into poverty and slavery. I AM NOT JOKING.' So I have a lot to look forward to if he ever comes to power! It is funny to think that reading 'The Guardian' is an act of defiance and begs the question: are readers of 'The Independent' exempt? I wonder who Aronsson thinks he is enslaved to that he can make such horrific statements without being arrested or silenced? As to the poverty, well, I think he should knock on the door of many white American mortgage lenders before he looks elsewhere. In the current climate, if he was black he would be four times more likely to be unemployed than he is as a white man. In addition, Aronsson seems to have a low opinion of the British public if he thinks that they could be 'betrayed' by people like me, I certainly wish I had the power. Looking at the history of Britain the country over the past decades has been run by readers of the 'Daily Telegraph' and more recently 'The Universe' rather than 'The Guardian'. Of course they have all done a great deal more for this country than Aronsson could even dream of achieving.

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