Britain in the 1970s was a place of increasing political tensions. The economy was on a downswing and unemployment was rising. Racism towards migrants and the Afro-Caribbean population was being stoked by the government and was amplified by an increasingly confident far right.
The main force on the far right was the National Front (NF), the leaders of which had historic links to the British fascist movement. By May 1977, the NF had made breakthroughs in a few key electoral races. It gained 119,000 votes in the elections for the Greater London Council. In some areas, it received 20 percent of the vote.
The electoral campaigning was accompanied by aggressive and sometimes violent racist action. The NF believed in both the boot and the ballot. It held marches reminiscent of Nazi Germany and staged provocative gatherings on the football terraces, council estates and in Black and working class neighbourhoods. It railed against the left – socialists selling newspapers were attacked and activists were beaten bloody. Socialist activist David Widgery described the climate of fear the NF had created in multicultural working class areas like Brick Lane in London:
“By 1978 it had become impossible for anyone living or working in the E1 area not to have witnessed the provocations; doorstep and bus-stop abuse, the daubing of menacing graffiti, the window-breaking and air-gun pot shots, the stone and bottle-hurling sorties on Sundays, and the threatening atmosphere around certain estates and tube stations which produced a de-facto curfew.”
Estimates suggested that between 1967 and 1979 the NF recruited 64,000 people. Rapid turnover of members meant that the peak membership figure was about 17-18,000 – significant forces for an activist fascist party.
The NF met resistance. From the early 1970s, many activists began to organise. Individuals who had been radicalised by the struggles of the 1960s threw themselves into anti-fascist activity alongside Jewish, Black and migrant groups. The response was broad, with some Labour Party branches and trade unions organising marches and anti-racist carnivals.
Anti-fascist countercultural activities mushroomed across the country. Punk concerts, zines, radical theatre all took up the cause. It was a real campaign, full of debates, contestation and heat.
One of the key arguments was about the effectiveness of directly countering the NF marches. The Labour Party leadership and the Communist Party both advocated a mild approach: they argued the NF should be taken on electorally, through ideological debate and by big celebratory carnivals.
The far left and some key migrant organisations argued that a direct action strategy of outnumbering the NF on the streets was vital. They argued that street mobilisations were key to the far right’s capacity to build. Rallies and violent protests gave the members of the NF a sense of coherence and identity. It made them feel bigger, stronger and virile. The radical left argued for counter-protests that would make the NF feel marginal, under-confident and outnumbered. The evolution of events proved the radical left correct.
Tension had been building in various inner-London suburbs as the NF held provocative protests. Racism was coming from all quarters. The South East London police launched an anti-mugging campaign, targeting young Blacks. They claimed a “purse stealing ring” was menacing the neighbourhood and launched a violent crackdown.
They raided homes, broke down doors with axes and arrested people as young as 16. This state-driven racism had the intended effect. Breathless headlines about crime waves and lawless Black youth were splashed over the major dailies. Anti-racist protests organised by local activists and the left were attacked by NF members. One teacher was kicked unconscious by fascists.
Combating “crime” became the NF’s cause célèbre. It had all the elements of a perfect right wing campaign: dog whistle racism and support for a stronger and more authoritarian state. On 13 August 1977, the NF called for an “anti-mugging” march through the central area of Lewisham.
The anti-fascist forces, led at this point by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), moved immediately into action and for months threw themselves into organising a countermarch. They occupied a local empty building and turned it into a hive of enthusiastic activity. They produced leaflets, held meetings and discussions and fundraisers. They also reached out to locals. According to one SWP member, Jenny Fitzpatrick:
“There were lots of Irish people who provided us with logistics and support … We were allowed into the [Irish hall], the Irish pubs and dances, to raise money, to speak about the NF as the latest incarnation of British imperialism.”
Another organiser described their efforts:
“We spent the evening touring round Lewisham. We met people on the estates, black kids, gangs and their leaders. We talked to people. We explained that tomorrow we’d be organising the biggest march that any of them had seen, that we’d take on the NF, and also the police.”
The more conservative forces of the Labour and Communist parties had, however, organised a separate march. They argued that the direct countermarches were provocative and bordering on illegal. The movement, they said, needed to be respectable: to counter-protest was to be as “extreme” as the NF.
Their rally was due to take place well before the NF were due to arrive and in a different area. They managed to gather 4,000 people, and although the radical left had urged the conservatives not to discourage participation in the later countermarch, speakers from the front argued that all morning marchers should immediately leave the area and go home. Members of the SWP joined the more conservative march and tried to convince as many people as possible to stay for the afternoon’s direct action. Many did. Red Saunders, one young participant who had turned up for the morning’s march, described the situation:
“What I really remember is that there were all these Christians and Communists, telling us to go home. Most people stayed. But we were all just milling about when this old Black lady, too old to march, came out on her balcony. She put out her speakers as loud as they could, playing ‘Get up, stand up’. That did it for me.”
In the end, more than 6,000 anti-fascists from across the country gathered to counter the fascist march directly. Widgery takes up the story:
‘‘In New Cross Road … a crowd of 5,000 anti NFers had assembled by midday. People gently milled; here surging forward under banners that surged and swooped like kites, there breaking out into feminist war whoops, elsewhere shouting recognition in noisy South London patois ... At the front, a ram packed contingent of South London Afro Caribbean’s cordially but expertly blocked off the police’s first attempts – uphill and on foot – to open a way for the NF.”
The fascists, on the other hand, could muster only 500.
That might have been the end of the story for the NF, but it had some well organised, and well-armed, supporters: the police. A third of the Metropolitan Police were on duty that day, and many participants witnessed collusion between the fascists and the cops. The police tried their hardest to facilitate the NF march but were forced, in the end, to attack the anti-fascist protesters. For the first time on the British mainland they used shields – a weapon that previously had been used only in the militarised conflicts in Northern Ireland.
Despite this intimidation, the broad anti-fascist forces refused to disperse and allow open Nazis a route through this multicultural area. They linked arms and stood their ground. As the day wore on, more and more locals joined the antifascists. Young people from the subcontinent, Afro-Caribbeans, the Irish and unionists all rushed to the scene to defend their community. The utilised anything that came to hand. Widgery again:
“People refused to melt away from the police horses and jeer ineffectually from the sidelines. A horse went over, then another, and the Front were led forward so fast that they were quickly struggling. Then suddenly the sky darkened (as they say in Latin poetry), only this time with clods, rocks, lumps of wood, planks and bricks ... The Front found it most difficult to dodge this cannonade while upholding the dignity appropriate to a master race inspecting soon-to-be-deported underlings. The NF march was broken in two, their banners seized and burnt.”
By the end of the afternoon the NF was routed. Radical activists were elated. Their joint effort had halted and demoralised a key and growing section of the right in British society. They hadn’t relied on laws, or the state, or other forces. They hadn’t been simpering or cowardly. They hadn’t begged to be treated with respect.
Through their own strength, unity and defiance, they beat the fascists back. This action was vital for the self-confidence of oppressed communities. One West Indian woman, whose son had been arrested as part of the racist police crackdown, described her feeling of joy after the fascists were forced back:
“The NF couldn’t march through Lewisham. We wouldn’t let them. We stuck to our word, ‘They Shall Not Pass’ … [When I saw what had happened] my heart was laughing inside. I had not been happy for so long … I was really, really happy.”
The events in Lewisham helped galvanise anti-fascist forces nationally and led to the creation of the Anti-Nazi League – one of the most successful and broad anti-fascist organising groups in British history. By the end of the decade, much of the wind had been taken out of the sails of the NF.
Today, in many countries across the globe, we are facing an increasingly confident far right. The deadly events in Charlottesville have prompted debates about how best to challenge fascist movements and groups. The events in Lewisham 40 years ago offer us a glimpse of what a successful anti-fascist strategy looks like: bold, defiant, determined, large and united.