IN MY Midlands comprehensive school in the 1970s, the boys in my sixth form were all planning to be Labour voters like their fathers and grandfathers. I’d joined the Labour Party aged 15. We regarded the National Front as uncouth skinheads, the sort you avoided at all costs. In London Professor Lez Henry had more to fear. ‘Us black yoof were terrorised,’ he said, remembering NF bullies in Lewisham as ‘organised fascists’. He recalled their language: ‘Paki and queer bashing,’ and ‘nigger hunting’, presumably allowed to speak the words on the BBC as he is black. Despite that trauma and leaving education early, he hasn’t done badly: Professor of Criminology and Sociology in the University of West London, and author of the 2020 essay Marxism as a reggaematical tool to chant down Babylon!
He might be called a ‘Renaissance man’ (if that term was not now deemed ‘Eurocentric’ and sexist) listing his areas of expertise as criminology, sociology, anthropology, race, education, ethnicity, youth crime and cultural studies. He’s reggae deejay ‘Lezlee Lyrix,’ and of course a poet and community activist. In the American way, he calls himself a ‘renowned public speaker’. He was also the only working-class voice in the second episode of Britain’s Fascist Thread on BBC Radio 4, in which Camilla Schofield, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of East Anglia, has been given a three-part series to explore ‘the unbroken thread of fascism in Britain’ (on Part One of which I commented in TCW last week).
Part Two started with a soundtrack from the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ on August 13, 1977, when 500 NF marchers clashed with 4,000 counter-demonstrators. Those figures were not given out and for Schofield the clash, no matter how unequal the numbers, was part of an ‘ongoing strategy’ in ‘the thread of fascism from 1918 to the present day’. Rather than skinheads, the NF contingent represent for her ‘a real world threat’, and ‘the threads woven in from the past’ were keenly stitched by those who want to ‘mythologise’ Britain’s past.
The previous episode brought out the current academic obsession with the British Empire, where everything in our history is related to its evils. In this second episode, for Paul Jackson, senior lecturer in history at the University of Northampton and Guardian writer, the fascism of Mosley and the British people post-war was about ‘rekindling empire and a last- ditch attempt at racial purity with the formation of groups such as the Racial Preservation Society and the Imperial Fascist League’.
There were some very eccentric groups, composed mainly of much older people who were seen as eccentric hangovers from an Edwardian twilight. Some belonged to the National Socialist League founded by William Joyce, the wartime traitor Lord Haw-Haw who was hanged by the British. Schofield mentioned A K Chesterton, a South African follower of Mosley who tried to break up Conservative Party conferences. In 1967 he founded the NF. I don’t think anyone in my comp, where both head boy and head girl were black, had heard of any of them. Schofield insists that the 70s far-Right were a real threat as they attempted to ‘reassert Britain as a white man’s country, where racial nationalism was going hand in hand with economic nationalism’. She didn’t explain what that meant, or mention the EEC, the pan-European group we’d joined four years earlier. Analysis of economics in the 70s was strangely absent from the programme. It is arguable that the wealth extracted from the Empire allowed the British of all classes to have a higher standard of living. Attlee and his post-war government were aware of how workers benefited from colonialisation. Perhaps the sudden end of Empire contributed to racism, but that was not discussed.
Neither was the thorny topic of immigration, the issue that most directly affected working-class attitudes, and did most to turn people away from the Labour Party. Instead, to support the idea of ‘resurgent fascism’, Jackson mentioned the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962-1968 which tried to limit immigration and he said ‘normalised racism.’
The premise that limiting immigration or even worrying about its effects is racist brought us to Enoch Powell. For Schofield he was ‘critical to the unbroken thread of fascism’ and even ‘reframed the story of World War Two’. Powell, who enlisted early in the war and became the youngest brigadier in the British Army (one of only two men to rise from private to that rank), was apparently a chief mythologiser of history in his attempt to lead the British public down the Himmelstrasse to Britain’s Third Reich. This argument was supported by allegations about Powell’s rhetoric about future conflict and immigration and its possible effects on his working-class constituents.
Although there were no direct quotes, for Schofield Powell’s words represented ‘the loss of the moral authority of white rule’. They ‘cleared a path to fascism’ and ‘racial populists were turned into fascists’. She means people becoming disillusioned with the Left but, according to her thesis, were proto-Nazis all along.
The 70s was a turbulent time when those earlier dark ‘threads became embedded’ and there were new developments; for Professor Lez and Schofield ‘the young black man’ was seen as predatory and a real threat. Contemporary attempts to stop street crime, which began to be called ‘mugging’, were racist, based on ‘disinformation’.
The programme came alive for me at this moment. After my Midlands comprehensive I moved to south London where I became a nursing auxiliary in Lambeth and was mugged three times by young black men working in small gangs. My friends and some of their mothers suffered the same experience. There was constant burglary. We lived under a reign of fear inflicted by black youths from Brixton and Peckham. Perhaps for the first time, street robbery was seen by the Left as political. A nursing student suggested that I’d been mugged due to my ‘racist body language’ – the first time I’d heard that. When I wrote about the attacks and the climate of fear many of us were experiencing, I was accused of racism and reported to the Brixton-based Race Today Collective, a Marxist group run by Darcus Howe which later became affiliated to the US Black Panther Movement. In 2014, looking back to the 70s, Diane Abbott MP called Howe ‘a living embodiment of the struggle against police racism and injustice. He was the embodiment of the idea that police racism could be challenged successfully’. In 2004 a blue plaque was placed on the organisation’s building by English Heritage.
The 70s was a time when our present culture wars began, at least in the use of ‘weaponised’ language and attempts to control what could and could not be said. The word ‘fascist’ became a pejorative term for anyone opposed to immigration. Peter Hain, then a young activist, didn’t take part in the Battle of Lewisham, where police used riot shields for the first time, but began to question the idea of ‘free speech’, believing it had to be used ‘with responsibility’. The idea followed that ‘hate speech’ had to be controlled by legislation. As stated by Schofield in the previous episode, only the Right took an ‘absolutist view on free speech’.
Like Mosley’s troops at the Olympia rally of 1934, the NF were dead as a political force after the Lewisham disorder. A month later the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were formed. Hain sees fascism as an exception which he and others wished to confront. Schofield’s thesis, unchallenged in the programmes so far, is that it is and always has been the norm, ‘mainstream’ in the UK, never, as most of us think, ‘antithetical to liberal democracy’.
Professor Paul Gilroy, founding director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism at University College London, added a more nuanced tone, noting the failure of the far Right to gain a foothold in Britain. He was privately educated at University College School, part of the elite ‘Eton Group’ of 12 public schools who organise social and sporting events with Eton College. His Twitter page doesn’t mention this and when I asked about it he instantly blocked me.
His site is decorated with an image of Churchill’s head defaced by Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020. Like Schofield he’s preoccupied with countering ‘British myths’ particularly ‘romantic narratives of whiteness, Christianity and ethnic homogeneity as uniquely constitutive of these islands’. In their place he’s working to insert ‘the long history of Black Britons into the cultural and social fabric of Britishness’, Most of us beyond BBC Land find it hard to locate black people in Britain before the 1950s or to spot fascists about the place, and have come to despise the current ubiquity of the term. Schofield is also worried about it because she thinks it now masks the true popularity of the ideas behind it, which are ‘attractive to people across the board’.
In next Friday’s episode she and her academic colleagues will finally prove their thesis that Britain is a fascist country as they discuss the ‘means by which fascism is calibrated and communicated in the 21st century’. Or perhaps they feel no need to prove it, as they already find it self-evident. ‘There was electoral success for a British fascist party like never before,’ Schofield reports eagerly. Who? What? Where? Tune in at 11am to find out.