Red Lion Square and the Death of Kevin Gately

On 15 June, 1974, Kevin Gately, an anti-fascist demonstrator and student at Warwick University, was killed during a demonstration in Red Lion Square in London, in a clash between police and anti-fascist demonstrators opposing the National Front’s meeting at Conway Hall. Next year will be the fortieth anniversary of his death. 

The following is an excerpt from my PhD thesis on the demonstration at Red Lion Square and the aftermath of Gately’s death, with a particular emphasis on the division between the Communist Party (the focus of my thesis) and the Trotskyist left, the International Marxist Group (IMG) and the International Socialists (IS) (A wider discussion of the left and anti-fascism in the 1970s can be found in my article here). 

red lion square gately

On June 15, 1974, the National Front had organised a march through London, ending at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) organised a counter-demonstration that was to end with a meeting outside the hall, which was supported by the CPGB, the IS, the IMG and many other groups within the labour movement. However as Nigel Copsey noted, ‘Unbeknown to Liberation… was the determination of the IMG to organise a mass picket at the main entrance of the hall thereby denying the NF access’.[1] The police, with what Lord Scarman later described as a ‘concern… with maintenance of public order’, attempted to disperse the IMG contingent that were blocking the NF’s access to Conway Hall.[2] The IMG members refused to be dispersed and according to Lord Scarman’s report, ‘when the IMG assaulted the police cordon there began a riot, which it was the duty of the police to suppress, by force if necessary’.[3] It was in this initial violent clash between police and militant anti-fascists, lasting for less than fifteen minutes, that Kevin Gately, a student from Warwick University, was fatally injured. Gately died from a brain haemorrhage stemming from a blow to the head.[4] Further clashes between police and anti-fascist demonstrators occurred throughout the day, with the end result being that ‘one person died, 46 policemen and at least 12 demonstrators were injured, 51 people arrested and the whole police operation had cost an estimated £15,000’.[5]

The Communist Party had supported the counter-demonstration organised by the London Area Council of Liberation. In the Morning Star on 15 June, 1974, an article urged people to support the counter-demonstration, including an appeal by leading trade unionists, stating that the NF’s ‘poisonous ideas are a threat to all that is best in our society’.[6] In the aftermath, the Morning Star declared that ‘blame for what occurred… must be placed where it belongs – on the authorities for permitting it, and the police for brutality’.[7] The march by the NF was in violation of the Race Relations Act, the CPGB claimed and on these grounds, the march should have been banned.[8] Appealing to the repressive apparatus of the State, such as the police, the judiciary and the Home Office, to deal with fascists, plus criticism of the police showed an inconsistency in the Communist Party’s strategy, which believed the State could be utilised to counter the NF, while the police were hostile to the left and far from impartial. As London District Secretary Gerry Cohen wrote in the Morning Star, ‘The police, like the National Front, are on the side of the exploiting class. They operated on that side with thoroughness and with fury on Saturday in Red Lion Square. And Kevin Gately died’.[9] The CPGB and Liberation emphasised the peaceful nature of their march, quoting Gilbert as saying, ‘At least 99.9 per cent of the 2,000 people there were absolutely peaceful and they were attacked’.[10]

The IMG were condemned by the CPGB for aiming at confrontation. The anti-fascist movement needed to appeal to the broader progressive and labour movements, according to Cohen, ‘but what this small section of the march did was to make this more difficult’, as the IMG ‘played into the hands of all those in the key positions of establishment…aimed at destroying our basic democratic rights’.[11] In a press release by the CPGB’s London District Committee, the CPGB declared that it had ‘by far the largest number of individuals of any single organisation involved in the demonstration’, with approximately 500-600 numbers involved.[12] The press release stated that, ‘At no time did our Party contemplate, nor did it take part in any discussions that contemplated of bringing about any physical confrontation with the police or anybody else at this demonstration’.[13] According to the Party, there was ‘absolutely no reason why the police could not have contained the situation peacefully at all times’ and the police had ‘undoubtedly mishandled the situation’.[14] For Cohen, this was the lesson of the Red Lion Square demonstrations: ‘For the sake of the humanity don’t let the adventurist tactics of a minority, and the way they are seized on by the media, divert from the main question…Root out this evil’.[15]

In the days following these were calls for an inquiry into Gately’s death. NUS President John Randall was quoted in the Morning Star as saying, ‘We now know that Kevin Gately died as a direct result of police violence’.[16] By the end of the month, Lord Scarman had been placed in charge of the inquiry, conducting a tribunal with witnesses throughout September 1974 and a report was eventually produced in February 1975. Scarman’s conclusions strongly defended the police force’s actions and criticised the demonstrators, primarily the IMG and the naivety of Liberation, for the violence. The report was ‘unable to make any definite finding as to the specific cause of the fatal injury which Mr Kevin Gately suffered’.[17] Scarman largely absolved the police of any wrongdoing.

Scarman concluded that the police were ‘right not to ban the National Front demonstration’, but recommended that the Race Relations Act needed ‘radical amendment to make it an effective sanction’.[18] As Scarman could not discover the direct cause of Gately’s death, in his judgement he found that ‘those who started the riot carry a measure of moral responsibility for his death; namely the IMG, who he believed had ‘initiated the disorder by their inexcusable assault on the police cordon’.[19] The overall lesson that Lord Scarman had for the anti-fascist movement was ‘co-operate with the police’.[20]

The CPGB were critical of Scarman’s dismissal of the failure to ban the National Front march under the Race Relations Act. Demonstrations that ‘conflict with the law…should be banned’, Gerry Cohen stated, as the incitement to race hatred had been outlawed by the Act and warned if ‘Fascists are allowed to parade, and propagate racist views’, then ‘members of the public are going to react in a hostile way’.[21] To remove the threat of conflict from anti-fascist/racist protestors, the CPGB recommended strengthening the Act, which would ‘immediately remove one of the major sources of conflict situations giving rise to issues of public order and demonstrations at the time’. In a pamphlet published by the NUS, the Scarman inquiry was criticised for providing ‘a political platform for the police prosecutor’ and ‘permitted in a legal sense a continuation of the police action in Red Lion Square’.[22] In the aftermath of Red Lion Square, the number of anti-fascist demonstrators increased dramatically and continued to rise throughout the mid-to-late 1970s. As Nigel Copsey wrote, ‘despite adverse publicity that the Red Lion Square disorder had generated for the left, more anti-fascists than fascists could be mobilised at street level’.[23]

murdered by police


[1] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, 2000, p. 120

[2] The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974: Report of Inquiry by the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Scarman, O.B.E., HMSO, London, 1975, p. 8

[3] The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, p. 8

[4] N. Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 120; The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, p. 11

[5] N. Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 120

[6] Morning Star, 15 June, 1974

[7] Morning Star, 17 June, 1974

[8] Morning Star, 17 June, 1974

[9] Morning Star, 22 June, 1974

[10] Morning Star, 22 June, 1974

[11] Morning Star, 22 June, 1974

[12] London District Communist Party, ‘Copy of Statement for the Public Enquiry Sent to the Treasury Solicitor on Events in Red Lion Square, June 15th 1974’, 15 August 1974, CP/LON/EVNT/03/07, Labour History and Study Centre, Manchester

[13] LDC, ‘Copy of Statement…’

[14] LDC, ‘Copy of Statement…’

[15] Morning Star, 22 June, 1974

In the days following Gately’s death, a march was organised by the NUS and Warwick University’s Student Union in memory of Gately and protest of the police brutality. In a memo to the CPGB’s National Student Committee members, Dave Cook announced that ‘the Demo organisers are insisting on a silent march without banners’, with a pointed reference to the IMG: ‘You know who disagree’. Memo from Executive Committee to National Student Committee, 18 June, 1974, CP/CENT/CIRC/60/01, LHASC

[16] Morning Star, 18 June, 1974

[17] The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, p. 44

[18] The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, p. 44; p. 46

[19] The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, p. 44; p. 43

[20] The Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974, p. 43

[21] Gerry Cohen, ‘Scarman Enquiry – Part 2’, 28 October, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/10, LHASC

[22] NUS, The Myth of Red Lion Square, NUS pamphlet, London, 1974, p. 14

[23] N. Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 122

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