Did the Thatcher Government downplay fascist infiltration of football ‘hooligan’ scene?

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After the collapse of the National Front at the 1979 general election and its split into three competing factions, amongst the football ‘hooligans’ was one of the few in-roads that far right activists made during the 1980s. Both the Official National Front (the ‘Political Soldier’ group under the leadership of Nick Griffin) and the more overtly Nazi British Movement targeted young football supporters and those linked to certain ‘firms’. Many of those who were targeted by the NF/BM were already in the midst of a subculture that involved occasional violence and this made recruitment into organised fascist activism more easy. Shortly before it dissolved in 1981-82, the Anti-Nazi League warned about the presence of the BM on the football terraces:

At many football grounds, particularly in the London area, youngsters giving Nazi salutes have adapted BM slogans to their football chants – ‘Adolf Hitler, we’ll support you evermore’ and ‘There’s only one Adolf Hitler’.

The ANL quoted a former BM member who stated:

The BM and the NF approach groups of skinheads and the smoothies and the guys who just look mean, and say to them ‘Do you want a good ruck? If so come to a march on Sunday.’ I’ve seen them do this on the terraces at Spurs, West Ham, Millwall, Orient, Watford and Chelsea.’

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In the recently released documents from the Prime Minister’s Office for 1985-86 by the National Archives, there were several files relating the policing of football crowds and of ‘hooliganism’ in the wake of the Heysel disaster in Belgium, the Bradford City fire and the riot at St Andrews (Birmingham City’s stadium). These files offer a great insight into how the British government, particularly the Home Office, and the various police forces around the country viewed football crowds as a ‘problem’ and the various ways it sought to deal with them (of course, this offers background to how the authorities mishandled the Hillsborough disaster four years later).

Most of the files deal with the issues of crowd control and public order, but in the discussion of ‘hooliganism’, there seems to be little discussion of how the far right had infiltrated the various supporters’ groups and how this might’ve added to the violence witnessed around the country in the mid-1980s. The Interim Report of the Poppleweill Inquiry (set up to investigate the Bradford City fire and the Birmingham City riot) acknowledged that research into fascist recruitment of football ‘hooligans’ had reported this as a significant phenomenon:

Sociological research on the activities of the politically far right at football matches suggests that many young fans who espouse racist views, or who join in racist chants, have little real idea of the politics of groups like the National Front and the British Movement.

Although Justice Popplewell admitted, ‘I shall need to inquire more deeply in due course into this aspect’.

But despite Popplewell stating that ‘[t]here were found on the Birmingham ground a number of leaflets belonging to the National Front’, the report quoted a local Chief Superintendent who was investigating the riot, who denied the presence of the far right:

During the season just concluded, I have not detected any political lobbying adjacent to the ground on match days. I have not detected political activists recruiting or provoking problems.

In speaking notes drafted by the Home Office for the impeding release of the Popplewell Inquiry report, the government seemed to be hedging their bets on whether the far right were a problem at football grounds. In answering the question ‘what is being done to deal with extreme right wing organisations such as the National Front which instigate football violence’, the speaking notes said:

It is difficult to measure the effect which the presence of political extremists has on the level of crowd violence, but we do not rule out the possibility that this is a contributing factor. Anyone with evidence that political extremists are inciting or organising violence at football matches should draw it to the attention of the police.

Included in the file are examples of the fascist literature from the Young National Front’s paper Bulldog, which featured a regular column ‘On the Football Front’. Although prone to exaggeration, one issue claimed that Bulldog was being sold ‘by the hundred outside football grounds’ (including St Andrews). Another issue of Bulldog claimed that a YNF organiser had been involved in a ‘football race riot’ in Birmingham.

These copies of Bulldog had been supplied by Ted Croker, who was the head of the Football Association at the time. In a reply letter to Croker, a government representative seems to downplay these papers as evidence of the far right’s infiltration of the football ‘hooligan’ scene. Neil Macfarlane from the Department of the Environment wrote:

You will realise, of course, that if anything is to be done to deal with specific instances of violence being initiated or encouraged by National Front members, the police will require firm evidence; the Home Secretary has asked that anybody who has such evidence should make it available to the police. Without such evidence, it is very difficult to take any action, however horrible we feel this overt racism to be.

While the authorities were concerned about football ‘hooliganism’ and violence during the 1980s, the emphasis was on crowd control, rather than tackling political extremism (particularly far right/fascist). This is very similar to how the authorities policed clashes between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1970s and 1980s. The police were often willing to downplay fascist violence until it became impossible to ignore. The policing of football crowds and demonstrations were revamped shortly after this with the Public Order Act 1986, but as the events at Hillsborough in April 1989 showed, public order policing strategies were still framed around suspicion of crowds and little concern for those caught up in them.

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