15 June, 1974 saw both an emergency conference held by the National Union of Students on the issue of ‘no platform’ and a counter-demonstration against the National Front in Red Lion Square. The two incidents were a pivotal moment for the emergent anti-fascist movement in Britain. Below is based on a passage from my forthcoming manuscript on the history of ‘no platform’.
At the National Union of Students (NUS) conference in April 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism, in particular the discrimination faced by international students in Britain. A resolution stated:
Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform. However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).
Student unions were also called upon to ‘refuse any assistance to openly racist or fascist organisations or individuals’, as well as ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’. Although the resolution was successful, it caused considerable controversy and soon after the conference ended, there were pushes by some student unions to have the resolution overturned.
Because of the controversial nature of ‘no platform’ resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. Students from the International Marxist Group, who were instrumental in pushing though the policy back in April, accused the Communist Party faction within the NUS of wavering, suggesting that the Party ‘began to tremble at the thought that they were losing support inside the NUS’ and eventually ‘cracked under the strain’. In the lead up to the conference, the IMG warned that the Communist Party faction wanted to weaken the resolution and restrict ‘no platform’ to non-violent means only, effectively getting rid of the phrase ‘by whatever means necessary’.
At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. A motion was put forward by several student unions arguing that ‘violent disruption of a meeting of a racialist speaker gives that speaker publicity which she or he would welcome’ and that the NUS should have used ‘any non-violent tactics necessary to combat racialism’. The student union from City University London had been significant in the lead up to the June conference in the campaign to revise the ‘no platform’ resolution and a representative from this student union stressed that any action ‘must be non-violent because violent disruption was unacceptable on a moral level and politically bankrupt and ineffective on a tactical level’.
However a number of representatives again defended the ‘by whatever means necessary’ part of the resolution. A representative from Portsmouth Polytechnic said that it didn’t matter whether violent disruption received negative publicity in the press and that ‘students should not be interested in winning this mythical idea that somewhere there was the average man or the average student who symbolised public opinion’. Another representative from Birmingham Polytechnic argued that fascists ‘were willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve their policies’ and thus, ‘[t]heir opponents should be the same’.
The emergency conference happened to be scheduled for the same day that the National Front attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. A number of those who came for the conference also attended the counter-demonstration. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.
News of the police actions at Red Lion Square filtered back to the NUS conference. John McGeown, an IMG member and University of Kent representative, announced to the conference during the ‘no platform’ debate:
Someone had just come to the rostrum with blood over his face and body. The wound had been inflicted by the police who were preventing people from demonstrating against the National Front.
McGeown linked the action at Red Lion Square to the debate being held at the conference, arguing that the violence experienced by the (largely student) demonstrators emphasised ‘the importance of the debate today’. He continued:
While students were sitting here and liberals came to the rostrum and talked about free speech and the right to do this and to do that, student were actually being attacked by fascists in conjunction with, and in alliance with, the police force… Such violence was being inflicted by the police force outside Conway Hall today in alliance with the fascists. Students had the opportunity to make a big contribution to the fight against the fascists today and they ought to be doing that by upholding the Liverpool conference resolution.
The death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence. As Dave Hann has shown, throughout the mid-1970s, NF activists violently broke a number of meetings by the left, leading to the need for meetings to be stewarded by militant anti-fascists.
The NUS produced a pamphlet in the aftermath of Gately’s death that called a mobilisation of an anti-fascist movement against the National Front, but while not mentioning the ‘no platform’ on university campuses, also called for other institutions to implement a ‘no platform’ policy. The pamphlet proclaimed:
we call upon the government and local councils to recognise their responsibilities and ban further marches by the National Front and other fascist groups, and to deny them the use of public facilities. Such measures alone will not alone win the fight against racism and fascism, but will be an expression of the government’s resolve to check its growth and to protect hard-won democratic rights of working people.
It is quite likely that the violence witnessed at Red Lion Square convinced many at the time that ‘no platform’ was necessary to combat fascists in a time of supposed ascendancy and that to allow these fascists to publicly organise was to risk fascist violence in the future. The tragic events at Red Lion Square occurred at a pivotal moment for anti-fascist movement in Britain and the promotion of ‘no platform’ as an anti-fascist tactic. By the late 1970s, the ‘by any means necessary’ phrase had been removed from the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy and the policy was entirely revoked between December 1977 and April 1978. It was resinstated in the same month as the first Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism Carnival was held in London, happening as the anti-fascist movement gained momentum. Despite the initial controversy around its implementation, the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy has remained in place for over 40 years.
NUS, April Conference: Minutes and Summary of Proceedings (London: NUS, 1974) p. 79. Bold in original text.
Ibid., p. 79.
Red Weekly, 31 October, 1974, p. 2.
Red Weekly, 23 May, 1974, p. 6.
NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference (London: NUS, 1974) pp. 34-35.
Ibid., p. 35.
Ibid., p. 36.
Ibid., p. 36.
NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference, p. 36.
Ibid., p. 36.
Ibid., p. 36.
Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (London: Zero Books, 2013) pp. 250-251.
NUS, The Myth of Red Lion Square (London: NUS pamphlet, 1974) pp. 21-22.