Oswald Mosley

British fascists and the notion of free speech

Since the days of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the far right have presented themselves as the defenders of free speech. Mosley argued that free speech was almost non-existent due to violent Marxists and that his paramilitary forces were the only thing defending free speech in Britain. Despite many politicians and journalists arguing that Mosley should be debated, he complained that there was a conspiracy to silence him. Recent rhetoric by the far right has a history going back to the 1930s and it is one that we should be wary of. The following is based on an excerpt from my book project on the history of ‘no platform’. 

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Since the days of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), the far right in Britain have attempted to portray themselves as the defenders of free speech. As meetings of the BUF were interrupted by anti-fascist activists, the BUF complained that ‘the Reds’ were trying to deny them their freedom of speech. In the first issue of The Blackshirt from February 1933, Oswald Mosley’s front page article, quoting from the BUF’s 1932 manifesto The Great Britain, claimed that the anti-fascist campaigns against the newly established BUF had indicated that ‘we have reached a point in this country in which free speech is a thing of the past’.[1] Mosley complained:

Organised bands of “Reds,” armed with sticks, bottles and razors, attend all important meetings which threaten their position in areas where they are strong, with the declared object of breaking them up.[2]

Only the fascists, Mosley claimed in his newspaper, could ‘hold open meetings in such areas without police protection’, suggesting that the reason for this was that the ‘Fascist Defence Force has been organised to protect free speech’ which had ‘often met and defeated “Red” violence’.[3] From the very beginnings of the BUF, Mosley embraced militarism and violence as part of his political movement, with the Fascist Defence Force being used as a ‘shocktroop’ to confront anti-fascist opposition.[4]

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The trope of the far right being silenced by left-wing violence, which continued across the twentieth century and into the present, was first used by Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and explicitly used again by Mosley in the 1930s. The portrayal of the paramilitary Fascist Defence Force as an organisation built to forcefully respond to the threats from the left indicates the early embrace of violence in the BUF, confident of its own strength and not needing to rely on the police. It was only after the disturbances at Olympia in June 1934 that the BUF moved to explicitly calling for the police to intervene against anti-fascist activists.

These were continued themes in the BUF propaganda throughout the 1930s. In the 1936 publication Fascism: 100 Questions Asked and Answered, Mosley made a distinction between indoor meetings, where BUF stewards were allegedly allowed ‘to preserve order in accordance with the Law’, which meant ‘[i]f the Chairman orders the removal of a persistent interrupter, it is [the stewards’] duty to eject him with the minimum of force necessary to secure his removal’[5] – even though it was evident from disturbances at Olympia and elsewhere that the BUF did not use ‘the minimum of force’ and brutally beat a number of hecklers. On the other hand, Mosley stated that for outdoor meetings, ‘it is the duty under the Law of the police alone to preserve order, and Fascists do not attend for that purpose’.[6] However various clashes between fascists and anti-fascists on the streets show that the BUF did not leave the police to preserve order.

In March 1936, Mosley asserted that when the BUF first emerged just over three years earlier, ‘free speech in Britain had virtually come to an end’.[7] He complained that in Britain’s industrial cities, ‘Socialism could not be vigorously attacked from the platform without the break-up of the meeting by highly organised bands of hooligans.’[8] For Mosley, the BUF were the antidote to this alleged socialist intimidation.

He declared that the Blackshirts ‘with their bare hands’ had ‘overcome red violence armed with razors, knives and every weapon known to the ghettoes of humanity’, and thus pronounced, ‘Their bodies bear the scars, but free speech is regained’.[9] Once again, Mosley portrayed the BUF as the defenders of free speech against communist violence and suggested that it was only through violent self-defence that free speech was preserved.

Mosley complained elsewhere that the BUF were hindered in their pursuit of free speech by the government and the police who increasingly prevented BUF rallies and marches from occurring out of fear of violence. A few weeks after the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in late 1936, Mosley lamented in BUF weekly Action that the government did not use the law ‘to deal with the assailants [ie the anti-fascist activists] but with the defenders of Free Speech’, objecting:

If trouble takes place at a meeting, Government and law now regard as the guilty party, not those who assemble with violence to prevent an opinion being stated, but those who peacefully assemble to state that opinion.[10]

However Iain Channing has argued that the opposite was often the case, writing that ‘it appears more common that it was audience members who heckled and showed their contempt for fascism to end up before a magistrate.’[11]

Elsewhere in their propaganda, the BUF argued that ‘freedom of speech does not exist’ and seemed nonplussed to actually hold up this freedom, especially if they came to power.[12] Mosley suggested that while ‘anyone can carry a soap box to a street corner and… make any moderate noise that he sees fit to emit’, there was no ‘effective action following from his words’.[13] In the eyes of Mosley, only the press and the party machine had a voice and wrote, ‘in actual practice under this system freedom of speech is the freedom to be the servant of the financier.’[14] While the BUF claimed to be defenders of freedom of speech, the BUF programme envisaged ‘freedom of speech’ to be accessed via Corporate Life, the alleged ‘machine for putting into practice the principle of freedom of speech’.[15] Mosley’s convolutedly explained this process in Action in 1936:

Every man and woman with any industry, profession, or interest in this country will be able to enter into the work of his or her corporation. There they will not only be permitted but invited to express their opinions. The ordinary man and woman drawn from the great majority, who cannot or do not care to talk at street corners, will be invited to express their opinion. They will be encouraged to do so because the expression of their opinions will affect the work of the Corporation, and through that definite machinery the opinion of the people will affect Government.[16]

So even though the BUF stressed the idea of free speech when discussing their public meetings and claiming that anti-fascists threatened their freedom of speech, the BUF did not foresee in their programme any freedom of speech outside the fascist corporate state.

This reinforced the idea for the Communist Party and other anti-fascist activist that the real threat to free speech and democracy was fascism, with them pointing to what had happened to the working class, trade unions and socialists in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Arguing against the BBC giving airtime to Mosley, the Daily Worker put that ‘Fascism is the same in all countries – there is no special British brand – it is a creed of murder and violence’.[17] Then in 1937, discussing the fascist breaking up of a Labour Party meeting being addressed by Clement Atlee, the same paper stated:

Fascism, wherever, and in whatever form it raises its head, aims to destroy free speech, democracy, and every liberty which centuries of working-class endeavour have wrestled from the ruling class.[18]

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The Communist Party lambasted the Labour Party for its pleas of allowing ‘free speech’ for Mosley and the BUF. For example, the Daily Worker criticised the short-lived Labour MP Fielding West for writing to the Daily Herald that ‘the Labour Party do not fear the effect of Mosley’s speeches. In any event, let him be heard, for free speech is still precious to-day’.[19] The Communist newspaper retorted that ‘[w]hile even Tory MPs were horror-stricken at the brutalities of Mosley, this Labour MP comes out attacking the Communists and pleading with the workers to give freedom to Fascism.’[20] The following month, Rajani Palme Dutt wrote in Labour Monthly that the Labour Party leadership was too ready to defend the bourgeois concept of ‘freedom of speech’, but explained that this meant:

the workers must listen like docile, obedient sheep in regimented silence whenever a noble, respected bourgeois chooses to get on his hindlegs to air his caste-theories and generally put them in their place.[21]

Dutt claimed that ‘freedom of speech’ was allowed for proponents of ideologies that sought to inflict violence upon the working class, but often trade unionists and socialists were denied freedom of speech and on occasions, charged with sedition.[22] To prevent Britain allowing a fascist movement to rise, like in Italy and Germany, meant practical opposition to Mosley and this meant opposition to Mosley’s ability to broadcast his message in public.

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[1]The Blackshirt, 1 February, 1933, p. 1.

[2]The Blackshirt, 1 February, 1933, p. 1.

[3]The Blackshirt, 1 February, 1933, p. 1.

[4]Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism(London: Penguin 2007) pp. 189-190.

[5]Oswald Mosley, Fascism: 100 Questions Asked and Answered(London: BUF Publications, 1936) p. 56.

[6]Mosley, Fascism, p. 56.

[7]Mosley, Fascism, p. 57.

[8]Mosley, Fascism, p. 57.

[9]Mosley, Fascism, p. 57.

[10]Action, 24 October, 1936, p. 9.

[11]Iain Channing, ‘Blackshirts and White Wigs: Reflections on Public Order Law and the Political Activism of the British Union of Fascists’ (University of Plymouth: Unpublished PhD thesis) p. 170.

[12]Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live(London: BUF, 1938) p. 20.

[13]Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 20.

[14]Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 21.

[15]Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 22.

[16]Action, 24 October, 1936, p. 9.

[17]Daily Worker, 11 June, 1934, p. 3.

[18]Daily Worker, 28 September, 1937, p. 5.

[19]Cited in, Daily Worker, 11 June, 1934, p. 3.

[20]Daily Worker, 11 June, 1934, p. 3.

[21]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, July 1934, pp. 398-399.

[22]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, pp. 399.

 

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From Olympia to Hyde Park: British anti-fascism in the summer of 1934

On 9 September 1934, a BUF rally at Hyde Park was opposed by a massive anti-fascist counter-demonstration, coming a few months after anti-fascists attempted to disrupt a BUF rally at Olympia and after a summer of similar confrontations across a number of metropolitan areas in England. This post is based on an early chapter from my book project on the history of no platform, to be published by Routledge’s Fascism and Far Right series.  

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The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was formed by Oswald Mosley in late 1932 and it grew exponentially in its first years, with nearly 50,000 members allegedly joining.[1] Enjoying support from Lord Rothmere’s Daily Mail and other sections of the Conservative right, Mosley attempted to establish the BUF through a series of public meetings, demonstrating its supposed mass support at rallies, inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. There were frequent mobilisations by anti-fascists against these public meetings and rallies in the early years of the BUF, culminating in two events in 1934 that solidified the militant anti-fascist approach of physical confrontation and also revealed the violent nature of the BUF.

Robert Skidelsky suggested ‘[f]or both fascists and anti-fascists Olympia was the epic battle of the 1930s’, explaining:

Fascists looked back with satisfaction on the ‘beating’ they had given the ‘Reds’ and claimed that it had restored ‘free speech’ in Britain. Anti-fascists regarded it as the moment when they unambiguously exposed the brutal face of fascism and condemned it thereafter in the eyes of all decent Englishmen.[2]

Olympia was to be a demonstration of the strength of the British Union of Fascists. As mentioned above, its membership growth had been strong throughout its first 18 months. After several well-attended meetings at the Albert Hall, Mosley believed that a larger venue, such as that of Olympia Stadium, was necessary. Around 10,000 people filled the stadium, with anti-fascists (primarily members of the Communist Party) securing around 500 tickets. The Communist Party portrayed Olympia as a chance to build the anti-fascist movement and confront the growing BUF. Regarding threats made in the run up to the meeting by Mosley, the Daily Worker declared:

Already the Blackshirts have used provocative threats against the workers…

They have made such threats at many meetings, but [past] events have shown that all their thuggish methods were unable to prevent the workers having their say. To-night will again prove this rule…

[T]he workers’ counter-section will cause them to tremble. All roads lead to Olympia to-night.[3]

A counter-demonstration by anti-fascists was held outside the venue, while anti-fascists heckled the speakers, including Mosley, and sought to disrupt the meeting. These disruptions were staggered over the evening, so to ensure the maximum disruptive effect. As The Times reported the following day, ‘The campaign of interruption had been well planned so that it should affect every part of the meeting in the course of the evening’.[4]

BUF bodyguards violently ejected the anti-fascist protestors, with The Times stating the constant interruptions were ‘countered with similar thoroughness and with a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence’.[5]The newspaper continued:

Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing at the end of his resistance he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays.[6]

Once ejected, there were a number of arrests of anti-fascists outside the venue, where further violence was meted out by the police. The Daily Workerreported that outside Olympia, ‘seething crowds of thousands of workers kept up a continual anti-Fascist uproar, despite the enormous special concentration of police forces which had been gathered… for the Blackshirts’ protection’.[7] The following day, the newspaper stated that 24 anti-fascists had been arrested, compared to one BUF supporter, claiming that this was ‘a striking fact, which [spoke] volumes’ about the differing treatment by the police towards the BUF and the CPGB.[8]

Mosley and the BUF complained about the tactics used by the anti-fascists, described as ‘highly organized groups of Reds’, to break up the public meeting. Quoted in The Times, Mosley claimed:

For over three weeks certain Communist and Socialist papers have published incitements to their readers to attack this meeting. The result was that a large Red mob gathered outside the hall for the purpose of intimidating those who entered, and very many of the audience were in fact jostled before they managed to enter the meeting at all.[9]

In the BUF press, the violence was blamed on the Communists, but the fascist response was also celebrated, with A.K. Chesterton declaring it a ‘fascist victory’ and the ‘Red Terror Smashed’.[10] On the other hand, the Communist Party also claimed a victory as Olympia, with the Daily Workerdeclaring the following day:

Terrific scenes were witnessed at Olympia last night, when the workers of London staged a mighty counter-demonstration to the Mosley Fascists. Mosley’s carefully-planned arrangements were turned into a complete fiasco.[11]

There was an outcry by some in the press and some politicians at the violence witnessed at Olympia, which has been documented by a number of scholars. For example, The Times quoted Conservative MP Geoffrey Lloyd as declaring, ‘I am not very sympathetic to Communists who try to break up meetings, but I am bound to say that I was appalled by the brutal conduct of the Fascists last night’.[12] Although a number argued that the tactics of the anti-fascist protestors was just as deplorable as the actions of the BUF stewards. The Timesreported on debates in the House of Commons in the aftermath of Olympia, summarising that ‘members were about equally divided between unqualified condemnation of alleged Fascist brutality towards interrupters, and the feeling that allowances must be made for those who had been sorely provoked by Communists’.[13] Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading CPGB figure, wrote in his editorial for Labour Monthly that it was only because of the anti-fascist demonstrators that ‘the eyes of millions’ had been opened ‘to the real character of Fascism’.[14] Dutt proclaimed, ‘It is solely thanks to their stand that the present universal outcry against Fascism has developed, where before there was silence or indifference or amused toleration’.[15]

Scholars have debated whether the violence had a negative effect on the popularity of the BUF in 1934. David Renton has written that after Olympia, Lord Rothmere withdrew his support and that ‘BUF membership fell from 40,000 to 5,000 by the summer of 1935’.[16] Both Martin Pugh and Stephen Dorril have shown that some were put off by the violence on display at Olympia, but to some BUF supporters, the violent confrontations with the Communists solidified theirdedication to Mosley.[17] The columns of the mainstream newspapers were filled with both expressions of horror at the violence and letters of praise for Mosley’s tactics. As Pugh has explained:

The truth is that while the violence alienated some people, it also added to the appeal of the BUF among the young and militant anti-Communists, with the result that the organisation experienced a major turnover of membership during 1934-35.[18]

Whether the violence turned people away from the BUF or attracted them to it, it was clear that violence was an inherent part of the BUF’s programme.

The violence meted out to anti-fascists who broke up the meeting at Olympia roused the anti-fascist movement. Dave Hann wrote, ‘[a]nti-fascists had certainly taken a beating at Olympia but their growing movement responded in force, with an increase in the number of BUF public appearances interrupted by anti-fascists and the number of people involved in anti-fascist activity.[19] By the latter months of 1934, the anti-fascist movement was confident of disrupting the BUF’s staged rallies and while expecting fascist violence and police intimidation, were also confident that popular sentiment (particularly amongst workers) was turning against Mosley.

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After Olympia, there had been in-roads made by the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and some trade unions to form a broad anti-fascist front. The Communist Party, transitioning from the ideas of ‘social fascism’ and ‘Class Against Class’ of the previous half decade to the Popular Front against fascism and imperialism of the mid-to-late 1930s,[20] sought to lead the anti-fascist movement and work with the ILP, while criticising the timidness of the Labour Party and the TUC.[21] As the General Council of the TUC debated its approach towards fascism in September 1934, the Daily Worker rhetorically asked, ‘who was it that had led the struggle in Olympia? Who was going to lead the struggle at Hyde Park on September 9?’[22]

On September 9, 1934, the BUF planned to hold a massive outdoor rally in Hyde Park, London. Taking the initiative seized at Olympia and continued through the summer of 1934, the CPGB and ILP attempted to mobilise a large contingent of workers and anti-fascists to Hyde Park. In the lead up to the event at Hyde Park, the CPGB warned:

Incitement to violence and the carrying out of the most bestial brutality is the stock-in-trade of the Blackshirt thugs of Mosley.

Olympia showed this plain for all to see.[23]

‘Should any violence take place on Sunday with regard to the great anti-Fascist demonstration’, the Daily Worker editorial declared, ‘then the responsibility dfor this rests on Mosley’s gang’. With the experience of Olympia in recent memory, the CPGB readied itself for potential violence, while at the same time, it warned against unnecessary violence. Jon Lawrence has suggested that this was part of the CPGB’s attempts to build the United Front with the ILP and a general shift away from violent confrontation by the Party leadership.[24] However it could also be argued that the CPGB (and the ILP) had learnt the lessons of Olympia and did not want individual anti-fascist protestors from suffering the same level of violence at the hand of BUF stewards or from the police. In the end, there was a massive turnout against the BUF at Hyde Park (between 60-150,000), with ‘much booing, heckling and ridicule from anti-fascists’, but ‘no serious disorder’.[25] Two days later, the Daily Worker reported that 18 people had been charged with a variety of offences after being arrested at the Hyde Park demonstration,[26] down from around 24 after Olympia, but with much larger number of anti-fascist demonstrators.

The Daily Worker called the demonstration at Hyde Park a ‘great blow against fascism’ and that Mosley’s rally had been ‘an utter fiasco’.[27] Despite the Labour Party and the TUC not supporting the demonstration and the police presence to maintain order (or to protect Mosley’s Blackshirts), the large crowd swamped the BUF rally ‘in a sea of organised working-class activity’.[28] On the other hand, the BUF claimed this was ‘the most remarkable display of the strength of Fascism ever seen in Britain’, but complained about the ‘intimidation of the opposition and the most definite attempts to create an impression that there would be considerable disorder in the Park’.[29] Even if the large crowds were not dedicated anti-fascists as the CPGB proclaimed, the BUF were vastly outnumbered and failed to win over those who had assembled in Hyde Park.

The momentum shifted away from the BUF after 1934, towards the anti-fascist movement, but also towards the National Government. As a number of a scholars have shown, the events of 1934 had led the National Government to debate laws regarding the policing of political meetings and public order, but shelved at the time. This was partly due to a reluctance by some politicians to curtail the freedom of political expression and partly because the BUF began to co-operate with the police.[30] Martin Pugh also suggests that the BUF avoided large urban cities where there was more likely to be an anti-fascist mobilisation, preferring to hold meetings across provincial England.[31] It was not until 1936, when Mosley and the BUF shifted tactics towards explicit anti-Semitism and trying to attract more working class supporters in the East End of London, that confrontations between anti-fascists, the police and the National Government reached a new crescendo with the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.

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The mainstream media’s take on events at Hyde Park

[1]Michael A. Spurr, ‘“Living the Blackshirt Life”: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940’, Contemporary European History, 12/3 (2003) p. 309.

[2]Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Papermac, 1990) p. 365.

[3]Daily Worker, 7 June, 1934, p. 1.

[4]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[5]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[6]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[7]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[8]Daily Worker, 9 June, 1934, p. 1.

[9] The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[10]The Blackshirt, 15 June, 1934, p. 3.

[11]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[12]The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[13]The Times, 12 June, 1934, p. 14.

[14]R. Palme Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, July 1934, p. 390.

[15]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, p. 390.

[16]David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001) p. 139.

[17] Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (London: Penguin 2007), pp. 298-301; Martin Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars (London: Pimlico, 2005), pp. 156-163.

[18]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, p. 162.

[19] Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013) p. 46.

[20]See: Matthew Worley, Class Against Class: The Communist Party in Britain Between the Wars (London: IB Tauris, 2017).

[21] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2017) pp. 21-24.

[22]Daily Worker, 5 September, 1934, p. 1.

[23]Daily Worker, 8 September, 1934, p. 2.

[24]Jon Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain: The Olympia Debate Revisited’, Historical Research, 76/192 (May 2003) pp. 259-261.

[25]Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 26.

[26]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[27]Daily Worker, 10 September, 1934, p. 1.

[28]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[29]The Blackshirt, 14 September, 1934, p. 1.

[30]Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (London: Valentine Mitchell, 2000) pp. 83-84; Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain’, p. 263,

[31]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, pp. 169-170.

The history of racial violence in Britain: A short reading list

I saw this tweet during the week:

And then tweeted this:

The list that I tweeted out was quite well received so I thought I’d compile the list here.

Laura Tabili, We Ask for British Justice: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). (link)

Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009) (link)

John Belchem, Before Windrush: Race Relations in 20th Century Liverpool (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014) (link)

Panikos Panayi, ‘Middlesbrough 1961: A British Race Riot of the 1960s?’, Social History, 16/2, 1991, pp. 139-153 (link)

Panikos Panayi (ed.), Racial Violence in Britain, 1840-1950 (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993) (link)

Graham Macklin, A Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Postwar Reconstruction of British Fascism (London: IB Tauris, 2007) (link)

Morris Beckman, The 43 Group: The Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism (London: Centerprise, 2000) (link)

Mark Olden, Murder in Notting Hill (London: Zero Books, 2011 (link)

Robert Miles, ‘The Riots of 1958: Notes on the Ideological Construction of “Race Relations” as a Political Issue in Britain’, Immigrants and Minorities, 3/3, 1984, pp. 252-275 (link)

Paul Jackson, Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) (link)

Rob Witte, Racist Violence and the State (London: Routledge, 2014) (link)

Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) (link)

Stan Taylor, The National Front in English Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982) (link)

Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2013) (link)

Zig Layton-Henry, ‘Racial Attacks in Britain’, Patterns of Prejudice, 16/2, 1982, pp. 3-13 (link)

Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2010) (link)

Nigel Copsey & Matthew Worley (eds), Tomorrow Belongs to Us: The British Far Right since 1967 (London: Routledge, 2018) (link)

Suzella Palmer, ‘”Dutty Babylon”: Policing Black Communities and the Politics of Resistance’, Criminal Justice Matters, 87, March 2012, pp. 26-27 (link)

Lord Macpherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (Cmnd 4262) (link)

Harmit Athwal, Black Deaths in Custody (London: IRR, 2002) (link)

Institute of Race Relations, Driven to Desperate Measures (London: IRR, 2007) (link)

Harmit Athwal & Jenny Bourne, Dying for Justice (London: IRR, 2014) (link)

There are obviously more, but this might be a start. Please add your own suggestions below!

The Communist Party of Australia reports on ‘the Battle of Cable Street’

The importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ for the Communist Party of Great Britain has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but I thought readers might be interested in how it was reported on in the Workers’ Weekly, the bi-weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia. On Friday October 9, 1936, the newspaper reported:

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Of interest to the Communist Party of Australia, and to historians of Australian politics, was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who refused to ban the march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had previously been the Governor of New South Wales. As Andrew Moore has written, Game gained similar notoriety in Australia for the dismissal of the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As the creation of the Public Order Act 1936 followed quickly in the wake of ‘Cable Street’, the Workers’ Weekly printed a follow up article denouncing measures by the state to curb Mosley. .On 13 October, 1936, the newspaper published this report:

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The article mentions that the CPGB could not rely on the state to deal decisively with the BUF, as the POA was more likely to be used against communists than fascists, as discussed by David Renton here.

The fascist threat in Australia, presented by Eric Campbell’s New Guard, had resided largely by 1936 and there is little in the CPA’s literature that discusses combating the New Guard in a similar fashion to the street fighting seen in Europe. By 1936, the fascist threat was largely external, with a number of Australian communists traveling to Spain the fight in the Civil War.

Forming the National Front of Australia: ASIO and the fledgling far right group

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On Saturday June 2, 1978, a group of nine people gathered in a room of the Southern Cross Hotel in the Melbourne CBD to launch the National Front of Australia (NFA). According to the ASIO informant, nine people attended the meeting, including several well-known far right activists, a 16 year old schoolboy and an undercover reporter for the newspaper The Age. Seven out of the nine listed were already known to the authorities in some regard. The meeting was led by a 23 year old law student and army reservist, Rosemary Sisson, who had travelled to the UK in 1977 to seek permission from the National Front’s John Tyndall to establish an NF in Australia. According to ASIO, Tyndall had appointed Sisson to be Chairwoman of the NFA until a directing body was created. In a report on Sisson by the Victorian Police’s Special Branch, Sisson was described in these terms:

She appears to be intensely sincere in her beliefs but politically naïve and immature. I do not believe that she has the ability to form a political party on her own volition and would most likely be used by other persons taking advantage of her enthusiasm, while maintaining their anonymity.

The meeting, which lasted between two and four hours, commenced with the playing of God Save the Queen and passed several motions relating to the outlook of the NFA, the composition of the National Directorate, membership fees and a statement of ambition regarding the contesting of elections in the near future. The ‘highlight’ of the meeting was listening to a tape recording of Tyndall. The ASIO informant described Tyndall’s speech as such:

Tyndal’s [sic] speech included greetings to the newly formed NFA and congratulations and it is encouraging to him that the National Front had extended to Australia… He pointed out that the National Front had been established for almost 12 year and during this time there had been clashes with the authorities, Police Special Branch and most left-wing groups. In spite of all this, they had conducted massive demonstrations and never instigated violence but violence was forced upon them… The speech continued with the usual self praises and self congratulations for the National Front.

Tyndall also mentioned in his speech that National Fronts had been established in several other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia. After Tyndall’s speech, a letter of congratulations from the leader of the New Zealand National Front, David Crawford, was read out. Sisson saw the connection to the British NF as very important and most of the policies outlined at the meeting centred around maintaining Australia’s links with Britain, the Commonwealth and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ race. These included the establishment of the Commonwealth National Front (CNF) as a (theoretical) co-ordinating body of the various NFs across the globe and the call for the reconfigurement of the British Commonwealth as ‘an exclusive closely-knit association of White states’, where there was either a large white population or ruling white elite. This led to the calling for the re-entry of Rhodesia and South Africa into the Commonwealth and support for white rule in both countries. As evidenced by the singing of the old national anthem, loyalty to the British Crown was paramount to the NFA.

The Age journalist that attended the meeting was David Wilson who wrote about the establishment of the NFA in the newspaper the following week. Wilson described the secret meeting of nine people as:

the culmination of 12 months’ work: trips by England by two of the nine, talks with the head of the English movement, Mr John Tyndall, letters to the chairman of the New Zealand division, Mr David Crawford, and weeks of long hours carefully selecting the initial members of the Australian movement, printing, letter writing and telephone calls.

According to ASIO intelligence reports, a Birmingham based NF organiser, Jeremy May (who had previously lived in Australia), had travelled in early 1978 to assist Sisson in setting up the NFA, while Sisson also communicated with Tyndall in writing. In an intercepted letter between Sisson and Tyndall, written in late November 1977, she concurred that the NFA would supposedly operate differently than the British NF, writing:

We agree with your suggestion that an Australian NF body should aim to function – at least initially – as a pressure group concentrating on basic political technique and party organisation, rather than attempting to achieve mass popular appeal and publicity.

This letter was written in the wake of the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977 when the British NF attempted to march through a borough of south-east London with a large African-Caribbean community. The clashes between anti-fascist protestors and the police, as well as with some NF members, brought the NF to attention of many Australians as the scenes were broadcast on the news. The NF had shifted in their strategy from attempting to gain influence amongst ex-Conservative Party voters and building its membership base to a strategy of ‘owning the streets’ and gaining as much as publicity as possible from these street battles, whilst simultaneously contesting elections and trying to siphon off disaffected Labour voters. It seemed from Sisson’s letter that the NFA were not expecting to mimic the British NF’s approach just yet – with only a handful of interested people, occupying the streets was too tall an order for them.

The 'Battle of Lewisham', August 1977

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’, August 1977

The month before the establishment of the NFA, May wrote an article in Tyndall’s journal (aligned to the NF at the point in time) Spearhead, titled ‘Towards a National Front of Australia’. Like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the NF saw Australia as ‘a vast and fascinating country with tremendous social and economic potential’ and while the country was ‘almost completely self-sufficient in economic resources’, it was perceived that Australia was at the mercy of foreign investment and international liberalism. May pointed to the ending of the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a particular symbol of Australia’s despair, lamenting the ‘invading hordes’ from southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, May focused on Australia’s ‘complete absence of protection for almost the entire length of the country’s vast coastline’ as another example of the country’s weakness, with the naval defences, described as a ‘bathtub floatilla’, unable to prevent ‘Chinese drug racketeers, Pacific Islanders and, most recently, Vietnamese refugees’ from reaching its shores. Despite this, Australia was still seen as a bastion of the old white Commonwealth at a time when South Africa and Rhodesia seemed on the verge of collapse. May warned Spearhead’s readers:

Let us be clear on one point. Should South Africa ever fall to the forces which threaten to engulf Western civilisation, we can be sure that Australia will be next on the list. Liberalism is a luxury which Australia simply cannot afford, if only for geographical reasons. No protection money will ever be sufficient to dissuade the teeming Asiatic billions from erupting into the island continent once they get their chance.

May declared that the only way to ‘safeguard the nation from this fate’ was the creation of the NFA, which he described as ‘an urgent and imperative necessity’. ‘Native Australians’, by which May meant white Australians with an Anglo background, ‘are a proud, strong-minded and independent people’, who also maintained their links to British. And it was up to the NFA to ‘ensure that this distinctive national identity… is encouraged, enforced and politically activated.’

With this mission in mind, the establishment of the NFA was preceded attempts to gauge public opinion through the secret distribution of literature across Melbourne. As David Wilson wrote in The Age, ‘The only indication of the secret spread of the movement was through the carefully circulated newsletter, The Australian Nationalist.’

The Australian Nationalist had started appearing from January 1978 and was a mimeographed publication written by Sisson. The first issue called for a united Australian nationalist party and bemoaned that the nationalist movement at that time was ‘almost hopelessly and irretrievably fragmented into mutually suspicious, competitive, and absurdly idiosyncratic, exclusive little groups.’ But Sisson declared:

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT WE REGROUP AND UNITE! Only though unity and the strength this gives us can we begin to tap and realise the incalculable political potential of national patriotism within this country.

Sisson pointed the British NF as the example ‘forever before our eyes’ of the unification of several different far right groups (in 1967, the NF had formed from the remnants of the League of Empire Loyalists, the British National Party, the National Democratic Party, the Greater Britain Movement and the Racial Preservation Society). The Australian Nationalist expressed a pro-British Commonwealth nationalism and its influences were very much drawn from the British fascist movement, rather than the American far right. Similar to May’s article, Australia was portrayed as the bastion of the white British civilisation on the periphery of Asia and Sisson argued that this meant that a strong nationalist movement was needed to maintain this position. The fear of invasion by Asians was long-standing in Australia and Sisson evoked this in a January 1978 article:

The geographical situation of Australia, with its close proximity to some of the most populous of Asiatic nations, impels us to be very much on our guard against nationally destructive propaganda…

In the editorial to the April 1978 edition of the newsletter, Sisson further championed Australia’s links to Britain and the importance of their ‘proper ethnic pride’. She argued:

Australia owes almost everything it has to Great Britain. The conquering and pioneering spirit of our forefathers was British. This can never be denied. If anything, we should seek closer links not only with white Europe, but to a greater extent with our mother country. Even though we are no longer a cluster of colonies, but are fully self-governing and independent, there is no reason why we should forsake our history and clamour for a republic.

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The first leaflet produced by the NFA

In June 1978, The Australian Nationalist became Frontline: Magazine of the National Fronts of Australia and New Zealand, with the debut issue dedicated to the formation of the NFA. Unlike the descriptions by ASIO and by David Wilson in The Age, the June meeting of the nine people to form the NFA was described in Frontline in grandiose terms. Quoting the opening address by Sisson, meeting supposed ‘mark[ed] an important event in the political history of Australia’ by forming a new political party that ‘represents the future of the Australian people’ and ‘revive national pride’. The magazine also carried the text of Tyndall’s speech heard at the meeting, in which Tyndall described Australia as a terra nullius transformed by British settlers into a bulwark of white civilisation on the edges of the British Empire:

Australia was not so very long ago a wilderness inhabited by a few savages, and it took some very hardy determined, self-reliant and tough pioneers to carve a great country and a great civilization out of that wilderness…

Tyndall enthused about the formation of the Commonwealth National Front, remarking that the ‘realisation of the National Front spanning the whole British Commonwealth has always been a dream to me’ and with the establishment of the NFA, ‘the sight of this dream being fulfilled is enormous encouragement to me’. Tyndall asserted that the NFA was not subordinate to the British NF and there was to be ‘equal partnerships’ between the NF in the UK and those in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In an article in Frontline, the CNF was to co-ordinate activities amongst the various NFs across the Commonwealth, but allowed discretion to each NF to function as it desired. The article explained:

Subject to their adherence to a common set of basic principles and objectives, National Front organisations in various countries are free to determine their own rules of association, to make their own executive decisions and to determine themselves all policies relating to their own countries’ domestic political affairs.

The above will include the right to determine whether the National Front in a particular country will function as a fully fledged political party, seeking power in its own right by the ballot box, or whether it will function merely as a pressure group or society for the furtherance of National Front ideals.

The magazine also carried the letter of congratulations from the NFNZ’s leader David Crawford, which described the NF as ‘the vanguard of the most impelling force ever to strike your country in the last 100 years’. Crawford mentioned that National Fronts now existed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. The journal Patterns of Prejudice noted the announcement of the Commonwealth National Front in mid-1978, but stated that the only NF that had been set up by that time was in New Zealand – although by March, 1979, ASIO believed that the NFNZ was ‘almost finished’. Patterns of Prejudice that NFs in Canada and South Africa were still in development.

The 16 year old schoolboy that attended the inaugural meeting of the NFA was David Greason. In his autobiography, I was a Teenage Fascist, Greason described the meeting as a ramshackle and ill-organised affair, with him moving a motion for the formation of the NFA, even though he had not seen the motion previously. Greason described that in the days following the meeting and the publicity given to the NFA in the mainstream media, several different far right identities, usually linked to the now defunct national Socialist Party of Australia claimed to part of the NFA’s leadership. This is borne out in the ASIO files, which catalogue that various people in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales all claimed to represent the National Front in Australia. According to Greason and ASIO, the NFA seemed to be limited to Victoria and Queensland, where the Queensland Immigration Control Association (run by John C.A. Dique) had significant influence. The rival to the NFA in Sydney was the National Alliance, which eschewed the pro-Britishness of the National Front and leaned more towards the white supremacism coming out of the United States, influenced by the infamous newspaper National Vanguard. According to Greason, National Alliance tried to foster a uniquely Australian nationalism, appropriating the symbolism of the Eureka Flag and promoted the idea of an Australian republic. The leading figure of the National Alliance was Jim Saleam, who had been a member of the NSPA and went onto form groups such as National Action and the Australia First Party.

By mid-1979, Patterns of Prejudice was reporting that the NFA had between 100 and 300 members, but had been subject to in-fighting, particularly as Sisson made trips to the UK to meet with Alan Birtley, a NF member jailed for weapons and explosives offences. The ASIO file carries significant correspondence between Sisson and a NF member named Margaret Swan, whom Sisson discusses her links to Birtley extensively.

In the UK general election in May 1979, the British NF contested more than 300 seats and were wiped out at the polls, receiving barely more than 1 per cent of the vote on average. Similar electoral contests by the NFA in 1979 and 1980 led to the same results. Greason outlines that by 1980, there had been several defections from the NFA to the National Alliance, but the National Alliance was unable to make any more headway than their rivals. The media also focused less on the National Alliance, which did not have the same name recognition of the ‘National Front’, which was infamous across the English-speaking world.

The Commonwealth National Front did not last long into the 1980s. The NFA emerged to a completely hostile media and fared very poorly in its electoral pursuits, but was also not popular enough to take up the strategy of ‘occupying the streets’. Besides the production of Frontline, Sisson’s organisation dwindled and eventually over taken by rival groups, namely National Action. Patterns of Prejudice also reported in 1978 that the National Front of South Africa was in talks of merging with another small racist group and that the Chairman, Jack Noble, had resigned. The NFSA’s other major figure, Ray Hill, also left South Africa in 1980, before returning to the UK to join the British Movement as an undercover anti-fascist mole for Searchlight magazine. The British NF, which was seen as the beacon of the CNF, also collapsed after the 1979 election into warring factions. Tyndall formed the New National Front in 1980 and in 1982, transformed this into the British National Party. The remnants of the NF in the 1980s became known as the Official National Front and the NF Flag Group, which competed with the BM and the BNP for support amongst football hooligans and skinheads in the Thatcher years.

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

In his PhD thesis (acquired through the University of Sydney), Jim Saleam suggests that it was the authorities, particularly ASIO, that stifled the development of the NFA, writing ‘two facts were demonstrated: some Extreme-Rightists had strategies, and the para-State intended they not blossom.’ However while ASIO had infiltrated the NFA from its very inception and monitored it closely, the hostility it faced from the Australian public and its inability to gain any sort of traction politically was more to do with the NFA’s ideology and its membership.

As John Blaxland has acknowledged in his volume on the official history of ASIO, the security services had monitored the far right in Australia since the inception of the NSPA in the early 1960s and continued to monitor the far right throughout the 1970s, even though the various far right groups did not seem to present a danger to the parliamentary system and the ‘poor quality’ of its small membership. Troy Whitford has shown that when National Action was formed in 1982, both ASIO and the NSW Special Branch took measures to monitor and infiltrate the organisation, especially in the late 1980s when NA became increasingly involved in racist and political violence (as noted in the 1991 national inquiry into racist violence in Australia).

These three large files of ASIO’s surveillance of the National Front of Australia make for very interesting reading and show how the NFA attempted to seize the initiative presented by the British NF, creating an antipodean version of the UK organisation. The NFA had a particular pro-British outlook and saw a white-dominated British Commonwealth as its goal, but like many white supremacists and far right activists in the 1970s and 1980s saw South Africa and Rhodesia as symbols of white ‘civilisation’ being attacked by non-white and communist forces. Solidarity with these former settler colonies was paramount to the NFA’s worldview. The files show that the internal structures of the NFA (with the disputes over the leadership and direction of the party), as well as the media’s spotlight on the fledgling group and its inability to gain a widespread following, all led to the demise of the NFA by the early 1980s. However, as National Action, the Australia First Party and nowadays, the United Patriots Front demonstrate, the far right in Australia may change and shift, but not necessarily go away.

Public engagement ftw!

Exeter

Two guest posts by yours truly have been published in the last two days. The first is on my research into the UK perspective on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 and has been published by The Conversation. The second is on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and their view of Australia as a ‘proto-fascist’ settler colony. This post has been published by the wonderful Imperial and Global Forum run by the University of Exeter.

I did a radio interview about the Whitlam controversy with Dom Knight on ABC Radio Sydney last night. I think the episode is available for reply for the next week.

 

Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa in the Far Right Popular Imagination

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, it has emerged that the killer had been photographed in clothing bearing the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. While a lot has been written on this in the last two days, I thought I would post this on how these regimes (and their flags) are used as symbols of white supremacy and racialised anti-communism by the far right across the Anglophone world.

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Between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, Southern Africa became a focal point in the Cold War, where South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (now Namibia), Mozambique and Angola were seen as bulwarks against communism and Pan-African socialism. South Africa had adopted the policy of apartheid in 1948 which separated the population into distinct racial categories and denied most rights to its ‘non-European’ subjects. It also controlled, unofficially the territory known as South-West Africa, which it has inherited as a mandate territory from Germany after the First World War. Although the United Nations did not recognise South Africa’s mandate, South-West Africa was run on apartheid policies until it gained independence in 1990. Southern Rhodesia, also known as just Rhodesia, broke away from the British Commonwealth in 1965 in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence after the Prime Minister Ian Smith disagreed with pressure placed upon the country to broaden its parliamentary framework to include the African majority.

Mozambique and Angola were colonies of Portugal, which was under an authoritarian right-wing dictatorship until 1974. By the time that these two colonies gained independence in 1975, a ten year civil war had been fought in Angola, in which both the West and the Soviet blocs intervened, and soon after independence, Mozambique was drawn into a conflict between political groups backed by the West and the Soviets. These nations in Southern Africa allied themselves with the West, primarily the USA and the UK, portraying themselves as frontline states in a war against communist aggression, and in the Cold War era, this ensured that the Western powers supplied these countries (directly and by proxy) with military, political and economic support. At most times over this thirty year period, the systematic racism of these countries was overlooked in favour of their anti-communism.

Beginning in the late 1950s, anti-apartheid movements began in several Western countries (such as the UK, the USA and the Netherlands), highlighting the racism of the apartheid system in South Africa, as well as its neighbouring states, South-West Africa and Rhodesia. These movements boomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and called for a series of economic, trade, cultural and sporting boycotts against these regimes. For many in the Western world, as well as in the Eastern Bloc and the ‘Third World’, apartheid was an anomaly in the post-war era, which should have been relegated to history like Nazism, fascism and European colonialism. Writing in 1976, Jack Woddis, a member of the British AAM, wrote:

Southern Africa clings on, a last stubborn outpost of a past epoch. White rule in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia is an anachronism. History has passed its verdict. Apartheid and all its works must go.

During the 1970s, things started to move faster in Southern Africa. As mentioned above, Mozambique and Angola gained independence from Portugal, which spurred the Zimbabwean national liberation movement towards victory in its struggle against the Smith regime, despite the military intervention by South Africa. Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, alongside Angola, became the frontline warzone in Southern Africa, with the fight between Patriotic Front (made up of the Soviet-backed ZAPU and the Chinese-backed ZANU) and the Rhodesian/South African armed forces, supported (at least by supply of weapons) by the US and the UK.

As Matthew Cheney has shown, Soldiers of Fortune magazine highlighted the conflict and acted as a recruiting agent for mercenaries and paramilitarists from across the Western world, particularly from the USA. This pamphlet, produced in the late 1970s, also shows the vast amount of recruiting done by the Rhodesian regime in South Africa and the propaganda that promoted the idea of a racialised anti-communism linking the two countries. Declaring that Rhodesia and South Africa were fighting for ‘the West’, the pamphlet states:

The truth of the matter is that the West has lost the will to fight to defend the principles and values that made them great. They are in fact so fearful of having to fight that they have devised a number of ploys to appease any Soviet or Black demand made on them. This appeasement is called ‘détente’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘majority rule’ and the results are always the same; multiracial democracy must give way to black socialist dictatorship!

But the true South African hasn’t lost his willingness to fight…

This racialised anti-communism also made South Africa and Rhodesia popular symbols of white supremacy for fascists and neo-Nazis across the world. As the Africa is a Country blog has shown the far right in the United States has long celebrated South Africa and Rhodesia as bastions of anti-communism and white supremacy. More recently in 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Centre reported that the South African apartheid-era activists Arthur Kemp, who had extensive ties with the British National Party, was liaising with several neo-Nazi groups in the US.

The British fascist movement had long flirted with apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. The first leader of the National Front, A.K. Chesterton, spent much time in South Africa during the 1960s, attempting to foster links between the apartheid regime and his fascist groups in the UK, firstly the League of Empire Loyalists and then the NF. Anti-apartheid activist Brian Bunting wrote in the late 1960s that Oswald Mosley and several of his associates had visited South Africa and had meetings with top-level figures inside the nationalist government. According to Bunting, Mosley declared during one visit to the country, ‘I think South Africa is one of the healthiest places in the world’. In the UK itself, a ‘tradition’ amongst NF and BNP members in the late 1980s was to attempt to attack the non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square as an expression of solidarity with the apartheid regime.

Australia’s neo-Nazis also expressed ‘solidarity’ with South Africa through attacks on anti-apartheid activists and organisations. Most notably, the former leader of National Action, Jim Saleam, was jailed for a shotgun attack on African National Congress representative Eddie Funde in 1989, while the Pan-African Embassy (a protest structure outside the South African Embassy in Canberra) was allegedly firebombed a year later. A national inquiry into racist violence held in 1991 found that members of National Action and other far right organisations had maintained a campaign of intimidation and harassment against ANC and SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) representatives in Australia.

Although both Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa have disappeared, these former regimes are held up by racists across the world as examples of white supremacy ‘betrayed’ by the liberalism of the Western world. Like the Confederate flag (or the swastika), the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa are historical symbols used by the far right to ‘remember’ idealised versions of the past, where white people were able to assert their supremacy. To the rest of the world, they represent racism, violence and murder on a systematic basis.