Racist violence

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!

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My article in The Guardian on the history of the Australian far right

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Just a quick note that I have reached the bourgeois elite now. The Guardian Australia website has published a short piece by myself on the history of the far right in Australia since the 1960s. The argument of the piece is that the far right has swung between electoralism and ‘direct action’ at different points in its history. You can read the piece here.

From Powell to Brexit: My interview with the Weekly Worker on ‘race’, anti-racism and the British left

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This week, the CPGB’s Weekly Worker (see here for more info on its background) conducted an interview with me about my forthcoming book, British Communism and the Politics of Race, as well as on my research in general and the anti-racist movement in Britain since the 1960s. You can read the full interview here. It was an interesting experience and some challenging questions!

Powellism and the advent of the British far right: The Communist Party response

48 years ago this week, Tory Minister Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, in which he predicted dire consequences for Britain if further immigration from the Commonwealth continued. While criticised by many at the time, Powell’s speech opened up a political space to the right of the Conservative Party, mobilising around the issue of non-white immigration. This opening of the political space allowed far right organisations, such as the Monday Club, the National Front and the British Movement, to come to the fore and take advantage of the expression of popular racism by sections of the British public. For the burgeoning anti-racist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Powellism presented a significant threat that had been underestimated by many anti-racists and those on the left, including the Communist Party.

This post is based on an extract from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s. I submitted the final version to the publishers today, so look out for it in early 2017!

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Although concerns over the social impact of non-white immigration had been expressed in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary discourses since the 1940s, a major turning point in the discourse was Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in April 1968, who brought the populist tone of the far right to a mainstream audience. Speaking at a local Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, Powell launched a tirade against non-white migration, stating:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre…

We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population… Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences, with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow immigrants and then over the rest of the population…

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.[i]

Powell’s speech alluded to the views of the ‘ordinary British citizen’ on race relations, immigration and ‘alien cultures’, appropriating the ‘crude and inconsistent racism expressed in the factories, shopping centres and pubs… endorsed by a politician who had the authority of education, political office and a position in the Shadow cabinet’.[ii] Powell attributed one of the most controversial remarks of the speech to an anonymous constituent, ‘a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man’, exploiting the anxieties of a large section of the British population in his declaration: ‘In this country in fifteen of twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip over the white man’.[iii] Although dismissed by Edward Heath for the shadow cabinet, Powell’s exploitation of popular racism generated much support for him with a Gallup Poll in May 1968 revealing that ‘74 per cent of those questioned agreed in general with his views and 24 per cent said they would like him to be leader of the Conservative Party if Edward Heath retired’.[iv] In the week following Powell’s speech, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst the London dock workers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech.

It was also Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that allowed the National Front to exploit popular racist attitudes as Powell ‘brought the language and arguments of the neo-fascist political fringe into the heart of the establishment’.[v] ‘There can be little doubt’, Richard Thurlow wrote, ‘that the NF would not have survived if Enoch Powell had not unwittingly given it such a helping hand in its infancy’.[vi] Powell’s speech gave the NF a massive boost, with it claiming 10,000 members in April 1968, although Searchlight editor, Gerry Gable estimated that it was probably around 7,000 ‘fully paid up’ members.[vii] However Powell was still seen as part of the Conservative establishment, which the NF tried to distant itself from. This led to a clash between the NF’s Director and BUF veteran, A.K. Chesterton and the more militant members, such as John Tyndall and Martin Webster, who were ‘desperate… to capitalize on support for Enoch Powell’ – a strategy that Chesterton, who eschewed the populism of Powell, had ‘resolutely opposed’.[viii] This clash resulted in Chesterton resigning in October 1970, with John O’Brien, a recent convert from the Conservative right via the National Democratic Party (NDP), becoming chairman in February 1971.[ix] Of the other founding members, Andrew Fountaine had earlier been expelled by Chesterton in mid-1968 and John Bean (from the British National Party) publicly disassociated himself from those who ousted Chesterton, despite being suggested for the post and withdrew from active politics.[x] O’Brien attempted to purge the NF of its neo-Nazi elements, represented in the leadership by Tyndall and Webster and throughout 1971, the factional fighting continued, but Tyndall was able to survive. In early 1972, O’Brien and his supporters defected to the National Independence Party (NIP), with Tyndall replacing him as chairman.[xi]

The formation of the National Front in February 1967 largely escaped protest from anti-fascist forces, with Nigel Copsey explaining that ‘opposition to the NF in the late 1960s was mainly restricted to a small amount of militant anti-fascists who followed the pattern of covert activity undertaken against the NF’s immediate predecessors’.[xii] This covert anti-fascist strategy, as well as the National Front’s relative obscurity, saw the Communist Party not particularly involved in anti-fascist action against the NF. The CPGB, symptomatic of the left in Britain as a whole, was ‘more concerned about the racial populism of Enoch Powell than the National Front’.[xiii]

Enoch Powell’s speech had encouraged ‘vicious racialist and fascist forces’ into ‘stirring up hatred against coloured people’ and ‘trying to whip up mass fear and hysteria’, but the ‘real enemy of all working people’, the Communist Party stated, was capitalism and the ‘Tory and right wing Labour Governments [who] keep the system going’.[xiv] Powell was described by Joan Bellamy in a 1968 CPGB pamphlet as ‘a diehard Tory who has never done anything to help the working people’, but this did not mean he was a fascist.[xv] However, by using the racist language normally associated with the fascist far right, Powell had ‘deliberately chose[n] to use words that would fan the flame of hatred, words that help to create an atmosphere in which people no longer listen to rational argument and facts’.[xvi] Joan Bellamy stating that, ‘Leading fascists were quick to recognise what Powell was doing’, noting that Colin Jordan, Oswald Mosley and Dennis Harmston of the Union Movement were in public agreement with Powell’s argument.[xvii]

The Communist Party relied on reports from Jewish organisations, the anti-fascist journal Searchlight and its own intelligence for knowledge on the fascist far right. The most detailed CPGB document on the NF in the early period was a May 1969 internal memo on ‘Rightist and Fascist Development’, which outlined the major figures in the NF and the structure of the organisation.[xviii] This report claimed that the ‘most serious and dangerous organisation appears to be the National Front… trying to take over right groups’ and able to ‘mobilise people quickly’.[xix] However as an article in Comment in July 1969 stated, for the CPGB, ‘Enoch Powell emerges ever more clearly as the most reactionary influence in British politics today’, with the author declaring that the Party must ‘redouble our efforts to defeat Powellism’.[xx]

Enoch-Powell-007

Powell’s speech tapped into existing feelings of popular racism and in the week following, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst London dockworkers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech. The response by the Communist Party was to emphasise who Powell was and what his politics were, stating that Powell was a ‘diehard Tory who has never done anything to help working people’ and a ‘declared enemy of the trade unions’.[xxi] At the executive level of the labour movement, where the CPGB held significant influence, the Morning Star reported on official motions of opposition to racism by the trade unions,[xxii] but at shopfloor level, the Party’s presence was less prominent. John Callaghan described the Communist Party members on the docks, who distributed leaflets denouncing Powell and ‘bravely addressed hostile mass meetings’, but acknowledged that the support for Powell demonstrated how marginal the Communist Party’s influence could be.[xxiii] With its members on the docks put ‘clearly on the defensive’ by the Powellite strikes,[xxiv] CPGB and LCDTU member, Danny Lyons ‘decided to bring in one of the Catholic padres to speak at the dock-gates’ in a hastily organised meeting.[xxv] While this action was felt to be misguided by other Communist dockworkers, Jack Dash, a leading Party member on the docks, stated retrospectively, ‘I thought it was wrong but then they had to do something’,[xxvi] which turned out, in the end, to be very limited. The Party’s limited influence on the docks at rank-and-file level and its dependence on its broad left allies in the labour movement had a significant impact upon its ability to fight racism during the Powellite strikes, but what the strikes did reveal was the level of popular racism still existing within the organised labour movement and the difficulties ahead for the Party in the struggle against racism.

In the wake of this, there was push in late 1968 and early 1969 to emphasise the campaign against racism by the Party and the YCL. A memo from the National Organiser at the time, Gordon McLennan to Frank Stanley, the London District Secretary, in May 1969 called for greater activity, particularly amongst the labour movement. This was to include ‘[t]he distribution of a Party leaflet on a wide scale at factories, trade union meetings, houses, etc, as well as ‘[f]actory gate and street meetings in which the fight against racialism will feature.’[xxvii] Most of the Party’s anti-racist literature produced between 1968 and 1970 concentrated on Enoch Powell and the influence that he had over sections of the Conservatives. What the Communist Party were anxious over was the continual tightening of controls as both Labour and the Conservatives made tougher proposals. As John Hostettler wrote, the Labour Government was ‘trying to show it [was] not to be outdone by Mr Heath who [was] trying to show he [was] not far behind Mr Powell’.[xxviii]

Throughout the early 1970s, Enoch Powell continued to dominate Conservative thinking about immigration and there is a suggestion by scholars that the Conservatives were eventually convinced by Powell’s argument, leading to the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971.[xxix] The Communist Party attempted to emphasise the association between Powellism and the National Front, trying to break the ‘respectable’ racism of Powell and the Monday Club. In a flyer distributed by the Westminster CPGB branch, it announced that ‘fascism is on the march again’, warning that it ‘wears the “respectable” face of Enoch Powell’, as well as appearing in ‘its most naked form in the National Front’.[xxx] The flyer called for the banning of a NF march in London, but also warned against Powell, ‘who pours out racialism whenever he appears on the telly’ and ‘publicly stated that whenever he sees a rich man he thanks God!’[xxxi] For the CPGB, the NF were ‘working to strengthen the capitalist system’, blaming black immigrants for the problems of capitalism and despite any appeal to the interests of the working class, ‘racialism plays into the hands of the capitalist class’.[xxxii] The aim of the NF was ‘to smash the trade union movement and make it servile to the state in the interests of state monopoly capital’, with ‘racialism… only the most obvious of their anti-working class policies’.[xxxiii] Essentially this was viewed as the same agenda as Enoch Powell, who Joan Bellamy described as ‘a declared enemy of the trade unions’.[xxxiv] The consensus was that Powell’s speech had given the fledgling NF valuable exposure that allowed the fascist fringe to exploit popular racism and anti-immigration sentiment. ‘“Enoch is Right” became the slogan of everyone from the Tory Monday Club through the National Front out to every tinpot little nazi sect’, Bob Campbell wrote in the Morning Star, linking Powell, the NF, various anti-immigration groups and the Orange movement.[xxxv] However there were differences between the various elements of the far right. Powell, as a traditional Conservative, ‘warned of the dangers of a corporate state emerging from the relationship between the Labour Government, the TUC and the CBI’, while the NF ‘tend toward[s] corporate statism… and suggest they are opposed to capitalism’.[xxxvi] But ‘what unites all the elements of the ultra right in Britain’, he wrote, ‘is the racist campaign on the question of immigration, and against black people as a whole’.[xxxvii] Although in private correspondence with Vishnu Sharma, a CPGB and IWA member, Joan Bellamy criticised Campbell for elevating the danger of these far right organisations when ‘the major enemy is racialist attitudes among people who do not have a consistent fascist or even right wing position, and the cowardly connivance of Troy and Labour politicians with right wing demands.’[xxxviii]

However, while Powell enjoyed wide popularity as an individual between 1968 and 1974,[xxxix] his political momentum stalled as he became a Tory backbencher and decided not to join one of the many anti-immigrant or far right groups that supported him (or form a party of his own). ‘Powellism’ and its anti-immigration message was soon overtaken by the Conservatives with the Immigration Act 1971, and then by the fascism of the National Front – and in the end, this racist populism was imbibed by early Thatcherism.

Anti-immigration march by Smithfield market porters

[i] Powell, Enoch, 1991, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, in Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell, selected by Rex Collings, London: Bellew Publishing, p. 375; pp. 378-79.

[ii] Miles, Robert & Phizacklea, Annie, 1984, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics, London: Pluto Press, p. 64.

[iii] Powell 1991, pp. 373-74.

[iv] Miles and Phizacklea 1984, p. 64.

[v]Thurlow, Richard 1987, Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 276.

[vi] Ibid., p. 279.

[vii] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’, 2 May 1969, in CPGB archives CP/CENT/SUBS/04/16, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[viii]Walker, Martin 1977, The National Front, London: Harper Collins, p. 94.

[ix]Shipley, Peter 1978, ‘The National Front’, Conflict Studies, 97, p. 14.

[x] Anti-Fascist Research Group, Anti-Fascist Bulletin, 5, March-June 1971, p. 27.

[xi]Lewis, D.S. 1987, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 252.

[xii] Copsey 2000, p. 116.

[xiii] Copsey 2000, p. 116.

[xiv] Bellamy, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, pp. 2-3.

[xv] Bellamy, Joan, 1971, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, >London: CPGB pamphlet, p. 3.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’

[xix] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’

[xx] Barnsby, George, ‘Wolverhampton and Powell’, Comment, 12 July 1969, p. 442.

[xxi] Bellamy, 1971, p. 3.

[xxii] Morning Star, 25 April 1968.

[xxiii]Callaghan, John, 2003, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p. 112.

[xxiv]Lindop, Fred, 2001, ‘Racism and the Working Class: Strikes in Support of Enoch Powell in 1968’, Labour History Review, 66, 1, p. 91.

[xxv] Jack Dash, interview by Fred Lindop, 1984, MSS.371/QD7/Docks 2/10/1, Trade Unionism in British Docks, in Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Letter from Gordon McLennan to Frank Stanley, 28 May 1969, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/02, LHASC.

[xxviii] Hostettler, John, ‘Immigrants, Race Relations and the Law’, Comment, 12 July 1969, p. 438.

[xxix] See: Ben-Tovim, Gideon and John Gabriel 1982, ‘The politics of race in Britain, 1962-79: A review of the major trends and of recent debates’, in ‘Race’ in Britain: Continuity and Change, edited by Charles Husband, London: Hutchinson, pp. 150-51; Miles and Phizacklea 1984, pp. 68-9; Turner, Alwyn W. 2008, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, London: Aurum Press, p. 27.

[xxx] ‘Westminster Communists Say… Outlaw the Racists’, n.d., London: CPGB flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/EVNT/03/07, LHASC.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] ‘Don’t Be Fooled By The National Front!’, n.d., London: CPGB flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/IND/KAY/03/05, LHASC.

[xxxiii] Trade Union Committee Against Racialism, ‘National Front – Election Campaign Notes’, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, LHASC.

[xxxiv] Bellamy, 1971, p. 3.

[xxxv] Morning Star, 22 February 1973.

[xxxvi] Morning Star, 1 March 1973; Italics are my emphasis.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Letter from Joan Bellamy to Vishnu Sharma, 15 March 1973, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, LHASC.

[xxxix] Schofield, Camilla 2013, Enoch Powell and the Making of a Postcolonial Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 317.

The UK Home Office and American Nazis: The Deportation of George Lincoln Rockwell

From The Times, 8 August, 1962

From The Times, 8 August, 1962

Earlier this week, a researcher at the BBC contacted me to ask about other cases of the Home Office refusing visas to ‘undesirable’ political figures, as Parliament was to debate the petition calling for Donald Trump to banned from entering the country. Amongst the cases that I could remember, one of the most interesting cases is that of American Nazi Party leader, George Lincoln Rockwell.

In the early 1960s, the British far right was fragmented and one of leading (and explicitly Nazi) figures of the movement was Colin Jordan, who had inherited the anti-semitic mantle from the Imperial Fascist League’s Arnold Leese in the 1950s. Jordan had left the League of Empire Loyalists to form the White Defence League in the late 1950s and the WDL was one of the groups agitating on the streets of Notting Hill against Caribbean migration, partially leading to the 1958 riot in the borough. By 1962, he, along with future National Front and British National Party leaders, John Tyndall and Martin Webster, formed the National Socialist Movement.

The NSM became infamous for its paramilitarism and Jordan and Tyndall, along with two others, were put on trial for paramilitary training out in the Cotswolds, offences under the Public Order Act 1936. The NSM had come to the attention of the authorities when they attempted a march in Trafalgar Square on 1 July, 1962, which was subsequently broken up by anti-fascists. But knowledge of their base in the Cotswolds became public, when Jordan announced to the media that Rockwell had taken part in a series of meetings with other neo-Nazis from across Europe.

Rockwell was Jordan’s supposed coup de grace. Having established the American Nazi Party in 1959, Rockwell was a leading figure on the far right in the United States and had been involved in violent clashes with activists from the Civil Rights Movement and other progressives. This meant he was considered an undesirable person to allow entry to the UK and when Jordan announced the inaugural meeting of the World Union of National Socialists would be held at a property in the Cotswolds, the Home Secretary Henry Brooke had allegedly called for anyone attending the meeting to be refused an entrance visa.

However at this stage, the border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom was not patrolled by immigration officials and there was no passport check for those coming across the Irish Sea. Rockwell landed in Shannon, County Clare (supposedly on holiday) and was then smuggled into southern England by Jordan’s group. Having evaded the UK immigration control system, Jordan produced photos and film strips to the media of Rockwell’s attendance at the meeting of the WUNS.

Jordan and Rockwell shaking hands at the WUNS inaugural meeting

Jordan and Rockwell shaking hands at the WUNS inaugural meeting

This admission by Jordan led to the property in Gloucestershire being raided and several NSM members, including Jordan and Tyndall, being arrested and tried for Public Order Act offences. Rockwell surrendered himself to police in London and was deported in August 1962. This was probably the high point of the pre-NF British far right, with national and international media attention focused upon the NSM and its American counterpart. After the trial, Jordan and Tyndall fell out over politics and romantic ties to French fascist Francoise Dior. Jordan led the British Movement until he was arrested for shoplifting women’s underwear from Tesco’s in the mid-1970s, while Tyndall led the NF at various times during the 1970s until defeat at the 1979 general election.

In 1965, another American far right figure, Robert Shelton from the Ku Klux Klan, was banned from entering the UK, this time by the Labour Home Secretary Frank Soskice. Coming months after the controversial election in Smethwick where local fascists promoted racist slogans against the Labour candidate and at a time when Labour was developing its first Race Relations Act, Soskice wanted to bar entry to a figure likely to increase racial tensions. The refusal of Shelton was compared by some with the visa given to black activist Malcolm X, who had visited the country (including Smethwick) earlier in the year.

I am not arguing that Donald Trump should be barred from entry to the UK, as using the immigration control system to ‘police’ political ideas is a very blunt mechanism and requires the Home Office to determine what is ‘acceptable’ politics. But it is interesting to note that there is precedent for the refusal of entry for racist Americans.

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.

‘By whatever means necessary’: The origins of the ‘no platform’ policy

Recently the concept of ‘no platform’ was in the news again when there were attempts to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. While there is no doubt that the use of ‘no platform’ has expanded since its first use in the 1970s, the term is bandied about in the media with little definition and understanding of how it was developed as a specific response to the fascism of the National Front (and later the British National Party). This post looks back at the origins of the term and how it was developed into a practical anti-fascist strategy.

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In the early 1970s, the term ‘no platform’ was first used to describe the anti-fascist strategy of denying fascist organisations the public space to organise and disseminate their propaganda. The denial of public space had been an integral part of the militant anti-fascist movement since the 1930s, employed by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), various Jewish groups and other assorted anti-fascists. Fighting Oswald Mosley’s BUF, these anti-fascists broke up meetings, occupied spaces to prevent the BUF gaining access and mobilised massive demonstrations to physically confront the fascists in the streets. This continued after the war with various groups, such as the 43 Group, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Revolutionary Communist Party, joining the CPGB to combat Mosley’s Union Movement. As well as physically confronting the UM, part of the anti-fascists’ strategy was appealing to the local councils, particularly in boroughs where the Labour Party was in charge, to deny the UM (or its various aliases) access to any council property. The anti-fascist movement was quite successful in its approach and Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s. Until the emergence of the National Front in late 1960s, the fascist groups in Britain remained small and the anti-fascist movement gradually faded away.

Forming in 1967, the National Front brought together a number of disparate fascist and anti-immigration groups and by the early 1970s, it was making headway by attracting disaffected Conservative Party voters who felt that the Tories were ‘too soft’ on immigration. Particularly when the Ugandan Asian controversy emerged in 1972, the NF publicised its opposition to letting these British citizens into the country after the Heath government acknowledged that it had legal reason to deny them entry. The first use of the term ‘no platform’ (that I have been able to find) comes from that year. The Red Mole was the newspaper of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist organisation that built quickly amongst the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in the late 1960s. In the issue for September 18, 1972, the front page headline declared ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. It described the NF and the Monday Club (a pro-empire and anti-immigration grouping within the Conservative Party) as ‘mortal enemies of the working class’ and stated that these two groups ‘must be stopped in their tracks’. The newspaper argued that these groups needed to be confronted and were ‘not going to be convinced by rational argument’, calling for ‘a concerted counter-attack’ at meetings of both groups.

The IMG proposed that groups like the NF could not be afforded ‘free speech’ because ‘their racist campaigns are a means to destroy the organisations of the working class which defend such bourgeois democratic rights’. The same issue claimed:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

While acknowledging that ‘[w]e are nowhere near a threatened Fascist coup yet’, but said ‘the methods necessary on preventing such a threat must be explained and demonstrated in practice now… We must begin to adopt the right tactics right from the start.’

The IMG was one of the most influential leftist groups amongst the student movement in Britain in the early 1970s, but competed with the International Socialists and the CPGB (who were part of the Broad Left group with students associated with the Labour left). The NUS in 1974 was under the leadership of Steve Parry, a member of the CPGB and the Broad Left, and were in agreement (in principle) that a policy of ‘no platform’ should be applied to NF and other fascist organisations attempting to recruit students on university campuses. At the Liverpool conference in 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism. Amendment 4 of the resolution on the fight against racialism 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 called upon to ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.

Although agreed in principle the concept of ‘no platform’, the Communist Party, the IMG and the IS differed on the details of the resolution and how the strategy should be applied. The IMG felt that the joint action suggested in the resolution would not transfer into practice and declared that the other left-wing groups were unwilling to be involved in such joint practical action. Steve Webster wrote in Red Weekly (the renamed paper of the IMG):

The fascists will not be defeated by resolutions or statements alone. There are three specific issue which face us immediately: the activity of the right in the colleges, the campaign against the reactionary anti-abortion group, SPUC [the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), and the fight against racism. The other groups of the left rejected joint action around these issues. But it is only by such joint mobilisations, by confronting the right wing head-on, that the fascists and racists will be routed.

The LSE branch of the International Socialists put together a newsletter called The Red Agitator which stated that they believed that the policy was ‘fundamentally correct’, but took issue with the lumping together of racists and fascists in the resolution as there was a difference in approach to fascists and those in the mainstream who promoted racist ideas. The IS raised the point of the racist claims made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck who toured universities in the early 1970s, espousing the idea that there were significant differences in mental capacity between the races. Eysenck was a racist, but not a fascist, and the IS suggested approaching his meetings in a slightly different way than the employment of the ‘no platform’ strategy:

To debate with Eysenck, to treat him as a genuine scientist, is thus to indirectly legitimise Powellism. This is not to say that we should go out to break up meetings which he addresses – the real threat lies in organised fascist groups – but rather that we should picket them and organise counter-meetings in order to show up the real nature of his ideas.

But dealing with the openly fascist NF, the IS agreed with the IMG. The Red Agitator newsletter finished with this:

The racists and fascists of today are not something that we can ignore. They are a growing menace. The liberties we have today are worth defending, small though they are. Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.

Every time they are stopped from meeting, every time their meetings are broke up, their task becomes harder and harder. The moral of the fascists fall. People turn away from them as a miserable and pathetic group with nothing to offer. Every success that we have demonstrates to the waverers that we are a better solution. That is the only way to fight fascism and racism.

The Communist Party’s National Student Organiser Dave Cook also took exception with the broad nature of the ‘no platform’ resolution devised by the NUS. Cook, writing in the CPGB’s Morning Star, argued that the second part of the resolution calling for the prevention of those speaking who espoused ‘similar views’ by any means necessary endangered support for the NUS policy because of its broad interpretation and could have potentially isolated the more moderate and centrist elements in the NUS. Cook proposed that there should not be all-applying response set at the national level, but allow each individual student council to decide whether to implement the policy of ‘no platform’. Like the Party’s wider anti-fascist strategy in the 1970s, Cook also warned against the vanguardist approach of breaking up meetings by a minority of students, writing ‘It is important that direct action does not become a substitute for the often more difficult task of winning the majority.’

In the Party’s internal documents, the broad and all-applying response of ‘no platform’ was criticised further. The Communist Party was particularly concerned with making the distinction between the fascism of the National Front and the racism of the Conservatives (and other right-wing groups), which nonetheless operated within a democratic framework. The Political Committee stated:

It is important to state from the start that the resolution is not a threat to the right of the Tory party to politically operate in the colleges. The resolution clearly and correctly differentiates between the expression of a Conservative viewpoint and organisations whose declared objective is racist. This is not to say that racism is an attitude that stops at the boundaries of the Conservative Party. On the contrary. Certain Tory leaders are more potent symbols of racism than anyone in the National Front… However it id important to draw the distinction between individual Tory racists, and organisations that are part of the Tory party like the Monday Club on one hand; and organisations whose declared objective is to further race hatred on the other – not because our opposition to them is any less intense, but because they are often best fought in different ways. It is so that it can more effectively fight them that NUS policy must hinge on this distinction. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, 22 May, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

The Party also felt that the resolution could be used to enact the ‘no platform’ policy against individuals, rather than organised fascist groups, and that this went past necessary anti-fascist activism and contravened the idea of ‘free speech’. Another internal document made this clear:

No matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members of such [fascist] organisations, e.g. [Hans] Eysenck and [William] Shockley; or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aims is declaredly fascist. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

While the NUS resolution, as well as the IMG and the IS, all saw the Monday Club to resemble a proto-fascist organisation that should be barred from meeting and organising on university campuses, the CPGB stressed that the Monday Club (from which there was a conveyer belt of recruitment into the NF in the early 1970s) was merely a group within the Conservatives and thus should be allowed to organise publicly.

Furthermore, the CPGB was worried that the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ could be interpreted in a number of ways and was concerned about physical violence at public events involving sections of the non-fascist right wing, such as Eysenck’s university tours. This had already occurred the previous year when the tiny Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (featuring the future leader of the Workers Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Bala) broke up a presentation by Eysenck at the LSE.

The resolution was heavily criticised in the mainstream media, with even The Guardian’s John Fairhall describing the move as a denial of free speech, voted for by student ‘under the spell of Mr Parry’s oratory’ (April 9, 1974). Fairhall predicted that ‘[t]rouble and violence seem inevitable’ and warned:

Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.

Parry replied in a latter to the newspaper (April 16), arguing:

Our members overseas have been singled out for abuse, threats and outright economic attack by powerful extreme right-wingers during the time of the last Government. All our conference agreed was that at least they should not be subject to that abuse in our own student union.

Parry further addressed his critics in the press in an article in the journal Labour Monthly (June 1974) which had been run since the 1920s by CPGB stalwart, R. Palme Dutt. Unlike the position taken by Dave Cook, Parry saw the Monday Club and the National Front as very similar and posed the question, ‘What is the difference between the ideologies of the National Front and the Nazi party?’ Responding to the claim that the notion of ‘no platform’ put restrictions on ‘free speech’, Parry answered at length:

One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract. It is a freedom which is already limited by such laws as the Race Relations Act and the law of libel, and must also be seen in the context of a class society in Britain which limits the freedom of speech for the vast majority of people… In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race. It is only in relation to reality that principles of freedom can be seen. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Because of the controversial nature of this resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. This was the same day that the NF attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. Dave Cook, writing again in Morning Star (21 June, 1974), said that the IMG and the IS wanted to maintain the resolution as it was passed, ‘which dictated a common response to all racist and fascist organisations in all situations’. The Communist-affiliated Broad Left group opposed this arguing that ‘the best way to implement national policy was for decisions to be made by each individual union in accordance with its local situation’. Put to a vote, the amendment suggested by Broad Left failed to get over the line and the resolution remained as it was, despite the Federation of Conservative Students seeking the opportunity to defeat the resolution in its entirety. But 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.

By this time, the National Front were starting change tactics. For most of the early 1970s, the NF had played up its ‘respectability’ and tried to attract disaffected Tory voters (and members) who were anti-immigrant, pro-empire and anti-Common Market. ‘No platform’ was probably at its most controversial, but also very necessary, during this period, when a determined anti-fascist movement was needed to break the respectable veneer that the NF was putting forward while trying to woo the Tory right.

It reached its highest membership during this period and concentrated on electoral politics. The NF continued to contest elections from 1974 to 1977, but switched to an attempt to siphon off right-leaning Labour voters. However the small electoral fortunes of the NF kickstarted the anti-fascist movement against them and the years from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing confrontation between the NF and anti-fascists on the streets. By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF seek to publicly assemble. Colin Sparks, from the SWP, explained in a 1978 pamphlet, Fascism and the National Front:

We do not engage in this sort of activity because we like violence or because the NF are reactionary. There are many other reactionary organisations around, for instance the Tory Party, which we do not attempt to smash up. The National Front differs from the Tories because their aims are precisely to control the streets, to build a mass fighting movement. In this, they need the marches and rallies. (p. 41)

The Communist Party, which was largely critical of the SWP’s ‘adventurist’ approach, also recognised the need to confront the NF, but argued that this needed to be done on a mass scale. But they also advocated using the Race Relations Act to combat the NF and their ‘claim to have a democratic right to flaunt their racism’. In the 1978 pamphlet, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook, now the CPGB’s National Organiser, wrote:

Communists support, and will defend to the utmost, the right of people to freely speak their mind. But to attack people because they are black is not a political argument. People form their political views on the basis of conviction. They are born with their colour. That is why to attack someone because of his or her race is to attack that person as a human being. Their political views can change, colour cannot.

To permit the NF the ‘freedom’ to be anti-human can end up destroying the freedom of us all. That is why incitement to racial hatred must have no place in a civilised society. (p. 28)

Even the Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’ for the National Front, when the Party’s National Executive Committee in 1978 declared:

Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.

Despite the original NUS resolution targeting specifically openly fascist and racist organisations, such as the NF and (perhaps controversially) the Monday Club, there were fears that the policy could widened to be used against any political organisation and individual that fell foul of the NUS leadership. In their 1974 pamphlet, Fascism: How to Smash It, the IMG gave instances where ‘no platform’ had been applied to political ‘enemies’ who were not fascists:

Racists like Powell or Harold Soref – who are not fascists – have often been driven off university campuses. This is because the effect these people can have is similar to fascists – that is, terrorising black people or others chosen as scapegoats for capitalism’s social ills, and encouraging social violence, legal or otherwise, against them…

‘No Platform’ has been applied to many people by the workers’ movement. Trade unionists, for example, would generally expel employees who attended their meetings. Print workers sometimes censor by blacking a newspaper editorial attacking the unions. When Mr. Godber, Tory Minister for Agriculture, [was] sent to Birmingham one day last year to do a public relations job for Tory price policy, he was mobbed off the street by angry housewives. All these actions are against ‘free speech’ and sometimes involve a physical struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. In The Guardian (March 23, 1977), John Fairhall wrote that the NUS Executive Committee felt that actions, such as the one against Joseph, were ‘against the interest of the union, and damage an anti-racialism campaign’. Alan Elsner, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, wrote in the New Statesman (May 13, 1977) that the Joseph incident ‘heightened the fear that “no platform” policy could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’. Elsner also raised the controversy over the use of ‘no platform’ against organisations that were explicitly Zionist or supporters of Israel.

Fairhall reported that some on the NUS Executive Committee wanted to change the policy from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, allegedly supported by the Communists in the Broad Left coalition, but this was defeated, 182,333 to 154,033 (with 33,948 abstentions) (The Guardian, April 1, 1977). Future Labour MP Charles Clarke was, at the time, NUS President and a member of the Broad Left, but after the vote, defined the existing policy of ‘no platform’ as:

A student union would do anything it could physically – such as picketing and demonstrating – to prevent people whom the student union decided by a general meeting vote were racists or fascists from speaking on a campus. But prevention would stop short of violence.

The Times’ Ian Bradley stated that the policy was dropped by the NUS in December 1977 but reinstated at the 1978 NUS conference just four months later (April 7, 1978). Although the moderate NUS leadership opposed it, the far left, including the National Organisation of Labour Students, managed to get the policy reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the incoming NUS President and who was personally against the policy, maintained that the policy would be used against the National Front, but ‘would oppose any attempt to use it against Mrs Thatcher or other members of major political parties’. The outgoing NUS President, Susan Slipman added, ‘The new policy will not mean the infringement of the democratic right of any members and it will definitely not mean reraising the question of banning Jewish student organisations.’

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By 1979, the NF had fallen into disarray, marginalised by the growing anti-fascist movement from one side and by the right-wing shift of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from the other. However the ‘no platform’ policy was maintained and many would argue, succumbed to the newly developed interest in ‘identity politics’. Writing in Socialist Worker Review in 1986, Lindsey German said:

the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups. This post has sought to show that before it became a widely used tactic by various student groups, ‘no platform’ had a discreet and specific context to be used in an explicitly anti-fascist framework. Contemporary discussions in the media of the tactic often ignore this origin story, but do so at their own peril.