Right-wing populism

The last time the government evoked the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan

The new Home Secretary Amber Rudd has, in the wake of Brexit, evoked the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, which has been used in the past by Gordon Brown in 2007 and by the British National Party and the National Front in the 1980s. While she has been heavily criticized for her statements, this is an on-going issue. The following is from a 2010 book chapter on discourses of ‘race’ and immigration in the UK under Thatcher and New Labour, which looks at the last time the slogan was widely used – at strikes in 2009 where a section of the British labour movement embraced Euroscepticism. In the aftermath of Brexit, these strikes reveal some of the debates that the left were unwilling to have about the EU, European workers and a consistent anti-racism.

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In their 2009 European Parliament elections, UKIP gained 16.5 percent of the vote and thirteen seats,[i] heavily campaigning for withdrawal from the EU and limiting immigration from Europe. Their campaign document for the European Parliament elections, intertwining opposition to the EU with an anti-immigration position, declared:

Our membership of the European Union is already costing jobs in the UK. Major construction projects now hire many of their staff overseas, with British workers not even having the opportunity to apply…

The only people who should decide who can come to live, work and settle in Britain should be the British people themselves. We can only do this outside of the EU political union. The open-door immigration policy has been voted against by only one party–UKIP.[ii]

The 2009 European Parliament elections saw a swing by British voters, albeit a low voter turnout, to the right, with the explicitly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrationist UKIP and the British National Party (BNP) gaining votes and/or seats, and the Conservatives, with a more toned down rhetoric on Europe and immigration, winning a majority of British seats.[iii] However anti-EU politics are not always defined by the right, with the Labour Party until the era of New Labour traditionally opposing British involvement in the forerunners of the EU, and are not always linked to anti-immigrationist politics. The labour movement has also traditionally opposed British entry into Europe, viewing the EU and its predecessors as a capitalist super state that allows the flow of economic benefits into the hands of a supra-national ruling capitalist class and away from the working classes.

The 2009 European Parliament election also saw the creation of a new left-wing anti-EU party, the No2EU: Yes to Democracy party, which sought to promote withdrawal from the EU on less nationalist and xenophobic grounds, but did not make much ground against the Eurosceptic right. No2EU had originally emerged from a crisis in the British labour movement over the free movement of labour within the EU, with wildcat strikes breaking out across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[iv] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union.

But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, used by some involved in the strike. This slogan had been first used by the National Front and the British National Party, but had been revived by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in several speeches in 2007, including the TUC Annual Conference and the Labour Party Conference.[v] The slogan was evoked by some rank-and-file striking workers,[vi] which drew fierce media attention to the strike and divided the labour movement over how to support the strike. The reluctance to explicitly support or condemn the strikers using the slogan can be seen in the comments from the trade unions involved. Derek Simpson, a joint leader of Unite, asserted that “[n]o European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job”, while General Secretary of the GMB, Paul Kenny said, “You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs”.[vii] TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber stated:

Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff.[viii]

Some “distasteful elements”, such as the BNP, tried to make political capital out of the strikes, using the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in a council by-election in the ward of Newton Hyde in Greater Manchester. In May 2008, the BNP had polled 846 votes in the ward, compared to Labour’s vote of 1,124, and this gap of only 278 votes was expected to close as the economic downturn worsened and the BNP campaigned on the “British jobs” slogan.[ix] But this did not happen as the BNP vote increased marginally to 889 votes, but Labour’s majority soared to 1,379 votes.[x] James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, which encompasses the Newton Hyde ward, said, “I think it’s a victory for hope and solidarity over people who want to bring division and hatred”.[xi] However four months later, the BNP had a surprising result in the European Parliament elections, winning two MEP seats for former National Front members Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, in the North West and Yorkshire, exploiting populist anxiety over immigration and the European Union. On the other hand, No2EU only managed to gain around 1 percent of the vote across Britain.[xii] What the wildcat strikes and the No2EU campaign demonstrated was that it is difficult to disentangle anti-EU politics from nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric and left-wing, and generally anti-racist, opposition to the EU is a minor part of the discourse, unfortunately trumped by the right, who continue to dominate the discourses on immigration and the European Union.

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[i] UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”, 17 July, 2009, http://www.europarl.org.uk/section/european-elections/results-2009-european-elections-uk, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

[ii] UKIP, “Campaign Policies Euro Elections 2009”

[iii] UKIP’s vote increased from 16.2 percent in 2004 to 16.5 percent in 2009, with 12 seats in 2004 and gaining one seat in 2009. The BNP gained two seats in the 2009 election, even though their overall vote declined. The Conservatives lost two seats in 2009, but still hold ten more seats than Labour with 25 seats and 27.7 percent of the vote. See: UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”; House of Commons, “European Parliament Elections 2004”, House of Commons Research Paper, 04/50, (London, 23 June, 2004) 11

[iv] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, “Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates”, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, “Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength”, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, “Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes”, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, 4; “Blame the Bosses not ‘Foreign Workers’”, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, 1, 3

[v] Vincent Keter, Government Policy on “British Jobs for British Workers”, House of Commons Library, (16 September, 2009) 2, http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snbt-04501.pdf, (accessed 4 December, 2009)

[vi] See: http://www.bearfacts.co.uk, (accessed 17 February, 2009)

[vii] Cited in, Unite, “Unite’s Three Point Plan for Dealing with the Current Wave of Unofficial Strike Action”, http://www.unitetheunion.com/news__events/ latest_news/unite_has_today_proposed_a_thr.aspx, (accessed 17 February 2009); “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[viii] Cited in, “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[ix] Jon Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”, http://www.24dash.com/news/Local_Government/2009-02-06-Labour-sees-off-BNPs-British-jobs-for-British-workers-by-election-challenge, (accessed 8 February, 2009)

[x] J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xi] Cited in, J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xii] “Crow’s No2EU Gain 153,000 Votes”, BBC News Online, 8 June, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8088911.stm, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

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.

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!

Theresa May and UKIP: A repeat of Thatcher and the NF in ’79?

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While everyone is falling over themselves to make analogies between the Labour Party of the 1980s and that of today under Corbyn (or stressing that it’s not a repeat of that decade), we are also in danger of seeing Theresa May’s time (however long) as Prime Minister through the prism of Margaret Thatcher.

In the post-Brexit world, nothing can be taken for granted anymore when it comes to British politics, so any predictions are fraught with error and future embarrassment. With that, despite the prediction by Norman Tebbit that ‘May will drive Tory members into the arms of UKIP’, I am thinking that Theresa May becoming Prime Minister will split the post-Farage UKIP. While Brexit has not been ensured, UKIP’s most prominent policy has been, more or less, achieved, and in the past, single issue groups have struggled to change their message/strategy once their primary objective has been fulfilled or become irrelevant. Coupled with Farage leaving the leadership spot, UKIP look rudderless and will now try to siphon off the anti-immigration vote from both Labour and the Tories as they will probably re-fashion themselves as the ‘sensible’ anti-immigration party – to the right of the Tories but not associated with fascism of Britain First or the British National Party.

This might continue to be a problem for Labour, but May’s record as Home Secretary and her continued ‘tough’ talk on immigration may attract the ‘soft’ UKIP vote back to the Tories. While Cameron was seen as ‘weak’ on controlling immigration, the Home Office under May made the rules incredibly more difficult for non-EEA migrants and their families (and her comments on the future of EU migrants in the UK have not calmed the fears of many). Some UKIP supporters will think that May has not done enough, but many might be swayed by her track record and ‘effort’ in trying to restrict immigration from the EU and the rest of the world.

This is where the Thatcher comparison comes in. Thatcher’s public pronouncements on immigration in the late 1970s helped make her look ‘tough’ on the issue, particularly her comment in 1978 that people were feeling ‘rather swamped’ by Commonwealth migration. Furthermore, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1979 election announced that the Tories would introduce ‘firm immigration control’ that would ‘end persistent fears about levels of immigration’. After this, the Tories were able to attract a significant number of voters who might’ve voted for the National Front previously and the NF’s vote was greatly diminished at the 1979 election.*

While I am sceptical about making too closer historical comparisons between May and Thatcher, it is plausible that May’s rhetoric might drive a similar wedge between those who waver between UKIP and the Tories, and those who are ‘rusted on’ UKIP supporters. If a snap election is called, this is certain a possibility. Otherwise, it will depend whether new Home Secretary Amber Rudd follows May’s hardline approach to immigration.

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]

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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.

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.