Socialist Worker

How we stopped the fascists before

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 2104

Stopping the NF in Lewisham, 1977

Stopping the NF in Lewisham, 1977

Some people say we shouldn’t worry about the BNP because fascism “just isn’t part of the British character”. But there is a long history of fascism in Britain. And the reason fascists have never triumphed is that they have been confronted, not ignored.

The first fascist organisation in the country was the British Union of Fascists (BUF), founded in 1932 by Oswald Mosley. They were modelled on Benito Mussolini’s fascists in Italy and wore paramilitary uniforms – the “blackshirts”.

Many elements of the British establishment supported Mosley. The Daily Mail ran a front page headlined “Hurrah For The Blackshirts” in 1934.

The blackshirts launched campaigns of violence and terror, targeting Jews, Communists and left wingers. But in 1936 they made a fatal mistake when they tried to march through the East End of London – which at the time had a large Jewish community.

The people of the East End united together – Jewish, Irish, socialists and Communists – to block the fascist march and declare, “They shall not pass!”

The resulting confrontation, known as the Battle of Cable Street, was the turning point in the fight against the BUF.


The blackshirts were physically stopped by people staying united and standing up to them. They went into steep decline soon afterwards.

For many years after the Second World War fascists in Britain were confined to the margins. But in 1967 former BUF leader AK Chesterton set up the National Front (NF). He was soon joined by dedicated Nazi activists, including John Tyndall.

The late 1960s saw a climate of racism in Britain whipped up by figures such as Tory MP Enoch Powell. This was fertile soil for the NF and other Nazi organisations. When economic crisis hit in the early 1970s the NF grew rapidly, on the streets and in elections.

By 1977 they once again tried the tactic marching through a predominantly immigrant area – in this case Lewisham in south east London. But local people and left wing activists came together to confront them, leading to a clash that became known as the Battle of Lewisham.

“Lewisham was the turning point,” said Balwindar Rana, a Sikh activist involved in the demonstrations. “It was the first time one of their marches had been broken up. The police cancelled the march and put them onto trains.”


Soon after Lewisham the Anti Nazi League (ANL) was launched to lead a united fight against the NF.

The ANL worked alongside Rock Against Racism (RAR) to spread the anti-fascist message, hosting the legendary RAR carnival in Victoria Park, east London, in 1978.

By the early 1980s the NF had been smashed into warring fragments. Leading Nazi Martin Webster admitted in court, “The sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote.”

But the Nazis began to regroup. In 1982 Tyndall formed the British National Party (BNP), which began to pick up support in the early 1990s. In 1993 the BNP’s Derek Beackon became the party’s first councillor after a by-election on the Isle of Dogs in east London.

The ANL was relaunched in response to the BNP’s success and helped coordinate a 60,000 strong march on the party’s headquarters in Welling, south east London.

Anti-fascists mobilised in east London and by 1994 Beackon had been kicked off the council.

Today’s BNP is run by Nick Griffin, a longstanding and dedicated Nazi who was active in the NF in the 1970s. His strategy has been to try and hide the party’s fascist character by appearing “respectable” and focusing on winning elections.

We need to expose the BNP as Nazis and build a mass anti-fascist movement to defeat them politically – a movement in the tradition of Cable Street, Lewisham and the Anti Nazi League.

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Tue 3 Jun 2008, 18:18 BST
Issue No. 2104
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