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Beating the Nazis in the 1970s: ‘We did it before and we’ll do it again’

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The rise of the National Front in the 1970s saw an increase in racist violence – but also of resistance that drove the Nazis back. Activists from the time spoke to Socialist Worker about the lessons for beating the British National Party today
Issue 2174
Members of the Southall Youth Movement protesting in 1979
Members of the Southall Youth Movement protesting in 1979

Iqbal Khan

Iqbal Khan was involved in the struggle against the National Front in the 1970s in Southall, west London

‘I came to England from Uganda in the 1970s after Idi Amin expelled Asians from the country. This was around the time that the National Front (NF) was growing in strength.

My first encounter with the NF was when I was about 16 or 17. I went with my cousin, who was a couple of years younger than me, to pick up his sisters up from school.

On the way back we heard six white guys shouting, “Get the Pakis!” Then we realised they meant us.

They chased us and beat us up. I saw them carve NF on my cousin’s back. There was nothing I could do about it because the NF guys had got hold of me. This was my first experience of the violent side of the NF. It was a vicious attack.

And the rise of the fascists always encourages softer racism to come out.

I remember things like shopkeepers not wanting to give you your change in your hand, putting it on the table instead. Nothing overtly racist – but the more subtle stuff.

At this time the Anti Nazi League hadn’t been formed.

I was involved in what became known as the Southall Youth Movement.

It came from lots of young Asian people saying we have had enough. It started off as a self-defence organisation. We were very angry. We had seen our families attacked.


We decided that if the NF were going to attack us, we were going to fight back. And we did.

Every time an Asian guy was attacked or something like that, we would go out and look for Nazis, not necessarily for the perpetrators, and we used to beat them up. It grew from that.

We had just had enough. The battles against the fascists culminated in the massive riot and demonstration against the NF in Southall in April 1979 where the police killed anti-Nazi activist Blair Peach.

There was a massive turnout from the local community in Southall, along with other anti-fascists and trade unionists.

And two years earlier a huge demonstration had confronted an NF march in Lewisham, south London.

These were big turning points in the fight against the fascists.

And the confidence that came from the mass demonstrations was tremendous. It meant you knew that you were not on your own.

For a long time we had thought that it was just our fight, but we could see that we had a lot of the wider, indigenous population standing with us.

The big demonstrations made us feel we could win.

It also made us look at everything a bit differently. We were no longer fearful of every white person we came across. We saw there were a lot of people on our side.

I used to think that all white people were racist in some way.

But I saw that some people were willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with us – even if it might mean, as happened with Blair Peach, that they lose their life.

It was a massive learning curve. I was very young.

For many of us the battle against the Nazis started off as a pure self-defence thing. But it grew into a political movement that still resounds today.

It taught me that the way to change things was political rather than personal.

I think that people who want to stop the Nazis today should get involved in Unite Against Fascism, rather than going out in small groups and taking the fascists on physically.

What beat the NF in the 1970s was mass action – that was the beginning of the end for them.

I think today a lot of the people with the British National Party (BNP) are not hardcore Nazis – although they may be racists. One of the lessons of the 1970s is that you have to split them from the Nazis.

Of course it is slightly different today because the BNP has now got councillors and two people elected to the European parliament. It is not so much on the street any more.


So we have to learn the lessons from the 1970s, but also develop our ideas about how to combat them electorally.

One of the main things is that we have to unite together – black and white.

And we must confront the fascists – by any means necessary, wherever they raise their head.

I was in Harrow at the recent protest against the English Defence League. It was a marvellous turnout, especially from the local community. This is the way to beat them – through mass mobilisations.

It is very important that we protest against the Question Time programme this week.

Any publicity the Nazis get just inflames the fire – it doesn’t put it out.’

Paul Holborow

Paul Holborow was a founder member of the Anti Nazi League (ANL). He was its national secretary in the late 1970s

‘The National Front (NF) grew in the 1970s against the backdrop of a Labour government that had let working class people down. Unemployment was rising and wages were falling.

That provided the background for the Nazis to exploit the growing misery and insecurity – and try to direct that anger at black and Asian people.

The NF started polling high in elections, which gave them the courage to march on the streets and attack black people and socialists.

Many were trying to stop them, but it was mostly local and uncoordinated.

The huge confrontation at Lewisham in 1977 was a turning point. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the local black community came together to confront an NF march. Thousands of protesters took the streets and we gave the Nazis a good hiding.

The next day I went into the SWP headquarters and the phone began to ring and ring.

There was a call from a Jewish guy in east London saying, “I don’t agree with the SWP over many things, but what you did to the Nazis on Saturday was bloody marvellous – what can I do to help?”

Calls like that were where the momentum came from to form a broader organisation – the ANL.

The ANL was launched in November 1977, aiming to unite everyone who opposed the Nazis. By April of the following year we could put on a carnival that attracted 80,000 people.

The idea was that we could help people to respond quickly anywhere in the country. It was clearly tapping into how thousands of people felt.

In the late 1970s we had an anti-Nazi day in the Yorkshire pits and on that day thousands of miners went to work with an anti-Nazi sticker on their helmets.

We had the same arguments about “no platform” back then as well.

Senior Labour Party figures accused us of being “red fascists” for standing up to the NF. I was called a “boot boy” when I appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

But the groundswell of support from ordinary people meant we never felt on the defensive.

People knew that letting the Nazis hold meetings, marches and be interviewed in the media would lead to a rise in racist violence.

And tension between the fascists in suits and on the streets is nothing new.

Because the Nazis were seeking to win elections, they didn’t actually march much until the end of the 1970s.

I remember one time in Hackney when we called a meeting of the ANL because the Nazis were trying to get votes in the area.

There were people there who said, yes, of course we are against the Nazis, but we shouldn’t confront them.

But as soon as they found out that the NF were planning to march through the local area, those very people who had argued to be non-violent and non‑confrontational built a barricade across the road to stop the Nazis.

It was the mass movement bringing thousands of people together against the Nazis that broke the NF.

We have to remember some of the lessons in the new battles that we face against the threat of the fascists today.’

Maureen Stephenson

Maureen Stephenson is a retired health worker and trade unionist who lives in east London

‘I came to Britain as a nurse from Barbados in 1965. In the Caribbean, we were told that we were needed to come and work in the National Health Service in Britain.

But when we arrived we instantly found that some people didn’t want us here.

When you looked for lodgings, you were met with signs saying, “No blacks.”

And at work we found that our promotion prospects were restricted because of the colour of our skin.

Many black people were cautious in the way they reacted to this, but if, like me, you spoke out you could find yourself targeted.

A lot changed after the Tory MP Enoch Powell made his infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968. Racists really felt emboldened by it.

Sometimes they would shout things like “get back on the boat” at you as you walked down the street.

There were already gangs of racist thugs who would attack black people as they went about their business, but it got much worse.

Yet when we organised to defend ourselves from attack, the media started talking about the problem of “black gang culture”.

There was another change in the 1970s. By then a lot of us had children who experienced a lot of racism.

That meant some of our kids felt that being black was negative – they came home from school saying that they wanted to be white.

We also had the rise of the National Front, which in east London was a particular problem. It seemed that there was racist graffiti, and the letters “NF”, painted everywhere.

The fascists tried to feed off the resentment of many poor, white Eastenders by telling them that the problems of terrible housing and low paid jobs was to do with us black people.

That created fear of racist attack but it also created a unity among those who opposed it – both black and white.

And, despite the hatred, the 1970s was also a time of racial integration – after all a lot of mixed race children were born in that era.’

The ANL on the march
The ANL on the march
Protesting against Nazis in Lewisham in 1977
Protesting against Nazis in Lewisham in 1977

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