Liverpool Guild of Students has caused some murmurs recently by refusing to host a debate between mayoral candidates, on the basis that the presence of three candidates contravened safe spaces policy. Discussion has gone over well worn ground of the merits and limits of the “no platform” response to fascism, which the National Union of Students has adopted as policy since the 70s. The more significant story is that there is a candidate running for the National Front (NF) at all.
In the interests of disclosure, I am an anti-fascist and support a militant (i.e. not state enforced) no platform policy for fascist parties. However the purpose of this feature is not to convince anyone of the merits of this, but to illuminate the history of a party that ceased to be a serious political force long before most students were born. Whatever our attitude as students towards the NF, history demonstrates that the party cannot be safely ignored.
The National Front enjoyed an improbable spell in the 1970s as England’s fourth best polling party. At the time it was regarded as the most successful ‘insurgent’ party since the birth of Labour. During this period it acted as a kind of centre pole, around which the bewildering plethora of far-right factions, disaffected conservatives and splinter grounds orbited. The party was established at the end of the 1960s by the merger of the League of Empire Loyalists and the previous incarnation of British National Party. Capitalising on the political upheaval of the 1970s, the Front rapidly ascended to prominence on the streets with some modest electoral success, something the political class had complacently claimed could never happen in Britain.
Five men dominated the hierarchy of the party, three of whom had previously organised in neo-nazi movements. The most infamous of these men was John Tyndall, who had been involved in organising the nazi para-military group ‘Spearehead’. He is notable for publishing a pamphlet referring to liberal democracy as a “Jewish-inspired plot” and must be replaced with authoritarian rule.
“Rights for Whites”
The NF self-describe as ‘nationalists’. The party identifies strongly with perceived traits that they hope will unite the ‘indigenous’ (i.e. whites) population of the UK under one banner. The NF adopts a full spectrum of reactionary politics, ranging from support of capital punishment to opposition to abortion and homosexuality. However it is the message at the heart of their political platform that the white population is threatened by immigration, a phenomenon they describe as ‘genocide’. The National Front is also characterised by support for Northern Irish Loyalism and has purported links with the armed ‘Ulster Volunteer Force”.
Demonstrations, Violence, Riots
Although the Front caused some stirs in electoral politics, it was on the streets that they gained the most prominence. Marches often chose to pass through black and ethnic areas, largely to incite confrontation, media attention and intimidate those who lived there. The police were given the task of ‘facilitating’ these marches, which often brought them into conflict with local people and militant anti-fascists.
In 1977 the Front marched through Lewisham under the slogan “85% of muggers were black whilst 85% of their victims were white”. The resulting riot was blamed in the media on the Socialist Workers Party, although by the BBC’s figures there were at most 400 of their activists present. Witnesses claim that violence began after police cleared a path for the National Front through anti-fascists attempting to block the march. Whatever the case, the resulting rioting saw the first deployment of plastic shields in England, with 110 people injured and a police station attacked.
Less dramatic, but perhaps more important, is the association of the NF with racist attacks, vandalism of ‘foreigners’ businesses and arson. Racist graffiti was also a prefered tactic, utilising the vitrioloic slogans “wogs out” and “don’t fuck with white.” All of this was instrumental in attempting to enforce a street presence of the party: raising its profile in working class communities beyond what its electoral figures might suggest.
The party entered serious decline at the end of the 70s, eventually disintegrating in the early 80s. The largest of the the resulting new factions was the present incarnation of the British National Party. Martin Webster, one of the leaders at the time, credited the Anti Nazi League with a key role in the party’s political demise. Others note that the National Front failed to mobilise the petit bourgeois (a marxist term roughly corresponding to ‘small business owners’/’the middle class’) like their fascist forbears had.
Why are they described as fascist?
The problem with assessing this is that ‘fascism’ is perhaps the most widely used and abused definition in modern politics, and possibly the English language. Colloquially it is often used to describe any behaviours that are authoritarian or contrary to individual freedom. When deployed to define a particular political program or set of ideas, the term often says more about the politics of the person making the description than it does of those they are describing.
The definition is applied to the NF based on its fanatical nationalism and its consistent scapegoating of economic problems alternately on ethnic minorities and a perceived conquest of power by a left Jewish/Zionist wing elite, often referred to as ‘cultural marxism’. Even authors sceptical of the National Front as a major threat have had to admit that “the full ideology of the NF was, in a large number of respects, identical to that of the German Nazi party before it came to power.”
The website of today’s NF contains discussion about African Killer Bees and Red/Grey squirrels as analogies of the ‘threat’ immigration poses to their ideal of racial nationalism. All this considered, the party broadly fitted a fascist jackboot. The NF now appears less comfortable openly discussing ‘Jewish plots’ (you will not find a single mention of ‘the Jews’ on the policy section of their website), and are increasingly opting to ‘speak out’ against Islam. This is probably inspired by the rise of the English Defence League, which more hardline nationalists have been attempting to infiltrate.
What are the dangers of the today’s National Front?
Academics, journalists and activists are divided on what threat the NF, and the wider milieu of British Fascism, present. For convenience, there is a broadly ‘liberal’ analysis of the front, and a ‘left’ analysis. Both the left and liberals would agree that throughout its history the organisation has been associated with a rise in prejudice, harassment and violence in the communities it preys upon. The NF also indulges in attacking left and trade unions stalls, bookshops and meetings wherever it gains a foothold.
Both also agree that fascism has served to fuel the flames of reactionary sentiments on race and immigration within the political ‘mainstream’. The NF’s collapse at the end of the 70s is often attributed to the rightward shift in the Tory party triggered by Margaret Thatcher.
On the question of whether the NF has, or ever will, pose a wider threat, there is more contention. British Fascism was once described as an “ugly duckling” that stands no chance of maturing to be a “swan”. This was attributed to the “irreducible plurality” of British society: in other words an argument that society is already too diverse to be united under ultra-nationalistic banners. This view has some sympathy among some sections of the left. As Orwell once noted, British political culture has a historic hostility to militarism and overt nationalism: “In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.”
The contentious role of anti-fascism
Broadly however. the left does not share liberal sunny optimism of society’s resilience to fascism. The left analysis of capitalism is that periodic crises creates revolutionary tension between the working class and the ruling class. The same tensions also produces fascist and nationalist sentiments, as reactionary politics begins to perceive the tools of liberal democracy inadequate for combating the rise of the left. It is certainly the case that the high points of the British far-right (the 1930s and 70s) correlate with the worst crises of capitalism in the 20th century, although this does not explain why the NF declined at the end of the 70s when the economy was only getting worse.
The argument for anti-fascism goes that fascism has been kept at bay not by innate characteristics of British culture, but by the actions of anti-fascists and the “struggle” of left politics more generally. It raises potent historical drama in the form of ‘battles’ in Cable Street and Lewisham. These are taken as spectacular examples of preventing fascists control of the streets, which complement more small scale defence of left wing meetings and stalls. Also asserted is the importance of anti-fascist canvassing in neutering far-right electoral ambitions. Anti-fascists assert that it was the “ignore them and they will go away” attitude to fascism that allowed the NF to get off the ground in the first place.
Liberals contend that such activity only fuels fascist politics, claiming fascist parties will consistently fail even if let to their own devices. Despite this, mutual antagonism has become part and parcel of the identity the NF/BNP/EDL and left opposition groups and trade unions respectively claim for themselves. The significance and meaning of this antagonism is wildly controversial.
Peter Quiggins, the National Front candidate for Liverpool
It has often been argued that fascist dictatorships had their roots in disillusion within the petty bourgeois during the economic turmoil of the 1930s, and mayoral candidate Peter Quiggins fits this classic model. He is the former owner of the Quiggins center for alternative retailers, which was bought by compulsory purchase order in 2006 after a protracted battle with the council. Mr Quiggins remains embittered from this episode, which is reflected in his hostility to ‘privatisation’ of the city centre in general.
Until relatively recently Quiggins was a member of the BNP, hailed by his party leader as “super-activist”. However, the BNP is in crisis both electorally and financially. By splitting with their former party and nailing the colours of the NF to the mast, the local far-right are harking back to ‘glory days’ of their ideas, firmly rooted in tactics of ‘controlling the streets’. As very briefly outlined above, the name carries a heavy legacy of provocative demonstrations, confrontations with the left and occasional racial violence.
The Bottom Line
Whether Quiggins and his new generation of activists will live up to the connotations of the name they’ve claimed remains to be seen. They are only one of a dizzying array of tiny far-right splinter groups attempting to grow in both Liverpool and nationally. Despite the financial crisis and hegemony of austerity, the political context is very different to Front’s 1970s heyday. However, the number of candidates fielded, and votes received, have been very slowly but steadily climbing for the organisation, which most had taken for dead. In 2010 the party received 10784 votes nationally for its 17 candidates. This can hardly be interpreted as a resurrection; more of a worrying twitch from a rotting corpse.
The re-emergence of the National Front in Liverpool politics patently does not present the threat of imminent fascist terror. However, this is not cause for complacency. Even a small NF has the potential to spread cancerous hatred, and perhaps violence, through the city. The actions of Anders Breivik testify to the damage that can be done even in the absence of a mass movement. If nothing else, that a NF candidate is running at all in the polls is a worrying sign for those who hope one day consign fascism to ubiquitous purple wheely bin of our city’s history.
- Jenny Bourne: Lewisham ’77 – sucess or failure?
- Joanna Hurbet: Negotiating Boundaries in the City – Migration, Ethnicity, and Gender in Britain
- Stan Taylor: The National Front in English Politics
- Professor Roger Griffin: British Fascism – The Ugly Duckling (1996)
- Liverpool Anti-fascists blog
- The National Front website