A very British institution
The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was relaunched in January with the declared aim of countering 'the rise of Nazism in Europe' and the regroupment of the British National Party. Eddie Veale thinks that is a dangerous starting point for anti-racists. Kenan Malik asks what the ANL achieved in the seventies
Even before the Anti-Nazi League had been formally relaunched, it was embroiled in a bitter row with another umbrella campaign, the Anti-Racist Alliance. It was less a debate over political strategy than a dispute over who held the franchise on celebrity sponsors. Both sides seem to agree on the need for an ANL-style campaign today; but the Anti-Racist Alliance wants to create a sort of Anti-Nazi League without the Socialist Workers Party.
This debate has pretty well missed the point. No matter who is behind the ANL, its anti-Nazi politics are a liability.
Why relaunch a campaign like the ANL today? It is one thing for anti-racists in Britain to declare opposition to the far-right on the Continent. But what practical steps can the Anti-Nazi League take to combat it from over here? ANL front man Peter Hain, an MP on the soft left of Kinnock's respectable Labour Party, seems unlikely to launch an International Brigade to beat up fascists on the streets of Paris and Berlin.
Within Britain, the ANL has had a hard job identifying a fascist threat. Its notion of a possible British National Party (BNP) resurgence as the domestic face of 'Euro-Nazism' is somewhat far-fetched at a time when the BNP seems unable to get an overseas speaker to address its AGM, and when the party's Midlands organiser attracts 71 votes in a Leicestershire county council election (Searchlight, December 1991).
The ANL's relaunch literature includes a slim catalogue of British Nazi sympathisers. Topping the list are one Gregory Lauder-Frost, operations manager for Riverside Health Authority in West London, and one Sam Swerling, lecturer in law at the City of London Polytechnic. These two may not be the ideal house guests. But they are hardly a major cause of racist oppression today.
Those concerned about racism could surely find plenty to occupy them in British society in 1992 without needing to look for Nazis abroad or to invent a fascist threat at home.
The relaunch of the Anti-Nazi League seems to have a lot less to do with a rising threat of fascism in Britain than with the decline of the old British left. The defeat of Labourism in the eighties, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and world Stalinism, has badly demoralised and disoriented most of the left. The consequences can be seen in various ways, from the closure of Marxism Today to the recent split in the Militant Tendency.
The relaunch of the ANL looks like another consequence of the same trend. It is primarily an attempt by the Socialist Workers Party and its allies to deal with the problem of intensified isolation by building a bridge to a broader audience. They have sought to solve a new problem by re-running the past, and recreating the seventies campaign which is seen as their finest hour.
In fact, it is not possible to recreate the Anti-Nazi League of the seventies, with its big marches and bigger music carnivals. The official labour movement on which the ANL relied back then no longer exists as a campaigning organisation that could mobilise thousands of supporters. And Labour Party figures like Neil Kinnock, leading sponsors of the seventies ANL, have since moved well into the moderate centre ground of politics.
The Anti-Nazi League can still find a point of contact with mainstream politics in the nineties; but only in a way that poses a serious problem for anti-racists. However worthy the intentions, the ANL's narrow focus on the alien threat of 'Nazism' will serve to reinforce the little Englander outlook popularised by the racists of the British establishment.
The campaign's name illustrates the problem. What does 'Nazi' mean to most British people? It doesn't suggest racists; it says Germans. It conjures up images not of British thugs attacking Asian homes but of 'Krauts' blitzing British streets.
In calling fascists 'Nazis', the ANL emphasises the threat of racism spreading to Britain from Europe, rather like rabies. It is focusing its protests against visits to Britain by foreign bearers of this Continental infection, such as French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. To the Anti-Nazi League, British right wingers are never simply home-grown racists; they are always 'admirers of Hitler', 'friends of Le Pen' or have some other foreign connection. (This approach is shared by the ANL's critics in the Anti-Racist Alliance, some of whom claim that blacks in Rochdale, Lancashire are in mortal peril from German skinheads on tour.)
The notion that racism is less a product of British society than an alien import fits easily into the general anti-foreign culture of British politics - and the particularly anti-German mood of today.
The British establishment is always on about how it beat the Nazis and turned back the German threat. With Britain's international status steadily declining, the Second World War stands out as the last real triumph for the British authorities. They feel far safer boasting of how they beat Hitler in the past than suggesting how they might cope with foreign rivals in the future.
The Second World War has become a permanent item of news in the British media, as feature films, documentaries and reminiscences mark every anniversary. The British government's growing concern about German domination of the new Europe, clearly illustrated around the Maastricht summit in December, has made it keener still to remind us all of what happened last time around.
Such anti-Nazism plays a big part in modern British nationalism; the British establishment itself is a sort of anti-Nazi league. Perhaps now we can see why the seventies version of the ANL is still so well thought of among academics and commentators who are otherwise anti-left - and why the ANL relaunch attracted so much press coverage before the campaign had done anything.
Being anti-Nazi is a British tradition that need have nothing to do with being anti-racist. Indeed, it can be perfectly compatible with the nationalistic views of the British right.
When the new ANL's leaflets warn that 'we can never forget Hitler's gas chambers', they are treading well-worn ground. Thatcherite minister Nicholas Ridley made much the same point, in the infamous interview which led to his resignation, when asked if his views on Germany weren't coloured by his wartime memories:
'Jolly good thing too.... It was pretty nasty. Only two months ago I was in Auschwitz, Poland. Next week I'm in Czechoslovakia. You ask them what they think about the Second World War. It's useful to remember.' (Spectator, 14 July 1990).
The Anti-Nazi League says 'we can never forget'; the anti-German Ridley agrees that 'it's useful to remember'.
The attempt to blame the Germans or French for racism can be turned into another Little Englander objection to foreigners as the source of our problems. Top Tories Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbit each issued warnings against the threat of European fascism late last year. At the same time, both were giving firm support to the British government's racist crackdown on 'bogus refugees' in the Asylum Bill. There was no contradiction involved; for Lawson, Tebbit and Ridley, Continental 'Nazis' and third world 'scroungers' are just two different types of dirty foreigner.
The politics of the Anti-Nazi League avoid confronting the respectable racism of British nationalists. For example, the ANL singles out junior minister Alan Clark as 'unfit for office' because he is a Nazi sympathiser. By that criterion the senior Tory ministers, who authored the racist Asylum Bill but don't share Clark's affinity for Rottweilers called Eva Braun, are presumably qualified to rule.
The attempt to single out 'Nazism' misses the key connection. The everyday nationalism of British politics is the bedrock of racism. Even in a country like France, where Le Pen's Front National has polled almost 20 per cent, tackling the anti-foreign consensus among the ruling Socialist and other mainstream parties would be the precondition for isolating the far right. In Britain, where there is no 'Nazism' but plenty of respectable racism, this must be the priority.
In contrast, the approach of the ANL can only reinforce the narrow-minded national prejudice in British politics. When the ANL says that it will 'drive the Nazis back into the gutter they come from', it would be easy to draw the conclusion that by 'gutter' they mean Germany.*
Myths of the ANL
The prestige of the relaunched Anti-Nazi League rests almost entirely on the reputation of the original ANL as a mass anti-fascist movement which defeated the National Front in the seventies. Let's look at these claims more closely
'The ANL was a mass anti-fascist movement'
The ANL certainly attracted tens of thousands to its anti-fascist carnivals. But it was less a mass anti-fascist movement than a lobbyist for the Labour Party in the 1979 general election.
The ANL was set up because left-wing activists were worried that the far right was taking votes away from the Labour Party. In 1976 the National Party won two council seats in Blackburn at the expense of Labour while the National Front (NF) polled 119 000 in the GLC elections, making gains particularly in Labour strongholds.
The Labour Party responded in two ways. The Labour government adapted to the racist climate - introducing, for example, the 1977 green paper on nationality which the Tories later turned into the 1981 Nationality Act. And Labour backed the launch of anti-fascist groups to mobilise young people. Hence the ANL. As Neil Kinnock put it,
'The ANL performs a very important function for the Labour Party' (quoted in D Widgery, Beating Time, 1986).
'The ANL drove the fascists off the streets'
Many ANL supporters did seek to smash the NF. As an organisation, however, the ANL always dissociated itself from any form of violence. ANL leader Peter Hain insisted that 'we are not a counter-terrorist operation. I think that would be politically wrong, morally unacceptable' (New Musical Express, 7 March 1981).
Whenever there was conflict the ANL disclaimed responsibility. In April 1979, Southall, in West London, erupted after Asian youth, trying to stop an NF election rally, fought running battles with the Special Patrol Group (SPG) of the Metropolitan Police. The SPG coshed to death East London teacher Blair Peach. The ANL made much of the death of Peach, a League supporter. But its leaders were equally concerned to distance themselves from the fighting.
Paul Holborrow, ANL secretary then and now, announced that the Asian youth were 'not encouraged or provoked by the ANL' (Observer, 29 April 1979). And just to make things clear, Peter Hain insisted that 'by the time the League arrived at 6pm, over 300 blacks were already running riot' (Evening News, 24 April 1979).
The ANL's most shameful hour came in September 1978. The League had organised a march to be followed by a carnival in Brockwell Park, South London.
The NF announced that it intended to march through East London on the same day. The ANL not only refused to divert the march to East London to stop the fascists, it also refused to announce to the carnival that an NF march was taking place. While 100 000 people rocked against racism in Brixton, it was left to a handful of anti-racists to protect the largely Bengali area of Brick Lane, East London from fascist attack.
'The ANL humiliated the NF at the polls in 1979'
In the 1977 GLC elections the NF beat the Liberals into third place. Two years later, in the May 1979 general election, the NF received just 1.4 per cent of the votes in the constituencies in which it stood. The ANL claimed that its anti-fascist campaign was responsible for the collapse. In fact, as one academic study notes, the NF vote slumped because of 'the partial appropriation of the National Front's posture on race by the Conservative Party' (A Messina, Race and Party Competition in Britain, 1989).
The Tories under Margaret Thatcher set out to turn race into an electoral issue. In January 1978, in the run-up to the local elections, Thatcher made an infamous speech: 'The British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, then people are going to be rather hostile to those coming in.' Asked whether she hoped to woo back Tory defectors to the NF, Thatcher replied in uncompromising fashion:
'Oh, very much back, certainly, but I think that the National Front has in fact attracted more people from Labour voters than from us; but never be afraid to tackle something that people are worried about.' (Quoted in Race and Party Competition in Britain)
The Tories romped home in May 1979. NF chairman Andrew Brons conceded that 'Mrs Thatcher's apparent anti-immigrant stance was responsible for our supporters voting Conservative' (Times, 1 March 1980). While the ANL celebrated the NF's defeat at the polls, the new Tory government started a racist clampdown, from passport checks in dole offices to police swamp operations in inner cities.
The old ANL was fronted by Peter Hain (centre) and backed by Neil Kinnock (third from right)
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992