The Battle of Wood Green: Conclusion
Final chapter of the pamphlet The Battle of Wood Green, published in 2002 by Haringey Trades Council and the London Socialist Historians Group to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the anti-fascist demonstration at Ducketts Common.
Early in 1977 a Guardian journalist, Martin Walker, published a book on The National Front (Fontana). Walker had no sympathy for the NF, but was impressed by its achievements, and believed that the NF could grow electorally, and even ‘conceivably explode into power’. The perspective was not wholly unrealistic; economic crisis, unemployment, cuts and a deeply unpopular Labour Government offered the NF unprecedented opportunities. If the left had failed, the NF might well have entered the political mainstream, as its sister parties did in several European countries.
At Ducketts Common the NF had been wounded, but not incapacitated – a very dangerous situation. The summer of 1977 was marked by Nazi violence; in July racists fire-bombed a West Indian youth club in South East London; there was a wave of attacks on socialists in Leeds. The police often gave the impression of backing up the racists; in June Lewisham police launched a dawn raid, arresting around sixty black youth. Within police ranks the operation was called ‘Police Nigger Hunt’.
But after Ducketts Common the labour movement was responding to the challenge. The following week journalists on the Hackney Gazette struck for three days against the publication of an NF advertisement. The editor of the print union SOGAT journal told an anti‑racist conference: ‘If I see a disease-ridden rat crawl up from a sewer I don’t get down on my hands and knees and hold a discussion with it; I put the boot in.’ Most important of all, the summer saw a series of mass pickets at the Grunwicks factory in North London, where strikers – mainly Asian women – were demanding union rights. They got massive support from across the labour movement – the tide was now flowing towards working-class unity.
The NF faced a major problem. Though it aimed for electoral ‘respectability’, it was not simply another electoral party, but a fascist organisation. It proposed to make its voters into activists who could one day challenge the power of the working-class organisations. However, if every demonstration were to be confronted on the streets, then only the most thuggish and bone‑headed would continue to march.
In an attempt to reassert their control of the streets, the NF called a demonstration in Lewisham on 13 August. Despite ill-concealed support from the police and the foot-dragging of the ‘official’ left, they were confronted by a broad alliance such as had appeared at Ducketts Common – but bigger and more militant. In the words of Socialist Worker (20 August 1977) there were ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of cable street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists…’ The result: ‘The Nazis remained in the back-streets, cowering behind massive police lines, until they were finally forced to abandon their march before it was half completed.’
The NF did not roll over and die. In September racists made an arson attack on headquarters of the SWP – but resort to individual terrorism is a sign of weakness. If the first two confrontations of 1977 were high drama, the third was farce. The NF planned a march through Hyde, Manchester on 8 October. Tameside Council, fearing a rerun of Ducketts Common and Lewisham, banned it. NF leader Martin Webster staged a one-man protest – accompanied by 3000 police. And following what The Times called ‘a pact between the police and the National Front’, a handful of Nazis marched through Levenshulme. But though the location was secret, anti-racists pursued them across Greater Manchester, with help and encouragement from the local population. The whole shambles involved 9500 police and two helicopters, at a cost of £250,000.
Now the NF were on the defensive. In November the Anti-Nazi League was launched, involving leading Labour Party figures like Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain. If its most spectacular achievements were the big carnivals, organised with Rock Against Racism, it also won widespread trade‑union support, and created innumerable local groups which painted out Nazi graffiti and picketed every pub and school where the Nazis tried to meet.
The deep divisions within the NF, which had been glossed over in the period of success, now became increasingly visible. Margaret Thatcher made her notorious speech warning that British people might be ‘swamped’ by other cultures. Doubtless she drew back to the Tories some voters who preferred Cliff Richard, Trevor Bailey and pies and mash to Bob Marley, Viv Richards and kebabs. But the NF had already lost momentum; Thatcher was merely picking up the pieces.
In the 1979 General Election the NF got 191,267 votes (0.6%), as against 114,415 (0.4%) in October 1974, though they contested three times as many seats in 1979. They held on to their core vote, but completely failed to make the leap into the mainstream that so many had feared. In Haringey the NF vote fell sharply as against 1974 – in Tottenham 8.3% to 2.9%, and in Wood Green 8.0% to 2.8%. By the early 1980s the NF had vanished from the scene. There were no fascist gangs to attack the striking miners or Wapping printworkers.
Racism survived, but primarily in the form of the institutionalised racism of the police. In Haringey it was the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid that provoked the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, and since then it is police racism, not that of the extreme right, which has been the main problem in Haringey, though the Nazis have attempted to regroup in the East End and Cheshunt.
Fascism will not disappear until the destruction of what it feeds on, the inequality, poverty, unemployment and poor housing and public services engendered by decaying capitalism. As the recent success of the British National Party in certain Northern towns shows, the threat endures. The lesson of Ducketts Common and 1977 – that Nazis must be confronted politically and physically wherever they appear – remains valid.