Britain’s anti-fascist movement has a complex and fascinating history. Yet aside from a few scholars, such as Nigel Copsey and David Renton, there has been little exploration of the movement by historians. However, appraising the history of anti-fascism helps contextualise not only the nature of the extreme right; but importantly, civil society cultures that oppose it.
What follows, then, engages with some of the currents of British anti-fascism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in particular focuses on a conflict between two publications, one ‘anti-fascist’ the other ‘fascist’. The first is Searchlight, which from 1975 became as a regular publication, providing the wider anti-fascist movement a sort of magazine of record, including both exposing the latest developments in extremist groups and analysing their cultures.
The second is Bulldog, a magazine created by the Young National Front, and edited by Joe Pearce, which ran from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. Bulldog featured various types of articles, typically focusing upon promoting activism on the football terraces and idealising elements of the white power music scene of the period. It also regularly incited violence and was often unashamedly racist.
For Copsey, anti-fascists are not merely those who oppose what they believe to be fascism, but also activists who promote a politics rooted in a defence of Enlightenment traditions of democracy, humanism and universalism. His approach is valuable for thinking in a richer way about the issue of anti-fascism, while reflecting upon the ways in which anti-fascist discourses can be contextualised and placed within a wider perspective of defending pluralistic values within the public realm.
Turning to the period under discussion here, 1977 – 1985, this was a period when the fortunes of the British anti-fascist movement changed dramatically, from one of rapid growth to steep decline. The end of the 1970s saw the National Front grow as a perceived threat among various anti-fascists. In response, networks such as the Anti-Nazi League were formed. In 1978, anti-fascists helped created the Rock Against Communism organisation too. However, after an electoral failure to ‘break through’ in 1979, as well as a much more aggressive rhetoric on immigration from British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, the early 1980s saw the fragmentation of the National Front, allowing for a range of smaller splinter groups to emerge.
While many anti-fascist groups in Britain, such as the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism also declined, others survived and matured. Searchlight certainly falls into this category, and Copsey describes its role in his key book, Anti-Fascism in Britain, as follows:
… sales of Searchlight grew to perhaps 5,000 per month by 1978. Searchlight now assumed a pivotal role in anti-fascist circles. It not only provided up-to-date information to activists but also material for distribution and propaganda … The work of Searchlight cannot be overestimated…
The first Searchlight report on Bulldog came in 1977, via a long report called ‘On The Schools Front’. Here Searchlightexplained that National Front activists were using a new publication, Bulldog, to target children, and were trying to get large numbers of the magazine into schools.
As well as giving details of how the National Front was operating, Searchlight’s reporting used quotes from a wide range of community voices that each presented marketing Bulldog to children as crossing a line of acceptable behaviour. For example, a spokesman from Basildon Community Relations Council was quoted as saying Bulldog was ‘the most blatant contravention of the Race Relations Act I have ever seen, and a complaint has been made to the Attorney General’. Eric Mooman MP was also quoted as saying: ‘I’m very angry of the failure of the education department to take the initiative in getting this paper banned from schools’. Finally, a head teacher was quoted in the following terms: ‘I spent five years in the last war fighting Fascism and I’m deeply shocked to now have people thinking I am supporting it’. The latter statement was in response to the angry reaction from black and Asian parents, Searchlight stressed.
Issues of Bulldog disseminated by the National Front in schools became a perennial feature of Searchlight’s reporting, which consistently called for tougher action on the National Front. One report on its engagement with schools discussed how a teacher was targeted by the National Front – including in the pages of Bulldog– for an, apparently, sympathetic lesson on the Soviet Union. Again, Searchlight’s report included a quote from the Teacher’s Association to back up their own claims that the National Front was acting in an unacceptable way.
By 1981, Searchlight’s reports on Bulldog as a tool to penetrate schools included details such as London teachers taking up leafleting campaigns. Another example was when it reported positively on Basildon’s Junior School’s Council’s proposal to run a series of lectures and films in order to educate the public on issues posed; it also highlighted criticism of a lack of action from Coventry’s United Association of Asians. Again, as well as condemning the National Front, Searchlight’s reporting celebrated a wider civil society response to tackle the National Front, and emphasised criticism of authorities for not doing more.
Aside from schools, another significant mainstream institution where Bulldog targeted individuals was on the football terraces. Here too, Searchlightsteeped criticism of Bulldog in a wider call for institutions to do more to tackle extremist phenomena.
One feature on this theme focused upon West Ham United’s ban on the National Front using its terraces for recruiting. Searchlight praised West Ham United for this, and then highlighted that Chelsea ought to follow suit. To help make the point it, quoted from Bulldog issue 16, where a National Front activist – who also described himself as a Chelsea supporter – stressed ‘this season we have been selling large numbers of Chelsea NF T Shirts and badges’. Searchlight concluded, in response: ‘Chelsea and other clubs cannot just sit on their hands ignoring this situation’. It also reproduced a section from the Bulldog featuring a letter from another activism praising Bulldog’s ‘On The Football Front’ articles, while stressing that Bulldog was regularly being sold on the terraces.
Searchlight returned to this issue when commenting on a report, Football and the Fascists, issued by a 1980s think-tank, the Centre for Contemporary Studies. The feature juxtaposed quotes from various football clubs and other voices claiming there was not an issue on one had, with evidence from this report on the other. Examples of the former included Millwall’s Len Eppel, who was quoted as saying he ‘did not agree that his club shoulder what were in effect society’s problems’. Meanwhile, the sale and promotion of Bulldogat stadia was cited as clear evidence that racism was a pressing issue for football. Again, the underlying trope was to firstly identify an issue of freedom under attack, and secondly to highlight failings in the actions of mainstream organisations.
Bulldog was later discussed in reporting on football violence following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. Following this tragedy, where 39 supporters died during rioting between Liverpool and Juventus fans, Searchlightexplained that, suddenly, the National Front seemed to want to disassociate itself from football hooliganism – despite its on-going promotion of that same issue. To evoke this point, Searchlight’s reporting focused on the way the Na tional Front had promoted intolerance at football grounds, in particular through sales of Bulldog. It also noted that, in the wake of Heysel, the mainstream press had become interested in the National Front’s position on football hooliganism. When responding to these mainstream press enquiries, Searchlight noted, witheringly, that Ian Anderson, the acting National Front Chairman, at one point even tried to deny that Bulldog was a publication linked to the National Front.
Searchlight’s coverage also focused on the violent nature of the National Front in other ways, particularly in its reporting of Bulldog. For example, one very early report, written in the vein of an exposé on the ‘true’ nature of Bulldog, claimed that its publisher, John Roberts, had tried to kill his wife in 1970. To back up this point, the feature reproduced a story from the Newbury Weekly News, asserting that he had stabbed his estranged wife several times while she was waiting for a bus. It also included a quote from Roberts confessing that he had stabbed his wife several times. As Searchlight’s own article concluded, ‘we reproduce it in the public interest’.
Another figure that become notorious in the pages of Searchlightover this period was Joe Pearce, the aforementioned editor of Bulldog. Again, as well as more general activities, Searchlight focussed upon instances where Pearce was prosecuted for activities associated with the magazine. He was charged with inciting racial hatred for his work on the magazine in 1981, for example, and Searchlight regularly followed developments, sometimes in its ‘News in Brief’ columns, and at other times still more expansively.
After Pierce was convicted of publishing material likely to promote racial hatred, for which he was jailed in 1982, Searchlight took the opportunity to report on the ways that the National Front responded to this setback. It detailed how the National Front organised a vigil outside Chelmsford Prison in support of Pearce. It also noted that the National Front also attacked a local Conservative HQ, leading to the arrest of four members. Searchlightlater reported that the ‘Free Joe Pearce’ campaign was one that failed to attract much support from the National Front – either from its members or from the wider public – and in many ways revealed the organisation’s dwindling size by the early 1980s.
The link between incitement to violence and the Bulldog were evoked in other ways too. Searchlightreported that edition 38 of Bulldog featured a hit list of journalists and other high-profile figures, including Grevelle Janner and Leon Brittan. Another on this list was the Belfast journalist Jim Campbell, who was actually shot shortly after the list was published. Emergency surgery saved Campbell’s life, but for Searchlight the incident highlighted the very real link between Bulldog and political violence. These ‘hit lists’ were included in subsequent editions of Searchlight as well. For example, another article was published in Bulldog in 1984 focused upon Haringey Council.
Searchlight also highlighted a more aggressive turn by the National Front in 1985, again linking this to Bulldogin particular. It explained how an edition of the magazine featured three reports idealising the National Front’s political violence: an attack on the set of the TV show Eastenders, including painting National Front slogans on the set in response to the programme’s inclusion of black and Asian characters; pelting members of Newham council with eggs and stink bombs, following the eviction of a white family; and attacking a coach of people travelling to a Irish nationalist demonstration in Leicester with bricks. All were praised in Bulldog, Searchlight explained, while the latter added that glorification of such attacks revealed a more overly aggressive tone by the National Front.
Pearce was also sentenced to prison for a second time in December 1985, after he was found guilty of conspiracy to incite racial hatred.Searchlight had reported upon these charges before the final trial, although in a lengthy piece afterwards it commented in some depth over the impact of Pearce’s new prison sentence. It added that Pearce’s co-defendant, Ian Anderson, was acquitted of the same charges. As Searchlight summarised, this came down to the pair’s link with Bulldog:
Pearce was convicted for his editorship of Bulldog, on which the charge was based, while Anderson’s acquittal was due to his denying all involvement in the publication of the magazine.
This report, and others of the period, further argued that Pearce’s plight revealed another issue within the National Front. It could tolerate, and even idealise, a working-class figure like Pearce as both a youth leader and martyr. However, the National Front’s middle-class leadership would not be able to tolerate a working-class activist like Pearce taking on a general leadership role.
During his second spell in prison, Searchlight also revealed that Pearce had been able to write for Bulldog from inside prison during his earlier sentence. Articles had been smuggled out and published under the pen name ‘Captain Truth’. As Searchlight concluded, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd needed to make sure that he was not able to do this a second time. Yet that view was not to be tested, for shortly after this point Bulldogended as a regular magazine.
Throughout its existence, Bulldog was a perennial feature of Searchlight’s reporting on the National Front. In doing so, its anti-fascist discourse revolved around several key tropes. First was the exposé, highlighting elements in the profiles of those associated with Bulldog that undermined their legitimacy, such as attacking their wives or publishing hit lists of people to target. It also showed how its actions were crossing boundaries of acceptability in Britain, especially targeting children and young people.
Second, there was praise for mainstream organisations articulating messages that Searchlightfelt added legitimacy to its own criticism and condemnation of the radical right. This included comments from MPs, local and national newspapers, and a range of civil society organisations. This gave Searchlight’s reporting added legitimacy, yet simultaneously allowed it to explain that criticisms of Bulldog were set within a wider context of defending democratic practices.
Related to this, third, there was also regular condemnation of the state and other established institutions, who were in various ways criticised for not doing enough to tackle the National Front and its efforts at youth recruitment. This included organs of the British government, such as the Home Office, as well as local authorities, schools and football clubs.
Such instances of anti-fascist reporting help reveal how organisations like Searchlight developed a form of anti-fascism that was about spreading information, publicising issues and advocating that other institutions to do more. It was also an anti-fascism that certainly supported street activism, but was also concerned with embarrassing figures in power. The latter strategy extended to putting arguments and evidence into the public domain, while challenging people take action that would tackle the problems being fostered by the radical right. It is an important role that anti-fascists continue to play today, and certainly means anti-fascists have a quite distinct agenda to the groups they oppose.
Dr Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.
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