From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The huge demonstration to close down the BNP headquarters in Welling last month was an antidote to the fascists’ election victory in the Isle of Dogs. It was a testament to the determination of tens of thousands to prevent the Nazis from getting any sort of hold, and to ensure they do not reach the size that they already have in France and Germany. And it put onto the agenda the growth of the Anti Nazi League into a real mass movement against the Nazis.
Up to 60,000 people journeyed to Welling from around the country.
The demonstration was noticeable for its youth, but there were also many older people, thousands of blacks and Asians and a large number of trade unionists. The mood of the march at the beginning was a celebration of its size and the unity achieved on it. But it was also a more political mood than that on, say, the Anti Nazi League carnivals of the late 1970s.
Fifteen years on, there is more sense of how serious the fascist threat is, and a much greater readiness to connect their rise with the other ills of capitalism. There is also a greater readiness to accept that the Nazis should be denied the right to propagate their views, which centre on the denial of free speech and movement for millions of others.
The government, press and police take a different view. They argue that, however repugnant the ideas of the fascists, they have to be allowed to propagate their lies from the Welling bunker. The argument is completely spurious, since free speech and democracy do not exist in a vacuum.
There have been more racial attacks in south east London than anywhere else in the capital because of the existence of the BNP headquarters. The murderous attack on Bengali Quddus Ali in Stepney took place while the BNP were canvassing nearby. Derek Beackon’s ‘democratic’ credentials are based on the systematic intimidation of large numbers of Asians from the Isle of Dogs.
Police and government determination to allow the fascists their ‘democratic’ rights ignores these facts, as it ignores the signatures of thousands of local residents in Welling who have called for the BNP headquarters to be closed down.
Even worse, the action of the police against the Unity demonstration meant that they protected the fascists against the large numbers of people exercising their right to demonstrate against the BNP. The demonstration was denounced by the police as a riot days before it took place. On the day itself, even the police imposed route was blocked. Riot police waded into the crowd, cracking heads with truncheons and leaving dozens in hospital.
The violence was largely created and greatly exacerbated by the police, who were determined to teach a lesson to those who defied their advice and insisted on protesting at the BNP headquarters. Their message to the thousands who were on a demonstration for the first time was, don’t come on another march. They were prepared to back this up with the most brutal force.
Fortunately, their message has been counterproductive. Despite the sombre faces of those who had set out to march peacefully but found themselves batoned by police, the overwhelming mood of the demonstrators was to harden their resolve and to ensure that they increase their campaigning against the Nazis. The very large size of the demonstration also meant there were thousands who were capable of countering the press and police lies about the march in schools, colleges and workplaces throughout the country.
And lies there certainly were. The police initially claimed that everyone on the march had been bent on trouble and violence, which the early pictures of the march and rally (rarely shown on television) belied. The police grossly underestimated the numbers, claiming 15,000. This was a downscaling of their own previous estimates, and runs counter to the hard evidence: of trains to the area packed all day, of nearly 600 coaches from outside London, of papersellers who saw people still arriving at 4.30, two hours after the march set off.
The police and media were helped by sections of the left and the labour movement. The march against racism through central London called by the Anti Racist Alliance (who refused to join the Unity march) was a tiny rump compared to the Welling march, and was estimated at between one and two thousand by those who attended, but trumpeted by its organisers as up to 10,000 strong. This ludicrous figure was used by police to play up the march and play the size of the Welling march down, wrongly implying that there was a viable peaceful alternative of any size in central London.
Claims by march organisers that the Unity march was a ‘diversion’ from the fight against racism, and denunciations of violence to the media, only played into the hands of the police and all those who do not want to fight the fascists.
The whole point of the Unity demonstration was that it did present a united face against the fascists. It should not have been attacked by people supposedly on the same side, who sometimes seemed to put their greatest efforts not into fighting the right, but in trying to weaken the march.
The fact that much of the leadership of the trade unions and Labour party backed the central London march can have left them with little comfort. The Unity march attracted the support of large numbers of trade union branches, and some national unions, but it was built largely without the help of the official movement. As with the march against the poll tax three and a half years ago, tens of thousands were mobilised by the left and by rank and file activists.
The more intelligent trade union leaders should now be worrying about how it is that a march which they want to succeed remains tiny, while one which they do little to support, and sometimes actively oppose, can be so successful in mobilising. If they have any sense, they will try to help build a genuine mass movement against the Nazis, rather than indulging in the sort of splitting operation which benefits no one.
Whatever they choose to do, however, the signs are that the movement against the Nazis is growing very quickly. A successful Anti Nazi League carnival next Easter can be the springboard for a campaign to stop the BNP making any gains in next year’s local and European elections, and so of turning the tide against them.
Last updated: 1 March 2017