“Hey Mr Oswald with your swastika tattoo.”
Elvis Costello, “Less Than Zero” (1977).
It’s fair to say that Britain has hardly been a hot-bed of political radicalism over the last century or so. In the whirlpool that engulfed most of Europe in the 20th century, these islands have retained an arm’s length distance from much of the turmoil that has characterised administrations in both the continent’s West and East over that period.
While the two global conflicts that have scarred this land mass during that time have sucked Britain into the storm, while there have been bitter, ongoing rifts within the British Isles themselves the seemingly endless crisis of Ireland the political barometer of the mainland, careering Left then Right, has left scant impression on the United Kingdom itself.
A string of great European nations, in the meantime, have endured decades both schizophrenic and devastating. Various models of extreme ideology Fascist or Communist, and sometimes both have haunted Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain, even France, since the First World War concluded in 1918.
Germany overthrew a Communist revolution shortly after that war ended, only to fall prey to Hitler’s idolatry. Spain was hypnotised by the dictatorship of Franco and Italy, similarly, by Mussolini. The Russian Revolution from 1917 brought a practical version of theoretical Marxism to a land that stretched from the Baltic to Asiatic Siberia. The post-Second World War years have seen both France and Italy drawn to Communist solutions to address their internal problems, even if the rear-end remains of the Right continue to exert an influence on the hustings and ballot boxes in both those countries.
Here though, our imperfect liberal democracy retains two principal parties representing moderate editions of those Left and Right streams. Labour, in power since 1997, represents a diluted vision of socialism; the Conservatives offer a watered down interpretation of privatised, free market economics, for some a lame betrayal of the monetarist obsessions of their former leader Margaret Thatcher, British premier from 1979-1990.
The far Left in Britain has had a modest role in recent history. Although the Labour party has been home to a wide range of political colours from middle-of-the-road social democracy to barricade-building trade union activism the Left brigades that see fully-fledged Marxism and the revolutionary road as the only answer have been largely marginalised.
The far Right has also enjoyed a relatively insignificant part in the modern political arena. In the 1930s when British admirers of Hitler, admirers like Oswald Mosley, took to the streets with their anti-socialist and often anti-Semitic doctrines, it briefly seemed that the Fascists would seize a foothold in the UK, but the imminent Second World War crushed those aspirations.
In the mid-1970s, when unemployment under a Labour government struck an unheard of lm it would later rise above 3m, I might add moderate socialism’s failure to deal with Britain’s economic ills had a number of potent consequences. On the one hand, the malaise was responsible, in part, for the eruption of dozens of disaffected teenage bands that pinned their flag to the punk standard. On the other, the far Left and Right saw this climate of desperation as a perfect setting to re-launch their own tarnished and discredited projects. The two developments, musical and political, would quickly become entangled, making the years 1976 and 1977 as two of the most incendiary and exciting of recent times.
Punk started out as an apolitical monster that aimed to savage any bastion of establishment life. While some of the bands took a broadly Left view (the Clash, for example), and others pursued a code of anarchy, the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux, in their early incarnations, adopted the Nazi swastika as a suitably provocative symbol. In the midst of the subcultural maelstrom, the International Socialists, later the Socialist Workers Party, mouthed their Trotskyite slogans while the National Front, a descendant of Mosley’s blackshirts, delivered its right-wing tirades against West Indian and Asian immigrants, legitimate arrivals in the UK from Britain’s old Commonwealth since the 1950s.
When two extraordinary incidents involving high profile rock stars fanned the flames of this gutter engagement David Bowie was reported to have offered a Fascist salute to his fans and Eric Clapton was alleged to have made comments from the stage backing an anti-immigration MP called Enoch Powell the story took a dramatic twist. Both episodes raised national media interest and agitated music press concerns. Within a short while, the chaotic energies of punk, not to mention the power of other music newly arrived on these shores, such as reggae, was co-opted into a new and focused campaign to make a stand against the rising tide of the Right.
While Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League owed much to the organisational skills and propaganda talents of the far Left, the SWP and their fellow travelers, large numbers of rock bands and reggae groups speedily united against the racist forces that were gathering momentum in working class districts in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Concerts, tours and festivals took the anti-Right message throughout the nation, and eclectic bills featuring both white bands and black groups became a living emblem of Rock Against Racism’s struggle.
Ultimately, the National Front made feeble headway in subsequent local and national elections and the immediate threat of the far Right’s success was quite quickly de-fused. However, cynics suggested that their failure was not merely down to musicians presenting a counter-argument. When Labour was defeated in the General Election of 1979, Thatcher’s victory provided some succour for those who felt the Right’s day would still come. Her exaggerated version of mainstream Conservatism hinted that economic problems would be dealt with radically and decisively, and many who voted her into power hoped that rising public spending, trade union power, and a growing immigrant population, would be targets of her strategy.
Almost a quarter of a century later post-Thatcher and with a Labour government well into its second term the specter of the far Right has returned to a number of northern English towns. Today, prime minister Tony Blair’s modest socialist blueprint and his Iraq alliance with Bush are both under intense assault; the rival Tories, meanwhile, are in disarray, rudderless and living in golden, nostalgic past when Maggie ruled the roost. This conjunction, a Prime Minister with a falling rating and a spineless Parliamentary opposition, has again wedged the door ajar for the British National Party, the current incarnation of the National Front. In Oldham, Burnley and Halifax, faded industrial centres in Lancashire and Yorkshire, each with sizeable Asian populations (“mosques and mills” as the combination is dubbed) district councils have seen the far Right make small but headline-grabbing gains, returning around ten representatives in total, during the spring of 2003.
For those with memories of the punk explosion and Rock against Racism, it is pleasing to see that, once more, the Anti-Nazi League has returned to mount a campaign against these developments. Singers and musicians, club promoters and dance DJs, rock groups, reggae bands and bhangra acts, have been gathering to challenge the latest generation of Right-wing activists. Britain may have a tradition of mainstream politics that largely excludes the politician with an extreme manifesto. Britain may have avoided the volatile vicissitudes of a Germany or a Russia. But that is no reason for complacency. Popular music may not have massive muscle in the political jamboree, but it has a way of expressing ideas, speaking truths, and imparting streetwise wisdom in a direct and digestible way. Let us hope that the rhythms and beats can again play their part in this battle for hearts and minds.