PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Featured: Top of Home Page

Right and Wrongs: The Return of the Anti-Nazi League

Simon Warner

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.

"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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.