Tomorrow is Always a Day Away
Nigel Copsey and Matthew Worley (eds.), 'Tomorrow Belongs to Us': The British Far Right since 1967
Routledge, 276pp, £24.99, ISBN 9781138675179
reviewed by David Renton
The likes of the National Front (NF) or the British National Party (BNP) did not describe themselves as far-right. In their account, they were parties neither of the right nor the left. Therefore, there needs to be some express or implied theory of the far right which justifies their inclusion. This book is historical rather than political and avoids confronting the question directly, but at some point it must be addressed. The most sophisticated theory of fascism among British political scientists, is the so-called ‘new consensus’ approach of Roger Griffin, who defines fascism as a palingenetic form of ultra-nationalism. Griffin contributes an encomium to this book. But among historians of the far right there is no comparable shared definition.
One reason for the difficulty in defining the term is that the political content of the far right has changed repeatedly over the past 70 years. Between 1945 and 1967, the dominant approach of the British right was to adopt an increasingly backward-looking, mimetic relationship to Mussolini and Hitler's fascism. This process involved the defeat of an older generation of pre-war leaders (Oswald Mosley, Jeffrey Hamm, Alexander Raven Thomson) who recognised the need for a tactical disavowal of parts of the fascist legacy and their replacement by a younger generation of neo-Nazis (Colin Jordan, the early John Tyndall). During 1966-67, however, as a result of the electoral success of far-right candidates in Southall, the decision was taken to seek an alliance of all parts of the British far right with the exceptions of the remaining Mosleyites and the young-neo-Nazis behind the banner of the National Front. This move split the younger generation with Tyndall reversing his previous insistence on violence. This made the way for the National Front, which was a fusion of electoral and neo-Nazi elements. After a step back towards mimetic fascism in the 1980s, the decision to moderate was taken further by Tyndall's successor, Nick Griffin, who in the 2000s came to adopt a ‘Euro-fascist’ position, whereby the BNP sought to copy French and Italian parties which had disavowed their previous twin-track politics of electoralism and violence in favour of the strategic acceptance of political democracy.
The street politics of the English Defence League (EDL) stood for a proterozeroic form of anti-Muslim politics, in rejection both of the BNP's fascist heritage and its over-emphasis on elections. The EDL's successor, the Football Lads Alliance, travels still further from any recognisable politics save that its hostility to ‘extremism’ is plainly code for Muslims. We are far past the point where it is possible to encompass all these groups by calling them fascists. The most recent groups share neither fascism's leadership principle, nor its ambition to fight and transform the liberal state. But at some point we will need a much more coherent analysis than exists now to explain why these groups all occupy a single category, and what the right has lost by the successive watering-down of its politics.
The book’s opening chapter, by Mark Hobbs, summarises the efforts made by the far right since 1967 to deny the Holocaust. A key figure is Richard Verrall, who replaced Tyndall as editor of Spearhead in 1976, and was the author of the well-known Denial text, Did Six Million Really Die? Tyndall’s promotion of Verall and his own Denial rhetoric casts light on the shallowness of Tyndall's disavowal of National Socialism. Nick Griffin, Hobbs observes, knew he had to go further and was ‘well aware that such views would hold no political traction at the ballot box.’ But he could find no convincing way of remaining simultaneously within the fascist tradition and modernising it. On BBC's 2009 Question Time broadcast, Griffin was reduced to arguing that he had moved on from Holocaust Denial but would not say what new views he had adopted, since to do so would (he claimed) break European Law. This was a shallow and unconvincing argument that failed before a mass audience, ending a long period during which the BNP had seen repeated electoral successes.
Daniel Jones and Paul Jackson's chapter describes the National Socialist Group, a tiny network of fascist revivalists, established under the informal patronage of Colin Jordan. Former members of the NSG have since been found in other right-wing groupuscules including the violent neo-Nazi faction Column 88. John Richardson explores the economic policies of the NF, finding them to be based around a ‘core conspiracy’, namely that a group of ‘cosmopolitans’ were using their financial power to harm Britain. Against this model, the Front offered the vaguest promises of tariffs and national independence, combined with a slow diffusion of the ownership of capital and the promotion of self-employment. The economy which would result from such a policy, Richardson observes, is very little different from the one we have anyway.
Evan Smith tells the story of the Front's offshoot in Australia, one of roughly half a dozen mimetic groups established in various white Commonwealth countries. The group did poorly in elections and was overtaken by rival parties, principally National Action. Its best-known recruit was Ray Hill who later returned to Britain, becoming a high-profile informant for the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight. The ‘we’ to which the Front expressed itself, Smith reminds us, was never simply the British but always the white Commonwealth. Even the Front's annual Remembrance Day parade, its largest annual event, was dedicated to the supposedly-oppressed white people of post-independence Rhodesia.
The formation of the EDL began with protests in Luton in 2009 by a contrarian sect Islam4UK, which angered a generation of football ultras who turned against them. Incidents of this sort have led to the development of an idea of ‘cumulative extremism’ (CE) in which radical Muslims and white racists are said to be fighting each other in a cycle of increasing violence. Alex Carter asks if this approach can help to make sense of the left-right conflict in the 1970s. Unfortunately, his narrative is marred by a poor selection of sources. Carter's account of Red Lion Square in 1974 is compatible with the existing secondary literature, almost all of which derives from Lord Scarman public inquiry into the day's events. Carter fails to ask whether Scarman's lurid description of left-wing protesters coming to the protests in order to incite police violence has any basis in fact. His account of the next major protest at Lewisham in 1977 is based on self-aggrandising narratives produced by isolated voices trying to make themselves central to the day's events. Worst of all, Carter fails to explain that participants could take part in anti-fascist protests on a principled basis, from simple motives including self-defence. This cause him to downplay black and Asian involvement in anti-fascist protests. Carter devotes a third of a page to not just one trivial clash between two groups of football supporters in Manchester in 1978, but to a fight beyond the edges of that clash involving at most two dozen people altogether. He gives no more space to what was by far the most important example of political violence during this period, the clash between the Metropolitan police and a predominantly Asian crowd of several thousands local people at Southall in 1979, where strategies of black community anti-racism were tested to the utmost and one white anti-fascist, Blair Peach, died.
The next two chapters, both co-authored (Matthew Worley with Nigel Copsey, Ana Raposo with Roger Sabin) describe the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists for the soul of the punk and post-punk music scenes. The accounts are lively and detailed. For perhaps understandable reasons, they give relatively little coverage to the likes of Rock Against Racism (which have been written about in plenty of other places already) and prefer to focus on the likes of Joe Pearce of the young National Front, his Rock Against Communism and the visual iconography of the racist skinheads of the 1980s. George Severs' chapter on homophobia in the BNP starts with that group's formation in the faction fights of the late 1970s and John Tyndall's decision in 1981 to turn against his gay deputy, Martin Webster, the National Organiser of the Front. Hannah Bows' chapter on women's involvement in the far right cites the presence of women in the NF, BNP and EDL including the role in the latter of a group of ‘EDL Angels’, formed ostensibly in response to instances of violence by Asian men. Graham Macklin describes how the murder by members of the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn (GD) of the rapper Pavlos Fyssas led to a cycle of revenge killings, which were used by GD to seek international solidarity. In Britain, support has come from far-right groupuscules, the British Movement and the New British Union, as well as from the BNP, much reduced form its pre-2009 heyday and no longer afraid of being associated with violence. CM Quinn's paper on the EDL emphasises that group's patriotism, citing its dependence on positive-seeming emotions such as love, pride and loyalty.
Craig Fowlie's invaluable final chapter is a bibliographic survey of the British far right since 1967, taking in both the history of groups well-covered in Copsey and Worley's book, and some of the significant omissions, not least the UK Independence Party. There are roughly 500 primary and secondary accounts in Fowlie's list; and for those who care about the subject, this chapter alone would more than justify buying the collection. Copsey and Worley's book is a detailed and lively account of the past 40 years of the far right in Britain. It gives a good sense of the cultural impact of the right and of the right's clashes with its opponents. While this book is not the definitive history of the right in this period, nor is there any other single volume which covers as much ground as this does. The right which emerges from its pages is as violent and racist as you would expect. But it also a complex thing, a form of politics with its own, twisted, internationalism, which was trying in its own way to relate to some of the biggest political issues of our times.