New Statesman & Society, 15 October 1993
There are two competing anti-racist demonstrations in London this Saturday, one in Trafalgar Square and one in Welling. Paul Anderson explains why
This weekend, anyone who feels like taking to the streets of London to express outrage at racism in general, or the British National Party in particular, faces a dilemma. Which demo to choose?
In central London on Saturday afternoon, the Anti-Racist Alliance is holding a “Speak Out Against Racism” march, ending with a rally in Trafalgar Square. It is backed by (among others) the TUC, the Labour Party, several national trade unions, the Indian Workers’ Association and the Labour Party Black Sections organisation.
At precisely the same time, in south-east London, the Anti-Nazi League and others are running a “Unity” demonstration calling for the closure of the British National Party’s headquarters in Welling. Apart from the ANL, it has the backing of the Socialist Workers’ Party, Militant Labour, the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, a plethora of trade union branches and several local anti-fascist and anti-racist groups.
So why the clash of events? Neither the ARA nor the ANL and friends are particularly keen to talk about it, but it comes down to deep divisions over political priorities and strategy.
Both the ANL and ARA emerged just under two years ago as responses to two things: the Tories playing the race card, in the shape of the Asylum Bill, in the run-up to the election; and the increasing incidence of racial attacks, particularly, it seemed, in inner-city areas where the BNP and other far-right groups were active.
The ARA was first off the starting block, launched in November 1991 by a loose coalition of local anti-racist groups and black political activists, many of whom had spent the 1980s campaigning inside the Labour Party for black sections to become part of its federal structure (in the end, they got a Black Social¬ist Society). From the start, it made the focus of its campaigning anti-racism in general, not just anti-fascism, emphasising the importance of black leadership of the anti-racist movement and concentrating its efforts on lobbying Labour and the trade unions.
At the time of its launch, the ARA did not quite have the field to itself. Apart from local initiatives, there were also two others. First, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism – a survivor of the late-1970s mobilisa¬tion against the National Front – and second, Anti-Fascist Action – set up in 1985 by Searchlight and a handful of small far-left groups, notably Red Action (originally the street-fighting faction of the SWP), Workers Power (a small orthodox Trotskyist sect) and the anarchist group Class War, all with a penchant for picking fights with the far right.
But CARF was tiny, and AFA was widely seen as marginal and sectarian – its first two years had been marked by a bizarre bust-up between Class War and Searchlight, with the latter accusing the former of harbouring fascists in its ranks, and all its major participant organisations were distrusted on the left as headbangers, obsessives or worse.
The ARA had its own millstones round its neck. Many black activists saw the Labour Party Black Sections activists as careerists, and the small Trotskyist group Socialist Action, which was heavily involved behind the scenes in ARA, had made plenty of enemies playing a similar role in the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf in 1990-91.
Searchlight, for its part, denounced elements in the ARA leadership for having links with the anti-Semitic American black separatist Louis Farrakhan (the ARA responded by accusing Searchlight of being interested in nothing but anti-Semitism). All the same, the ARA’s initial appeal attracted a wide range of signatories from across the centre and left, and there were high hopes that the ARA could become an open, democratic organisation along the lines of SOS Racisme in France, gathering a majority of British anti-racists under its umbrella.
It was not to be. Within two months of the founding of the ARA, the ANL, originally set up by the SWP in 1977 at the height of the NF’s activity in the 1970s but closed down by the party in 1980, was relaunched at a House of Commons press conference.
As was the case first time around, the moving force behind it was the SWP, although it also boasted the support of a handful of Labour MPs and a rather larger group of celebrities. Once again, the ANL made its avowed priority taking an anti-fascist message (now anti-BNP rather than anti-NF) on to the streets.
Unsurprisingly, the ARA was livid at the SWP’s decision to relaunch the ANL. “The ANL is an exercise in nostalgia,” said the ARA’s Narendra Makanji. “These people are living off the glory of a few years in the late 1970s, when we’re setting up a long-term challenge to racism in Europe, an anti-racist organisation that will live in the community and in the mainstream of political life.”
Ken Livingstone used his column in the Sun to denounce the ANL as an SWP front; black activists in the ARA denounced the relaunch of the ANL as a typical white left attempt to steal the thunder from a black-led initiative.
Searchlight pitched in with an attack on the “politics of deceit being practised by the SWP”, accusing the ANL of deliberately exaggerating the danger posed by the BNP.
The ANL replied to its critics that only it had the resources and insight to act as “a wedge between soft racists and the hard right, isolating the fascists”, as Julie Waterson, its national organiser, put it.
Attempts to get the combatants together, led by Bernie Grant and other Campaign Group Labour MPs, failed in mutual recriminations. The stage was set for one of the most vicious bouts of back-biting that the British left has witnessed in several years.
At its ugliest, the row erupted into jostling at anti-BNP and anti-Asylum Bill demonstrations. But, for the most part, it was a battle for hearts and minds – of young blacks, of families bereaved by racist murders, of local council council Labour groups, of students, of trade union branches – with AFA and Militant’s anti-racist front organisations, Panther UK and Youth Against Racism in Europe, joining the ARA and ANL in competition for support.
South-east London, already a target for the anti-racist groups because it had suffered a spate of racist attacks (including the murders of two black teenagers, Rolan Adams and Orville Blair, in early 1991), and because the BNP had its headquarters in Welling, soon became the main focus for the rivalry. In February 1992, the Rolan Adams Family Campaign, with the backing of the ARA, called a demonstration against the BNP headquarters: all the various anti-racist and anti¬fascist groups turned up, and spent much of the day squabbling with one another.
Things went quiet for a while after the far right’s miserable showing in the general election. But in July, Rohit Duggal, a 16-year-old Asian boy, was murdered by a white gang in Eltham; and in September the BNP took 20 per cent of the vote in a by-election just across the river in the Isle of Dogs.
In November, another demonstration outside the BNP headquarters, this time called by the Duggal family with the backing of AFA, Searchlight and the local Greenwich Action Committee Against Racial Attacks, witnessed another round of bickering – though by now, with AFA and Searchlight moderating the assault on the ANL, it seemed to be a case of the ARA versus the rest.
But the final divorce did not happen until earlier this year, in the wake of the murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in Eltham in April. On 8 May, 5,000-odd people turned out in Welling to protest against the murder at the behest of Youth Against Racism in Europe and Panther UK – and outside the BNP headquarters the demonstration erupted into violence. Afterwards, Marc Wadsworth of the ARA, which was working closely with the Lawrence family (Searchlight said that it was making them “virtual prisoners”) blamed “white Trotskyists” for the trouble.
Since then, it has been downhill all the way. In June, the ARA organised a march in Croydon the very same day that the ANL was holding an anti-fascist festival in Hackney. In September, the Lawrence family publicly disowned the ARA for exploiting Stephen’s name, which they said was “too precious to be used in a cynical way”. After first welcoming the group’s support, they said: “To our dismay we found that the political agendas and rivalries of different organisations began to take over.”
Not even the BNP’s victory in the Millwall council by-election last month has forced the sides together. For the ARA, now boasting the support of an impressive list of parliamentarians and trade unions, the ANL remains a narrow, white left front organisation. For the ANL, the ARA remains too tied to respectability, and to the self-interest of a few black would-be politicians, to rise to the challenge now posed by the BNP. Just about the only consolation is that it is by no means clear that anything the anti-racists or anti-fascists do has any significant effect on the incidence or potency of racism or fascism.
Quite the most vicious feud in the anti-racist milieu is not between rival organisations but between Searchlight magazine and an independent researcher into the far right, Larry O’Hara.
For more than a year, Searchlight has attacked O’Hara remorselessly. Last July, it described him as “a political errand boy for Patrick Harrington”, the former leader of the National Front; by June this year he had become “a Nazi fellow traveller”; and by August he was “an informant for an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service”.
For his part, O’Hara has accused Searchlight of acting as an arm of the secret state, spying on the left as well as the right and running an agent provocateur in the anti-fascist movement.
The evidence against O’Hara is simple enough. In May last year, he wrote an article in Tribune analysing the poor performance of the National Front in the 1992 general election, in the course of which he argued that Patrick Harrington’s current outfit, Third Way, had “dropped anti-Semitism and moved away from fascism”. Subsequently, in the spook-watchers’ magazine Lobster, O’Hara examined Searchlight’s account of the career of Steve Brady, a leading figure in the NF, as a link-man for European neo-fascist terrorism and extremist Ulster loyalism, in the course of which he gave credence, on circumstantial grounds, to Brady’s own – somewhat less dramatic – account of his activities.
O’Hara is a long-standing critic of Searchlight, arguing that the magazine’s blanket use of terms like “Nazi” obscures the complexities of the far-right scene; he also gave offence in some quarters by disputing a claim by Ray Hill, formerly Searchlight‘s main mole in the far-right, to have foiled a plot to bomb the Notting Hill carnival in 1981. That aside, all that the “Nazi fellow traveller” appears to have done, at least until this spring, is talk to fascists and on occasion believe what they say to him.
In April, however, he and Green Anarchist magazine published a pamphlet, A Lie Too Far, claiming that Searchlight‘s recent mole in the BNP, Tim Hepple (whose pamphlet, At War With Society, was excerpted by NSS in August), had acted as an agent provocateur in the anarchist movement, feeding (inaccurate) lists of fascists’ names and addresses to Class War (in the person of Tim Scargill, later denounced by Searchlight as a fascist) and Green Anarchist. According to O’Hara, the idea was that anyone publishing these lists would become a target for attack by the far right Hepple, he alleged, was acting at the behest of MI5.
In the light of this, and of a memorandum written by Searchlight editor Gerry Gable in 1977 when he was a reporter for London Weekend Television, which suggested clearly that he was engaged in “trading” information with the security services, O’Hara argued that Searchlight was simply an arm of the state.
(The “Gable memorandum”, first brought to light by Duncan Campbell, Bruce Page and Nick Anning in the pages of the New Statesman in 1980, consists of a long report to LWT’s head of current affairs and two producers, alleging that Phil Kelly, a left-wing journalist who subsequently became editor of Tribune, was a KGB agent and terrorist)
Now O’Hara’s thesis might be a little far-fetched – although Hepple’s weird behaviour does need some explanation – but that hardly makes him a “Nazi fellow traveller”. So why the hysterical tone of Searchlight‘s responses to O’Hara?
Part of the answer is no doubt that Searchlight feels that it ought to fight fire with fire: O’Hara’s pamphlet A Lie Too Far (which Searchlight claims to be the work of “Nazi counter-intelligence”) is, to put it mildly, not the most temperate of works (it is also scruffy, over-written and badly in need of a sub-editor’s attentions). There is no doubt either that O’Hara’s assault on Searchlight has been lapped up by the far right, which is always amused when its enemies fall out.
But the ferocity of Searchlight‘s attack seems out of all proportion to the nature of O’Hara’s original articles. Is it really such a crime to question Searchlight‘s assumptions about the nature of the far right?