Nicky Crane: The secret double life of a gay neo-Nazi

Original BBC Magazine article here

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He was the British extreme right’s most feared streetfighter. But almost right up to his death 20 years ago, Nicky Crane led a precarious dual existence – until it fell dramatically apart.

The skinhead gang marched in military formation down the High Street clutching iron bars, knives, staves, pickaxe handles and clubs. There were at least 100 of them. They had spent two days planning their attack. The date was 28 March 1980. Soon they reached their target – a queue of mostly black filmgoers outside the Odeon cinema in Woolwich, south-east London. Then the skinheads charged. Most of them belonged to an extreme far-right group called the British Movement (BM). This particular “unit” had already acquired a reputation for brutal racist violence thanks to its charismatic young local organiser. Many victims had learned to fear the sight of his 6ft 2in frame, which was adorned with Nazi tattoos. His name was Nicky Crane. But as he led the ambush, Crane was concealing a secret from his enemies and his fascist comrades alike. Crane knew he was gay, but hadn’t acted on it. Not yet.

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Twelve years later, the same Nicky Crane sat in his Soho bedsit. His room looked out across London’s gay village – the bars and nightclubs where he worked as a doorman, where he drank and danced. Crane flicked through a scrapbook filled with photos and news clippings from his far-right past. For years he had managed to keep the two worlds entirely separate. But now he wasn’t going to pretend any more.

Photographer Gavin Watson's brother stands in front of a "Strength thru Oi!" poster featuring Nicky Crane

Nicola Vincenzo Crane was born on 21 May 1958 in a semi-detached house on a leafy street in Bexley, south-east London. One of 10 siblings, he grew up in nearby Crayford, Kent. As his name suggests, he had an unlikely background for a British nationalist and Aryan warrior. He was of Italian heritage through his mother Dorothy, whose maiden name was D’Ambrosio. His father worked as a structural draughtsman. But from an early age Crane found a surrogate family in the south-east London skinhead scene.

Its members had developed a reputation for violence, starting fights and disrupting gigs by bands such as Sham 69 and Bad Manners. In the late 1970s, gangs like Crane’s were widely feared.

“When you’ve come from a tough background, when you get that identity, it’s a powerful thing to have,” says Gavin Watson, a former skinhead who later got to know Crane. The south-east London skins also had close connections to the far right. Whereas the original skinheads in the late 1960s had borrowed the fashion of Caribbean immigrants and shared their love of ska and reggae music, a highly visible minority of skins during the movement’s revival in the late 1970s were attaching themselves to groups like the resurgent National Front (NF). In particular the openly neo-Nazi BM, under the leadership of Michael McLaughlin, was actively targeting young, disaffected working-class men from football terraces as well as the punk and skinhead scenes for recruitment. Crane was an enthusiastic convert to the ideology of National Socialism. “Adolf Hitler was my God,” he said in a 1992 television interview. “He was sort of like my Fuhrer, my leader. And everything I done was, like, for Adolf Hitler.” Within six months of joining the BM, Crane had been made the Kent organiser, responsible for signing up new members and organising attacks on political opponents and minority groups. He was also inducted into the Leader Guard, which served both as McLaughlin’s personal corps of bodyguards and as the party’s top fighters. Members wore black uniforms adorned with neo-Nazi symbols and were drilled at paramilitary-style armed training weekends in the countryside.

A British Movement rally in Notting Hill in 1980

They were also required to have a Leader Guard tattoo. Each featured the letters L and G on either side of a Celtic cross, the British Movement’s answer to the swastika. Crane dutifully had his inked on to his flesh alongside various racist slogans. By now working as a binman and living in Plumstead, Crane quickly acquired a reputation, even among the ranks of the far right, for exceptionally brutal violence.

In May 1978, following a BM meeting, he took part in an assault on a black family at a bus stop in Bishopsgate, east London, using broken bottles and shouting racist slogans. An Old Bailey judge described Crane as “worse than an animal”. The following year he led a mob of 200 skinheads in an attack on Asians in nearby Brick Lane. Crane later told a newspaper how “we rampaged down the Lane turning over stalls, kicking and punching Pakistanis”. The Woolwich Odeon attack of 1980 was described by a prosecutor at the Old Bailey as a “serious, organised and premeditated riot”. After their intended victims fled inside, the skinheads drilled by Crane began smashing the cinema’s doors and windows, the court was told. A Pakistani man was knocked unconscious in the melee and the windows of a nearby pub were shattered with a pickaxe handle. In 1981 Crane was jailed for his part in an ambush on black youths at Woolwich Arsenal station. As the judge handed down a four-year sentence, an acolyte standing alongside Crane stiffened his arm into a Nazi salute and shouted “sieg heil” from the dock. Crane’s three jail terms failed to temper his violence. During one stretch, he launched an attack on several prison officers with a metal tray. A six-month sentence following a fracas on a London Tube train was served entirely at the top-security Isle of Wight prison – a sign of just how dangerous he was regarded by the authorities.

Daily Mirror on Nicky Crane's Jailing

All this may have horrified most people, but it made Crane a hugely respected and admired figure across the far right. He was neither an orator nor a conversationalist. His vocabulary was sparse at best. But he managed to exude a powerful charisma. “I knew him, I liked him. He was friendly,” says Joseph Pearce, who was leader of the Young National Front during the early 1980s before turning his back on extremist politics. “He was not the most articulate of people. It would be yes or no. It was difficult to have anything but the most superficial conversation with him.” In the aftermath of a violent march through racially mixed Lewisham in 1977, much of the UK’s extreme right had concluded the path to power lay in controlling the streets and destabilising the multicultural society rather than through the ballot box.

At the same time, groups like the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and, later, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) were becoming more and more confrontational. “The opposition were very, very combative,” Pearce says. “Their strategy was to smash the nationalist movement. It was a necessity to have a street presence that had muscle. Someone like Nicky Crane was a powerful physical but also symbolic presence.” This was a description with which even Crane’s enemies concurred. “By appearance and reputation he was the epitome of right-wing idealism – fascist icon and poster boy,” writes Sean Birchall in his book Beating The Fascists, a history of AFA. Unbeknown to his comrades, however, a very different side to Nicky Crane was emerging.

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It was a Thursday night at Heaven, a gay nightclub below London’s Charing Cross station. Underneath the venue’s arched roof stood a young man, up from Brighton for the evening. A garrulous character, he was universally known by his full title of John G Byrne. Since 1969, when he discovered reggae music as a 13-year-old, Byrne had been a skinhead. As he looked across the dancefloor, he caught sight of a man he’d never seen before. The stranger was tall, shaven-headed and tattooed. Byrne introduced himself. It was Nicky Crane, fresh out of prison. “He stood out quite a lot,” says Byrne. “A lot of people used to be quite keen on him because he was a very butch-looking geezer.” Years later, Crane said he hadn’t had sex with a man until after he turned 26 in 1984. But now he was becoming a regular at places like Heaven. “I just used to chat to him,” Byrne adds. “Nicky was quite a friendly person. He was quite quiet, really. He was the opposite of what he looked like.”

Skinhead in pub

He appears to have thrown himself enthusiastically into the gay scene around this time. His imposing frame meant he easily found work as a doorman at gay venues through a security firm. But if the neo-Nazi world would have abhorred his sexuality, the vast majority of London’s gay scene would have been equally horrified to learn that he was a neo-Nazi. Among the leadership of the largely liberal-left gay rights movement that was growing in London during the 1980s, fascist symbolism was an obvious and outrageous taboo – a reminder of the persecution that lesbians and gay men had suffered. According to feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys’ book The Lesbian Heresy, a commotion unfolded in 1984 when a group of gay skinheads turned up at a gay bar in London’s King’s Cross and began sieg heiling. She also records that a well-known far-right youth organiser was thrown out of the same pub after taking off his jacket to reveal swastika tattoos. A huge row erupted the following year at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in King’s Cross when a gay skinhead night was held at the venue. It’s not clear whether Crane was present at any of these incidents. But it appears that, at least initially, he was able to deflect questions about his politics by presenting himself on the gay scene as a skinhead first and foremost. His friend Byrne, who describes himself as “sort of more a Labour person”, had no time for the far-right element that had infiltrated the skinhead movement. But Byrne was convinced at the time that Crane “wasn’t really a Nazi. It was all show”. The softly spoken Nicky he knew was too nice to be an extremist, Byrne believed. This wasn’t as fanciful as it might sound. By the mid-1980s, a gay skinhead scene was beginning to flourish in London, says Murray Healy, author of Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation. Gay men had many different reasons for adopting the look, he says. Some had been skinheads before they came out. Others found that, in an era when all gay men were widely assumed to be camp and effeminate, “you were less likely to get picked on if you looked like a queer-basher”. There were also “fetish skins”, attracted to the “hyper-masculinity” of the subculture. Against this backdrop, even the swastikas and racist slogans inked on Crane’s body could be explained away, at least initially. During the 1980s, says Healy, “gay Nazis were assumed to be left-wing even if they had Nazi tattoos”. “People refused to read these tattoos politically. People thought it was part of the authenticity ritual. People thought he was just playing a part.” And indeed it wasn’t just gay skins who flirted with the iconography of fascism. While “redskins” and “Sharps” – an acronym for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice – confronted those with links to the far right, many heterosexual skinheads who were apolitical also adopted fascist garb, says Byrne. “A lot of skinheads that weren’t right-wing used to wear Skrewdriver T-shirts,” Byrne adds. “It was about the fashion of being a skinhead.” But Crane wasn’t just playing with the imagery of Nazism. He was living it. His decision to start frequenting venues such as Heaven wasn’t the only thing that had changed since before his sentence. During the years 1981 to 1984, which he mostly spent incarcerated, his fame had grown far beyond the narrow confines of the far right.

Strength thru oi album

In 1981, the journalist Garry Bushell helped put together a compilation album of tracks by bands from the burgeoning Oi! scene. Oi!, a cheerfully crude sub-genre of punk, was popular with skinheads. Its politics were fairly broad – while there were right-wingers within its ranks, some of its most prominent acts, including the Angelic Upstarts, were avowed socialists. Others, such as the 4-Skins, condemned political extremism of all kinds. That was to count for little after Bushell, desperate for a cover image after a photoshoot fell through, seized on a Christmas card which he says he believed showed a scene from the film The Wanderers. In fact, it was a picture of Crane.

It was only when the image was blown up to 12in cover size, Bushell says, that he noticed Crane’s Nazi tattoos. Faced with the choice of airbrushing out his markings or pulling the release, the writer chose the former option.

“It was a monumentally, cataclysmically stupid decision,” he says. The title of the compilation was Strength Thru Oi! – which Bushell says was intended as a pun on Strength Through Joy, the title of a recent EP by punk act The Skids, but which in turn was borrowed from a Nazi slogan. The Daily Mail seized upon the title and the connection with Crane, condemning the “highly controversial” record as “evil”. According to Bushell, who had only recently left the Socialist Workers Party and still regarded himself at the time as a left-winger, the story was a “tissue of lies”. But as a result of the coverage, the hitherto obscure Oi! scene became associated by many with the far right – to the chagrin of acts featured on the album, such as the socialist poet Gary Johnson. Crane’s musical background had hitherto extended to starting fights at ska and punk gigs, plus a short-lived stint singing in a punk band called The Afflicted. The notoriety, however, transformed him into a skinhead icon. The Strength Thru Oi! cover image – featuring a topless, muscle-bound Crane snarling and raising his boot – was widely reproduced in the wake of the row. T-shirts featuring the image were sold at The Last Resort, a clothes shop favoured by skinheads in London’s Whitechapel. They were a huge hit. Although the album was withdrawn from sale, reproductions of its cover adorned thousands of bedroom walls. “He was literally a poster boy,” says Watson, who at the time was a teenage skin in Buckinghamshire. “Even a 15-year-old was like, ‘That’s what a skinhead should look like.’ “He just fell into our living rooms. These little kids in High Wycombe – we didn’t know anything about the Nazi stuff.”

Gerry Watson wearing strength t shirt

On the surface, the idea of a gay man embracing neo-Nazism might appear baffling and self-defeating. Just as Adolf Hitler’s regime had thrown gays and lesbians into death camps, the neo-Nazi movement remained staunchly homophobic.

Crane was becoming all too aware of the contradiction of being a gay neo-Nazi. “A lot of people that I did used to hang around with, they did sort of like hate us,” he said in 1992 – “us” meaning gay men.

“They’d go out queer-bashing. It’s something I never did myself. And I’d never let it happen in front of me, either.” He had, however, chosen fascism long before he had embraced his sexuality, and much of his social life and prestige was bound up with his status as a prominent neo-Nazi activist. To maintain his cover, Crane would often appear in public with a skinhead girl on his arm. “He often had a so-called girlfriend but they were never around for long,” says Pearce. “Nicky had no chemistry with girls.” Certainly, after coming out, Crane always described himself as gay rather than bisexual. Nonetheless, his relationships with women, coupled with rumours that he had fathered a son, allayed any initial suspicions his comrades might have had. So too did his propensity for racist violence.

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On Sunday 10 June 1984, Greater London Council leader Ken Livingstone held a free open-air concert to protest against unemployment and government spending cuts. Thousands of Londoners turned out to watch acts like The Smiths and Billy Bragg. Most would have been attracted principally by the music and the summer weather. To Nicky Crane, however, anyone attending a left-wing-hosted event like this was a legitimate target. As The Redskins, a socialist skinhead band, played, Crane led an attack on the crowd. Around 100 fascists began setting about the audience closest to the main stage. “They were organised, they were used to violence, the audience wasn’t,” says Gary, an anti-fascist activist who was present that day and asked to be identified only by his first name.

BM at Nottinghill for march 1980

The neo-Nazis were beaten back by a group of striking Yorkshire miners, invited to steward the event by Livingstone as a solidarity gesture, and members of the militant far-left group Red Action. Crane was not cowed, however, and after regrouping his forces, he charged a second stage at the other end of the park where the Hank Wangford Band were playing. This time, however, the anti-fascists were better prepared. Militants grabbed empty cider bottles to use as improvised weapons. As the anti-fascists fought back, Crane broke away from the main battle. “He was busy attacking the rest of the crowd, on his own, stripped to the waist,” says Gary. As Crane tried to make it over a barrier on to the stage, he was knocked over by a Red Action member. He escaped the furious crowd by using a female left-wing activist as a human shield, according to witnesses. As the violence subsided, anti-fascists confronted another skinhead in the crowd. His Harrington jacket was unzipped to reveal a slogan on his T-shirt. It read “Nicky Crane”, in tribute to the young man’s hero. Given the carnage Crane had just instigated, the left-wingers had little sympathy for his admirer. The skinhead was set upon and beaten. Crane was never prosecuted for his part in the riot. In the febrile atmosphere of the mid-1980s, however, violence was everywhere. As clashes between police and striking miners becoming increasingly bitter, football hooligans across the country were fighting it out with unprecedented ferocity. The formation of AFA in 1985 resulted in increasingly bloody stand-offs between anti-fascists and the far right. Several years later, Crane told the Sun newspaper about an attack on a Jewish Remembrance Day ceremony for which he also appears to have escaped arrest. “We hurled insults at them and started punching and kicking as they went by,” he admitted to the paper in 1992. On another occasion, Crane and his gang spotted a left-wing activist on a Tube train. “Me and a few mates beat him really badly,” he said. “Even though he wasn’t moving we all kept jumping on his head. “I think he survived. It must have been a miracle.” After the BM collapsed in 1983, Crane had become something of a free agent. He was a visible presence on demonstrations held by other far-right groups. These included the NF – now split into two warring factions – and the British National Party, formed in 1982 by John Tyndall, which had begun to attract a significant football hooligan following. Among the rank and file of each group, Crane remained a hero. “You could very easily drop him into the Weimar Republic in 1923 and, some language difficulties apart, he’d fit right in,” says Gary.

His closest affiliation, however, was with the neo-Nazi rock band Skrewdriver. Originally the group had been apolitical. In 1982, however, singer Ian Stuart Donaldson came out as a supporter of the National Front. With song titles like Europe Awake and Flying the Flag, the group gained a huge following among far-right skinheads. Opposition from anti-fascists meant gigs had to be forcefully stewarded. Donaldson appointed Crane as Skrewdriver’s head of security, and he became a trusted lieutenant. Reportedly, Crane wrote the lyrics for a Skrewdriver track called Justice and provided the cover art for the albums Hail The New Dawn and After The Fire. Archive footage of their concerts shows Donaldson barking neo-Nazi lyrics as he loomed above Crane who stood, arms folded, at the front of the stage. The T-shirt on his chest said “Skrewdriver security” in Gothic script. Crane wasn’t playing an instrument, but it was as though he was part of the performance. His status as a neo-Nazi icon had never been more secure. But for the first time, the twin strands of his double life were about to intersect.

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The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight was, despite its political leanings, required reading for activists on the extreme right. Each month the publication would run gossip about the neo-Nazi scene, and fascists would furtively buy it to see whether they had earned a mention.

In April 1985 it ran a feature on Crane. It mentioned the GLC concert, the south London attacks and the jail sentences he had served. The magazine revealed it had received a Christmas card from him during his time on the Isle of Wight in which he proclaimed his continued allegiance to “the British Movement tradition” – that is, violence.

The Searchlight report ended its description of Crane with the line: “On Thursday nights he can be found at the Heaven disco in Charing Cross.” Even a neo-Nazi audience might have been aware that Heaven was at this point London’s premier gay club. Nicky Crane had been outed. And homosexuality was anathema to neo-Nazis. But the response of Crane’s comrades to the revelation was to ignore it. A number of factors allowed Crane to brush off the report, Pearce says. Firstly, homosexuality was indelibly associated with effeminacy by the far right, and Crane was the very opposite of effeminate. Secondly, no-one wanted to be seen to believe Searchlight above the word of a committed soldier for the Aryan cause. Thirdly, on the most basic level, everyone was afraid of being beaten up by Crane if they challenged him. “I remember it was just sort of furtive whispering,” adds Pearce. “I’m not aware that anyone confronted Nicky. People were happy for things to remain under the carpet.” Sightings at gay clubs were dismissed by Crane. Donaldson claimed Crane told him that he was obliged to take jobs at places like Heaven because the security firm he was employed by sent him there.

“I accepted him at face value, as he was a nationalist,” Donaldson told a fanzine years later.

For his part, Heaven’s then-owner, Jeremy Norman, says he does not recall Crane working on the door: “I would imagine that the door staff would have been supplied by a security contractor and that he would have been their employee but it is all a long time ago.” Rumours circulated that a prominent football hooligan and far-right activist had hurled a homophobic slur at Crane, who in response had inflicted a severe beating which the victim was lucky to survive. Word of this spread among the skinhead fraternity, too. “My mate had a shop in Soho,” recalls Watson. “People would come in to say, ‘Have you heard Nicky’s gay?’ He would say, he works around the corner, why don’t you go and ask him? Of course they never did.” Just as some in the gay community refused to believe that a gay man could be a neo-Nazi, others on the extreme right were unable to acknowledge that a neo-Nazi could be a gay man.

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In 1987 Crane and Donaldson set up a group called Blood & Honour. It was a cross between a White Power music club and a political party. It staged concerts for Skrewdriver and other neo-Nazi bands with names like No Remorse and Brutal Attack. T-shirts, flags and records were sold by mail order through its magazine. The operation had an annual turnover of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

1988 screwdriver

Donaldson was its head, Crane his right-hand man and head of security. Around the same time, the latter’s organisational skills were being put to use elsewhere. Searchlight reported in October 1987 that “Crane, the right’s finest example of a clinical psychopath, is also engaged in building a ‘gay skins’ movement, which meets on Friday nights” at a pub in east London. Crane’s sexuality might by now have been obvious to any interested onlooker, but the neo-Nazi scene remained in denial. While his right-wing colleagues studiously ignored the report, AFA took an interest. Its activists put the pub under surveillance.

The anti-fascists didn’t care about Crane’s sexuality, but were concerned that the gatherings might have a political objective. “Here were gay skinheads wearing Nazi regalia,” says Gary. “We could never get to the bottom of it – whether it was purely a sexual fetish.”

The gay community had, by this stage, begun to take notice of Crane, too. He was confronted by anti-fascists attending a Pride rally in Kennington, south London, in 1986. The campaigner Peter Tatchell recalls a row erupting after it emerged Crane had been allowed to steward a gay rights march. The organisers had not been aware who Crane was or what his political affiliations were. But now they were, and Crane must have realised he would no longer be welcome in much of gay London. The gay skinhead night may simply have been an attempt to carve out a space for himself where he would not be challenged either for his sexuality or his politics. While his status in the far right was secure, he was being pushed to the fringes of the gay community. The double life he had been maintaining was beginning to erode.

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The Bloody Sunday commemoration rally was held every January to mark the deaths of 14 unarmed protesters at the hands of the Parachute Regiment in Derry in 1972. For years the rally had been a target for the far right, whose sympathies in the Northern Ireland conflict mostly lay with the loyalists. So when Nicky Crane was spotted within the vicinity of the march in Kilburn, a traditionally Irish enclave of north-west London, in January 1990, it was assumed he had trouble in mind. Crane was confronted by anti-fascist activists who were stewarding the event and, after a brief exchange of blows, he managed to get away.

1993 anl

But when he was spotted in a black cab heading back into the area, marchers took it as read that he was about to spearhead an ambush on the march.

After the taxi became stuck in traffic at the top of Kilburn High Road it was quickly surrounded. Crane was pulled from the vehicle and found himself on the receiving end of the kind of violence he had long inflicted on others. After putting up fierce resistance, he was beaten unconscious. Three anti-fascists were jailed for a total of 11 years for their part in the incident. Unusually for a political street fighter who deplored the system, Crane testified at their trial. It was a hint that Crane was preparing to cut his ties with the extreme right. “I don’t think he’d have done it in his fascist days, put it that way,” says Gary. “You didn’t go to the police. Hard men don’t do that, they sort it out among themselves.” It was not the first indication that Crane was losing his enthusiasm for the Nazi cause. In May 1989 he had fled when anti-fascists turned up to a meeting point in London’s Hyde Park for a Blood & Honour gig. After the Bloody Sunday march, there is no record of Crane taking part in any further political activity. He had begun drifting away from the extreme right. Friends say he had begun spending an increasing amount of time in Thailand, where his past was not known and he could, for the first time since Strength Thru Oi! was released, be anonymous. Back in London, he appeared in a series of skinhead-themed amateur gay porn videos. The films did not achieve wide circulation but, to star in them in the first place, he must have been indifferent to whether or not he was exposed. Eventually he made a decision. It was time to end the double life once and for all.

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The Channel 4 programme was called Out. It featured a series of documentaries about lesbian and gay life in the UK. The episode broadcast on 27 July 1992 was about the gay skinhead subculture. Its star attraction was Nicky Crane. First the programme showed recorded interviews with an unwitting Donaldson, who sounded baffled that such a thing as gay skinheads existed, and NF leader Patrick Harrington. And then the camera cut to Crane, in camouflage gear and Dr Martens boots, in his Soho bedsit.

Nicky Crane interviewed in 1992 for a Channel 4 documentary

He told the interviewer how he’d known he was gay back in his early BM days. He described how his worship of Hitler had given way to unease about the far right’s homophobia. He had started to feel like a hypocrite because the Nazi movement was so anti-gay, he said. “So I just, like, couldn’t stay in it.” Crane said he was “ashamed” of his political past and insisted he had changed. “The views I’ve got now is, I believe in individualism and I don’t care if anyone’s black, Jewish or anything,” he added. “I either like or dislike a person as an individual, not what their colour is or anything.” The revelation attracted considerable press attention. The Sun ran a story with the headline “NAZI NICK IS A PANZI”. Below it described the “Weird secret he kept from gay-bashers”. Crane reiterated that he had abandoned Nazi ideology. “It is all in the past,” he told the paper. “I’ve made a dramatic change in my life.” The reaction from his erstwhile comrades was one of horror and fury. Donaldson issued a blood-curdling death threat on stage at a Skrewdriver gig. “He’s dug his own grave as far as I’m concerned,” Donaldson told the Last Chance fanzine. “I was fooled the same as everybody else. Perhaps more than everybody else. I felt I was betrayed by him and I want nothing to do with him whatsoever.” But according to Pearce – who by this stage had made his own break with the NF – it was Crane’s disavowal of National Socialism, rather than the admission of his sexuality, that proved particularly painful for Donaldson. “I think that Ian would have been very shocked,” says Pearce. “He was deeply hurt. But it had more to do with the fact that he switched sides politically. “Nicky didn’t just come out as a homosexual, he became militantly opposed to what he previously believed in.” British Nazism had lost its street-fighting poster boy. For the first time in his adult life, however, Crane was able to be himself. Watson recalls catching a glimpse of Crane – by then working as a bicycle courier – shortly after he came out. “I saw him riding around Soho in Day-Glo Lycra shorts,” remembers Watson. “I thought, good for you.”

On 8 December 1993, Byrne took the train to London. He had arranged to meet his friend Nicky Crane at Berwick Street market, just a few yards from his Rupert Street bedsit. Byrne was looking forward to having “a good old chat” about skinheads they both knew. But Crane didn’t turn up. When Byrne got home, he found out why. Crane had died the day before. He was 35. The cause of death was given on his death certificate as bronchopneumonia, a fatal inflammation of the air passages to the lungs. He was a victim of the disease that had killed so many other young gay men of his generation. “He didn’t tell me about his problems with Aids,” says Byrne. “He didn’t talk much about it really. I thought it was a shame.” Word had got around that Crane was ill, however. Gary recalls his shock at seeing his one-time foe looking deeply emaciated, waiting on a platform at Baker Street Tube station. Crane’s stature was such, however, that even at this point fellow passengers were careful to keep their distance. Those who suffered as a result of his rampages may have breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer able to terrorise them. But his death marked more than just the end of Nicky Crane. It also coincided with the passing of an era in which the extreme right hoped to win power by controlling the street with boots and fists. In 1993, Crane was dead, Donaldson died in a car crash and the British National Party (BNP) won its first council seat in Millwall, east London. The various factions of the NF had by now all but withered.

The following year, BNP strategist Tony Lecomber announced there would be “no more meetings, marches, punch-ups” – instead, the intention now was to win seats in town halls. The party would try to rebrand itself as respectable and peaceful – a strategy continued, with varying success, under the leadership of Nick Griffin. Streetfighters like Nicky Crane were supposedly consigned to the past.

The broader skinhead movement was changing, too. Watson, like many other former skins, had by the time of Crane’s death, abandoned boots and braces for the rave scene. His skinhead days already felt like a different age. “The skinhead stuff was washed away by rave and it’s, ‘Oh yes, Nicky’s out of the closet,'” Watson says. “It’s the story of that side of skinheads, isn’t it?” By contrast, the presence of skinheads in gay clubs and bars was no longer controversial. Shorn of its political associations, the look was by now, if anything, more popular in London’s Old Compton Street or Manchester’s Canal Street than on football terraces or far-right rallies. Two decades after Crane’s death, says Healy, the skinhead is “recognised as a gay man unambiguously in London and Manchester”. He adds: “If the Village People reformed today there would be a skinhead in the group.” He may be an extreme case, but Crane reflects an era in which people’s expectations of what a gay man looked and behaved like began to shift. “Everybody always knew gay people, but they just didn’t know it,” says Max Schaefer, whose 2010 novel Children of the Sun features a character fascinated by Crane. “The neo-Nazis were no different from everyone else.” It’s unlikely Crane reflected on his place at this intersection between all these late 20th Century subcultures. He was a man of action, not ideology – a doer who left the thinking to others, and this may be what led a confused, angry young man to fascism in the first place. As he lingered in St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, west London, waiting to die, a young man named Craig was at his side. Craig was “one of Nicky’s boyfriends”, says Byrne. According to Crane’s death certificate, Craig was with him at the end. Picture research by Susannah Stevens

No Retreat: Interview with Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey

spikemagazine.com

[This article appears online at http://www.spikemagazine.com/1104noretreat.php%5D

November 2004

Street Fighting Men

Ben Granger talks to Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey, authors of “No Retreat”, a punchy account of their days fighting neo-Nazis in North-West England.

Back in the late 70s Manchester was a stronghold of Britain’s premier far-right party, the National Front. As factories and communities went down they went up, recruiting at pubs and football matches, bolstered by a backdrop of fear, poverty, ignorance and desperation. They strutted through the town’s grey streets by day, cudgelling random blacks and gays in dark alleys at night. Kicking around and insulting lefty paper sellers was another hobby. That was until a few young working-class activists, centred initially round the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League, decided to fight back.
“The Squads” -as they became known- eschewed the standard British lefty tactics. They didn’t depend on banners, slogans and face-painting. Men who could handle themselves, they responded to the NF in kind; with boots and fists. “The fash” weren’t used to people fighting back and before long it was they who were on the defensive.

As the NF dissolved into the more openly Nazi British Movement and other warring factions, Anti-Fascist Action grew from the ashes of the Squads, shunned and denounced by the middle-class leadership of the SWP, they still booted the Nazis out of central Manchester and took the fight further out, to the further reaches of the north-west and the country beyond.

No Retreat is a memoir from two veterans of these struggles. While overlapping strongly, the first half is Squad member Tilzey’s story from the late 70s to mid 80s, detailing the collapse of the NF and the rise and fall of the psychopathic British Movement. AFA founder member Hann takes over from the 80s to the late 90s, recounting the fight against the new British National Party and their partners in thuggery Combat 18. It describes the movement’s very real successes, but also tells of the setbacks and the infighting endemic to groups of the left.

To say it doesn’t shy from the violent side of the struggle is an understatement. Fastpaced accounts of kickings and hammerings dominate the narrative. Dave jokes at one point that AFA considered seeking sponsorship from Lucozade for the use they made of their old style glass bottles “an ideal hand to hand or throwing weapon, and the police can’t arrest you for it as long as its still got som drink left in it.” Liberals and pacifists won’t be perusing this over their chiantis.

There’s a lot of knockabout humour too. At one point during a battle in London, Steve McFadden (Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell) is caught up in the scene; at another Dave and the AFA boys receive notice of a large gathering of Nazi boneheads in Manchester that turns out to be a scene for Robbie Coltrane’s “Cracker”.

It’s a lively, irreverent, thrills but no-frills account which at times reads like one of the numerous soccer-hoolie memoirs proliferating in the “True Crime” section at book-stores (and indeed its publisher Milo purveys many such books themselves). But amidst all the scrapping and joking is the constant and powerful message that fascism thrives when the workingclass is ignored and betrayed. The authors argue this betrayal has come not only from all the major parties, but from the middle-class leadership of far-left groups too, pursuing students with single issue politics rather than working people.

I met up with Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey for drinks on Deansgate in Manchester. The chain pub we meet in is corporate, with cosmetic concessions to local surroundings. By contrast, these two are the real deal. Older and broader now, they’re still imposing enough to intimidate the frailer sections of the master race. Steve is garrulous, warm, humorous and infectiously friendly, a quick-tongued and foul-mouthed Manc through and through. Dave is more soft-spoken and considered and wry, with a cosmopolitan accent reflecting his changes in location despite a longstanding base in Manchester. Both have retired from their street fighting roles, Steve works in local government, Dave is a plasterer. But their deep-seated resolve against the forces of fascism still burns bright.

What made you decide to release this book when you did?

ST: There were lots of people who did a lot of work for anti-fascism back in the previous decades, and their contributions haven’t been properly documented before. There was a fear they would be lost to history. Our book is a way of keeping the story alive.

You both got involved in far-left activist politics as very young working-class men in the 70’s and 80’s. Why is that less common these days, and why are groups like the SWP now largely middle-class?

ST: Basically, people like we were are less easy to control. Students are less bother, they do as they’re told.

DH: Getting out into work-places, where it counts, is a lot harder to do. It’s a lot easier to stick on campuses and bang on about single-issues. It just doesn’t achieve much. The most frequent response to your activities on the left and in the mainstream is that it’s “counterproductive” and that “you’re as bad as them”.

ST: Obviously, we get that all the time. It may seem simplistic to say that these are some seriously evil bastards and we’re the good guys…What I always say to these people is “what would you have done in the second world war”? That was a war against Nazis, and so was this. And it worked.

The book provides ammunition for your critics in detailing how you fought alongside questionable allies on the streets at times. Criminals with Irish backgrounds, Celtic football hooligans, Moss Side hard-men. And weren’t some people up for a fight with whoever?

ST: A lot of people you work with you won’t be in agreement with. I’ve stood next to many people in my time against the fascists. I’ve looked around and thought; these may not be people I’ve got much in common with, but we’ve all got one enemy. Anti-fascism is a broad church, and if people want to fight them it’s not up to us to turn them away because we disagree with them on certain issues.

DH: You’ve got to ask yourself, where do political activists come from? They don’t come fully formed into your ranks. Some people may just join in for an afternoon’s fighting sure, but its then you can try to persuade them. You should engage people like that, not ignore them.

It worked in ways other left-wing groups didn’t. We’ve had ex-NF members who’ve joined. We’ve had lots of football hooligans. Some of them just started out from the standpoint that they didn’t like way the NF and the BNP were bullying people around on the terraces. Then, when they talked to us, some got thinking about things in a more socialist-orientated way.

If someone got on to the coach with us with a copy of the News Of The World we’d welcome him. Other left groups would just be horrified and turn their noses up. We’d welcome him, and tell him why his paper was full of shit later. People are bombarded with right-wing propaganda throughout their lives. If someone’s got baggage, that’s fine, we weren’t gonna turn them away.

How do you feel that because of the violent nature of the book it’s often placed in the “true crime” section of bookshops?

ST: I’ve heard its been placed in the comedy sections at times myself. [laughs] I know people have labelled this book another soccer book. The book talks about violence but it details how it was. It wasn’t pleasant at times, we were scared, of being arrested, of being kicked in. But at the end of the day, when these people are in your town, you’ve got to take action. You’ve got an obligation.

The Squads and AFA weren’t just about generals running round, we were all equal with different qualities, good fighters, good communicators, spotters, good drivers even, they all had a part to play. When people say “its like a football book” I can understand that, but I think it comes over that it wasn’t the same, this wasn’t just a load of blokes saying “what a good row” after a punch up. If me and Dave had wanted to just be football hooligans then we would. It would have been a lot easier. And we didn’t.

DH: At then end of the day, we wanted people to read this book. AFA campaigned, we worked in communities, we did talks in schools, we did mass leafleting. We could have concentrated on all that and no-one would have read it. I challenge anybody to write a book like that and have it widely distributed. Yes there was a lot of violence, and yes the book talks about that. But you can walk down Manchester today with a banner of Lenin and no-one will touch you. That’s a result.

The ultimate vindication of the AFA strategy seems to be that very thing. Even now, with the BNP in a huge resurgence, there are seemingly no go areas for them: most of Manchester (as opposed to Greater Manchester), South Yorkshire, even a lot of East London. Prime, poor areas for BNP recruitment but they don’t seem to try it now. And these were the areas where AFA was most active…

DH: Absolutely. Where we were strongest they are weakest now. Basically, we took out a generation. These are people who thrive on ruling the streets, inspiring youngsters to look up to them. We took the role-models out for kids like that. Even today in Manchester, with the BNP riding high nationally, you don’t see them Manchester, yo don’t see paper sellers, you don’t see stickers. Not even graffiti.

But you certainly can’t be complacent even here. I’ve often likened fighting fascism to nailing jelly to the ceiling.

ST: So speaks a true dodgy plasterer..

DH: Yes, they always take the piss..But the point is you can never stop. And neither will they. There’s a line of argument that says fascism will always be there as long as capitalism is. It’s probably true. But do you wait for capitalism to dissolve when there’s a gang attacking an Asian shop? You have to do something at the time and that’s what we did.

As you detail in the book, there’s your own strongholds you’ve secured, but there’s other places like Burnley where you fought them off but now they’ve taken hold. As you said, you kicked them out, but there’s a vacuum in isolated working-class places like that which no-one filled and they came back. Would a change in the Labour government change things?

ST: No way.

DH: Not one iota. We were saying back in the 70’s Labour had lost it, lost touch with working people. How much worse is it now? They’ve got their heads completely up their arses and there’s no way back. They’re trying to copy the situation of the Republicans and the Democrats in the US.

Except now Labour are closer to the Republicans!

DH: Well, yeah….[laughs]

So do you see anyone as voicing a true working-class alternative?

DH: Well there are a few, there’s anarchist groups emerging which seem to have the right idea…

ST: People say, why would you hang around a bunch of revolutionary groups when it just ain’t gonna fucking happen? To be honest I go along a lot more with that view now. Let’s face it, the state is the biggest gang in town. It’s got the biggest mob. If it wanted to it could wipe out the left just like that like in Chile. I can’t really see the point in things like the SWP any more. You could say that’s me getting old, that’s me in the comfort zone now, with me season ticket for OT (Old Trafford). But you do still need to campaign on individual issues. There’s nothing to be gained from the SWP, there’s gonna be no great change…watch this fucker disagree with me…

DH: I do think society can change more but I agree you’ve got to campaign on people’s lives. If you can go to a housing estate and get the lifts working in a tower block, people remember who you are. Campaign on these issues, get things done, and when the fascists walk down your street they listen. Sometimes we were so busy fighting the fascists we didn’t spend too much time offering alternatives. You’ve got to do both. Take people’s hearts and minds away from them and offer them an alternative.

Over the last twenty to thirty years the left has moved further and further away from the working-class. If this doesn’t change it’s a historic mistake we’re going to live to regret. The book details the more subtle, undercover work that you did in particular Steve, at first for the Squads and later for [anti-fascist magazine] Searchlight. This included spying, secret photography, bugging meetings. You come over as being particularly enthusiastic about this line of work.

ST: Yes well it goes back to when I was young that, I’d always fancied myself as a bit of a James Bond.[laughs].No I’ve always liked codes, things like that.

In particular when I got involved with Searchlight I met people who really new their stuff with surveillance. As well as bugging meetings we did the bins of a lot of leading people on the far-right, John Tyndall, Martin Webster, Lady Birdwood. Some of that stuff made it into the book, some didn’t. I’ve still got a lot of shit on these people that’s not yet been made public.

What did you make of the recent BBC undercover documentary on the BNP?

ST: I thought it was well-done, it was a good mainstream documentary. Of course, it told us nothing we didn’t know about these people ourselves. We’ve bugged BNP meetings where the stuff they were saying puts that right in the shade.

One thing that comes over very strong in the book is that you’re Reds in both senses of the word. By your account Manchester United was always heavily anti-fascist in character, yet Manchester City was far more of a hotbed of NF support. Why is that?

ST: There really is no clear answer to that. Historically there was the old United-Catholic
City-Protestant thing, and I think there’s an element of that.

And yet City actually have more black fans than United too…

ST: I know; it’s weird. I do think a lot of it is just down to coincidence and can’t be explained. Groups of lads coming from certain areas, hanging around together, supporting the same team. Some just supported the same politics too, including far-right politics.

It’s not clear cut at all. I’ve certainly heard a fair amount of racist shite at United over the years, we just always managed to isolate them. We helped do that through fanzines we wrote for a while. It was honest, 90% football and 10% politics but it worked. At the same time, City has had its anti-Nazis who’ve given us support.

One more thing is that City has always been a big England supporting team and United hasn’t, once again because of Irish ancestry.

How do you feel about the whole issue of supporting the national team, and indeed patriotism in general?

ST: I want England to win. I’ve got Irish roots but I don’t do the plastic paddy thing like others. I was born in England, I want them to win, I’ll watch the football and I’ll cheer if they score.

Do you see the current popularity of the flag of St George as a good thing?

ST: Look at [Bolton boxer] Amir Khan. He seems to be really into it as are loads of other normal people at the moment and I think that’s good and positive.

DH: Anything that reclaims it from these morons is a good thing.

Do you think the blanket-rejection of all patriotism by much of the left has led to its lack of popularity amongst the working-class?

ST: Definitely. Just being anti-British is pointless and negative. Because of the BNP and NF fucking around with it I admit to thinking twice whenever I see the Union Flag or the Flag of St George, but I shouldn’t have to. The Irish get together, have a great time, celebrate their team –

DH: Yes but they don’t have a history of oppressing other people so its not quite the same.

ST: I know. It might sound naïve but I still think you can reclaim that. This country has got a lot of real proud history, Its union movement, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the fight for democracy. It ‘s not just about kings, queens and the empire. We shouldn’t let the rightwing hijack it.

It must be sickening to see the BNP’s current electoral success…

ST: It’s extremely scary the gains they’re making. They’re capitalising on Islam and the Iraq war. It’s ringing a lot of fucking bells in your Burnleys, your Blackburns. We’ve got difficult times ahead. The worse it gets in Iraq and the middle-east, they worse it’ll get here. Fair play to the anti-war movement, they need to be out there making the point this isn’t an issue the enemy should be winning on.

DH: The thing is, we kicked them out of certain zones, and we largely scared them off the streets altogether. But now they’re trying to follow Le Pen in going for full-on electoral respectability and doing well. The fact that they don’t have a such a big street presence has put anti-fascism into a state of flux.

ST: Except they still are on the streets. Not at day but at night, they’re going into pubs, stirring up trouble. They’re just not out on marches behind rows of police any more, and it makes it harder to deal with them.

[BNP Leader] Nick Griffin is modelling himself on Le Pen, in having a respectable electoral platform, but also in the sense of having a hardcore of activists still there ready to intimidate the enemy. The core of the BNP hasn’t changed at all. Combat 18 are often portrayed in the media as deadly organised Nazi terrorists, yet in your accounts of fighting them Dave you describe them as the exactly the same gangs of misfits and football hooligans you fought
under the different banners of the NF and BNP. Were they really no more of a threat?

DH: Well for a start the British Movement would have eaten them alive. They had a lot more capability to cause serious damage.

Yes C18 had dangerous psychos but they were also full of wind. They took credit for things they didn’t do.

But did they not send you a letter bomb at one point?

DH: The one really serious move C18 made was getting Scandinavian allies to send bombs to the AFA office, and to Sharon Davies for having a black husband. In general they attacked more right-wingers than left-wingers. C18 was a trap, a state-run set up.

Really?

DH: Charlie Sargent, one of the leaders, was in the pay of the state. He talked up a lot, attracting the most dangerous elements, but then just ended up attacking and killing Nazi rivals.

ST: Charlie’s inside for killing [C18 rival] Chris Castle. Now his brother Steve Sargent and Will Browning’s lot are at each other’s throats. To say C18 didn’t achieve much is an understatement, which makes you think doesn’t it? MI5 were interested in the links between British Nazis and Loyalist terrorists, who muck around a lot together. So C18 was set up by MI5 as a honey-trap for Loyalists that got out of hand. There’s a lot of mistrust and subterfuge amongst both the far-right and
their opposition. Steve, you’ve worked with Searchlight, but AFA members have denounced Searchlight for working with MI5 themselves.

ST: With these sorts of politics, there’s a lot of intrigue. I’ve said how I enjoyed doing the bins more than smacking heads together, but if we’re doing that, don’t think the state isn’t doing it, for fuck’s sake.

There has been a relationship between Searchlight and the secret services yes. At times people’s lives have been saved in foiling bombs, so I think it’s a pay-off that’s sometimes been justified. At times maybe it got too cosy, and I can understand why people see that. Some ex-AFA have asked Dave how he could even work with me on this book, y’know, as I’m “tainted” by the magazine…

DH: If you think Searchlight is a state-run organisation, fair enough, gather your own intelligence. I don’t have any truck with Searchlight myself. I think it’s been involved in underhand things. But I would say grow up and don’t blame it for everything that ever goes wrong. They are what they are, we are what we are, let’s just all do what we do.

What final message would you like this book to have?

DH: What’s been nice to see is as sales have fallen in this country, its started to sell elsewhere, all over the place, in France, the Czech republic, the US, Germany.

ST: We’re not setting ourselves up as the authorities on anti-fascism. We’re far from “the experts”. All we’ve done is been honest and tell it how it is. I was a bit neurotic about
when this came out, but after my kid being born its actually the proudest thing I’ve ever done. You know what… the best thing is there’s the sons of friends; young kids, and they read it and it gives them inspiration. They say it’s got energy to it.

DH: I know a Celtic fan who works on a building site, and he told me this book gave him the confidence to stand up to the racist dick-heads he works with. He said he reads a little
bit each day and that gives him a bit of fight to stand up for himself against them. Other people did this for longer than we did, and did more than we did. I welcome other books about the subject. I’d like everyone to tell their own stories and keep these things alive. There’s even talk of a film being made of it, which may or may not happen.

ST: Yeah there’s rumblings, a Ken Loach style thing. Phil Mitchell would obviously play Dave-

DH: Yeah and the guy who plays Curly Watts can be you Steve!

[For the record there are slight echoes, though Dave is slimmer than Mr MacFadden and Steve’s resemblance to Kevin Kennedy is of the nose only.] Steve, from your recounts of some of your NF opponents in the book you seem to know some of them. And when you were in Strangeways, [Steve and other Squad members received several months’ imprisonment for intimidation of an NF skinhead in what Steve considers was a possible MI5 set up] they put you in a cell with Kev Turner, an north eastern NF organiser. Did these experiences give you a grudging respect for some of them?

ST: When I was banged up with Kev Turner I said to him “I know what you’re in for, you know what I’m in for, and we both know why they’ve put us in together. Are we gonna go down that road?” We co-operated for the duration. He seemed alright for a time, and I thought, “Is he really that bad?” I thought they might be some hope for him. I thought I may get through to him. But basically he was a coward. He was a Geordie in with a bunch of Mancs and just kept his head down. He showed his true colours when he got out before me and sent me a postcard from Auschwitz. “Having a great time Steve!” He was a snake; not a pleasant feller.

As for the others, yeah, I know some of them, we’ve spoken. One of the people I mention in the book has done a complete sea-change now and hands out anti-racist leaflets. But people like Kev won’t change.

DH: A lot of fascists and Nazis are in it just for the row. Nine times out of ten these people will crack. I think you could convince 90% of fascists of the error of their ways, if you had enough time. Some, the hardcore, I don’t think you could ever change them short of killing them. Which by the way is a route we’ve never gone down. We value our liberty as much as anyone. Nick Griffin has described this book as a manual for violent action against nationalists. I think he’s shot himself in the foot saying that – Well he’s already shot himself in the eye! [laughter.] [Griffin has indeed got a glass eye due to a self inflicted gunshot wound during far-right survivalist manoeuvres]

ST: I wonder if he did that to follow Le Pen who’s also got one eye.

DH: And of course Hitler only had one ball!

ST: Singles all round lads…I think what Dave means is if we’ve inspired people we’ve done our job.

***
There are many who would still denounce Steve and Dave as a pair of thugs backing it up with political pretensions. That certainly isn’t the impression I went away with. The liberal argument of “don’t sink to their level” completely ignores the very real and appalling violence meted out by the far-right against completely innocent blacks, Asians and gays. If the police are slow to defend them, as has often been the case, taking direct action is not self-indulgent violence but an urgent necessity. To compare Steve and Dave to the vicious bullies they were up against; sadists, firebombers, desecrators of cemeteries, and murderers, seems the worst kind of prissy-minded pacifism.

Meeting Steve and Dave I was struck by their essential decency and normality; regular lads who took the decision to stand up to a great evil in the ways they knew how. At the same time there was something about their inquisitive nature, their background travelling that quite definitely puts them apart from the mass of the defeated and impressionable they have spent much of their lives trying to convert or confront.

As I left them I was invigorated by their spirit of defiance, yet despondent that a newer generation don’t seem to be taking their place with the same zeal. And even if they did, it wouldn’t be enough to shut down the more sophisticated BNP machine of today, a party that took 800,000 votes at the last European elections, dwarfing past totals. It would take a whole shift in the political discourse of the country into both a more leftward AND more working-class oriented direction for the BNP to go away, which ain’t happening anytime soon.

A sickeningly evil presence founded on the very worst political traditions of the twentieth century is growing in this country. No Retreat is a bold account of people who got off their arses and did something about it. Methods may need to change, but the same attitude is needed, now more than ever.

spikemagazine.com

 

Interview with Dave Hann

Street Voice Interview
I had a phone call last summer from Dave Hann asking to interview me on my experiences in the anti-fascist movement in Brighton. It was for a book that he was in the process of writing. I was happy to see Dave and talk about my own experiences opposing the National Front and fascism in Brighton. I was active in Anti-Fascist Action from 1986 till about 1992 and was on its Executive for about three years, but to the best of my knowledge we hadn’t met before.

All I knew of Dave was from a book ‘No Retreat’ [Milo Books, 2003] that he co-wrote with Steve Tilzey. Dave had been Chief Steward in AFA’s Steward Group in AFA’s Northern Network and what I had read of his had impressed me, as well as filling in a number of gaping holes in my memory. The period after 1979 in Brighton had been one where the National Front, after ditching its electoral pretensions, had embarked on a policy of attacking left-wing groups and meetings, particular anything to do with Ireland and the Troops Out Movement.

In Brighton the Anti-Nazi League had been reformed in 1980 to meet the threat, but unlike its later reincarnations under the SWP’’ control, the ANL in Brighton had been dedicated to physically as well as politically defeating the NF on the streets. For some 3 years we battled it out in Brighton, opposing 3 NF demonstrations through the town, their regular paper-sale at the football ground and ensuring that they were unable to harry or attack socialist or left-wing meetings. Brighton had been the stopping off point for their international contacts, people such as the Italian Fascist Robert Fiore. 19A Madeira Place had been their base and their leader in Brighton a UDA member, Steve Brady. Brighton was also the home of the leadership of Britain’s fascists – from John Tyndall of the BNP (or the New National Front then) to people like the publisher for the international neo-Nazi scene Anthony Hancock to the deputy leader of the NF and the author of ‘Did 6 Million Really Die’ Richard Verall (Harwood).

Dave’s experiences in AFA tended to be from the mid-80’s onwards against the BNP and Combat 18, whereas the main threat in Brighton had occurred in the early 80’s. Dave was a member of the main group in AFA, Red Action, whose leaders had been expelled in the 1970’s from the SWP for ‘squaddism’. This was at a time of growing violence from the NF and British Movement when it was recognised that fascist terror couldn’t be allowed to go unopposed and that the Left had to get organised.

In No Retreat Dave describes the battle against the fascists in the North of England, where the rise of mass unemployment under Margaret Thatcher and the decline of traditional working class industries such as the mines and docks, and of strong and militant trade unionism, had left youth in particular prey to the simple racist message of the fascists. Despite considerable police harassment, which resulted in a number of anti-fascist militants being jailed, the AFA Steward Group that Dave led was directly responsibility for the BNP foresaking the marches, demonstrations and pickets, with the ensuing violence that resulted, in favour of the electoral strategy of today’s BNP.

Dave’s account of what happened is a riveting read although it begs almost as many questions as it answers. Questions such as how the anti-fascist movement needs to adapt to meet the new BNP tactics, whether or not the BNP is still a neo-Nazi party and the bigger question of building a socialist and left movement which can take on board the social and class issues that the fascists feed upon. At a time when we are poised for a new Conservative government, poised to make savage cuts, these are not idle questions. We have a New Labour Party that has been captured for neo-liberalism and trade unions who are a shadow of their previous selves coupled with the antics and self-indulgence of a myriad of far-left sects.
Equally pertinent are the lessons to be drawn from what happened to AFA. Although Dave only mentions it in passing, one of the key problems within AFA became Red Action itself. A number of anti-fascist militants told me that they had been physically threatened by a RA determined on taking over AFA. Even more disturbing was the arrest and conviction of a senior member of AFA and Red Action for having taken part in the bombing of Harrods. It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental political mistake. Most people in AFA were supporters of Irish Republicanism and wanted to see the troops withdraw from Ireland. It was inevitable, given the close links between the Loyalists and the fascists that Irish Republicanism and the anti-fascist movement in this country were natural allies. But that did not mean therefore that AFA should take up any particular position on Ireland, especially when it came to supporting the military war of the IRA. I know at first hand that comrades left AFA as a result of this.

Dave was ostracised and criticised by RA, but never openly. In his book he gives some details of this. Instead of debating any differences, they were dealt with in a factional and bureaucratic manner. RA had decided to wind up AFA and form an Independent Working Class Association which won 3 council seats in Oxford and gained a respectable level of support in Hackney and Islington elections but has now virtually disappeared off the radar. In the process the IWCA moved rapidly to the right and its first councillor and leader in Oxford supported the Iraq War!

Dave and I spent a pleasant afternoon discussing various issues, although I was mainly the one answering the questions. I had many questions of my own to ask but I decided to leave it to another day. It was therefore a great shock when I learnt that Dave had been suffering from cancer and barely 3 weeks later he suddenly died at the young age of 48. Dave really was one of the unsung heroes of the anti-fascist movement that took over mine and so many others peoples lives for years. Anti-fascism was a cause worth devoting a major part of one’s life to as we were determined to prevent a repetition of what had happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

In Brighton Dave was active in community campaigns such as one to stop Tesco opening a superstore in London Road. He was also actively involved in football having spent much time on the terraces of Man Utd.

Dave leaves a partner, Louise, who has also been part of the anti-racist movement and an active socialist, for many years as well as three children, a son aged 14 and two girls aged 19 and 11 as well as a young woman, Jessica, with a previous partner. It is a testimony to Louise’s commitment that very shortly after Dave’s death she was on the streets of Saltdean helping organise the defence of the Deghayes family, a member of whom, Omar, had been freed after a big public campaign from Guantanamo prison. We wish them all well. Below is an interview that Dave Hann conducted with an indie music online publication called Street Voices.

Rest in Peace Comrade. You Deserve It. Tony Greenstein

Street Voice: First off how did you feel your first book ‘No Retreat’ went down?

Dave: I think its gone down really well. Its been nearly five years since the book was first published, and its still selling a few dozen copies every month. Funnily enough I was flicking through Mark E. Smith’s biography the other day in a bookshop, and No Retreat gets a favourable mention in it.

I think the most positive thing that has come out of it has been the letters and emails I get from anti-fascists in countries like Serbia, Poland and Russia, where the fascists are fairly rampant, saying how much the book has inspired them.

Street Voice: You obviously got a lot of criticism off both the far left and far right so how did you go about dealing with it?

Dave: I obviously expected criticism from the far-right. After all, a book detailing the cowardice, and lack of street-fighting prowess of the master race was hardly going to be a favourite bed-time read for your typical fascist. I’ve really enjoyed watching them whinge and moan about the book on Internet forums and discussion pages. The criticism from Red Action was also expected, because of the manner in which we parted company. The pure bitterness and bile of the criticism took me aback a bit, but in the end it just made me more determined to carry on writing. What was disappointing was the small number of so-called anti-fascists (London Class War mostly) who joined in the attack on me and Steve without ever taking the trouble to find out our side of the argument. I think anonymous slanders and personal abuse on Internet forums from people I’ve never met is cowardly, repellent and sinister. It says more about them than I ever could. These people would claim to be working towards building a fairer society, but if this behaviour is typical, then whatever they built would be little different from anything the BNP envisage.

Street Voice: It’s also fair to say there were some independent folk who thought you glamorised the violence so any opinion on this?

Dave: Funnily enough, Mensi complained that the violence in the book was understated!! In other words he felt it didn’t portray the real levels of violence that actually occurred. I think the violence of anti-fascists should be put into context however. Fascists in Britain have been responsible over the years for the murders of Black and Asian people, the stabbing and maiming of political opponents, and the fire-bombing and nail-bombing of left-wing bookshops, gay pubs, etc etc. On the other hand, anti-fascists rarely went out tooled-up, and if they did they were usually armed with a blunt instrument rather than a blade. I think you have to have been under attack by fascist gangs to understand why non-violence could never work under those circumstances.

Street Voice: You’re currently writing your second book which covers the history of Anti Fascism so can you give our readers any information about it?

Dave: The book is provisionally entitled, ‘A Cause Worth Fighting For,’ and it details the history of anti-fascism in Britain from the perspective of the people who were actually on the streets opposing the fascists. It goes right back to very first anti-fascists in the 1920’s, and finishes at the turn of the century with the demise of AFA. Its all based on oral interviews with people who took part in the various battles at Cable Street, Olympia, Balls Pond Road, Red Lion Square, Lewisham, Waterloo, etc etc. A lot of the stuff in the book is brand new research, and I’ve uncovered some really interesting stuff on obscure anti-fascist groups like the New World Fellowship, the Blue and White League, and the Yellow Star Movement. The book has been an absolute pleasure to write and research, and I’ve met some wonderful people whilst writing it.

Street Voice: Have you a publishing date for the book yet?

Dave: Not as yet. Its very nearly finished, and I’m hoping that it will hit the bookshelves some time next year

Street Voice: Being as you wrote ‘No Retreat’ with your mate Steve Tilzey I would have thought you two would have been up for doing another together? Is this something he didn’t want to do or did you
feel you wanted to write this book on your own?

Dave: Steve wasn’t really up for it. It was hard enough to get him to write his bit for No Retreat, and he actually lived through everything he wrote about then. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to persuade him to spend a few days researching some obscure anti-fascist group in a library or whatever, and then get him write up his findings and send them to me. The book would have to be printed on waterproof paper, because we’d all be submerged under rising sea levels by the time it finally came out. Steve would be the first to admit that he’s not really a writer, but he has helped out with a couple of little things here and there.

Street Voice: The BNP have been keeping themselves busy but there’s been almost no opposition to them. Do you think it’s time for AFA to be re-launched to bring Anti-Fascists together as one again?

Dave: We have been faced with this problem before in Britain, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for instance. The forces of anti-fascism were very thin on the ground, but as the fascist threat increased, so did the opposition, eventually culminating in the launch of RAR and the ANL, so there is still hope that something can be got off the ground. The difference between then and now of course is that a lot of the old communities based around the docks, the steel yards, the mines, factories etc, are broken up, and the traditional ties that bound these communities to the trade unions, the Labour Party and the left are gone. The Labour Party has abandoned them, the left are too busy with their endless cycle of marches, meetings and paper sales, and this leaves them easy prey for the fascists. This process boosts the BNP, while at the same time undercuts the supply of anti-fascist recruits AFA has had its day. When Red Action dismantled AFA and formed the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), they threw the baby out with the bath water, and this allowed the fascists the space to grow. Sadly, it is only now, a decade later, that they are beginning to realise their fatal mistake.

Street Voice: OK I know we have Antifa but that’s largely anarchist based and probably wouldn’t appeal to the average person on the street so who else is there?

Dave: There is no single organisation doing it at the moment. Just a few small grouplets doing bits and pieces of worthwhile stuff. Some of the community-based work done by IWCA for instance, if it was combined with militant anti-fascism, and taken on board by some of the larger left groups would shake the situation up a bit. I think the IWCA has reached the limits of what can be done with a small number of dedicated, but somewhat paranoid and intolerant individuals, but their politics should not be discounted as readily as their personalities.

Street Voice: While I like to remain positive about Antifa it’s hard to take them seriously at times when their members and the likes of Watmougth and Wigan Mike just threaten each other on the likes of Indymedia?

Dave: Antifa seems to be making the same mistakes as some of the least politicised elements of AFA. For instance I’ve seen several “Antifa Hooligans” and “Antifa – Fighting the Fascists – What else ya gonna do on a Saturday” stickers around town recently, that make you shake your head in disbelief at their sheer stupidity and lack of political message. Can anyone tell me what the point of these stickers is? Do they think the general public will see these stickers and go, “Oh ok, I won’t bother going to Asda this afternoon, I’ll join a crew of anarchists and get in punch ups with fascists instead.” From the outside, Antifa (like a lot of anarchist groups), looks like a small clique of like-minded individuals, who all know each other, are roughly the same age, all dress the same, and have the same lifestyles and musical tastes, etc. There appears to be no attempt whatsoever to broaden their appeal to the general public as a whole. I could be wrong, but I’ve not seen them attack the BNP on a
political level in working class communities, or attempt to offer their own solutions to the problems faced in those areas. There seems to be far too much emphasis on ambushing some of the smaller Nazi and bonehead groups, who, while they might prove occasionally troublesome, do not offer anywhere the same margin of threat as the BNP.

Street Voice: Would you agree there’s no longer a Socialist alternative for working class folk any more on the streets of Britian?

Dave: I’d agree that there is no socialist alternative in Britain at the moment, and sadly I think things will get worse before they get better. This directly impacts on anti-fascism, as in the past, socialists have formed the backbone of many anti-fascist movements. I believe we will have to come to a situation in the future where desperation forces whatever disparate forces are left to unite on some commonly agreed platform, before we can start to move forward again. Hopefully the bitter struggles and disappointments in between will have burnt off the careerists, the egoists, the sectarians and the weirdos.

Street Voice: Can you see the BNP getting a couple of seats in parliament if there’s no real opposition to them?

Dave: That’s a very real possibility. Remember, its not so long ago that people would have said you were mad if you’d told them that the BNP would have 50 plus councillors. I think we’re more likely to see an MEP, or a couple of MEPs first however. The economic downturn will only exacerbate the problem, although it might also open up opportunities for the left if they can stop their infighting for long enough to take advantage of them.

Street Voice: Did you hear that Simon Shephard from C18 is claiming political asylum in the U.S.A. since being found guilty of race hate charges in the UK? What did you make of that?

Dave: I didn’t hear about that. Its typical of the contradictions that lay at the very heart of fascist politics however.

Street Voice: Personally I think it’s a cop out with American and British Govts bailing out some of the banks so why do you think people just sit back and accept shit like that?

Dave: People feel disenfranchised from the political system. They see very little difference between the main political parties, who are all in the pocket of the major capitalists, and they feel powerless to effect change, which is exactly what the Govt wants. They see over a million people march through London in an effort to stop their country going to war, which you think might have given any government pause to contemplate, but their voices are completely ignored and the war goes ahead regardless. People feel their voices aren’t being heard. So at the one end you get low polling returns as people despair at the system, and at the other end you get people voting for the BNP, some for racist reasons, but others because they are seen as not being part of the establishment.

Street Voice: Moving from politics do you still get down FC United?

Dave: As often as I can, which is not as often as I’d like.

Street Voice: How are they doing as a football club?

Dave: After three consecutive promotions, they appear to have hit a plateau this season. Crowds are holding up reasonably well though, but the Development Fund, which was started in order so that the club can buy/build their own ground still needs your pennies. Incidentally, a couple of seasons ago, the BNP tried to muscle in on the club, but they were sent packing by anti-fascist FC fans and ordinary supporters. The final straw came when the entire Cemetery End started chanting “You can stick your BNP up your arse,” at them. The whole club has been built by ordinary working class people, and just shows what can be achieved when people have a sense of purpose and a commonly identified goal.

Street Voice: Apart from your job and writing your book what else does Dave Hann like to do?

Dave: Well I used to coach a youth football team until last season, which was reasonably successful (the boys won a couple of trophies and once went a whole season undefeated), but that has come to a close now, although I’m still involved with my son’s new team. I’m also involved in a couple of local campaigns, one to stop a massive Tesco’s redevelopment in town, which will put dozens of small shops out of business. These days, if I see a campaign that I agree with, I’ll help out in whatever way I can, no matter who initiates it. Apart from that, I like to do absolutely nowt. Lazy git that I am.

Street Voice: Anything you’d like to add?

Dave: know this interview has tended towards pessimism, but people need to stop picking pointless arguments on Internet forums, and get out there and start looking at ways to unite around a common goal. Undercutting the BNP’s potential base of support, by forcing them out of the areas where they have become embedded, and presenting people with a viable socialist alternative would be a good place to start.

Intelligence Gathering: Bugged BNP Meetings

BNP meetings were bugged in order to gain intelligence for Anti-Fascist Action and Searchlight. The buggings have been discussed in No Retreat.

The recordings are not 100% and I am working on subtitles for them. I suggest you wear headphones.

But they provide an interesting glimpse into the lengths anti-fascists would go into and their ingenuity. To extent the buggings were useful in terms of putting the information in use in physical action is not 100% clear.

If you have anything you’d like to add then please comment or fill out the form below.

BNP Meeting (April, 1990)

BNP Meeting (May, 1990)

BNP Meeting (June, 1990)

BNP Meeting at Mother Macs (June, 1990; Manchester)

BNP Meeting at Mother Macs (Oct, 1990; Manchester)

BNP Meeting (2nd Feb, 1992)

Interview with Mark Jones (May, 1990)

Red Pepper Interview with Michael and Gary – Jan 2012

Red Pepper Interview with Michael and Gary – Jan 2012

On its 75th anniversary, much attention was given to the Battle of Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were prevented from marching through the predominantly Jewish working class East End of London. But Cable Street itself was the culmination of a wider tradition of direct physical confrontation with fascists both at the time and throughout most of the 20th century. We are happy to praise those who made a stand in the 1930s. But what of those who literally fought the fascists more recently, in the shape of the British Movement, the National Front or the pre-Griffin British National Party? The publication of Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom Press) has re-asserted the importance of this disparaged and neglected tradition. Michael Calderbankspoke with Gary and Andy, longstanding members of Red Action who helped to initiate AFA, about their controversial new book.

Michael: Maybe we could begin by talking about the history of physical confrontation with the fascists in Britain?

Andy: Well, if you’re a Jew living in the 1930s or a working class Communist then it’s in your face, you’re dealing with Blackshirts who are on your street corner. It’s something you’ve got to react to and deal with in the here and now. You’ve also got people looking at the wider strategic picture – what was going in Spain was very real, what was going on in Italy and Germany was very real – and people with foresight understood that if you don’t put something in place to prevent that then you’re going to be in trouble yourselves. After the war, when it was totally clear what fascism could lead to, you had the ’43 group which, although it had CP members in its ranks, was largely an apolitical purely paramilitary body who would go round attacking the fascists. They were tough people, physically aggressive who had often served in the armed forces, many from Jewish backgrounds, who had seen a lot in their few years – these are young people – if you’ve been through that and don’t understand it, you’re never going to understand it. So people who have gone through that, seen it in the cinemas, or even in your own family over in Europe – and then you’re just going out and minding your own business, and you see some geezer on a soapbox talkin’ about the same stuff, it’s gotta be obvious to you, yeah?

Gary: There’s an example when a group of Jewish lads went past Mosley’s secretary [Jeffrey Hamm] after the war speaking up at Jack Straw’s Castle [near Hampstead Heath], and they were incredulous. I’m mean, here was the same old Jew-baiting going on after the war as you had before the war – with everything that had gone on! So they gave ’em a good shoeing and found: ‘these fuckers are everywhere!’ I mean, y’know, it’s ridiculous, we’re not havin’ it. There was a huge strain of anti-Semitism in the British establishment that Mosley hoped to profit from but never did. And so when Jews who had just got back from the war met fascists on the street they weren’t gonna petition the council to get see if they could do something! They were just gonna get on and do it themselves.

Andy: When people’s whole family lines have been wiped out and turned to ashes, what are you gonna do with people like that, try and debate with them in that situation?

Gary: And they wouldn’t wouldn’t debate with you either, that’s the point. If you went up to them and said, ‘excuse me, I’m a member of the Jewish faith and could you…’ [laughs] they’re not gonna argue the point, you’d be hit be a cosh. But, you might not be out looking for any trouble particular, but they’re there. And that situation doesn’t go away, it’s like that later on. You’ve gone to the football or something and you’re standing next to some guy who gets a bottle smashed over his head, a black kid who they’ve chased down, do you stand back and say ‘right we’ll get onto the council to do something!’?

Andy: It’d depend what kind of circles you moved in to. I mean I don’t want to generalise too much, but many of the people involved on the left at the time would have come up through a university background and lived in this sealed kind of world from what I could tell. But I didn’t know, I didn’t come from a political background. Everywhere I went I met these people, they were in your face. And Britain at the time was a violent and anarchic sort of place in some ways. I mean you’d go out round the pubs on a Friday night, have a disagreement, or you’ve gone to the football or a gig or something, and you run in to these geezers with all sorts of badges, handing out leaflets, maybe taking the band off the stage and attacking the band! I’ve seen that happen! It’s not like you’d read in some textbooks about what should or shouldn’t be done, it was an instinctive thing. These people are bullies, they’re not people who can debate with. It’s not alien if you come from that kind of background.

Gary: Yes, and the left has to understand that as soon as they appear, it’s because your own side has been making mistakes. Fascists won’t appear in very small numbers, they’ll wait until it’s right for them. I mean they look at it strategically as well, they’ll take it onto a physical level when they think there’s something for them to gain. So it’s not a matter of waiting until they attack our people – we’ve got an investment in smashing up their meetings, their paper sales and the rest of it. You don’t want to wait until they’re some kind of respectable opposition. If it gets that far, you’ve already lost.

Michael: And at what stage, after the war, had the left started to fail in your view to such an extent that you started to see a fascist threat beginning to make its presence felt on the street?

Gary: Well, most of our people come into it from outside politics, with a completely fresh look, with no political hinterland at all. So there was a lot of cynicism from our side towards the existing organised left from a very early stage. I mean we supportedemotionally and intellectually the basis for the whole left concept, and there was some stuff happening from on the picket lines (which was where I was recruited) and on things like the right-to-work marches, but even in the mid-Seventies it wasn’t clear cut and we certainly weren’t winning. There was a real lack of leadership across the board, not just on the revolutionary left but across the entire labour movement. And at the same time as you had the start of the neoliberal stuff, you’d get the fascists upset at over-reaching in ’79 thinking – let’s not hang about let’s go for it now. The whole Anti Nazi League Mark I was a huge success for the left and beat back the first wave of the National Front electorally. There was incredible resentment about that, and they lose a bit of what discipline they might have had. They could just attack anyone now. So, as Andy was saying, you could retreat into your sealed world. Or you could stay where you were and stand your ground. And they were – the arenas then football, gigs, street sales, their meetings, our meetings and the rest of it…

Andy: They were an extremely violent group of people. So if you’re looking to organise, you’re thinking, what streets can I walk round, what pubs you can go in talk to people, where can I talk about stuff on the football or at a gig? All that’s contested territory. Are these aren’t the kind of people who believe in freedom of speech, and I don’t mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean literally! You’d get a glass smashed in your face. To me it’d become obvious. When their election campaign failed, there was people there who wanted revenge. And so all this territory needed to be fought for.

Michael: Reading the book, as we said in our review, some of the violence described is not exactly for the faint-hearted. And many people reading the book might be thinking, isn’t there a danger of becoming just like them, being brought down to their level? What would you say to those who say, when you end up like two groups of thugs who are as bad as the other, you don’t win the wider public around? Gary: Well, it wasn’t always a pretty business, there’s no denying that, but it’s not a path we’ve just chosen for ourselves. They’re the point of aggression, the tip of the spear. If you approach them you’ve got to be prepared for violence to be done to you. And if you know that in advance, if you’re going to contest the territory you’re duty bound to prepare to do violence to them it’s as simple as that. In terms of complaints, we didn’t get much complaints from the Jewish stallholders when the NF paper sale got scatttered from Chapel Market [Islington], in fact the police couldn’t get a [single] witness to testify. But the pub landlord in King’s Cross, the who was making literally a thousand pound [a week] from opening his pub to bonehead gigs for his mates like Ian Stewart [Donaldson, lead singer of fascist band Skrewdriver] was going to complain when the place – course he was. He wasn’t interested in blacks or homosexuals getting attacked – which they did after the pub closed – he was after making money. He was raking it in! But when AFA marched through Bethnal Green, and into Whitechapel, it was like a siege had been lifted. Little Asian kids running about in the street – that was there
attitude to us!

Michael: Actually, reading the book, it struck me that – judging from the state’s reaction – that’s what they feared most. When it looked like it might have been possible to link up between white working class communities and black or Asian areas…

Gary: …on a political basis, yes. The state was concerned but the left weren’t, what does that tell you? I mean the left wasn’t trying to do what we were doing, not on an organised basis. But the state thought there’s a germ here that might develop. Not good, not from their perspective. So did they say, we’ll just see if we can put someone in and steer it a bit? No! They smashed it straight away, that was their approach. It’s quite a useful little anecdote. ‘You can do that there… up to a point…but you can’t do it here. No way.’

Andy: I think we were conscious that we didn’t want to get trapped in a siege mentality. Us looking after ‘our’ areas, the fash looking after ‘theirs’, the wars, us looking for them, them looking for us, we always wanted to break out of that. When RA [Red Action] helped to form AFA we tried to grow it as wide as possible within reason, and eventually when people tried to take politics back into the community, via the IWCA [Independent Working Class Association], that was our effort, we did what we always wanted to do, to go to working class communities and try to grow a political movement there. I mean we can argue the toss about how successful that was, but that would be a different debate. I’d never say it was entirely successful but I don’t think it was a total failure either. We got some things very right, but you’d have to look at the time and the context, what we’re up against, but that was us trying to put our vision of political organisation in working class communities into effect. And that was always our intention. We never thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could fight an ongoing war with a load of other people’.

Michael: I mean there would be that accusation, that you’d ended up participating in a sub-culture, that you’d have your sales, they’d have theirs, you’d have your bands, they’d have their bands, etc.

Gary: Well, let’s look at the alternative. They have their subculture, you have nothing. They have their sales, you don’t. They have their bands, you’ve got nobody. Then they have the football fans, and you have nobody. And they have the working class estates and you’ve got nobody….

Andy: And the thing is, in Islington with the IWCA, we always knew there’d be people with racist ideas on the estates, of course there are. We’re living in the real world. But the one thing we knew is that we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulder, we could meet the people from the tenants’ association in the local pub and talk about how to organise against plans to sell off social housing in the borough. So we needed that space to get on with doing what we wanted to do. I’d reject that idea that we got sucked into looking forward to the next confrontation with the fash, that was never our vision. Never. Now, if you’re gonna ask me were there elements drawn to AFA who did get off a bit on the excitement or hanging around on the fringes, possibly. But every movement
gets that. And there weren’t that many if you ask me. Certainly not amongst what I would call the leadership. That was never how we tried to shape the organisation, never how we sold it to people.

Michael: Without going into the various anarchist critiques – and in part for obvious reasons like you need people around you that you totally rely on and won’t leave you in the lurch – it sounds like you had a pretty centralised model going on, with a definite core…

Andy: Actually AFA was very democratic, when compared with say the ANL. On the street if wasn’t – couldn’t be. But as a broader organisation it was very democratic in the way it operated, on political campaign work etc. Similarly with Red Action. We’re a democratic organisation but when it came to the streets it couldn’t be and everyone understood that. We had it opposite to the rest of the left from what we could see. We thought when it came to politics you should be democratic and open, but they couldn’t take that, they had very tight control. But on the streets they’d say [in mocking tone], ‘let’s involve as many people as possible and everyone can come along to an open organising meeting’, and we’d say ‘that’s ludicrous, who do you know is sitting there!’ [laughter]. I’d say they’d got that the wrong way round.

Michael: I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, but the Leninist groups would say ‘you are basically trying to substitute yourselves for the organised working class, setting yourselves up as a small urban guerilla army to be the noble defenders of the class instead of mobilizing those larger sections of society…’

Andy: That’s just projection by them. No-one leafleted more working class council estates in East London than us. We organised all the carnivals [between the end of the ANL Mark I and the relaunched version], it was us that organised an exhibition that we invited schoolkids along to, there was this whole side of organising. Admittedly, that doesn’t perhaps get as much prominence in the book. But there was a large amount of campaigning, and a lot of efforts made to reach out to movers and shakers among the black or Asian youth…

Michael: …at which point the state came in to stop it. Do you think there were intelligence agents operating inside AFA?

Gary: Undoubtedly they’d have tried. The problem was for them the ‘split-screen’ structure. You could say what you want in the organising meeting and try to steer it round. But on the streets it was top-down. They’d latch on but you could shake ’em off.

Michael: So you could spot who they were?

Andy: Sometimes. Who knows? Listen, if they could penetrate the IRA they could penetrate us. But do we think they managed to effectively push us off course? No, no. I
think we done what we wanted when we wanted to do it. We made decisions when we wanted to make them.

Gary: Yes, there’s no evidence of that looking back with hindsight. I mean as you can tell from the book there’s people there with a huge question mark over them. But in terms of the way things got done, no. Being hierarchical like that you couldn’t slot somebody into a middle-manager type of position. But we were also democratic. It was asymmetrical so it worked really well. If it had been asymmetrical the other way around, as Andy said, we wouldn’t have lasted out a weekend.

Andy: We’d have ended up in the same jail together!

Michael: And people did occasionally get jail terms…

Gary: But as the book explains, we’d go out of our way to avoid that at all costs. Out of fidelity to the volunteers if you like. I mean we needed people – we had people who worked full time but they were on the dole, they didn’t get paid. And you’re dealing with a finite number. So you had to maintain morale. And also, even simple convictions could – in time – lead to jail.

Andy: We were mindful, we learnt a lot from Ireland, right, that’s a simple fact. And we learnt that if someone has been left adrift by the leadership having done something and copped time for it, and it seems like no-one gives a [toss] about them, how easy is it for the Old Bill to turn that individual. You’ve got to look after your people, do right by ’em, on the street, in custody…

Gary: There was this one time in Hammersmith with Martin Webster [leading NF activist] and when they fled his arse was still hanging out literally of an open door, and one black kid dragged an NFer out, and he [the NFer] got left behind on his own. Ended up in hospital without even a bunch of grapes! I thought that was terrible PR.

Andy: Never looked after their people. But it’s a dog eat dog world for them.

Gary: They’d stand and fight individually, but they’d never look after each other. For us that was verboten. No-one got put in that position, in as much as you could.

Andy: We even went out of our way to help some people on the left avoid getting caught out by their own stupidity. We were doing surveillance around the time of the ANL relaunch in the East End, and they were gonna go out leafleting, and we knew that there were some well-known faces in the area. And we went down the ANL and said, ‘this is not good right, we’ve seen certain people’, and they said, ‘nah, don’t be stupid’. And people ended up in hospital. We said alright then, nothing we can do here, and got back in the car and [drove] off. And as we’re driving down the road, the ambulances are already passing! And one of the guys who got injured quite badly came over to AFA straight after that.

Gary: The left often only really wanted to get involved when they thought it was in their interests to do so – and often they made a mess of things that had already been achieved.

Andy: Yes, when AFA organised the first major national march against the BNP in the East End – and it was really big, considering we were mainly based in Central London – it came on the radio and this woman came on and said it had been organised by the newly relaunched ANL! Seriously, they’d done all the organising!

Andy: That’s why I never take it really seriously when people moan ‘oh why didn’t AFA work with other people’ and all that. We did, we tried. The amount of time our people went to talk to them and try to get them involved, and say ‘yes, OK, we’ll give you two places on the committee as long as it does’t ease anyone else out’ and make it as broad as possible. And we were relatively successful. At one stage there were anarchists there – the Direct Action Movement – along with dogmatic Trotskyists, people like Workers Power, and they were all co-operating. Things weren’t always smooth. But it went along, and it showed that we were able to show a level of political maturity that’s rare on the left. Were the SWP prepared to come in on the same footing as us? Nah. They couldn’t deal with that. But we had CP people involved, even individuals from the local Labour party.

Gary: Including at the rough end of it! Cos we’d go out in a group of 30 or 40 people and we’d have like 15 stewards there on the ground, while the rest could go up to the flats and do the political work, leafleting and what have you. So not everyone was expected to do the fighting, but there’d be people who wanted to campaign with us and supported what we were doing.

Michael: And were women involved, or was it all blokes? Gary: There were women at every level, every level. But particularly in the intelligence work. They’d go into pubs that fellas hadn’t got the balls to walk into! They’d give you a whole run down of who was in there, what they were up to…

Andy: We tried using a geezer once, and all you got was ‘there’s fuckin’ loads of ’em, but we could have ’em, we could do this and that’. Obviously working class women knew the score, got themselves dolled up – look the part – and engaged them in conversation and found out real stuff you wanted to know: who were the real movers and shakers, what were relations like between the fash and landlord and bar staff; how are the locals treating them, will the hangers on bolt, that sort of thing. Women would get that information, because they’d have far less of an ego. And that’s why in West Germany when the police were fighting the Red Army Faction they said, ‘shoot the women first’. The women were so effective, because they were colder and more logical and systematic in their thinking.

Gary: If they were ever rumbled – when they walked into a pub in jeans and jacket, maybe a little bit of eye-liner – if the fash did think they were after information, they’d
assume they were police. As long as they could hold their nerve they could get themselves out.

Andy: And horny fash can give up loads of information, rendez-vous points and all sorts to our people! (laughter) That’s a fact. Human nature. But you need to be seriously talented people to do that kind of work – to tell us exactly what we need to know. And they were treated at all times as equals. The left would sometimes say ‘any women involved are all like gangster’s molls’, all this insulting, patronising [rubbish]. The women didn’t feel like that. It was just that the roles were different, a lot of the time their skills were better used elsewhere. But not all the time. Sometimes they were involved on the street, and that’s a fact.

Michael: Clearly the nature of the far right threat has changed a lot since those days, with the changes to the BNP under the leadership of Nick Griffin. In the introduction of the book your talking at a point when the the BNP on are a high, after the European elections. Since then after the General Election it appears that – as an organisation – they don’t seem to be in a position to go much further. So what threat do you see them posing today?

Gary: What you said there was important, ‘as an organisation’ – it doesn’t take away from the support they’ve shown they can establish. I think with the BNP it’s partly that they never had the experience of high political office, didn’t have the opportunity. To begin with they didn’t have the middle class types, they were having to fight for the same survival thing which we drew them into, they were all on the streets even Griffin. They were stuck in waiting rooms on stations on Stockport and all that – they never had the chance to step out of the scenario. Next thing, they’re MEPs, they’ve dozens of councillors. Where have they done the planning for that? They’re used to planning Blood and Honour gigs in backrooms of pubs in Deptford. Suddenly they’re elevated. Not equipped – first thing. Second thing – they’ve felt the long arm of the state, no question. Inside, everywhere, every which way – diced and sliced – and at at the same time the key component was to decapitate the organisation, which they’ve failed to do, which was a key [state] objective. The BNP might limp along, but the die has been cast, right, in the sense that the radical alternative will come from the far right within the constituencies we’ve identified. The left has not done anything to address that – at all – in thirty years. They’d no appetite do that, less appetite to do it now, even. There’s nothing on the left that could organise it on a national level. They’ve tried it – Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and all that – they’ve nearly all fallen at the first hurdle, some of ’em didn’t even get to the first hurdle! What does it tell you about Respect – talk about enclaves or sub-groups and insulating yourself! That kind of mindset was partly what we were fighting against, that you could retreat from your core constituency and fight somewhere else on identity grounds. We saw it coming. We said in 2001 that the BNP would prove that – in contrast to the left – they did have traction, could mobilise support in white working class communities. And in 2002, boom!
Where would the far right be if they had a free run at it for the last 30 years? Imagine if they never had to fight a war of attrition and could have brought in all the people with the organisational skills, the media skills and all that in? They’ve had none of that, the BNP leadership. They never got the head-space because AFA weren’t going to give it to ’em. But imagine if they had a clear 30-year run like they got in France and a number other European countries where they’ve basically been unchallenged – with a free run, imagine where we’d be? If all the AFA stuff, all that ingenuity and effort, had been applied behind the BNP instead of against them!

Michael: There’s another account of what cut across the rise of the BNP which I’m sure you won’t like at all, namely that Searchlight and their allies in Barking and Dagenham managed to mobilise the existing community groups, trade unions, faith groups etc along with all the residual support that exists for the Labour party in order to unseat every single one of their councillors.

Andy: They had all those resources and completed a full circle – you had the state, so-called anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, religious groups and what have you – to reinstate the status quo. The status quo is back. Labour rules. Why did people vote BNP in the first place?

Gary: And also the BNP vote went up didn’t it? That’s the future you’re looking at. Not that they’ve been unseated for now because Labour’s woken up. Take the Isle of Dogs. We saw the portents were obvious a long way out. The ANL knocked out [Derek] Beacon…

Andy: …and they were actually popping champagne corks that night, the ANL. His vote went up!

Gary: That was the future – we could see it then; they [the BNP] could see it then. Like Barking and Dagenham it was just a technical knock out.

Andy: I mean Margaret Hodge, what does she stand for?! She’s fine now. Everything’s sorted. She’s back in power, they’ve got all their councillors in – nothing to worry about. Thank you very much. So people have joined ‘respectable’ anti-fascism, the church, the local Labour party, the state, the police, the trade unions, using all the wealth, the resources, the intelligence to take back that seat that was needed. Now, I don’t want the BNP to win in Barking and Dagenham or anywhere else. But don’t let anyone try to kid themselves that that’s any kind of victory for what I would call working class politics. Cos it ain’t.

Gary: If it was the IWCA or the Socialist Party or something like it that had stopped the BNP in Barking and Dagenham that would be a different matter. Really something to celebrate, right? Not to bring it back to where it was originally.

One Man’s Revolution: A Review

One Man’s Revolution by Dan Todd: a Review

The Archive is grateful for being informed about this short autobiography via the Anti-Fascist Archive’s email (antifascistarchive@gmail.com). If you have any stories or information please don’t hesitate to email and let the Archive know.

Whilst One Man’s Revolution has an image of Red Action’s dark ‘Voice of Reason’ t-shirt the memoire largely covers Todd’s life prior to joining Anti-Fascist Action in 1992 and Red Action in 1994. Obviously, it’s this period the Archive is most interested in. However, Todd writes a fluent and interesting account of his political development and his personal life, giving an insight into a Red Action member. One criticism of the writing is that the chronology can sometimes be hard to follow. From the interviews I conducted for my thesis, Todd has a lot in common with their responses. Including, believing the Socialist Workers’ Party to be neither revolutionary nor working class.

In the fourth chapter Todd reaches the AFA and Red Action stage of his political life. Todd is modest in his role in AFA prior to joining in Red Action but once joining Red Action he was thrown into a full-time role despite wanted to be a part-time activist due to family restrictions. Red Action had no time but full-time. In Red Action and AFA he found a political role, unlike the SWP, he found Red Action to be both revolutionary and working class. Todd gives constant justification to violence throughout the book and Red Action’s promotion of violence sat well with Todd. Red Action’s social make up also made Todd feel more socially comfortable.

Todd does recount some interesting details of joining Red Action and physical contact with fascists. Regarding his recruitment, Todd joined the south London Red Action branch and names an organiser as Tubby. Tubby has an interesting story; Todd derides Tubby for lacking the precision and discipline trade mark of Red Action. He also questions his actions during preparations for a hit on Matthew Collins, later revealed as a Searchlight agent, and during the Little Driver action. Repeated failures in discipline and disorganisation led Todd and two other Red Action members to report Tubby and their suspicions of him being an infiltrator to the leadership. Tubby was given the benefit of the doubt and asked to leave Red Action and turn over any materials to Todd; which only led to further proof of Tubby holding back on intelligence. It is quite clear Todd believes Tubby to have been an infiltrator, perhaps a state infiltrator. Following Tubby’s departure Todd with help from the Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Activity kick life into the South London AFA branch.

Whilst Red Action’s activity against fascism is features heavily its support of militant Irish republicanism does not. Todd mentions the criticism Red Action received for “links” with the INLA and a Red Action meeting with Sinn Féin member Francie Molloy, now a MP. But it seems he largely had little to do with the Republican side of Red Action, including the Saoirse campaign.

Todd remains loyal to the Red Action withdrawal from the streets and the Independent Working Class Association. He saw the continuing violence against tiny sects as futile and repeatedly criticises a character named Mickey, who he met when Mickey was filming Ratcatcher, for surrounding himself with anarchists who wanted to continue a physical only strategy against the dwindling elements of fascists who pursued the same strategy.

One Man’s Revolution is well worth a read for scholars of militant anti-fascism. It provides a glimpse into the causes of one man to join Red Action and AFA and also provides a short history of AFA and Red Action in south London. The writing style is enjoyable although the chronology can be at times confusing and it is light on any analysis of Red Action’s and AFA’s activity.

One Man’s Revolution is available for Kindle on amazon.co.uk

Anti-Nazi League: A Critical Review

This document was written in 1995 and produced by the Colin Roach Centre. It examines the ANL in it’s first manifestation from 1977-1981 and in it’s second from 1992-1995.

The first section is written by an active participant of the ANL MK1 and the second portion written by an ex-member of Anti-Fascist Action.

The document can be downloaded here.

Here is the introduction:

The Anti-Nazi League is the largest and best-known anti-fascist organisation in Britain. Its placards and posters declare “no platform for fascists” and “by any mean necessary.” The reality is often different. In this pamphlet, written by two active anti-fascists, the record of the ANL between 1977-1981/2 is contrasted with its record since it was re-launched in 1992.

Much of the material is centred on east London, looking at the struggles against the National Front (NF) in the 1970’s and the British National Party in the 80’s and 90’s. The aim behind the pamphlet is to create discussion and debate, leading to action against the fascists and the system which helps to create them. Comments, favourable or otherwise, can be sent to the publishers of the pamphlet. The authors are both members of the Colin Roach Centre.