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

The Warrington Bomb and Red Action

Recently, BBC North West’s Inside Out programme conducted an investigation into the 1993 Warrington bombing. Ending the police’s embarrassment of not catching the killers of Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry was, seemingly, the motivation. Inside Out speculates that the perpetrators of the lethal bombing were Jan Taylor and, Red Action member, Patrick Hayes. Inside Out asks that when the police were looking for Irish suspects; should they have been looking for a rogue IRA active service unit made up of Englishmen.

The documentary’s evidence supporting their claim leaves some questions. First is the linking of the bin bombing and gas works bombing in Warrington to the Harrods bin bombing and the bombing of a gas works in Tyneside. They are linked by target but, it is also implied, by suspects. The Tyneside gas works was bombed by an Englishman; the Warrington gas works by Irishmen. That the Warrington gas bombing was conducted by Irishmen wasn’t mentioned in the documentary. Partially based upon this faulty evidence the programme reasons that the Warrington bin bombing was carried out by the Harrods bin bombers: Hayes and Taylor. The film insinuates that English IRA active service units were attacking similar targets but Warrington gas bombing was done by Irishmen.

Another problem with the same targets, same nationality of suspects theory is that Hayes and Taylor were also convicted of bombing a train. Where does the train attack fit in to Inside Out’s story?

Inside Out uses Hayes’ Red Action membership as more evidence of guilt. Firstly, the programme doesn’t make it clear that only Hayes was a Red Action member, Taylor wasn’t. The programme also points out Red Action favoured “chicken-box bombs”, like the one used by Hayes and Taylor. The fact is that Red Action has never been found to have bombed anything. The implication is that Red Action had a bombing campaign but they did nothing of the sort. Why would Red Action favour a certain bomb when they had nothing to do with bombing?

Red Action is painted as a shadowy organisation. Whilst certainly secretive it was hardly unreachable. The Independent, ITV and the BBC had all interviewed Red Action. The organisation was very openly pro-IRA, it was on the front of its newspaper and on its stickers; it wasn’t a secret. It was not the underground network Inside Out would have us believe.

Red Action Sticker

Red Action Sticker

Another claim is that the (or these?) English IRA active service unit were rogue or not in the loop. It is pointed to that the IRA was already at the peace table so why would they need to continue bombing? Furthermore, the polices’ claim that the IRA didn’t use the correct code words is their evidence of the bombers being rogue. But the IRA disputed that the wrong codes were used at the time. It’s a ‘he said; she said’ situation in which the truth may never be known.

Inside Out’s own evidence can be used to dispute the rogue unit idea. To provide evidence that there was a campaign to bomb certain targets in England they discuss how the IRA’s top man in England was caught with a list of targets, including gas works, and semtex. If the orders were coming from the IRA’s leading volunteer in England how were the active service units rogue or acting alone?

The evidence presented implying the guilt of Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor is hardly clear cut. The idea that English IRA units were bombing the same targets isn’t true and the idea they were rogue has little evidence. I believe the documentary provides more questions than answers. The simplest being what was the purpose of documentary? And why now?

Read more:

The Arrest of Patrick Hayes

Patrick Hayes statement in Red Action following his arrest. 

Charge of the New Red Brigade, The Independent. This article asks who Red Action are following Hayes’ arrest.

Violence with Violence, World in Action (ITV) investigates anti-fascist groups.

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