On 13 November, David Renton gave a History Research seminar based on his work on the history of fascism and National Front. In this blog he reflects further on issues of free speech raised in his presentation:
For years, I’ve written about the battle between left and right. My interest hasn’t been so much in the structured alternation between two projects for government which gets resolved in a election. I mean rather the conflict between the far right and far left: a story of street-fighters, cultural warriors and intelligence-gatherers.
Recently, I’ve been writing about the rise and fall of one group, the National Front, which in 1976 and 1977 was a mass party capable of winning 100,000 votes in local elections in London and similar support across Britain.
That research has taken me to the Searchlight archive at the University of Northampton. Searchlight was a monthly magazine, with a predominantly left-wing readership which reported on the activities of the Front and other groups on the right.
You find in its archives all sorts of reports – sent in by regular informers, wavering former fascists, or individuals who came into contact with the British right and felt a need to tell someone else what they’d seen.
An example of the committed anti-fascist spy is the individual who attended a meeting of the Front at the Shakespeare pub in Birmingham in June 1975 and who recorded not merely the names of all the speakers, but the content of their speeches:
‘A short discussion was held on infiltration and meetings. Tom Finnegan gave a report on the proposed bulletins for various areas – displaying a map with several hundred coloured pins on it he outlined how things would be done – the communist cell system would be applied with several people in each branch covering a set number of members … John Finnegan then took up the question of trades unions and said that National Front members must gain trade union posts. Communist training classes were referred to and possible emulation commented on.’
Or, if you want an example of the opportunistic anti-fascist spy: here is a one-off letter sent to Searchlight a couple of years later, at a time when the National Front held weekly paper sales at Chapel Market in Islington and the group’s National Organiser Martin Webster was a frequent visitor:
‘Please find enclosed Martin Webster’s passport, diary and a couple of letters. I came into possession of these items as a result of stealing his bike from outside a pub in Islington. I don’t normally steal things but as a committed anti-Nazi I thought I would take it first to wind Webster up.’
The next project I’ll be working on is about silencing and speech. The National Front wanted to see Britain become a one-party state on which everyone who disagreed with the Front would be silenced.
Anti-fascists also had their own idea of silencing, ‘no platform,’ which held that the Front should be prevented from speaking because the Front was a fascist party, and had as its defining purpose the destruction of democracy. As Alan Sapper, General Secretary of the broadcast workers union ACTT put it. ‘Democracy is threatened. We don’t need to bother with philosophical arguments. We can discuss democracy until the concentration camps come in.’
I am only just beginning my research but the things which intrigue me include the resistance of the Front to posing as free speech martyrs. They were desperate to be seen as a virile force capable of beating any opponent, literally or metaphorically, into resistance. Therefore, they declined to play the role which the far right had played in earlier decades: of demanding free speech for themselves but not their opponents.
On the left, meanwhile, no platform was not a single political position but a range of arguments whose resolution was never properly resolved.
Should no platform be restricted to fascists or could it be applied universally to anyone who championed racial or sex discrimination?
Was no platform only appropriate for places controlled by social movements (eg student unions, trade unions, politicised black communities), or did it apply everywhere (eg to party political broadcasts watched by anyone)?
Linked to that question, was no platform something to be carried out ‘from below’ (eg by people themselves blocking the road to prevent a speaker making their way into a meeting) or ‘from above’ (eg by petitioning the local authority to have a particular speaker’s invitation rescinded?
The confused outcomes of these debates is, I’d argue, something which was apparent even after the Front had gone into decline, and its legacy remains with us today.