Searchlight

Free Speech for Fascists

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:

 

Renton

 

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.

Exploring the Archives

There are many skills a historian acquires: distilling information, debates and arguments; finding, reading and analyzing primary sources; writing and publishing research; dressing smart but casual; finding obscure conference venues; looking marginally interested in endless administrative meetings (with full knowledge that each second saps a small piece of our zest for life – See here for helpful advice: Rules for a Successful Meeting). Our skills are fine tuned primarily in the archives, that’s where the most fun is to be had. That’s nirvana, where all the good stuff is.

At Northampton we introduce history students to these gems as early as possible because we want them to research history rather than just study it. In that spirit we organize lots of visits to archives, museums and libraries.

We offer trips for our second and third year students to the National Archives, the British Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Wellcome Library, Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum.

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Students with Searchlight documents

Our first years begin more locally by visiting three archives in Northampton: the National Leather Collection, Northamptonshire Central Library and Searchlight (University of Northampton). This is part of our first year skills module, ‘Themes and Perspectives.’

The students made some interesting discoveries this year. One group found an innocuous looking leather-bound cane in the National Leather Collection, only to discover (to the tutor’s alarm) that there was a sharp blade concealed within: this was a sword cane, of the type often carried by British military officers in India.

Another group used the a microfiche reader in the Central Library to look at Northamptonshire General Hospital’s birth records, and one student found his own record in there. Microfiche readers are old technology – none of the students had used one before – but they are still useful for consulting large datasets like newspapers and the census.

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Using a microfiche at the Central Library

We also explore digital archives. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history deposits are a particular favourite: US Holocaust Memorial Oral History. We aim to show students the great quality and volume of sources available to them. We want to equip them with all the skills they will need to succeed in their studies.

The students blog on their visits and the module concludes with a public poster presentation on campus. In groups the students summarize their experiences and their findings in the poster and answer questions from the audience. It’s a nerve-racking experience but a tremendously valuable and rewarding one.

Poster Presentation

The poster presentations

This year the students chose to focus on topics including W.J. Basset-Lowke (Northants businessman), Charles Bradlaugh (MP for Northampton), Poor Houses and Northamptonshire Hospital, Tunderbolt (a Far Right magazine), and Spencer Percival (MP for Northampton, PM 1809-1812, assassinated 1812). All of them local themes with national significance and context.

The students were struck by the diversity of primary sources in each archive (material objects as well as documents). They appreciated the value of handling original documents, as students often do in this digital age. They were interested in the range of different archives available and the numbers of people accessing and using them (note to Northamptonshire Council: Council Spending Cuts).

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Discussing the posters

In their second year these students will hone their research talents on the ‘Research Skills’ module. Finally in the third year they are let loose on their own dissertation project. Topics this year have ranged from courtship ballads in the seventeenth century to Comintern control of Harry Pollitt (General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1929-56).

When they graduate students tell us that researching their dissertations was the best part of their experience as students. We’re with you on that! Researching is not an addition to academic life, it’s a crucial part of what we do. The closest-range social impact that research has is to enrich the experience of our students.

Mark Rothery – Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

Matthew McCormack – Professor of History