An article about the history of anti-fascism in Birmingham and the West Midlands from Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine (issue 22, October 1999)
The West Midlands, heavily populated and industrialised, has long been an important target of the Far Right. In the pre-war years the British Union of Fascists (BUF) attempted to establish themselves in Birmingham. After the war immigration from Asia and the Caribbean became the primary focal point for fascist groups, especially as the boom turned into decline and working class areas took the brunt of the State's divisive social and economic policies.
The effects felt in the communities of Birmingham and the Black Country were acute and were inherited by Anti-Fascist Action from its inception years later. It’s against this backdrop that we investigate a few examples of the opposition to fascism that came from within the same class the Far Right sought to dominate - a tradition that continues to this day. The BUF was launched by ex-Birmingham Labour MP Oswald Mosley in 1932, and soon after opened up its first offices in Stratford Rd, south Birmingham. The BUF quickly gained much interest and support from sections of the media and the establishment. Hitler and Mussolini were being keenly observed and admired by influential figures in the British status quo, hence the growth of the BUF to a viable organisation of government was not inconceivable.
Mosley made an attempt at a breakthrough in Birmingham a year or so later, when the BUF organised a rally in the Rag Market. The meeting was plagued by scenes of disorder, as anti-fascists fought with BUF stewards. Mosley returned to the Birmingham area the following January, when the BUF hosted a large rally at Bingley Hall. Clearly conscious of the Rag Market rout Mosley elected to place no less than 2,000 Blackshirt stewards on duty for the event, drafted in from across the Midlands, Liverpool, Manchester and London. 5,000 people attended in all, but the heavy security presence prevented any serious disorder within the meeting. Outside though there were a number of clashes between anti-fascists and Blackshirts as Mosley left, quelled only by large numbers of police.
The right-wing press reported on Mosley's keynote Bingley speech in favourable detail. Birmingham papers the Mail and Gazette endorsed Mosley, printing what amounted to lengthy policy statements on behalf of the BUF, praising the general organisation of the rally, and presenting overt endorsement of much of what was said from the platform.
Despite considerable press sympathy, including the newspaper Baron Lord Rothermere, Mosley's movement was still struggling to strike a chord with the Midlands working class. Hence in the summer of 1934 G.K. Chesterton was drafted to Birmingham as officer-in-charge of Warwickshire and Staffordshire BUF, in an attempt to shape up and reorganise the local movement.
In May 1935 there was another large Mosley rally at Birmingham town hall. Proceedings were disrupted throughout by crowds of anti-fascists involved in hand to hand clashes with Blackshirt stewards all around the hall. Arthur Mills, BUF organiser for Birmingham, was amongst the injured. Mosley told the press that the disturbance was the most serious he had seen for two years, except that at Olympia. “Members of our movement were violently assaulted by reds in the audience”, he said, and that anti-fascists had come organised for violence. At ten o'clock the meeting was closed down and Mosley made off, flanked by his Blackshirt minders.
Attentions turned to Spain in 1936, and anti-fascists rallied in Birmingham's Bull Ring. 71 volunteers from the industrial Midlands joined up to the international Brigades to fight Franco. Some never came back and many more were injured. Colin Bradsworth was a doctor from Birmingham who became battalion medical officer. His bravery during some of the worst fighting at Jarama was exemplary - ferrying the injured and dying under heavy gunfire until he was shot himself. He still continued dressing and treating the injured, despite his own wounds.
As concern about fascism in Europe grew, there were a number of demonstrations at the town hall, and also in Neville Chamberlain's Edgbaston constituency, against what were seen as the Liberal government's pro-fascist policies. In February 1937 a socialist 'United Front' was set up in Birmingham to promote the defence of working class interests against fascism at home and abroad. The following year Chamberlain, in an unconvincing appeasement speech at Birmingham town hall, vowed to “eat his hat” it war broke out!
During 1940 the BUF tried to set up a new headquarters and bookshop in Grove Lane, Handsworth. In less than a week local women forced its closure - threatening that the shop would be smashed, as would the local organiser. The BUF in Birmingham had become a spent force. After the war there began a huge influx of immigrant labour to Birmingham and the Black Country. Hence during the 50's and 60's racial conflict became the catalyst for resurgent fascist activity. Successive governments manipulated the economy, declared war on the unions and gradually wound much of the traditional industry down.
The result of this overall labour and social policy brought hardship, unemployment and urban decay - and the immigrants who were initially shipped in to do much of the menial low paid work were now resented by many of the white working class, spurred on by the institutionalised racists of the middle classes and the establishment. Even the unions played their part - in the late 50's, for example, Birmingham TGWU leadership objected to immigrant bus workers, on the grounds that white women members would not be safe.
Racial violence in the Black Country was a feature throughout this period. In Dudley the mid-50's were marred by three consecutive nights of some of the worst anti-immigrant violence the Midlands has ever seen. 'Paki bashing' became a sport amongst many white gangs in Wolverhampton, activities further 'legitimised' when Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell gave his 'rivers of blood' speech in Walsall.
Smethwick too became a national focus during the early 60's, where colour-bars were openly enforced in pubs, clubs and even barbers' shops - leading to the Tories crushing Labour in the 1964 council elections under the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”, Birmingham Immigration Control Association and the Racial Preservation Society threw all their resources at the areas of Handsworth, Smethwick and West Bromwich, with fascists coming from far afield to whip up racial conflict. Race was rapidly overtaking class as a primary grassroots political focus. The stage was being set for the National Front's forthcoming campaigns right across the West Midlands.
By the mid-70's the National Front were successfully raising their electoral profile. One union had responded to a 1974 appeal to oppose the NF stating:
“Our organisation is not here to protect coloured people but to protect whites from competition for housing and jobs.”
The NF also used the IRA pub bombings of the same year to stir up a wave of animosity and attacks against Birmingham's large Irish community, further bolstering their potential support. For the next five or six years the NF would stand candidates in virtually every election contested in the West Midlands, polling some 8,000 votes in the 1977 County elections in Wolverhampton town alone.
In 1976, 3,000 took part in a counter-demonstration against the NF in Stetchford. The march was called by Asian and black organisations and set out to remain in the immediate area where 1,000 NF were marching. The Trades Council insisted on calling their own march of 300 for the same day which was to be a 'show of strength', in the city centre, safely out of way of the NF. The Labour Party opposed any counter-demonstration against the Front. The gravity of the situation would only be remedied by more urgent tactics.
The following August, three days after heavy violence was inflicted on the National Front at Lewisham, they had another taste of 'red terror' at a by-election meeting due to be addressed by John Tyndall in Birmingham's Ladywood constituency. 120 fascists were besieged in Boulton Road school by a mob of 5-600 anti-fascists, armed with bricks, sticks and bottles, and fierce fighting erupted.
The police came under heavy sustained attack as they did their utmost to protect the NF. Dozens of police were injured. As the meeting closed a crowd of about 300 anti-fascists smashed a police roadblock, and attacked Thornhill Road police station in an attempt to free anti-fascist prisoners. The Times report reflected the new militancy of the protesters:
"A police bus bringing reinforcements from the meeting more than a mile away ran a gauntlet of missiles and had all its windows shattered. Several officers, including a policewoman, were helped out with blood streaming from their faces.”
The NF still took third place out of ten, but Ladywood marked a turning point for all sides.
During the election campaign three Labour Party headquarters had their windows broken, owing to their election agent, Peter Marriner, being forced to resign over allegations that he had previously had extreme right-wing associations (Marriner resurfaced three years later attacking a Bloody Sunday commemoration in Birmingham, as regional organiser for the British Movement!).
The National Front's by-election headquarters in Broad St. were also attacked and ransacked by anti-fascists a few days before the election. At the count there was further trouble, culminating in Anthony Reed Herbert, the NF candidate, getting punched square in the face and having his glasses broken by Raghib Ahsan, the Socialist Unity candidate. Ahsan and other anti-fascists were ejected by police, but he later told the press “I did it and I am proud that I did it. I would do it again if I saw him.”
Reed Herbert announced his resignation from politics less than a week later, unnerved by increasing violence and a glut of telephone and written threats. The jewel in the crown that week though was a shotgun attack on the family antique shop in the East Midlands, in which his brother escaped a bullet in the head by no more than an inch or two. Reed Herbert, like many other Front officials across the country at that time, could not cope with being both outmanoeuvred and out-terrorised by the new strain of uncompromising opposition.
In February 1978 the Young National Front returned to march through the Digbeth area of the city, amidst more scenes of militancy from anti-fascists. Some 400 NF gathered at Digbeth Civic Hall, countered by around 7,000 anti-fascists.
The Birmingham Post described the initial outbreaks of violence:
“The main body moved right, but a group of about 50 realised there was no police force preventing them from moving towards Digbeth. Youths aged between 13 and 18, black and white, many wearing football scarves, ran to a demolition site in Floodgate Street to collect bricks and stones. Bricks, bottles, spark plugs, sticks and broken paving slabs rained down on the police...”
Riots broke out that cost the city in the region of £1,000,000, and although the NF meeting went ahead the siege of Digbeth was another bitter blow to the NF. The Lord Mayor of Birmingham called for the reintroduction of the birch in the aftermath of the rioting. The Trades Council, who had helped organise the counter-demonstration, attempted to distance themselves from the more militant elements, as they did at Stetchford nearly two years earlier. Ironically they again distanced themselves along racial lines, telling the Birmingham Post:
“There were several hundred people. including black and Asian youths, who broke away and became involved in a confrontation situation with the police.”
The inference was that violence was 'beneath' the Left, and the presence of black youth had inflamed the situation. Not surprising then that 18 months previously Bill Jarvis, then head of Birmingham Trades Council, had capitulated to the 'race not class' lobby by calling for a temporary halt to immigration.
At the end of April 1979, the NF held another pre-election rally at Cronehills School, West Bromwich, an area where they'd enjoyed good electoral support in the early seventies. There was fighting inside the venue, between the NF and 150 or so opponents, broken up by a hundred police forcibly entering the hall. Outside youths split away from the Anti-Nazi League march and clashed with some of the 2,000 police present on West Bromwich ringway. Searchlight man Dave Roberts, in the guise of ANL assistant secretary, was on hand to blame the violence on the NF and rogue elements. He commended the police on doing “a very good job”.
The Tories stole the NF's anti-immigration thunder at the '79 election - but fascism didn't entirely disappear. Irish events were systematically attacked throughout the 80's, which in part led to the formation of Midlands AFA as the decade drew to a close.
Not so well documented is the significant role of youth culture - both in aiding the growth of fascism and combating it. There were many clashes at punk and ska gigs, as well as between street gangs. The growing influence and strength of black and Asian youth on the streets played a vital role in helping to stem the tide, outlined in this recollection:
“Around the Black Country there were a number of clashes between skinhead NE supporters and the opposing Rude Boy gangs, which were racially mixed.... The NF came a couple of times to the school distributing 'Bulldog', their youth magazine, to kids on their way home.
The NF made out they were for the whites, but what I ask myself now is who was for the working class? My elder brother became infatuated with the Front. Only a year later he'd buy Socialist Worker and other left-wing papers outside work - like everyone he was looking for a voice, an outlet, not that he would've found much joy there either but, I can see how he thought now in hindsight.
A sister of mine also fancied herself as a skinhead girl, though not in the slightest bit racist, more to do with the kudos of being associated with lads who were seen to be something. It was almost like a Robin Hood scenario, being seen to stand up and reject the establishment - a sense of identity. even if it manifested itself in a reactionary way, such as supporting the NF. But circumstances gelled to provide the NF with support from the worst off.
National Front 'suits' apparently came to the pub at the top of our road to address a NF meeting, comprised mainly of the teenage ‘Oakham Skins', who had by now adopted a reputation for violence, irrespective of the fact that many of the black kids and the Rude Boy elements, including the Asian contingent, were fast becoming the hardest and most feared 'firms' in the area. Further afield, a mile or so away in Tipton, I was told how the NF had suffered heavy casualties when a gang of Brumrnie punks had teamed up with Tipton residents to smash an NF meeting.
Yet the NF's ability to maintain a fearsome reputation was unabated. From the Oakham meeting a group of skinheads left, equipped themselves and burnt down an Asian shop in nearby Netherton, killing one family member. Some of the perpetrators would've been off our estate. A family friend at the bottom end of our road went out with a black bloke and woke up one morning to find her dad's house daubed from top to bottom with painted swastikas and NF graffiti.
The Indian shop at the top of a relative's street in south Birmingham was attacked. Racist street attacks, particularly towards the more vulnerable, seemed commonplace. Retaliation did take place though, with a fair degree of organisation. Ultimately I suppose it came down to who could instil the most fear and get the situation under their control. Looking back now the fascist skins lost it physically, the climate was such that they couldn't operate.”
The NF never really recovered, and on occasions since when they've tried AFA have often been on hand to ensure it stayed that way. Part of a proud tradition of working class militant anti-fascism that continues to the present day. To those who sneer about AFA 'thuggery' and 'squadism' - take a look at those you revere in history, and tell us why it's suddenly different now. “At which point in this continuous tradition of confrontation do you draw the line and say physical opposition is no longer acceptable?”
A booklet A History of Fascism And Anti-Fascism In Birmingham and the Black Country will be available from the WM AFA PO Box in September, price £2.00.