In December 1998 Anti-Fascist Action was invited to participate in a seminar on race attacks, held in east London. Along with youth and community workers, academics and local campaigns, the meeting was very constructive and illustrated the growing concern that official anti-racist strategies are not working. The following article was AFA's opening contribution to the discussion.
Our involvement here revolves around a number of long standing concerns:
(a) that race attacks are at an all-time high and rising (up another 6% nationally in British Crime Survey figures this year),
(b) that the Far Right are positioning themselves to take full advantage of Labour's abandonment of the working class,
(c) that current race strategies aid and abet in dividing society on racial lines,
(d) the British National Party's change of strategy puts their destiny in their own hands.
Today we live in a country whose citizens believe it to be scrupulously fair but where one in three openly admit to being racist, where the level and intensity of race attacks has been likened to political terrorism, and whose youth has been judged the most reactionary in Western Europe, a country where the disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities that die in police custody has been condemned by the United Nations and where electoral support for the Far Right (despite standing less candidates) has risen by over 1000%.
Add to this the reality of Social Democrats attacking their former constituency and the orthodox Left collapsing of its own accord, and you have, we believe, all the trace elements required of a doomsday scenario.
Prior to the Lawrence inquiry, each of these facts might on its own have been regarded an aberration, rather than as part of a general rightward drift. Prior to the Lawrence inquiry, the commonly held assumptions were that racism and fascism were all but extinct in this country at least, and we had multiculturalism to thank for it. Unlike others in Europe, we in Britain had addressed the problem with sufficient vigour, resulting in a society at ease with itself, ran the argument.
Sections of the liberal media even sought to lecture, and draw comparison with our European neighbours France, Germany, Italy and Austria where the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. If nothing else the Lawrence inquiry has hopefully shattered that smug complacency. All available studies and statistics show that racism is very much alive. Race attacks, probably the most reliable barometer are on a par with Germany where the Far Right are again marching in their tens of thousands and have just recently entered regional government.
When addressing the issue of, race attacks the Home Offices suggested that the new legislation “would send message to the likes of Combat 18”. In a way that comment shows badly the Establishment and their advisers have got it wrong. The suspects in the Lawrence case, as in the vast majority of cases are not card-carrying members of Far Right parties.
The Far Right are not a cause in the rise of race attacks, but do hope – and are determined to be the main political beneficiaries. These days more symptom than cause, it was in fact an attack on a white youth, John Stoner, in the early 1990s that encouraged the British National Party to raise the cry of ‘Rights For Whites’ and from the same platform it became in a short space of time the pre-eminent fascist party.
The BNP now regularly condemn race attacks, from a white viewpoint of course, but also generally; making political capital from linking the growth to the reality of races living cheek by jowl. The prospect of legislation that would seek to discriminate on sentencing on issues related to race, as proposed by the government, will have them rubbing their hands in glee, as confirmation of an `institutional unfairness' against the white working class. Next time round when the battle cry 'Rights for Whites' is raised it may well resonate not only in Bethnal Green, but in the political mainstream as has already happened elsewhere in Europe.
Additionally no matter how well shaped, further legislation cannot hope to deal positively with the problem. Race attacks are at heart politically motivated. As militant anti-fascists we firmly believe the issue needs to be urgently addressed but it will take anti-racist policy itself to be redefined to do so effectively.
As for the question of 'unfairness' this is more than a perception. Indeed it often appears that councils go out of their way to suggest a greater degree of bias at a policy level than might actually be the case. Prior to the Lawrence murder, another black youth, Rolan Adams, was stabbed to death in the same area of south-east London. The trigger that time was the deliberate closing of a local youth club used predominantly by white kids, and the simultaneous opening of another nearby designed intentionally to be used predominantly by black kids. Rolan was killed coming from there.
Undaunted, only months later Camden Council closed a 'white youth club' and simultaneously opened one intended for the exclusive use of Asian youth. The combination saw racial tension instantly increase one hundred-fold. On both occasions the BNP responded to the invitation to intervene. Once again the tension eventually led to murder, this time of a white kid Richard Everitt.
In both examples, it was the Labour councils rather than the Far Right who quite deliberately racialised the situation. The latter merely sought to interpret and exploit the opportunity. And it was of course the responsibility of anti-fascism to clear up the mess.
A month ago, on Nov 17th (199B), in a reference to an independent inquiry into the running of Tower Hamlets, an Evening Standard editorial commented:
"Amongst the welter of serious allegations, racism is the most disturbing. It takes some doing to be suspected of being anti-Bengali by the Bengali residents and anti-white by the whites, but the council seems to have managed it. No doubt it will claim that it is the councillors' attempts to be even handed that have led to the criticisms from both sides, but the form of the complaints suggests that it is more a matter of bias - or worse - in one direction or the other."
Once again council policy, in the name of anti-racism presumably, appears to be pro-actively engaged in pitting communities against each other. From this and other evidence, it is now our belief that the flaw is systemic. While the damage to inter-community relationships and the cause of anti-racism/anti-fascism is often irreparable.
Fascists are made not born, and in all of this the Far Right are positioning themselves in formally socialist terrain as champions of the underdog. For them of course the dogs are all the one colour. That they succeeded in getting just under 10,000 votes in just three constituencies in this part of east London in May 1997 shows a resonance for their ideas not electorally evident since the mid 1970's. That in May next year they expect to have between 6 to 10 million leaflets delivered free door to door, courtesy of putting up candidates to the tune of £50,000 shows the extent of their ambition.
This new-found confidence is a result of both a continuing deterioration among the Left generally, and is complemented by their abandonment in 1994 of the 'marches, meetings, punch ups' strategy in vogue since the 1970's. The upshot is that by and large their political destiny is for the first time in their own hands, in that their strategy now is not to seek out conflict with their opponents, but to take strenuous steps to avoid it.
The incentive for British fascism to jettison the once cherished profile of a 'party of strength' was two-fold. First, their wish to emulate the success of the Euro-Nationalist strategy on the continent, which in effect means `putting votes before principles in order to attain the power to put principles into practice'. Second, a recognition that in the largely clandestine war of attrition between Left and Right they were the heavy losers. In political terms they found themselves in a hatchet fight without a hatchet.
In that the most serious damage on a national level, particularly between 1990 and 1994, was not only to public image or their ability to recruit, but to their infrastructure; their cadre. Inevitably targets for the opposition, and invariably `head first in' they were all too often carried feet first out, and eventually lost to the Party.
Recently a leading strategist explained the mindset:
"Since the opposition actively seek confrontation, it follows that we must continue with the policy of avoiding it wherever possible, putting our efforts into grassroots campaigning rather than high profile public activities announced long enough in advance to allow our opponents to mobilise against them. If AFA can be 'persuaded' to leave our candidates, canvassers and leafletters alone that is all we need to win".
According to the current BNP leadership, the difference between winning and losing now is assiduously avoiding rather than seeking out confrontation. That this change of strategy is being rigorously implemented means that for the moment militant anti-fascism has been outflanked. It is precisely because it is unable to lay a glove on them that they are gradually building an infrastructure and electoral expertise virtually unhindered. This in time, they believe, will allow them to compete on a level playing field in terms of resources and expertise with the major parties, beginning with selected by-elections.
This ability combined with the other ingredients will, they consider, complete the 'normalisation' of their position within the political mainstream. All importantly, mainstream success is dependent not so much on their ability to painstakingly create an audience, but to draw instead from the vast reservoir of reaction whose existence is acknowledged by both sides, but is so far largely untapped. As we see it the counter-strategy designed specifically to drain off this reservoir must be two pronged.
Race attacks are the sea in which the Far Right swim. It is self-evident that the ad-hoc race attacker of today, given the opportunity, will become the organised fascist of tomorrow. Consequently we consider that the cutting edge of an effective counter-strategy at this juncture would be a broad-based and national anti-race attacks campaign, designed both to politically highlight the hidden epidemic, and reverse the isolation between victim and perpetrator at a grassroots level. Clearly, this process of 'draining off' can only be successful if, and when, other government sponsored race initatives are encouraged to consider how they might inadvertently be 'feeding in'.
Since the early 1960s across Europe, by appropriating the arguments of the Left, fascism has astutely been exploiting the right to maintain racial and cultural differences, to the extent that the concept of race as the only, or primary, dynamic in a multi-cultural society cannot any longer be left unchallenged. The political situation demands that in the name of anti-racism that premise is confronted head on, and now is the time to do it.
Otherwise, as Machiavelli noted:
"political disorders can be quickly healed if seen in advance, when for lack of a diagnosis they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognise them, remedies are too late."