Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Un Francais - Seeing Racism from Within

The film that takes on skinheads and the far right

By Hugh Schofield

A new French movie is causing ructions over claims that it is too incendiary for general release. The film is about a violent skinhead and the origins of France's far-right political movement.

A film that shows the redemption of a racist thug: does it help us understand the true nature of racist thuggery? Or does it normalize racism? Or does it trivialize the problem? Those are questions raised by the movie Un Francais - A Frenchman.

Directed by the little-known Patrick Aste, who goes by the name Diasteme, Un Francais tells the story of a 1980s skinhead who starts life beating up black people but 30 years later is helping migrants at a Paris soup kitchen.

Marco's journey is being hailed as a breakthrough in French cinema, because Un Francais is the country's first ever film to deal in depth with the violent ultra right and the roots of the Front National.

Though the party is never actually named, the FN's presence permeates the film. Early on Marco gets taken on as a party security goon, and by the end his one-time colleagues are basking in the far right's new respectability.

"You can see the film as a metaphor for the progress of the Front National. Like the party, the hero starts out as unacceptable but he evolves into something much more conformist, more banal," says Jean-Christophe Buisson, arts editor at Le Figaro magazine.


In his early scenes Diasteme is unsparing with the violence. We see Marco beating up Socialist bill-posters, and humiliating Arabs in a cafe. In the most disturbing scene - based on a real-life incident - a black man is made to drink caustic soda and dies.

But already there are signs of his impending crisis. Marco suffers a fit of breathlessness after he sees the fear in the faces of an Arab family on a bus. He befriends a doctor and gradually falls out with his skinhead gang.

Fast forward to today, and Marco's friends are in prison, dead, or transmogrified into spokesmen of the new smooth-talking far right. He is alone, in the same dead-end high-rise from where he started out.

Critical reaction to the film as a piece of cinema has been mixed. The central performance by Alban Lenoir is strong, but structurally Un Francais lacks dramatic tension. In its first week on national release, it has only sold about 35,000 tickets.

But over the subject matter - far-right violence - debate is raging, especially after director Diasteme claimed cinema managers found it too hot to handle.

According to the director, around 50 avant-premier, or previews, which were to have taken place ahead of release last week were cancelled. He said this was because of a "campaign of hate" against the film on the internet.


The implication was that supporters of the far right - incensed by the film's portrayal of skinheads - were threatening cinemas, and managers were deciding to drop the film rather than risk trouble.

In fact there is little evidence of any campaign of hate mail, and several French newspapers have suggested the whole row was a publicity ruse.

It is also far from certain that the film necessarily harms the far right.

Undoubtedly it was conceived by Diasteme as an anti-FN project. The violence is graphic, and even in airbrushed modern-day garb the far-right characters are obviously intended to be nasty.

For film critic Romain Blondeau of the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, "It is an important film because of the political context of today.

"Just as the FN is trying to become normal and respectable, Un Francais is a timely reminder that it is not a normal, respectable party. It is a party whose origins are violent and racist."

But at a deeper level, some would argue that merely by making the far right the subject of a film, Diasteme has unwittingly abetted the process of FN "normalisation".


"Until now the far right has been taboo in the world of culture," says Buisson. "The only way to treat it was as a moral evil, to equate it with fascism, and damn everyone who was associated with it.

"But now we have a film which is so much more interesting because it dares to talk about the psychological path of an individual.

"For the first time in French cinema we are looking at a member of the far right as a human being. No longer are they just the savage brutes whose only interest is beating up their enemies. Here is someone on the far right with the same doubts, feelings and frustrations as everyone else."

In other words, just as the FN is becoming part of the political mainstream, so are far-rightists being portrayed for the first time in the arts as more than mere ciphers.

Not that that thought particularly pleases the people on whom Un Francais is actually based - French skinheads.

Today far-right skinheads are a tiny minority in France. For all the attempts in parts of the press to portray them as such, they are hardly a national threat.


That is partly why ex-skinheads like Serge Ayoub are so incensed at Un Francais. In his eyes, the film is a lazy potshot at an easy target.

"How about this idea for a film," he says ironically. "A Maghrebi drop-out from the banlieues who deals in drugs and guns, and then has a conversion and discovers that he loves France. Now that would have been a courageous film!"

Ayoub, who is 50, began adult life very much as Marco in the film. As a young far-right tough, he loved English punk and earned the nickname Batskin. Today he remains a theorist of the ultra-nationalist right, and is watched by the police.

"What I loathe about this film," he says, "is the way it frames life in terms of good and evil. To redeem himself, the hero has to leave behind his 'evil' past.

"But the world is more complicated. If skinheads are violent, it is because violence is all they have left. All the skinhead has are his hands to work with. And his fists to express himself.

"That is why the skinhead is revolutionary. That is what is interesting. And that is what this film does not talk about."

As for the Front National, the party's vice-president Florian Philippot told me the film was so detached from reality that it was not worth commenting on.

"I know the director wants to pretend it is all about the FN, but in fact it is about a handful of thugs. There is no connection at all," he said. "Also I am told it is a lousy. I expect it to sink without trace."

Un Francais is certainly not going to make box-office history. But its importance lies less in its cinematic qualities than in the fact that it was made at all.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News Magazine

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Can We Love the '70s and Still Outgrow its Attitudes?

It broke my heart when certain now universally-known facts first emerged about the 1970s glam superstar Gary Glitter. To those of us of a certain age Glitter personified everything that was fun and sparkly about that unique period in our recent cultural history.

He was no musical giant, of course. But his songs were audacious and bursting with braggadocio. He gave us a laugh, and made young men like me feel mightily good about ourselves.

Needless to say it was less of a laugh for the victims of his sexual abuse. Less too for those of the astoundingly prolific pervert Jimmy Savile. And in the wake of the shocking revelations about the literally hundreds of inappropriate liaisons that Jim managed to fix came news of so many others in the world of seventies music and popular culture who, albeit on a thankfully smaller scale, also seemed to have groped and molested their way through the decade with impunity.


It seems a tad selfish then to remark that the discoveries of the erstwhile antics of Glitter, Savile et al were like daggers to the hearts of '70s-worshippers such as myself. For all the soul searching it has caused the likes of me, and for all the worry and heartache that accompanies the thought that we may for so long have been living a lie, the experience cannot begin to compare with that of those who suffered directly at their hands.

By comparison with what was going on in music the world of seventies comedy would appear to have been relatively untouched by the hand of scandal. However recent documentaries and television features have served to remind us that the sitcom and stand-up that passed for innocent entertainment in those days had an intrinsic shock value all of its own.

Jokes of a racial and homophobic nature were for a very long time at the root of much if not most of our comedy. Along with, of course, laughing at people with disabilities and generally adhering to negative stereotypes of all kinds of people. It is only fairly recently that this long prevalent culture has been successfully challenged.


Furthermore it wasn't only those sitcoms which had racial adversity at their core, such as Love They Neighbour and Till Death Do Us Part, that were guilty. Even one famous episode of Fawlty Towers, written by the impeccably liberal John Cleese, contained the words "w*g" and "n****r" - terms the use of which would rightly be unthinkable today.

Stand-up was probably more tainted still. Stupid Irishmen, tight-fisted Jews (or Scots), smelly Asians and criminal West Indians were the foundation stones of a goodly proportion of what was more or less universally accepted as good comedy in those days. And if we're being honest, how many of us could truly say we did not find Manning funny?

Thankfully our perceptions have changed. Much of what I used to laugh at now makes me squirm with embarrassment. I hate Political Correctness, but subconsciously have probably taken on board 90% of its fundamental premises.


So how can it be then that so many of us still so love the 1970s? What, precisely, is to celebrate about a decade of sexual abuse, racial stereotyping, industrial unrest, Cold Wars, impractical attire and vomit-inducing bubble gum?

The answer is, I think, that all our shortcomings were trumped with love. There was a magnetism, and an overriding self-deprecating humour, which if it did not make all the ignorance and the prejudice okay at least relegated it to something less serious, less integral to what made that society tick than might suggest itself to somebody looking back at the 1970s today. We fought on the football terraces wearing loon pants and butterfly collars, for goodness' sake. We said and did some very dumb things but nothing was meant too literally.

If you think that sounds like an excuse then probably you have a point. But nothing will take away from me the affection I had for that glorious, golden decade, from which my soul has held onto everything that was pure and conveniently rejected everything that was hateful. There's no going back to Love Thy Neighbour or Gary Glitter, but I still had my gang and it was mine.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Is Farage Treading an Old Path to Oblivion?

One of the few blessings that I have acquired in a lifetime of political interest and involvement is an exceptional long-term memory. No matter that I am more than capable of venturing out into the rain having forgotten to put my shoes on, I can nonetheless still recall verbatim particular conversations that I had with particular people in particular situations in days when we all watched TV in black and white.

I was only a boy of fifteen when I joined the National Front back in 1977, but I do remember the buzz of excitement and expectation that existed around the party at that time. Although at its heart it was an anti-democratic party the NF was committed at the time to following the electoral road to power, which after all its Austrian mentor had himself trodden successfully. Ever-increasing returns from elections, local and national, seemed to confirm that the party was on its way. There was no need to shun democracy for as long as it seemed to be working in one's favour.


It seems incredible to reflect that even in its halcyon days of the 1970s the National Front never won a single seat on a single local council. It came exceptionally close, capturing more than 30% of the vote in several wards in its East London and other heartlands. In the Greater London Council elections of 1977 it won 119,000 votes in the capital, and a local election in Deptford saw a combined vote of 44.5% for the NF and National Party (an NF splinter group), against 43% for the victorious Labour candidate. The NP won two local council seats in Blackburn. At its absolute peak, NF membership was nudging 20,000.

The reasons why the NF never made the breakthrough to actual electoral success are manifold. The party's electoral strategy was, to begin with, designed with rapid national success firmly in mind. Subconsciously party managers were only too well aware that the whole edifice was constructed on sand. Living a lie by presenting itself as a democratic patriotic party when at its core its philosophy was national socialist it could have been forgiven for fearing that a period of "middle management" which would have exposed it to the daylight may actually have been detrimental to the realisation of its long term aims. Particularly as most of its candidates would have made noticeably poor councillors.

Secondly the party system was less fluid than it is today. With a significantly higher percentage of voters still committed to one or other of the big mainstream parties, often still according to class background or loyalties, and generally better turnouts, the prospects for an outsider party to launch a successful assault even at local council level were less promising.

Thirdly, and associated with the previous point, there was already an aura of "bad news" developing around the NF. Its opponents relentlessly opposed it as a nazi party through publicity campaigns, demonstrations, media coverage and youth culture and, whilst the Front had constructed an elaborate defence strategy to try to minimise the effect of such attacks, that strategy was somewhat compromised by the fact that, in essence, the allegations were true.


When the general election of 1979 took place all of these facts eventually conspired to deliver the National Front a hammer blow from which it never recovered. An unwitting pincer movement by the combined forces of the anti-racist left and a dynamic new Conservative Party leadership drew the large majority of the NF's erstwhile voters away, and the age of Thatcherism began in earnest.

What comparisons can be made between the NF's adventure in the mid to late 1970s and that currently being enjoyed by Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party?

At every level UKIP has exceeded anything the NF ever achieved even at its peak. It has a number of councillors. Recently it won its first ever parliamentary election, by a landslide, and is anticipating another as I write. At this year's elections to the European Parliament UKIP won more votes, and returned more MEPs, than any of the establishment parties.

Whilst it is important to acknowledge that, unlike the NF of yesteryear, UKIP is not an extremist party with an underlying anti-democratic agenda, many of those who follow it are of a similar ilk to those I used to share meetings with back in those far-off days. Old reactionaries, averse to Johnny Foreigner and bemoaning the loss of Empire, are not a great deal different today to what they were four decades ago. For the NF they were padding, a useful veneer with which to mask a much nastier and more sinister reality. In UKIP's ranks they are probably more genuinely welcome. But they are of a similar stock.

Like the NF, UKIP do sometimes get a bad press from the anti-racist movement - but there are two essential differences. The first is that charges of racism, and more especially those of fascism, stick far less. There are no embarrassing photographs of which I am aware of Farage parading around the English countryside in paramilitary uniform. No quotes about putting people into gas chambers. No prison sentences served for violent and unlawful political activity. The second is that much of the "left" which comprises that movement is still sufficiently emotionally attached to Labour not to want to unsettle too much a rising political party which takes most of its votes from the Tories.

Nevertheless, one has to ask whether the powers that be will ever trust UKIP, as an outsider party, enough to allow it to make the breakthrough which runs the risk of changing the character of a hitherto obedient party system forever. If it won't, then at some point they will need to act.

Currently the big parties seem to be following what is really something of a non-strategy, vying limply with one other for the UKIP vote. Doubtless the Tories, who have the most to lose, will be scouring the sewers for undiscovered dung piles which can be unveiled to the voting public at strategic times during the coming campaign. Labour loyalists meanwhile must decide just how comfortably their natural aversion the UKIP-style politics can sit with their hopes that a divided right-leaning vote will help ease Labour into office.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

What It Really Means When You Like or Share Content from Britain First

On these pages we frequently take the time out to celebrate the genuinely positive things which come from social media, such as the force for good that was Stephen Sutton and the unanticipated impact of the no-make-up-selfie movement.

Every now and then however we have to comment on the darker side, the way that the democratisation of publishing and communication is exploited in the service of what can only be described as evil. Because a lot of non-evil people are getting suckered in, being used to spread reach and support for the organisation Britain First – whose Facebook Page likes are currently growing at around 8000 per day.

Other than masters of social media manipulation, who are Britain First? They are a registered political party under the leadership of one James Dowson, who split from the BNP to form his own movement some years ago on a platform of evangelicism, anti-abortion, anti-islam and anti-immigration homophobic hate campaigns. They drive around in military jeeps outside mosques handing out alcohol to fuel mobs recruited from the EDL, and have links with violent extremist groups in Northern Ireland.

None of the above facts play too well on social media though, so how have they become the fastest-growing UK political movement in Facebook history, with over 300k likes – more than the Conservative, Labour and UKIP pages combined? [UPDATED: UKIP growing too fast for this statistic to hold up now] And generated levels of engagement – the ‘people talking about this’ factor – that would leave most brand’s social media managers wringing their hands in envy?

By using simple, emotive viral content, which people click ‘like’ and ‘share’ on – without stopping to think about the cause they are actually promoting and spreading.

Love Diana? Support our troops? Revere the D-Day heroes? (You know, the guys who died fighting fascism 70 years ago..?) An endearing image, a catchy meme – how can you NOT click ‘like’, unless you actually disagree and support paedophiles, right?

In the run-up to the recent European and local elections in the UK, millions of UK residents will have been exposed to a piece of Britain First content – more than buy physical copies of newspapers such as The Independent or The Guardian in any seven day period. Combined with the context of the rise of far right groups in other parts of the continent, and the most cursory reading of the history of the past century, this should make every thinking person’s blood run cold.

“Oh, but I don’t ‘do’ politics” / “I don’t care what they stand for I was touched by that photo” / “Halal just sounds so cruel and I love animals” people wail, when you call them out on sharing content from this evil violent fascist hate-filled organisation.

Well, then you are as much a part of the problem as the people creating and sharing this content in the first place. In some ways you are worse, because those who actually believe in are easy to spot and eliminate from my friends list.

It’s the people I know to be basically good compassionate humans, but think it’s OK to share this stuff, which make me want to weep. They don’t realize they are being cynically manipulated to spread a campaign of hate – how did those fallen veterans consent to the use of their image in this way? Why have the family of Lee Rigby had to undertake legal battles to stop Britain First exploiting the name of their murdered son, on their election campaigning material as well as their social media content? There is nothing this group will not do, no depths they will not sink to, when it comes to exploiting misery and division to fundraise for their campaigns of hate.

Every time you like, share or comment on a Facebook post by Britain First, you create a story in your newsfeed, and spread their reach and their message further. You help them fundraise for their violent oppressive demonstrations and campaigns, you help them threaten peaceful people at worship, you help them beat up gay people, spread poison and divisiveness, you help them fuel ignorance and hate.

Please do not misunderstand me, everyone’s party political views are their own. I enjoy friendship and dialogue with many people whose opinions on many matters I am fundamentally opposed to, or have little interest in. Unlike Britain First I embrace and celebrate diversity and difference, and intelligent discussion of different points of view – heaven knows the world is in a mess right now and I have no grand opinions on the best way to fix it, talking about ideas with people whose ideas challenge and push at your own is a good way of developing solutions.

But it is that frustration at traditional party politics, the anger at austerity, the fear of further loss, that is being exploited by the far right – again.

If you share content from Britain First because you believe in what they stand for then fine, unlike that organisation I actually respect your right to that opinion – let’s go our separate ways and be done with it. Please remove me from your friends list, if I have not already done so recently.

And if you were suckered by their sugar-coated emotive linkbait into sharing something that no-one could disagree with, and you now regret it, you know where the delete button is

(if you don’t – it’s here)

If you have friends who need to read this and make up their own minds about where they stand on disseminating hate propaganda, do consider sharing this post, either on your timeline or as a comment on the content they have shared.

Thanks for reading.

[UPDATED 10-7-14] Not sure whether to laugh or cry over the latest cynical bandwagon jumping by Britain First. They must have had this meme out within about an hour of the press announcement of the unexpected death of one of the UK’s lefty comedy icons. I am sure the friends and family of Rik Mayall have better things to focus on right now than this exploitation following their sudden bereavement, and I am sure the man himself would be roaring with indignant laughter,

About as hilarious as their invocation of Gandhi on their page yesterday as well. Apparently on account of his animal rights positioning – well, so long as we’d never let him through customs and immigration.

Rebel in Paradise Rik, thanks for all the laughs over all the years.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to Costa Connected.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Nick Griffin Expelled as BNP Follows a Time-Honoured Tradition

When I stumbled by chance yesterday evening upon an article on the BBC News website breaking the news that Nick Griffin had been expelled from membership of the British National Party my first reaction was to laugh out loud.

My mirth was induced not by any desire to heap scorn upon a man whom I’d considered a friend and comrade in the days when we shared a political outlook which I’ve since come to despise. Rather it was the amused reaction of one who had once more been reminded of the perennial farce that is and always has been the far-right’s approach to organisational etiquette.

Griffin and I were both young men in the National Front in the late 1970s, when the racist party had emerged from an acrimonious split with a Strasserite faction, which had oddly allied itself to a right-wing Tory-inclined faction in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the organisation from the national socialist clique which had ruled with a hidden hand more or less since the NF’s inception a decade or so earlier.


During the latter part of the seventies the party mood had been upbeat and expectant as election results got better and better and the breakthrough for which it had hankered appeared increasingly imminent. When instead of achieving that breakthrough electoral support crashed, membership figures plummeted and the organisation was reconsigned to the margins whence it had come the then NF leader John Tyndall scarpered to form his own breakaway party, the New National Front (which, ironically, would later become the British National Party). So bitter was the manner of his parting that Tyndall and those who had followed him very quickly became non-people, whose names could no longer be spoken.

Nick Griffin, the NF’s National Student Organiser, was by this time already firmly ensconced on the party’s governing body, the National Directorate.

A shadow of its only recently former self the NF trundled along, holding badly-attended public activities in the back of beyond which had become more of an institutional nostalgia trip than a serious attempt at winning friends and influence, until the de facto leader of the party and “mastermind” of the failing strategy, Martin Webster, was ousted from his post of National Organiser following a carefully managed coup in which Griffin was instrumental. Needless to say the transition from deposed leader to expelled ex-member was, for Webster, a rapid one and he and his supporters very quickly became persona non grata, the more outspoken amongst them soon finding themselves the unwilling recipients of some pretty disgusting (if sometimes rather imaginative) hate material.

For a few years thereafter the National Front, sans Webster, ploughed new furrows, enjoying small oases of success amid a wider desert of failure as the party remained the retreat of the lonely, the obsessive and the eccentric. Nick Griffin was a major player, although there were other major players too. There were fewer though once the split of 1986 had taken place. At a historic meeting of the National Directorate in Slough factions led on the one side by Griffin and on the other by Martin Wingfield, Andrew Brons and the late Ian Anderson went their separate ways in a dispute which began with the almost gentlemanly exchange of letters of expulsion and culminated in the attempted car-bombing of Anderson’s motor vehicle and the breaking of the then Griffin supporter Patrick Harrington’s arm during a factional scuffle outside an East London public house.

For the remainder of the 1980s the two factions, both calling themselves the National Front, dedicated themselves almost entirely to the cause of trying either to harass or to embarrass the other out of existence. When the anti-Griffin NF announced its intention to stage a march against Middle Eastern terrorism the pro-Griffin version would distribute a press release declaring its undying love for the fathers of the Iranian Revolution. When the Griffinites denounced the Union Flag as an imperialist rag the Wingfieldites, for want of a better term, would bedeck every page of their propaganda material with it.


Then, in 1989, Griffin and a few others got itchy feet and decided they would relocate what was left of the party (or at least their faction thereof) to the French countryside, much to the chagrin of Patrick Harrington who by now was running the organisation on a day-to-day basis from his Mum’s basement pad in Kensington. The result, inevitably, was not a mature discussion on the future direction of the party but rather its division into two further factions, this time neither of them laying claim to the name “National Front”. The Griffin group, backed by the Italian exiles around Roberto Fiore, became the International Third Position whilst what remained in England changed its name to the Third Way. The Wingfield/Anderson faction, whose existence everybody had all but forgotten, thereby became the one and only National Front by default. Every one’s a winner.

By far-right standards the ITP/TW split was relatively civil. Both parties decided to go fairly much their own way and to do fairly much their own thing. Both organisations still exist today, in one form or another, but Nick Griffin has nothing to do with either of them

When I parted company from the far-right and its ideology towards the end of 1991 – many years later than I ought to have done – Griffin was still a member of the ITP, although recovering from the shotgun cartridge accident in France which led to him losing an eye. It was some while later that he joined the BNP, apparently via an incident in which he managed to relieve an ITP colleague of his life savings through an ill-advised printing venture, and determined from the beginning that he would usurp the leadership from the now ageing John Tyndall. Within a few years he had achieved his objective of taking control of the party which he had once so disparaged. Before long, naturally, Tyndall had been expelled.

Under Griffin and his “modernisation” strategy the BNP achieved considerable, if temporary success. At one point it was able to count its councillors (including parish) in three figures, as well as boasting two MEPs and an elected representative on the Greater London Authority. His ability to achieve this was down to lessons learned from the experience of the NF in the 1970s coupled with an understanding of the importance of building from the grass roots, a strategy to which Webster had been oblivious. Add this to a political climate in which establishment politicians were held in low regard, low voter turnout and an element of personal media savvy and he and the BNP were away. Sadly for him the quality of his elected councillors was found wanting and his unwillingness or inability to train them conspired against any prospect of sustained growth.


As decline began to set in BNP members began to ask questions. They questioned Griffin’s tactics. They questioned his commitment to core principles – some traditionalists felt he had moved away from those great fictions that have sustained “nationalist” ideology in the UK since the Second World War whilst some of the newer recruits feared he was still old guard at heart. Most of all, they questioned his financial probity. Talk abounded of large sums of money unaccounted for, dodgy deals, debts not honoured, employees not paid and all manner of other irregularities.

A common by-product of the disputes that beset the BNP during its later days of decline was the emergence of leadership challenges. Chris Jackson, Colin Auty, Eddy Butler, Andrew Brons – all of them tried, failed – and ended up outside of the party in short order. Nick Griffin, as the far-right itself, has never done “ordinary” leadership contests in which the best person wins and the other shakes hands and lends his or her full support to the victor. For as long as I can remember, every leadership challenge in the recent history of the far-right has resulted in expulsions, resignations and bitter recriminations.

As the BNP’s star has faded with the emergence to major prominence of UKIP which, despite its undisputed commitment to democratic traditions, casts its net wide enough to enable it to embrace most erstwhile far-righters, so my own interest in keeping a watchful eye on the BNP and other far-right groups has mellowed. Nevertheless I have been periodically following with voyeuristic interest the fortunes of what very little is left of the BNP, from the moment when Griffin “stepped down” to make way for one Adam Walker (whom I’ve never met, but from his track record he seems none too bright) to his inevitable expulsion.

My amusement derives from the fact that Nick Griffin’s BNP career has ended in precisely the same manner as that of every one of his victims, from his expulsion without a proper hearing to the obligatory whinging about the unfairness of it all.

It is difficult to predict where Nick Griffin will go from here. Much depends on whether, at 55 and with 40 years of flat-out political activity behind him, he has the stomach for beginning all over again. Maybe he’ll fight for his job back which, with the BNP’s current fortunes, is akin to squabbling over the best seat on the proverbial Titanic. Or maybe he will regard it as a blessing and launch a new project of his own, one more suited to the current UKIP-friendly climate. His traditional support base has not vanished, it has simply relocated to a nicer home. For as long as it exists, it has the potential to return to the far-right if it gets its act together and the “moderate” UKIP fails to maintain momentum. To get rid of it for good we need to educate, not manipulate.

To some Nick Griffin is the man who almost took racism and fascism into the political mainstream. To others he is a charlatan who has run the BNP in the manner of some two-bit gangster, first cooking up spurious charges and later expelling all his critics within the movement. It is difficult not to see that the folk now running the party who have expelled him for bringing the organisation into disrepute are treading a well-trodden track.

Monday, 23 December 2013

From Lower Down You Just Seemed So Much Better

This line is from a track called All In All by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, from the group’s defining Too-Rye-Ay album recorded in 1982. It sprung oddly to mind a week or so ago as I watched a video on YouTube of one of my mentors of old pontificating about the threat that apparently exists to all mankind from the forces of "World Jewry".

I was inspired to watch the video by a curious chance encounter that had taken place in my home town of Isleworth that very morning.

My Independent Community Group (ICG) comrades and I had arranged to meet outside the Blue School for a short leafleting session in Old Isleworth. But as the rain intensified our Chair Ian Speed and I took refuge under the scant cover afforded by the doorway of the Swan public house.

Standing there I was vaguely aware of a man cycling past at some speed. My eyesight is poor these days and my vision was further obscured by the rain, so all I saw was a man on a bicycle wearing a cycling helmet. But when he spoke the immortal words "I’ve not seen you for a while, young man," without stopping, I instantly recognised a voice that I’d not heard for some 29 years.

Martin Webster was the de facto leader of the National Front when I first became a local organiser of the far-right party in the early 1980s. In my various travels around London and beyond on party business during that time I came into contact with him rather a lot - at meetings, seminars, social events and so on. He spoke at a Hounslow Branch meeting in Isleworth at least once, and drank with us at the very pub that I was standing outside when said encounter happened, on an evening when we were suddenly visited upon by about forty Labour Party activists who had been holding a meeting at the nearby Isleworth Public Hall, and this at a time when Labour members generally were considered left-wing and were often quite militant in their opposition to racism.

Webster was a larger than life character in more than just the physical sense. He was acknowledged, even by his opponents, as a talented organiser, although when the rules of the game changed as mainstream attitudes towards the racist right hardened he revealed himself to have been something of a one-trick pony. He had charisma, oodles of it, and no matter how many people were sat around a table with him he was invariably the one who would hold court. He had a crazy temper, to the point that when he was in full flight there was little point in ever trying to reason with him. One admired his intellect – he was a clever man, although not really an academic – and more than anything else he possessed a rapier wit.

It is often claimed, in historical volumes written about the National Front, that Webster was expelled from the party because he was homosexual. This is not true. The NF of the 1970s and 1980s was at its heart a homophobic party, but not as aggressively so as other far-right organisations before and after it. Webster was held in sufficiently high regard, and his strength of character was such, that he became very much accepted for what he was – until, that was, his organisational talents began to fail him. When he was expelled from the NF in 1984, it had all to do with his control-freakery, his maniacal tantrums and, of course, his opposition to the influence of the Italians around Roberto Fiore on the Front’s emerging young leaders, and nothing to do with his private life.

The purge against Webster and his close supporters began in late 1983, when a neat little two-step conjured up by the then young radicals Joe Pearce and Nick Griffin began with their resignation from the party as a protest against Webster’s style of leadership, and ended with them being reinstated after being pleaded with by the remaining party leaders, with Webster himself being offered up as the sacrifice.

Partly because I had been a victim of Webster’s outbursts myself on one or two occasions, but primarily because I considered myself to be something of a young radical who was sympathetic to what Pearce/Griffin, and the Italians, were trying to achieve, I lined up behind them and the Hounslow Branch of the NF, of which I was Organiser, did likewise. For my support I was rewarded with a place on the National Directorate and with the post of National Organiser of the Young National Front, although the latter came to mean very little as so young was the bulk of the party membership that the YNF and the NF itself were to all intents and purposes the same organisation comprising the same people.

Webster himself formed a short-lived grouplet which he called Our Nation, boasting about forty members, many of whom were relatively well-heeled and being such sustained him for a while as he plotted on the sidelines and became a bit of a thorn in the side of the new NF leadership until it became clear to him that he would not be coming back. Henceforth he went into retirement from party politics, although he continued to play a role on the far right as a public speaker at non-aligned events, as well being regarded as something of an authority on any subject which had the foul machinations of The Evil Jew at its heart. He also, to his credit, took advantage of the opportunity presented by his change of circumstances to work on his physical condition, and became a keen cyclist.

Throughout my time in the NF, even after Webster had gone, there remained a grudging respect for his intellect and for his personality. I always saw him as a bigger man than myself – sharper, more learned, wittier and with a superior organisational brain. So when I saw his video last week – and I listened to his speech from start to finish – I was actually very surprised by just how ordinary he sounded. Adequate but unspectacular in his delivery, ill-informed and unscientific in his presentation of what passed for facts, and just generally amateurish. In the long distant past, because he was older than me and exuded intelligence and a veneer of authority I had never doubted the accuracy of the things of which he spoke. What I heard on the video was, frankly, little more than ignorant drivel.

There is a popular saying that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. It is only with the passage of time, and with the benefit of the life experience which I have since gained, that I have come to fully appreciate the magnitude of the blindness which surrounded me as an adherent of far-right ideology back in the 1980s.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Coming Face to Face With My National Front Past...Almost!

This may seem a strange topic to choose for my first post of 2013, but I had a weird dream the other night which I want to consign to record, as much for my own sanity as for anything else, but also to provide some light amusement for those who find such things amusing.

I was somewhere in a run-down area of London, in a derelict back street. The road was busy, although it was in actual fact a cul de sac terminating at the gates of an old factory. I was lazing about on a wall, actually lying down face forward, awaiting the arrival of some people who were going to join me on a demonstration. The factory employed mostly immigrant workers, who were being exploited by their management. The purpose of the demo was to protest against their treatment by the factory bosses.

In very little time several hundred people had arrived. They were a varied and colourful bunch, made up of all types of people. There were men and women of all ages, and from a whole variety of ethnic backgrounds. There were gay people (they seemed to be there as gay people) and, strangely, there was a group of men with shaven heads and identically attired in gold whom I presumed to be a religious sect of some form or another. A similarly-clad group dressed in pink then arrived, to the apparent chagrin of the gold people. I assumed these were from a rival religious sect.

But the folk I remember most vividly were an assortment of left-wing types, not in the union militant or Rocking Russian sense but more your trendy student, look-at-me, faux alternative stereotype. Although we shared a common cause I recall feeling uneasy around these people, not so much out of fear but more a sense of insincerity and general debasement of the mission upon which I was embarked.

The protest involved a march for the length of the street, after which we would turn left into a busy main thoroughfare. There, from within the sunken depths of a major London underground station, a National Front counter-demonstration was going to emerge onto the sidelines of our route comprising two to three hundred shouting, angry neo-fascists.

There was nothing to be frightened of. The whole area was saturated with police, both either side of the march and all around the tube station where the counter demonstration would first manifest itself. Besides, I knew nothing serious was going to happen because I had been there before.

Yes, you read that correctly. This was in actual fact an identical re-run of an event that had already taken place some time previously. Only on the earlier occasion I had been a participant in, and presumably an organiser of, the counter demonstration. As such I knew the whole day was going to pass without major incident.

In fact my only fear as I approached the junction and the counter demonstration, and I recall it was a very real fear, was that I was going to meet myself!

As we turned into the main street there was, bizarrely, a “commentator” at the side of the road with a microphone, giving an account of events to the participants as it was happening. He announced something to the effect of (I can’t recall the exact words): “Of course not everyone here is really one of us, are they Phil?”.

Rather than be shaken or wrong-footed by this, I simply laughed and gave him an ironic thumbs-up as I passed without looking directly at him. One or two of those around me glanced at me, perplexed, but nobody seemed overly concerned. It was, after all, only a dream (and I am blessed/cursed with the ability to usually know that I am dreaming) and I knew this guy was completely aware of my sincerity in supporting the cause of the exploited workers and opposing the fascists, and that he was simply making mischief. Most of those around me seemed to know it too.

But notwithstanding all this I was genuinely troubled, dream or no dream, by the prospect of meeting myself as we passed the counter demo. I can remember this feeling very clearly indeed.

The feared encounter never took place thanks, I think, to the timely intervention of my alarm clock. Nonetheless I remembered the whole thing so vividly, and still do some thirty hours later, that I decided I wanted to write it all down, for posterity or for future reference.

Most people who know me at all will be well aware that I was indeed a prominent member of the National Front many years ago. Some critics of my work in the community would prefer it were still so, and like to pretend that the two decades and more that have passed since I first turned my back on the far-right and renounced its politics have never taken place. Anybody who matters, though, is well acquainted with the full facts.

There was, of course, a certain amount of licence involved where my nocturnal adventure was concerned. Even as a National Front organiser I would never, for instance, have opposed a demonstration in support of exploited workers, immigrant or otherwise. And I have never seen any significant delegation of Hare Krishnas on any anti-fascist protest of my acquaintance, although the middle-class, plastic revolutionaries in duffle coats do ring true a tad.

I like to analyse my own dreams and more often than not I am able to see where they are coming from but at the time of writing I admit to being at a loss to make head or tail of this one. Maybe a friend, or indeed a foe, would like to try and help me out here?