This month marks 40 years since anti-fascists took on the Nazi National Front in multicultural north London. Simon Hester recalls the events running up to the day that became known as the Battle of Wood Green.
On 23 April 1977, St George’s Day, roughly 1,000 supporters of the National Front marched in multicultural Wood Green, north London. Over 2,000 anti-Nazi activists confronted them, in what became known as the Battle of Wood Green.
The mid-70s had seen a rapid rise in racism and organised fascist activity. Labour came to power in 1974 on the back of waves of industrial action that paralysed and then defeated the hated Tories. The new chancellor, Denis Healey, had promised to “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak”, but within two years had desperately accepted an IMF loan with harsh austerity strings.
Labour presided over rocketing unemployment and falling wages through a “Social Contract” with the trade unions. Disillusion was widespread and political confusion permeated the organised working class.
The National Front (NF), a fascist party, grew rapidly in a toxic atmosphere of racist media scapegoating and the prominence of right wing politician Enoch Powell. In the 1974 general election the NF achieved 8 percent of the vote in the Wood Green and Tottenham constituencies, 5,700 votes across the London Borough of Haringey. At the time the NF claimed over 15,000 members, with a 100-strong postal workers branch in north London’s main sorting office and a regular paper sale in Islington’s Chapel Market.
But they did not go unchallenged. Across the country the NF were harassed by the radical anti-racist left. Rock Against Racism was born in 1976. At the Notting Hill Carnival that year over 300 police were injured in running battles with black youth, and Asian youth movements grew rapidly to oppose racist attacks.
In November 1976 25,000 joined a TUC march against racism. The revolutionary left, notably the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), regularly tried to physically prevent the NF from meeting — and student unions took up the call to “no platform” fascists and racists like Enoch Powell. Over the same period trade unionists had rallied in solidarity with the Asian women on strike at Grunwick’s in north west London.
In the run up to St George’s Day 1977 anti-racists threw themselves into mobilising against the NF march with sharp debates — should there be an attempt to have the march banned? SWP members argued for physical confrontation by large numbers and organised mass leafleting, postering and workplace meetings. Haringey TUC and the local Labour Party branches agreed with the strategy after intense discussion. Activists toured the local factories and colleges. Greek and Turkish speakers agitated in their communities.
Alongside the high profile political mobilisation there was meticulous planning. Flares were tested on Tottenham marshes; flour bombs, rotten fruit, eggs and dye-filled balloons were prepared in comrades’ kitchens.
On the day large numbers of local black youth joined the anti-racists. Haringey councillors, including a young councillor and union organiser called Jeremy Corbyn, came with their own banner.
The confident hard core NF Honour Guard led the march with flags and drums, followed by softer racist supporters. As the fascists came out of Ducketts Common onto Wood Green High Road, policed by lines of Bobbies (tooled up riot police were developed later), they were met by a massive surge of protesters and volleys of flares, flour bombs and balloons from all sides, plus racks of shoes from the High Road shoe shops. The march was split and police struggled to get the bedraggled and shocked fascists up the High Road to safety.
The Battle of Wood Green proved that a determined and organised opposition could, with sufficient numbers, break up a fascist march — an important dress rehearsal for the bigger confrontation in Lewisham that August. Socialists had won the argument that pandering to racist ideas was not an acceptable option and liberal handwringing gets us nowhere. Wood Green also showed that political forces far beyond the revolutionary left agreed with the need to challenge racism head on and physically prevent fascists from marching.
This political approach, linked to the flair of Rock Against Racism, led to the launch of the Anti Nazi League later that year, and the eventual demise of the NF. The confrontations were necessary to demoralise the fascists and to scare off the softer supporters from the fascist core.
The success of the ANL and RAR was based on a political strategy that emphasised mass mobilisations through united work spanning different political traditions.
On 23 April 2017 there will be a commemoration of the Battle of Wood Green in Ducketts Common under the banner of Unity Against Fascism and Racism — Celebrate our Diversity. Coincidentally, this is the day of the first round of the French presidential election in which the French Front National is expected to do well. We would all do well to remember the lessons of the Battle of Wood Green.
Simon Hester is co-convenor of Haringey Stand Up To Racism