The Books Interview: Matthew Collins

The author of "Hate: My Life in the British Far Right" explains what drives people towards extremist groups like the BNP and the National Front.

You joined the National Front as a teenager in the late 1980s, but became disillusioned after taking part in a BNP attack on an anti-racist meeting in south London. Was that a moment of revelation, or part of a more gradual process?

I wasn't a stranger to violence. But that was the moment when I realised that actually, I wasn't fighting Red Action [anti-fascist militants] at a tube station, I was kicking little old ladies' heads in. With very young brains, it takes things a long while to sink in, but that was my starting point, the first time ever I just thought 'this is what it looks like'.

 

By that point your whole social life was structured around the NF...

From the age of about 15 I was a social pariah. I remember girls who I used to go to school with who were in love with Wham!. They had Wham!, George Michael, Take That - whatever - to talk about. And I had the National Front.

 

Had you found it hard to make friends at school?

No, I had no problem making friends. Good friends, nice people. But I thought they didn't understand me and I wanted to shock them. Also I was racist, beyond belief.

 

You suggest in your memoir that you picked up racist attitudes from your father, who left the family home when you were a young child.

He was an Irish immigrant who [himself] suffered discrimination and I just felt why should my dad suffer that. And why should I suffer that? Was I the first person in this country to say I'm white and I'm working class and I'm getting a raw deal because of it? Actually I'm not.

 

You grew up on a council estate in south London. Did your family they feel at all like you were sticking up for them – working-class whites – in any way?

No, there was no racism at home. My dad wasn't at home, you understand. My family were like, isn't life just hard enough without this? But the left never came knocking on my door, offering me an alternative.

 

Do you feel you were let down by the left?

My school was mixed, and middle-class teachers lectured us about anti-racism, but no-one ever affirmed it was ok to be where we were from. They were all going on about diversity, let's celebrate your neighbour who is different to you. Well, why not celebrate class? We're all going home to dads on the dole tomorrow.

 

Did you come to share the anti-Semitism of committed far-right activists?

Oh yeah. All that anger you're feeling, all that disappointment – that's the Jews doing that to you. Thank god! Thank god it's someone. It wasn't my hormones that were making me horny nine hours a day, it was the Jews doing it! Thank god for that.

 

Why were the BNP able to win votes in the 2000s?

New Labour thought that this country would work on the strength of faith communities. How do we connect with the Asians in Bradford? Through their mosques. How do we connect with the Sikh Asian community? Through the gurdwara. This country used to have an Asian youth movement, of all faiths, that were opposed to fascism, but the only way to get ahead under New Labour was to go to your temple or your church or whatever. White working-class people don't go to church. If you want to talk to the white working class who do you talk to? Paul Gascoine? Ebay? Who? No-one.

That's where [BNP leader] Nick Griffin came in: identity politics. He exploited the lack of leadership among the white working class.

 

Labour's current enthusiasm for “Englishness” seems like a roundabout way of addressing this oversight.

It's shit. You can print that. Listen, sexual equality in parliament, excellent. BME representation, fantastic. Quite rightly so. But all of these things would have been covered by actually having class equality in parliament. How about getting some working-class people in there?

 

You fled Britain for several years after exposing the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 in a 1993 TV documentary. Since your return, you've been an anti-fascist campaigner. Did you feel obliged to do that?

Not obliged, I wanted to do it. I hated them – the BNP, National Front, C18, EDL. Every time I hear their rubbish, I hate them.

 

And then you began writing a memoir. Had you kept a diary?

Well, because I was a mole [passing on information to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight], there were notes. But it was a nightmare to write. I couldn't write, I didn't know how. It was just a jumbled mess. And it was really painful – some things I left out were unbearable.

 

The book has to tread a fine line between making people understand your motivations and chasing sympathy.

I've been as honest as I could ever be. I wouldn't do it again. For an autobiography you need two things, I was told by a colleague: you need two dead parents.

My mum's read the book, she's never commented on it. She just said: “well done”.

 

Hate: My Life in the British Far Right” is published in a new edition by Biteback (£8.99) on 12 July

Matthew Collins now works for Hope not Hate. Follow him on Twitter at @matthopenothate

Matthew Collins (centre) during his days as a member of the National Front. Photograph: Matthew Collins.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?