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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”