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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.