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21 July 2021

From the NS archive: White socialism?

31 May 1974: The National Front is doing distinctly better as a party for disgruntled urban voters. But the leopard has not really changed its spots.

By Christopher Hitchens

In this article the critic and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens describes the National Front (NF), support for which was steadily increasing, as a party for “disgruntled urban voters”, many of whom would previously have voted Labour. The 1974 by-election in Newham, in which the NF beat the Tories to fourth place, proved the success of the party’s “skilful propaganda mix” and a “well managed campaign” against the possible mass redundancy at the Tate & Lyle plant in Silvertown. NF members who previously feared the party was a fascist organisation were pleasantly surprised that its views matched their own. But “it would be a mistake to describe their outlook as a sophisticated one”, writes Hitchens, “representing as it does an amalgam of all the old stories about immigrant health, education standards and the rest”. After all, the workers’ rights cases through which it has sought membership are only “small shoots”: “The leopard has not really changed its spots. For all the populist rhetoric, NF propaganda prefers the real red meat of racialism.”

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August Bebel, a leader of the German Social Democrats, once defined anti-Semitism scornfully as “the socialism of fools”: directing working-class frustration and resentment on to a racial minority. National Front members are intensely angry when one mentions anti-Semitism, and go out of their way to denounce Colin Jordan and the wider shores of the fascist fringe. But they are doing distinctly better as a party for disgruntled urban voters, and have achieved a skilful propaganda mix between appeals to racial prejudice and polemics against capitalism and speculation. Last week’s by-election in Newham was remarkable not merely for the fact that they beat the Tory into fourth place (causing an anxious leading article to appear in the Daily Telegraph), as for the way in which their vote was closer to their general election figure than any other party.

In the main, this seems to be due to a well-managed campaign against the possible mass redundancy at Tate & Lyle’s plant in Silvertown, where sugar workers face an uncertain future as a result of Common Market Policy on beet. The NF raised this spectre before any other candidate in the general election, and nursed the issue through to last week under the guidance of their candidate Michael Lobb. An ex-Marxist and Labour Party supporter, who was active in Richard Briginshaw’s “Forward Britain” group in the Sixties, Lobb turned to the NF when the party abandoned Gaitskell’s anti-EEC policy.

Now working in the City, he puts forward a curious blend of ideas. “Any real nationalist movement has to be anti-capitalist,” he says “because capitalism is international, and therefore anti-British.” Combining this with the demand for compulsory repatriation, support for the Ulster Workers Council (emphasis on the workers) and denunciations of “party hypocrisy”, Lobb believes he has a formula for breaking workers’ allegiance to Labour. They have a “cell” of 16 members in Tate & Lyle’s, 300 card holders estimated in Newham as a whole, and of these Lobb maintains that two thirds are trade unionists. What about the heroic Enoch Powell, more pro-capitalist than he is racialist? “Well, Powell is an Establishment figure who to some extent cashed in on our hard and unreported work. I personally would be much more left-wing than him on social policies.”

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At the other end of the country in Lancashire, where declining industries like cotton have spread insecurity among workers, the NF has also been active. Last month, one of their candidates stood in a local by-election in Bolton, faking 14.6 per cent of the poll. As candidate they had Mr Bill Roberts, who is convenor of shop stewards at Edbro Engineering in the town. Both he and his election agent Frank Gribben are former members of the local Labour executive with years of activity in the party behind them. Both said that they were originally worried that the NF was a fascist organisation, both were surprised to find that its view represented their own long-cherished opinions.

It would be a mistake to describe their outlook as a sophisticated one, representing as it does an amalgam of all the old stories about immigrant health, education standards and the rest. But they have a strong conviction that their very ordinary opinions are ignored by the traditional workers’ party. Frank Gribben’s misgivings in fact began over ten years ago, when the Labour Party promised to abolish a differential rent scheme in the town and then didn’t do so when elected. A boilermaker, and former vice-chairman of the CLP, he dropped out of the party in 1966 and was “wanting to get back in the fight” when he met the NF. Although he goes on about frightened old ladies, falling property values and the other stand-bys he is certainly no fascist and estimates that half his local branch are ex-Labour voters.

Last Monday, the Front held a meeting where all its active trade unionists discussed the possibility of a conference and a special NF paper for the factory floor. On the experience of towns like Leicester, there could be a real potential for such a venture, and as the shoe pinches on more working-class families it becomes harder to write off the most raucous of Britain’s minority parties as a serious contender for the voice of the disillusioned. Not that it is unpopular amongst the better off or the cranky aristocratic Right. But the thrust of their propaganda is now directed elsewhere.

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Of course, these are only small shoots. And of course, the leopard has not really changed its spots. For all the populist rhetoric, NF propaganda prefers the real red meat of racialism. The latest issue of their weekly sheet “Britain First” contains a banner headline “Immigrants: A Reservoir of Disease and Infection”, which leads a thoroughly mendacious article on leprosy by Joy Page. Described as a “qualified nurse”, she modestly conceals the fact that she founded the Immigrant Control Association. Turning the page, one finds a reproduced Trotskyist election leaflet depicting a collage of black and white youngsters. The NF denounce it as “an obvious play to recruit young blacks by offering them white girls as bait”.

The difference is that ten years ago this kind of material would not have persuaded salt of the earth Labour men to quit and throw in their hand with a minority party. A party, by the way, which advertises badges for young members bearing the legend “National Front rule OK”. Who will take up the challenge?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)