Someone once said that people never change. I can’t remember who. We live in a day and age where many of us consider ourselves increasingly politically aware.
The dawn of the Digital Era has brought with it connectivity like we’ve never seen before, and with it, I’d argue a greater exposure to the plethora of political beliefs held throughout the country, and the world. However, it’s important to remember that whilst we engage more and more in debating our stances, these arguments are not a new phenomenon. No, these are battle lines drawn years in the past and fought tempestuously throughout our history. The 13th of August 2017 marked 40 years since over 200 people were arrested in Lewisham as the National Front (NF), left-wing groups, and the Metropolitan police clashed on the streets of London. Today, I’m taking a look back at that conflict and questioning why so little, it would seem, has changed.
The day began with the regular commotion surrounding two opposing marches, but with little trouble. The NF march was not scheduled until 2 pm, and the BBC reported that a morning demonstration by the ‘All Lewisham Campaign against Racism and Fascism’ had passed off fairly peacefully. There had been a lot of talk prior to the day as to whether the marches would be safe, and so far things seemed to be going relatively smoothly.
Concerns over the potential for violence had been raised by the ‘Socialist Workers Party’ (SWP), and the local council who the Guardian reported had ‘for weeks been despairingly saying that parts of Lewisham would fall under siege’.
These concerns were dismissed by the then Metropolitan Commissioner of Police David McNee, who asserted that his force could handle the marches.
Regrettably, it did not take long for the strain to begin to show. By around 1.30pm, approximately 400 – 500 SWP members had gathered for a counter-protest, and as the NF march got underway, protesters from the both the SWP and some from the earlier demonstration found their way towards New Cross Street and onto the route of the National Front. Clashes began as police cleared the route for the NF, and despite their efforts, some counter-protesters were successful in breaking the line or otherwise finding their way back to line the sides of Lewisham’s main street. Reports from the time vary to an extent, with counter-protesters allegedly throwing bricks and bottles, and spraying ammonia. As the march continued, it became evident that the road ahead was blocked with more left-wing protesters, and the NF rally was apparently concluded in a car park, after which the Front’s crowd were escorted onto trains.
Elsewhere fighting continued, and whilst reports are not exact, it is understood that police temporarily lost control of Lewisham centre to more radical left-wing demonstrators.
Police wielding riot shields were brought in to help disperse the mob, marking the first time this equipment was used on English soil.
In this instance, it was by and large members of the left-wing groups who found themselves in handcuffs, with the Guardian citing 214 arrests and stating ‘it is unlikely that there was one National Front supporter among them’. The question after the event was not of course who, but why? What had failed in our society so much that it allowed two diametrically opposed groups to clash on a scale which led to so many arrests and injuries? Some claimed that the National Front should never have been allowed to march – they had themselves admitted that the march was ‘deliberately provocative’, and Commissioner McNee would have been within his rights to use the Public Order Act to ban the demonstration. What the right course of action that day would have been, we may well never know. But this does not mean there is nothing to learn.
Skip back to the present day, and whilst the names have changed and the organisations been replaced by newer incarnations, you could be forgiven for thinking that no time had passed at all. Back in Lewisham, a spokesman for the NF explained that they were ‘standing up for white people’, whilst in June this year an ‘English Defence League’ protest against ‘Islamist Terrorism’ clashed with Anti-Fascist counter-protests on the streets of Liverpool, with riot police again separating the two sides amidst a volley of bottles and firecrackers. On the 12th August, across the pond, violent clashes between white nationalists and anti-fascists in Charlottesville left many injured and a woman dead. Nazi salutes and calls of ‘Heil Trump’ have been witnessed on the streets of the US.
How is it that over the span of 40 years, we seem to have learned so little?
My answer (and it is not comprehensive) – education. Yes, we all learn about a few different aspects of politics through history at school (quite typically Nazis = bad / Churchill = Good) or maybe a bit on slavery and the Americas. But this is not the sort of education I’m talking about.
Unless you decide to pursue it at college and beyond, there is a significant lack of political education in our country. We are left relatively unaware of the deeper ideologies of politics throughout our educational development, and this for me is a large part of our problem. With no grasp of the benefits and downfalls of different systems or schools of thought, we remain a society easily led into polarised camps. Without the knowledge required to seriously debate the best future for our country, of course, we will clash. I’m not saying that if we start teaching politics in schools that riots and fights will vanish, no – there will always be some people who want to fight. However, as far as I can see until we begin to educate ourselves and our children, and help debate and conversation prosper in an intelligent manner, we will continue to see the likes of Lewisham and Liverpool repeat themselves. We have the tools and the means, and many of us have tested the water on the internet, albeit with the guise of relative anonymity.
I’m not saying that if we start teaching politics in schools that riots and fights will vanish, no – there will always be some people who want to fight. However, as far as I can see until we begin to educate ourselves and our children, and help debate and conversation prosper in an intelligent manner, we will continue to see the likes of Lewisham and Liverpool repeat themselves. We have the tools and the means, and many of us have tested the water on the internet, albeit with the guise of relative anonymity.
Let’s start learning about how our society works, and how it could work. Maybe then we won’t need to throw bottles at each other quite so regularly.