On 22 September 2017, the Ethnicity, ‘Race’ and Racism Seminar held its fifth annual symposium at Edge Hill University. The theme of this year’s symposium was ‘The 1970s: The High Tide of British Anti-Racism?’ and the speakers prompted keen reflections on the history and broad variety of anti-racist expression and activism. It was a day of thought-provoking talks, contributions and stimulating discussion.

2017 marked the fortieth anniversary of two key developments in the history of anti-racism in Britain: the Battle of Lewisham on 13 August 1977 and the founding of the Anti-Nazi League a few months later. This was a period of growing unease over the incursions of the National Front, founded ten years before, into British electoral politics. Despite the poor showing, the visibility of the far-right’s racism on Britain’s streets ensured that the NF’s influence was more social than political.  The Battle of Lewisham and founding of the Anti-Nazi League, with its synthesis of left-wing ideological politics and popular music (influenced by the approach of Rock against Racism, founded in 1976), and its success in mobilising large numbers against the National Front and the British far-right in the late 1970s are often seen as the apotheosis of the British anti-racist movement. Indeed, by the 1980s and the rise of Thatcherism, the kaleidoscope of anti-racism and the British left more generally had been violently shaken. As early as 1981, the editorial of the leading anti-fascist/anti-racist magazine Searchlight lamented that there was ‘no longer an anti-racist, anti-fascist movement to speak of’.[1] At the turn of the decade, it seemed that the large-scale successes of anti-racism on a national scale in the 1970s had quickly faded away.[2] The 1980s saw the contraction of anti-racism to amore regional and municipal scale of operation.

It is important to stress that the Anti-Nazi League did not have the monopoly on anti-racism during this period. Despite being a popular expression of anti-racism, there were key developments taking place within the communities directly affected by racism itself. For instance, the Grunwick Dispute from 1976 to 1978 saw a significant mobilisation of East African Asian women workers and the Southall Black Sisters were founded in 1979. Both events were historic founding moments of social justice campaigns against racism, economic exploitation and violence. The talks featured at the symposium gave those in attendance a flavour of just how diverse and multi-layered anti-racism in the 1970s was: in the football stands, university campuses, public transport and even beyond the Channel.

The main aim of the symposium was for everyone to leave reflecting a little more on the history and legacy of anti-racism in Britain. The historical literature on the subject is fairly thin and in need of further research. While cultural theorists and sociologists such as Floya Anthias, Catherine Lloyd, Paul Gilroy and Alana Lentin have made vital contributions to our understanding of the thought and practice of anti-racism, there is much, much more that contemporary historians could do to historicise the subject and to place anti-racism within the context of the post-war, post-colonial and (especially in regard to the 1970s) post-’68 political culture of Britain.  

Just as anti-racism as a social movement can sometimes be overlooked, it is also not uncommon for the significance of the 1970s as the broader social, political, economic and cultural context to be understated. The 1970s occupy a rather awkward position between two more  well-known decades: the 1960s and the 1980s. In a sense, the popular historical narratives, memories and even the ‘feel’ of the ’60s and ‘80s can appear more tangible. The profound shift in social and cultural mores of the ‘swinging sixties’ and the monetarist revolution of the Thatcher/Reagan-dominated 1980s offer rather more discernible historical narratives, overshadowing the 1970s. As journalist Christian Caryl has put it, the 1970s was ‘a muddled in-between time of dead ends and thwarted utopias, of disillusionment and drift’.[3] Economic woes exacerbated by the oil crisis of 1973 brought the dream-like optimism of les trente glorieuses to a shuddering end, de-industrialisation and the frequent disruption of industrial action bequeathed to the decade and popular memory thereafter a feeling of uncertainty, instability and an unshakeable sense of national decline. However, it is important not to paint too bleak a picture of the 1970s. One contributor at the symposium was keen to stress that, in spite of some of the popular perceptions of the 1970s as drab and dreary, the 1970s was also ‘fun’ with the advent of new and daring forms of youthful cultural expression, punk in particular, capturing the imagination.

One of the final talking points of the symposium was whether it is possible to detect parallels between our present moment and the 1970s? Large questions loom once again over the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe; ten years on from the financial crash of 2007 there is still a lingering nervousness over the fragility of the economy; and, of course, with the hard left firmly at the helm of the Labour Party we have seen the return of old tropes and proposed policies which would not have looked out of place forty years ago. Nevertheless, caution is always advised when seeking historical parallels. In terms of the history of anti-racism however, there may yet be valuable lessons. If the 1970s was the ‘high tide’ of anti-racism in Britain, then that must mean that the decade was also witness to a ‘high tide’ of racism. In the present moment, the emboldened stance of populist nativism on both sides of the Atlantic and the ‘mainstreaming’ of xenophobic rhetoric into political discourse is a serious threat and may require that we turn our gaze even before the 1970s.[4] If we wish to be better prepared to face the challenges of racism in the present, we would do well to take a closer look at the history of anti-racism. Besides, one of the reassuring aspects of studying the past is discovering that present challenges are never entirely new.  

 

Patrick Soulsby – PhD Candidate and Symposium Coordinator

(The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the ErRS Committee)

 


[1] Editorial, Searchlight (October 1981), p.2.

[2] See Dave Renton, When we touched the sky: the Anti-Nazi League, 1977-1981 (Cheltenham, 2006).

[3] Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2013).

[4] See Homa Khaleeli, ‘’A frenzy of hatred’: how to understand Brexit racism’, The Guardian (29/06/2016): https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/29/frenzy-hatred-brexit-racism-abuse-referendum-celebratory-lasting-damage