Street Voice Interview
I had a phone call last summer from Dave Hann asking to interview me on my experiences in the anti-fascist movement in Brighton. It was for a book that he was in the process of writing. I was happy to see Dave and talk about my own experiences opposing the National Front and fascism in Brighton. I was active in Anti-Fascist Action from 1986 till about 1992 and was on its Executive for about three years, but to the best of my knowledge we hadn’t met before.
All I knew of Dave was from a book ‘No Retreat’ [Milo Books, 2003] that he co-wrote with Steve Tilzey. Dave had been Chief Steward in AFA’s Steward Group in AFA’s Northern Network and what I had read of his had impressed me, as well as filling in a number of gaping holes in my memory. The period after 1979 in Brighton had been one where the National Front, after ditching its electoral pretensions, had embarked on a policy of attacking left-wing groups and meetings, particular anything to do with Ireland and the Troops Out Movement.
In Brighton the Anti-Nazi League had been reformed in 1980 to meet the threat, but unlike its later reincarnations under the SWP’’ control, the ANL in Brighton had been dedicated to physically as well as politically defeating the NF on the streets. For some 3 years we battled it out in Brighton, opposing 3 NF demonstrations through the town, their regular paper-sale at the football ground and ensuring that they were unable to harry or attack socialist or left-wing meetings. Brighton had been the stopping off point for their international contacts, people such as the Italian Fascist Robert Fiore. 19A Madeira Place had been their base and their leader in Brighton a UDA member, Steve Brady. Brighton was also the home of the leadership of Britain’s fascists – from John Tyndall of the BNP (or the New National Front then) to people like the publisher for the international neo-Nazi scene Anthony Hancock to the deputy leader of the NF and the author of ‘Did 6 Million Really Die’ Richard Verall (Harwood).
Dave’s experiences in AFA tended to be from the mid-80’s onwards against the BNP and Combat 18, whereas the main threat in Brighton had occurred in the early 80’s. Dave was a member of the main group in AFA, Red Action, whose leaders had been expelled in the 1970’s from the SWP for ‘squaddism’. This was at a time of growing violence from the NF and British Movement when it was recognised that fascist terror couldn’t be allowed to go unopposed and that the Left had to get organised.
In No Retreat Dave describes the battle against the fascists in the North of England, where the rise of mass unemployment under Margaret Thatcher and the decline of traditional working class industries such as the mines and docks, and of strong and militant trade unionism, had left youth in particular prey to the simple racist message of the fascists. Despite considerable police harassment, which resulted in a number of anti-fascist militants being jailed, the AFA Steward Group that Dave led was directly responsibility for the BNP foresaking the marches, demonstrations and pickets, with the ensuing violence that resulted, in favour of the electoral strategy of today’s BNP.
Dave’s account of what happened is a riveting read although it begs almost as many questions as it answers. Questions such as how the anti-fascist movement needs to adapt to meet the new BNP tactics, whether or not the BNP is still a neo-Nazi party and the bigger question of building a socialist and left movement which can take on board the social and class issues that the fascists feed upon. At a time when we are poised for a new Conservative government, poised to make savage cuts, these are not idle questions. We have a New Labour Party that has been captured for neo-liberalism and trade unions who are a shadow of their previous selves coupled with the antics and self-indulgence of a myriad of far-left sects.
Equally pertinent are the lessons to be drawn from what happened to AFA. Although Dave only mentions it in passing, one of the key problems within AFA became Red Action itself. A number of anti-fascist militants told me that they had been physically threatened by a RA determined on taking over AFA. Even more disturbing was the arrest and conviction of a senior member of AFA and Red Action for having taken part in the bombing of Harrods. It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental political mistake. Most people in AFA were supporters of Irish Republicanism and wanted to see the troops withdraw from Ireland. It was inevitable, given the close links between the Loyalists and the fascists that Irish Republicanism and the anti-fascist movement in this country were natural allies. But that did not mean therefore that AFA should take up any particular position on Ireland, especially when it came to supporting the military war of the IRA. I know at first hand that comrades left AFA as a result of this.
Dave was ostracised and criticised by RA, but never openly. In his book he gives some details of this. Instead of debating any differences, they were dealt with in a factional and bureaucratic manner. RA had decided to wind up AFA and form an Independent Working Class Association which won 3 council seats in Oxford and gained a respectable level of support in Hackney and Islington elections but has now virtually disappeared off the radar. In the process the IWCA moved rapidly to the right and its first councillor and leader in Oxford supported the Iraq War!
Dave and I spent a pleasant afternoon discussing various issues, although I was mainly the one answering the questions. I had many questions of my own to ask but I decided to leave it to another day. It was therefore a great shock when I learnt that Dave had been suffering from cancer and barely 3 weeks later he suddenly died at the young age of 48. Dave really was one of the unsung heroes of the anti-fascist movement that took over mine and so many others peoples lives for years. Anti-fascism was a cause worth devoting a major part of one’s life to as we were determined to prevent a repetition of what had happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
In Brighton Dave was active in community campaigns such as one to stop Tesco opening a superstore in London Road. He was also actively involved in football having spent much time on the terraces of Man Utd.
Dave leaves a partner, Louise, who has also been part of the anti-racist movement and an active socialist, for many years as well as three children, a son aged 14 and two girls aged 19 and 11 as well as a young woman, Jessica, with a previous partner. It is a testimony to Louise’s commitment that very shortly after Dave’s death she was on the streets of Saltdean helping organise the defence of the Deghayes family, a member of whom, Omar, had been freed after a big public campaign from Guantanamo prison. We wish them all well. Below is an interview that Dave Hann conducted with an indie music online publication called Street Voices.
Rest in Peace Comrade. You Deserve It. Tony Greenstein
Street Voice: First off how did you feel your first book ‘No Retreat’ went down?
Dave: I think its gone down really well. Its been nearly five years since the book was first published, and its still selling a few dozen copies every month. Funnily enough I was flicking through Mark E. Smith’s biography the other day in a bookshop, and No Retreat gets a favourable mention in it.
I think the most positive thing that has come out of it has been the letters and emails I get from anti-fascists in countries like Serbia, Poland and Russia, where the fascists are fairly rampant, saying how much the book has inspired them.
Street Voice: You obviously got a lot of criticism off both the far left and far right so how did you go about dealing with it?
Dave: I obviously expected criticism from the far-right. After all, a book detailing the cowardice, and lack of street-fighting prowess of the master race was hardly going to be a favourite bed-time read for your typical fascist. I’ve really enjoyed watching them whinge and moan about the book on Internet forums and discussion pages. The criticism from Red Action was also expected, because of the manner in which we parted company. The pure bitterness and bile of the criticism took me aback a bit, but in the end it just made me more determined to carry on writing. What was disappointing was the small number of so-called anti-fascists (London Class War mostly) who joined in the attack on me and Steve without ever taking the trouble to find out our side of the argument. I think anonymous slanders and personal abuse on Internet forums from people I’ve never met is cowardly, repellent and sinister. It says more about them than I ever could. These people would claim to be working towards building a fairer society, but if this behaviour is typical, then whatever they built would be little different from anything the BNP envisage.
Street Voice: It’s also fair to say there were some independent folk who thought you glamorised the violence so any opinion on this?
Dave: Funnily enough, Mensi complained that the violence in the book was understated!! In other words he felt it didn’t portray the real levels of violence that actually occurred. I think the violence of anti-fascists should be put into context however. Fascists in Britain have been responsible over the years for the murders of Black and Asian people, the stabbing and maiming of political opponents, and the fire-bombing and nail-bombing of left-wing bookshops, gay pubs, etc etc. On the other hand, anti-fascists rarely went out tooled-up, and if they did they were usually armed with a blunt instrument rather than a blade. I think you have to have been under attack by fascist gangs to understand why non-violence could never work under those circumstances.
Street Voice: You’re currently writing your second book which covers the history of Anti Fascism so can you give our readers any information about it?
Dave: The book is provisionally entitled, ‘A Cause Worth Fighting For,’ and it details the history of anti-fascism in Britain from the perspective of the people who were actually on the streets opposing the fascists. It goes right back to very first anti-fascists in the 1920’s, and finishes at the turn of the century with the demise of AFA. Its all based on oral interviews with people who took part in the various battles at Cable Street, Olympia, Balls Pond Road, Red Lion Square, Lewisham, Waterloo, etc etc. A lot of the stuff in the book is brand new research, and I’ve uncovered some really interesting stuff on obscure anti-fascist groups like the New World Fellowship, the Blue and White League, and the Yellow Star Movement. The book has been an absolute pleasure to write and research, and I’ve met some wonderful people whilst writing it.
Street Voice: Have you a publishing date for the book yet?
Dave: Not as yet. Its very nearly finished, and I’m hoping that it will hit the bookshelves some time next year
Street Voice: Being as you wrote ‘No Retreat’ with your mate Steve Tilzey I would have thought you two would have been up for doing another together? Is this something he didn’t want to do or did you
feel you wanted to write this book on your own?
Dave: Steve wasn’t really up for it. It was hard enough to get him to write his bit for No Retreat, and he actually lived through everything he wrote about then. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to persuade him to spend a few days researching some obscure anti-fascist group in a library or whatever, and then get him write up his findings and send them to me. The book would have to be printed on waterproof paper, because we’d all be submerged under rising sea levels by the time it finally came out. Steve would be the first to admit that he’s not really a writer, but he has helped out with a couple of little things here and there.
Street Voice: The BNP have been keeping themselves busy but there’s been almost no opposition to them. Do you think it’s time for AFA to be re-launched to bring Anti-Fascists together as one again?
Dave: We have been faced with this problem before in Britain, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for instance. The forces of anti-fascism were very thin on the ground, but as the fascist threat increased, so did the opposition, eventually culminating in the launch of RAR and the ANL, so there is still hope that something can be got off the ground. The difference between then and now of course is that a lot of the old communities based around the docks, the steel yards, the mines, factories etc, are broken up, and the traditional ties that bound these communities to the trade unions, the Labour Party and the left are gone. The Labour Party has abandoned them, the left are too busy with their endless cycle of marches, meetings and paper sales, and this leaves them easy prey for the fascists. This process boosts the BNP, while at the same time undercuts the supply of anti-fascist recruits AFA has had its day. When Red Action dismantled AFA and formed the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), they threw the baby out with the bath water, and this allowed the fascists the space to grow. Sadly, it is only now, a decade later, that they are beginning to realise their fatal mistake.
Street Voice: OK I know we have Antifa but that’s largely anarchist based and probably wouldn’t appeal to the average person on the street so who else is there?
Dave: There is no single organisation doing it at the moment. Just a few small grouplets doing bits and pieces of worthwhile stuff. Some of the community-based work done by IWCA for instance, if it was combined with militant anti-fascism, and taken on board by some of the larger left groups would shake the situation up a bit. I think the IWCA has reached the limits of what can be done with a small number of dedicated, but somewhat paranoid and intolerant individuals, but their politics should not be discounted as readily as their personalities.
Street Voice: While I like to remain positive about Antifa it’s hard to take them seriously at times when their members and the likes of Watmougth and Wigan Mike just threaten each other on the likes of Indymedia?
Dave: Antifa seems to be making the same mistakes as some of the least politicised elements of AFA. For instance I’ve seen several “Antifa Hooligans” and “Antifa – Fighting the Fascists – What else ya gonna do on a Saturday” stickers around town recently, that make you shake your head in disbelief at their sheer stupidity and lack of political message. Can anyone tell me what the point of these stickers is? Do they think the general public will see these stickers and go, “Oh ok, I won’t bother going to Asda this afternoon, I’ll join a crew of anarchists and get in punch ups with fascists instead.” From the outside, Antifa (like a lot of anarchist groups), looks like a small clique of like-minded individuals, who all know each other, are roughly the same age, all dress the same, and have the same lifestyles and musical tastes, etc. There appears to be no attempt whatsoever to broaden their appeal to the general public as a whole. I could be wrong, but I’ve not seen them attack the BNP on a
political level in working class communities, or attempt to offer their own solutions to the problems faced in those areas. There seems to be far too much emphasis on ambushing some of the smaller Nazi and bonehead groups, who, while they might prove occasionally troublesome, do not offer anywhere the same margin of threat as the BNP.
Street Voice: Would you agree there’s no longer a Socialist alternative for working class folk any more on the streets of Britian?
Dave: I’d agree that there is no socialist alternative in Britain at the moment, and sadly I think things will get worse before they get better. This directly impacts on anti-fascism, as in the past, socialists have formed the backbone of many anti-fascist movements. I believe we will have to come to a situation in the future where desperation forces whatever disparate forces are left to unite on some commonly agreed platform, before we can start to move forward again. Hopefully the bitter struggles and disappointments in between will have burnt off the careerists, the egoists, the sectarians and the weirdos.
Street Voice: Can you see the BNP getting a couple of seats in parliament if there’s no real opposition to them?
Dave: That’s a very real possibility. Remember, its not so long ago that people would have said you were mad if you’d told them that the BNP would have 50 plus councillors. I think we’re more likely to see an MEP, or a couple of MEPs first however. The economic downturn will only exacerbate the problem, although it might also open up opportunities for the left if they can stop their infighting for long enough to take advantage of them.
Street Voice: Did you hear that Simon Shephard from C18 is claiming political asylum in the U.S.A. since being found guilty of race hate charges in the UK? What did you make of that?
Dave: I didn’t hear about that. Its typical of the contradictions that lay at the very heart of fascist politics however.
Street Voice: Personally I think it’s a cop out with American and British Govts bailing out some of the banks so why do you think people just sit back and accept shit like that?
Dave: People feel disenfranchised from the political system. They see very little difference between the main political parties, who are all in the pocket of the major capitalists, and they feel powerless to effect change, which is exactly what the Govt wants. They see over a million people march through London in an effort to stop their country going to war, which you think might have given any government pause to contemplate, but their voices are completely ignored and the war goes ahead regardless. People feel their voices aren’t being heard. So at the one end you get low polling returns as people despair at the system, and at the other end you get people voting for the BNP, some for racist reasons, but others because they are seen as not being part of the establishment.
Street Voice: Moving from politics do you still get down FC United?
Dave: As often as I can, which is not as often as I’d like.
Street Voice: How are they doing as a football club?
Dave: After three consecutive promotions, they appear to have hit a plateau this season. Crowds are holding up reasonably well though, but the Development Fund, which was started in order so that the club can buy/build their own ground still needs your pennies. Incidentally, a couple of seasons ago, the BNP tried to muscle in on the club, but they were sent packing by anti-fascist FC fans and ordinary supporters. The final straw came when the entire Cemetery End started chanting “You can stick your BNP up your arse,” at them. The whole club has been built by ordinary working class people, and just shows what can be achieved when people have a sense of purpose and a commonly identified goal.
Street Voice: Apart from your job and writing your book what else does Dave Hann like to do?
Dave: Well I used to coach a youth football team until last season, which was reasonably successful (the boys won a couple of trophies and once went a whole season undefeated), but that has come to a close now, although I’m still involved with my son’s new team. I’m also involved in a couple of local campaigns, one to stop a massive Tesco’s redevelopment in town, which will put dozens of small shops out of business. These days, if I see a campaign that I agree with, I’ll help out in whatever way I can, no matter who initiates it. Apart from that, I like to do absolutely nowt. Lazy git that I am.
Street Voice: Anything you’d like to add?
Dave: know this interview has tended towards pessimism, but people need to stop picking pointless arguments on Internet forums, and get out there and start looking at ways to unite around a common goal. Undercutting the BNP’s potential base of support, by forcing them out of the areas where they have become embedded, and presenting people with a viable socialist alternative would be a good place to start.