Image: Police separate EDL and antifascist demonstrators at Lime Street station, 2017. Credit: Eleanor Barlow/PA Images, all rights reserved.
A peaceful but surprisingly large group of people from a range of backgrounds crowded around the entrance to Moorefields train station in Liverpool last month. Warmly dressed against the cold and carrying European and antifascist flags, they were there to stage a counter-demonstration against a planned march of the Northwest Frontline Patriots (NFP). A far-right group whose activism revolves around support for EDL-founder Tommy Robinson, pro-Brexit efforts, and claims that migrants are sexually assaulting British children, the NFP had intended to stage a demonstration in support of a strong Brexit. The handful of NFP activists found their way out of the train station blocked by counter-demonstrators and went home early. One group of UKIP supporters who had intended to join them cancelled their plans when news of the counter-protest spread. The antifascist crowd included Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, and groups such as Hope not Hate, Merseyside Together, and Unite Against Fascism.
Antifascists playing Benny Hill music also managed to contain a larger EDL rally at the city’s Lime Street Station in June 2017. More violent clashes between antifascists and a far-right group known as the North West Infidels took place in front of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall in February 2016, and antifascists throwing water bottles, eggs, and bananas stopped a ‘White Man’s March’ by the neo-Nazi group National Action in August 2015. Antifascism is a core element of the city’s Scouse identity, and antifascists such as the mayor, Joe Anderson, are able to draw on this element of local pride in order to mobilize people around calls to ‘protect’ the streets from fascists.
Scouse antifascism emerged in the 1930s along with the establishment of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Fascists failed to develop strong support in Liverpool - despite having significant footholds in nearby Southport, Manchester, and Birmingham. When Oswald Mosley tried to hold a rally in Liverpool in December 1937 he ended up in hospital after being hit in the head with a rock. Despite high levels of unemployment during the Great Depression, the BUF’s focus on middle-class muscular masculinity did not appeal to the largely working-class population, and its version of English Protestantism alienated the large numbers of Irish Catholics, Scots, Welsh, Italians, and other religious minorities. Moreover, anti-immigrant violence against Germans, West Indians, and West Africans during and after the First World War had largely died down by the 1930s. The Conservative Party dominated local politics throughout the interwar period, but these decades also witnessed the rise of a much stronger union movement. The Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) boasted a significant following in the city, and led by Jack Jones, working-class organizing took on an antifascist flavour that resulted in a number of Socialists and Communists from Liverpool volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
Far-right groups such as British Aid for the Repatriation of Immigrants and the People’s Progressive Party formed in Liverpool during the 1960s, but were heavily outnumbered in the by-now solidly Labour city. In the 1975 municipal elections, for example, the National Front gained only 3% of the vote in Liverpool and the British Movement 2%. At the same time, however, some Everton fans gained a reputation for racism, and graffiti supporting the National Front was common in the area. Widespread racism in Liverpool schools made headlines in the mid-1980s, but this was unconnected to organised fascist groups. Liverpool’s Labour Party was dominated by the Trotskyist Militant group during most of the 1980s, contributing a distinctively left-wing flavour to municipal politics and further solidifying local antifascism. Militant maintained close ties to the Socialist Workers Party, which was the driving force behind the Anti-Nazi League at the time, a movement best known for its music festivals, Rock Against Racism. Antifascism continued in Liverpool during the 1990s after its influence declined along with the collapse of the National Front as a serious political party and increased again when support for the British National Party grew during the early twenty-first century.
The city’s demographics and political preferences have changed dramatically over the past 85 years, but antifascism has remained strong because it is tied to a municipal identity that proudly asserts its Scouse uniqueness. The fact that Scouse identity celebrates working-class culture contributes to local antifascism in no small measure. Similarly, the sense of ownership that Liverpudlians feel over their city makes it easier for antifascists to convince supporters to take to the streets.
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