Leeds. 1979. Socially things were grim. The city was rough, tough, but unbowed, following the miners strike of ’72. The football team (Super) Leeds United was in decline, their hooligan firm, The Service Crew, were in their ascendancy. Musically, Leeds was a hotbed that had embraced punk, then new wave, with several venues and clubs, and gigs galore
Initially, particularly in London with Chelsea , West Ham and others, and nationwide too, Right Wing groups had tried to infiltrate football’s hooligan gangs to recruit some muscle for their political aims. Following the initial punk explosion of 76/77, several punk bands flirted with this right wing interest to find an audience, Madness, Sham 69. The Angelic Upstarts and Skrewdriver amongst them. Most quickly learned the error of their ways. Punk/ New Wave/ Ska was intrinsically multicultural, and being unable to book venues because of violence towards punters and the venue itself was not a wise career move. Madness moved on almost immediately, the others didn’t, with violent results at their gigs. Against this backdrop Rock Against Racism ( RAR) and the Anti Nazi League (ANL) were formed. They quickly captured the youth zeitgeist, RAR festivals and benefits were de rigeur, as were T shirts and lapel badges.
I was an English student, 10 stone, and a regular on the Gelderd End. It was a heady, exhilarating, and exciting experience. The football was decidedly mixed, but off the pitch you were part of an invincible force without having to do anything. You were always on the winning side in an era when attending football matches was dangerous. This was a distinct advantage. The Service Crew speedily determined that their reputation was for their own use, not to be hijacked by political fringe groups. But in some other Northern towns,Burnely, Huddersfield, Barnsley and Bradford to name four, the NF rhetoric did find favour as it had done around London.
Thus the National Front decided that it would be a good idea to hold a march and meeting in Leeds City centre, a geographically central rallying point for the northern disenchanted. At all the gigs leading up to the march, gig goers were leafleted, as were football fans outside the Peacock pub at Elland Road and going into the Gelderd End and Lowfields Road. That level of organisation produced a massive counter-demonstration. Around 10,000 Leeds students, and as many again football fans, turned out to confront them. I decided that it would be an entertaining day out.
The flyers had instructed us to assemble at Leeds Railway station from 10am where the NF were to assemble. The hall and road were on the northern side of the city centre, where the University and Polytechnic were. As I walked down I noticed that the road was cordoned off with barriers and around 300 police. It looked like the Police had it buttoned down.
As I turned into Bishopsgate St, where the railway station was, I was greeted by a crowd of several thousand. For a stunned second I thought they were NF, but quickly realised they were fellow protestors. Relatively close to the football ground, this is where the football crowd had mobbed up. 10am is far too early for most students, but spot on for fans used to congregating for away games. I would like to say that Leeds was a hotbed of democracy. In reality the expected NF crowd were from football mobs in Barnsley, Huddersfield, Bradford and South London ( Millwall) and Leeds fans took exception to the idea that they wanted to strut their stuff in THEIR city.
It was easy to spot the NF. Black Harrington jackets, blue jeans, doc marten boots, middle aged, overweight, they stood out a mile both from the student type, and the Casual look nw adopted by the Service Crew. A fragile guard of around fifty bobbies looked on with increasing nervousness as thousands of protestors milled around, skirmishing to break through the thin blue line into the station and attack the NF.. Ordinary passengers, pensioners, mothers with children squeezed their way through, in and out, undisturbed. Only in England…
As the time rolled on, it became increasingly apparent that the NF were never going to leave the station. Martin Webster found something to stand on to rally his followers only to be immediately felled by a fusillade of missiles. At which point common sense suggested that the increasingly overwhelmed police detachment should have forced the 150 or so NF on to a train going anywhere out of Leeds. Instead, an unknown commitment to free speech, hubris, or a desire not to be beaten by their matchday opponents resulted in almost the entire 300 officers from the hall charging down the street to force a passage out. It was like the cavalry coming to rescue the waggon train from the Red Indians.
Sheepishly, the NF , and their escort batons drawn and wielded , forced their way through the baying mob. Instantaneously a roar went up accompanied by the football chant; “It’s time for you to run.” And astonishingly, that is exactly what they did. 350 policemen and 150 NF, chased by upwards of 10,000 protestors, who were mainly in their teens, twenties and thirties, whose fitness over the one and a half miles proved far superior. It ended in a ragged walk, each attempt by the NF to erect banners and placards bringing an instant response of missiles and jeers, the former of which proved to be excellent targets and range markers with the column under continuous attack from protestors trying to break through the police lines.
As we turned into the street with the hall a significant change of circumstances presented itself. The Police contingent who had rescued the march from the railways station had abandoned their position in its entirety. In their place was around ten thousand students who greeted the exhausted police column with a rousing “Maggie’s Fascist Boot Boys”. There ensued a fearsome push and shove, as the police attempted to physically force the NF into the building while withholding withering charges from the students at the back, and football fans at the front.
A nice piece of social history was that as the front line of the football wedge started the football chant of “The Leeds, United, we’ll never be defeated”, the students responded “The workers, united we’ll never be defeated” – and so the chant that was heard at the Miners’ strike of 82 was born.
It was particularly noticeable that the number of NF who had turned up at the railway station was significantly more than those who scurried into their hall. It seemed that some had decided that the first train out anywhere was advisable to avoid their adversaries, whilst others had melted away during their parade to the hall, leaving probably barely forty left. This provided plod with their chance.
Standing outside a grand Victorian building on a Sunday afternoon with only a guard on the front door is low on entertainment value. When a dozen windowless riot vans arrived, disappearing down the guarded side access, no-one paid much attention. Reinforcements maybe? A shift change? When they left ten minutes later the question remained unanswered. An hour later it was. An inspector stood on the steps of the building to announce that the NF had not only left the building – but the city too.
So, back to my rooms. The NF would not be returning to Leeds again with me to contend with…