The fighting 400 - Gerry Gable looks back at the early days of Searchlight
When Searchlight first appeared as a magazine in February 1975 it already had a strong track record. Between 1965 and 1968 Searchlight was published as an occasional broadsheet which campaigned against racism and fascism from a somewhat liberal perspective but, unlike the magazine today, made little use of the intelligence being gathered about the far right and its activities.
After two excellent editors, the Labour MPs Reg Freeson and Joan Lester MP, who left to take up Cabinet posts in the Wilson Government as Housing Minister and Minister for Overseas Aid respectively, it fell to me, Searchlight’s research editor, to take up the baton.
Searchlight became the first port of call for print, TV and radio journalists writing about the National Front in the 1970s, which grew to 17,500 members ranging from hardline nazis to Tory diehards united in their racism and antisemitism.
In late 1974 we published a booklet surveying Britain’s far right partly to test the market for this type of information. A well oiled nazi machine sold like hot cakes and three months later the magazine was launched.
A bit tatty and often ungrammatical, it was produced by a small team based in Birmingham and Essex and prepared often as not on my kitchen table. From the first issue it was led by the mounting intelligence coming in from inside the far right here and abroad.
Essentially the magazine had four aims. The first was to investigate and expose, by analysing and using the intelligence we gathered from the highest echelons of the NF and even more extreme groups. Information from our own trained intelligence operatives, whom we infiltrated into the far right, was complemented by a stream of defectors who had lost their faith in fascism and racism or sought some personal or political gain.
Our second aim was to publish news stories about far-right activities which attracted media interest and caught the imagination of the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement.
The third was to educate. Maurice Ludmer, a trade unionist who became president of Birmingham Trades Council, then the biggest body of its kind in Western Europe, worked with me from the 1960s and edited the magazine until he died in 1981. Maurice saw the vital need for education and from his experience in the earliest postwar anti-racist campaigns coined the phrase, still so important today, “We must teach anti-racists to be anti-fascist and anti-fascists to be anti-racist”.
The magazine very quickly gained a reputation as the primary source for anyone who wanted to know about the extreme right and over the years published hundreds of groundbreaking investigations and news stories, as well as more analytical articles staking out the ground for resistance to racism and fascism.
The early years saw some spectacular successes through the work of some very brave individuals who worked under great pressure and risk to expose the truth about the enemies of democracy. Many cannot be named here, some are still active, but one of the most high profile was Ray Hill.
A onetime violent follower of Britain’s nazi leader Colin Jordan, he experienced a slow but complete change of heart while living in South Africa. He contacted us after he returned to Britain and for the next few years worked for us deep among the nazi terrorists both here and in Europe.
While still under cover he made a World in Action television documentary about British nazis armed with guns and explosives. Almost single-handedly he destroyed the extreme nazi British Movement, setting it back for years. He completely destroyed the British Democratic Party and its leader, the Leicester solicitor Anthony Reed Herbert, and was on the top table when John Tyndall set up the British National Party.
Ray went on to make a series of TV documentaries and wrote a book with Andrew Bell, the producer of the programmes.
Maurice built up a great deal of goodwill in the trade union movement though nothing on the scale of our trade union support today. He assembled a formidable team of writers, many serious, some humorous – yes we have always seen humour as a vital weapon against bigots.
The playwright David Edgar thanked us for our help with his first major play, Destiny, and rewarded us with many excellent columns in the magazine. Professor Michael Billig, a leading social psychologist, wrote regularly for the magazine as did many others who have gone on to become leading journalists.
After Maurice’s untimely death in 1981, various people took charge until my return as editor in 1983. I stood down in 1999 handing over to Steve Silver and Nick Lowles as joint editors, but remained as publisher. In 2005 Nick became the sole editor.
Part 2 tomorrow...