by Dan Hodges
Matthew Collins is a Nazi. And a good friend.
Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. He used to be a Nazi. Back when he was young and angry and felt he was slipping off the world.
When I was young I was into a bit of politics and football and girls. This is what Matt was into:
“The little old ladies attempted to flee in terror but they had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. They were forced to cower together against the walls in united agonised anticipation of their bloody beating. Their own chairs were raised in slow motion against them. This was going to be a bloodbath”.
It was. And Matthew Collins perpetrated it. The description above relates to an attack he was involved in on a group of Asian pensioners at Welling library, in 1989. He was 17, and a member of the BNP.
The story of Matthew’s brutal assault is recounted in his new book Hate. I’m not usually into reviewing or plugging books. But you should stop reading now, shut down your computer, walk out the door, find a bookshop, buy it and read it. Then you should think about it.
Hate is about Matthew Collins’ journey; one that began that day in Welling, continued with his “defection” to the Searchlight anti-fascist magazine, and ended with him being in the forefront of the Hope not Hate campaign that saw the BNP routed from Dagenham and Nick Griffin subjected to his grotesque and glorious political humiliation. At some point over the next few months, the BNP will cease to exist as a political party. Its destruction will have been brought about, in no small part, by Matthew.
But Hate isn’t just about his journey. It’s about our journey. The left, the struggle against the far right, and the reality of the war to keep extremism at bay.
It’s a war we all want to serve in. At a time when politics is filled with confusion and compromise, the fight against the fascists is framed with brutal, but welcome, clarity. Or it should be.
That clarity is certainly what attracted me. I started working with Hope not Hate on the media campaign for the 2009 Euro elections. It was no-holds-barred, bare knuckle, PR. We used every dirty, underhand, low down, unscrupulous trick in the book. Then when the book had been used up, we tore it to shreds, set it on fire, and stuffed it down Nick Griffin’s underpants.
It was at that time I first met Matt. To be honest, I thought he was a bit of a bullshitter. He was always talking about all the senior BNP guys like he really knew them. Then I got a call from one of the papers who needed to put one of our latest exposes to the BNP leader. “Stupid question”, I asked across the office, “but does anyone know the number for Griffin’s press guy”. “Yeah”, said Matt. “Do you want him, or do you need Griffin himself”? “You’ve got a number for Nick Griffin”? I replied. “Yeah. What do you want, office, home or mobile”?
He wasn’t bullshitting after all. We started a stupid game where Matt would ring up Griffin, or his press officer, Simon Darby, and we’d wind them up. Matt would pretend to be from a national newspaper and then hand the phone to me, pretending I was his news editor. “Nick, we’re just checking on those twelve seats you’re going to win. It is still twelve isn’t it”? “Nick, what do you say to those people who argue you’re just a bit too, well fat and ugly, to front a modern political campaign”?
I suppose Griffin had the last laugh when he squeezed in by a couple of hundred votes in the North West. But the twelve seat breakthrough never came close to materialising. It was a close run thing, but we managed to hold the line.
During that campaign I learned two valuable things from Matthew. The first was about the nature of modern fascism itself. “The thing you’ve got to understand about Griffin and the BNP”, he said, “is there’s not really a lot there. They’re dangerous. But if you deal with them properly, they’re not a threat”.
He was right. We have to be vigilant, and we have to tackle the BNP and their offshoots head on. But we should be careful not to overestimate them.
When I started that 2009 campaign I thought Griffin was a sort of brown shirt Blairite, a slick moderniser who was professionalising his party and skillfully maneuvering it towards the political mainstream. He wasn’t. It was clear in the way he operated, and the way his party operated, that this was someone who was aggressive and racist and represented a political challenge. But above all else he was inadequate. He was precisely what we all saw in that defining Question Time appearance. A scared little man, way out of his depth.
The second thing I learnt from Matthew was about wanking. When you read the book, you’ll notice there’s a lot of masturbating. When I arranged for Matthew to pitch to publisher Iain Dale I spent twenty minutes outlining what I thought were the underlying socio-political themes that made it worthy of publication. “And what do you think are its key selling points?”, said Iain turning to Matthew. “Well”, he replied, “there’s a lot of jerking off”. “I’m sold”, Iain responded.
What comes out most clearly from Matthew’s walk though the world of far right extremism, is the seediness. The tackiness. The pettiness of prejudice.
Yes, there is some excitement. Lots of blood and adrenalin, covert meetings, undercover cops, spooks and terrorists. They are all there.
But there is little glamour to be found in Matthew’s embrace of, and flight from, far right extremism. And even less romance.
This is important. Hate is a reminder that the politics of extremism is the politics of the sewer. Getting to grips with the far right involves getting down own your hands and knees and wading through the filth.
There is a place for pop concerts, and debates about the morality of bans on free assembly. Placards and slogans and demonstrations of solidarity are all well and good. But at the end of the day the far right will be defeated when it is out-thought and out-organised. It cannot just be shouted down.
Matthew Collins knows this. He has seen up close what makes a modern fascist. And what breaks one.
Once he was Nazi. Now he is a Nazi hunter. It is a terrible and beautiful redemption.
Hate is published by Biteback publishing.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.