During the latest UNITED conference “Overcome All Borders”, 4-9 May, Malaga (Spain), HOPE not Hate researcher Matthew Collins was interviewed about his past as a former member of the neofascist British National Party.
Before starting the interview, Matthew Collins invites me to smoke a cigarette with him. He is talkative, refers often to his book, tells me jokes I can hardly understand. My knowledge of south London slang is limited and I’m already apprehensive about the hours it will take to transcribe the recording. But as soon as we sit down in the small room, safe from the continual hustle and bustle of the conference, he changes attitude. His voice becomes solid, his sentences blunt, his eyes speed rapidly from one corner of the room to the next.
Matthew Collins was born in south London in the early 70s. Growing up in a working class family during the Thatcher era, he led a seemingly ordinary life until, at the age of just 15, he joined the National Front and was eventually drawn to the harder line of the British National Party. “I was very, very young – but I should also be clear on this. I was not sucked into this sort of thing, I was looking for it. By that time the radical right was tiny and unheard of. And I looked for it, and found it.”
Why? “People who are interested in tackling fascism and racism often ask this questions to others. But they should rather ask themselves: why shouldsomeone not be a racist, why should someone not be a fascist? [Fascism] offered me a (false, of course) promise, a vision and the strategy to achieve things in life which I would never achieve. It told me that I do not have to work hard to achieve things I want. I could have destroyed everything until, at the end, I would live in an utopia where everybody would look like me, think like me, dress like me.”
Tempting, especially for a young man from a deprived suburb, whose entire society is telling him how hard (but at the same time crucial) it is to succeed, and how worried he should be. Worried about everything and everyone – but especially about those who are different.
“Migration is challenging – and people cannot always rise to challenges”, says Collins.
Be aware: while this may sound like some sort of justification, or the sad old society-is-really-responsible story, it is nothing of the sort. “At the time we said strong words against black people, against Asians, against gays… And then I saw words in action, I saw what these words really looked like, and they looked very, very hurtful, very, very disruptive. Seeing a victim, or touching someone that you hurt… what kind of life is that?”
There was a specific episode in Mr Collins’s life that changed everything, what he refers to as his ‘conversion on the way to Damascus’.
It is what, in British fascist folklore, is known as the Battle of Welling Library, whose “soldiers” were celebrated as heroes. The truth, Collins said in an interview with The Independent, is that “it was a bloody massacre.”
“A cowardly group of 40 or so fascists armed with hammers smashed up a room full of mainly women, […] hitting them with chairs and hurling tables at them […] People were lying on the floor helpless, being stamped on, kicked and hit with objects picked off the walls and floor. A pregnant woman was locked in the toilet and the BNP were trying to kick their way in to get at her and her unborn baby.”
Mr Collins talked about this specific episode in his speech at the conference the following day, in front of 80 increasingly silent and deeply touched activists.
He did not spare any awful detail.
“The caretaker of the library where the meeting was held tried to stop us. We beat him until he lost consciousness.”
He did not milder his participation a tiny bit.
“To reach the upper floor and the meeting, we had to pass over his body. We didn’t – we stamped on it, all of us. That man never walked again.”
The rest of Matthew Collins life is an adventure he wrote in his book “Hate: My Life in the British Far Right” which I highly recommend you to buy. You will find out about how, after this event, he decided to cooperate with an anti-fascist group in the UK and acted undercover for three years, passing information, names and strategies from within the party. You will read about how he got arrested, was helped to leave the country to avoid the revenge of BNP, and spent 10 years in exile in Australia. By 2003, that tiny little group on the outside fringe of society was moving towards the mainstream, gaining over 100,000 votes in local elections held that year. So he came back and started holding speeches to tell his story, living under protection, moving house often while many of his former comrades and a new generation of fascist supporters continue to seek him out to punish his “betrayal”.
You can read all of this in the book – what you will not read is the slight change in his voice while he talks about what turns fear into hatred, and hatred into violence. “How do you conquer your fear? What do you do if you are scared of spiders and you see one? You stamp on it. And that is what happens: I was offered the opportunity to be elevated up over all those people I couldn’t understand. And more than elevated, I could master them, destroy them, belittle them.”
His voice is more tense. I have time for a last question: Mr Collins, what is the solution? What is your dream? “To have an educated and cultured working class, and a less competitive and destructive middle class. To have a society genuinely fair and that does not create competition. That people who idealise racial ideas would reflect upon the fact that we are all getting poorer… those who already are even more and faster than the others.”
By Claudio Tocchi