By Caroline Colebrook
THIS COMING Sunday will be the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Red Lion Square – an important event in the history of anti-fascism in Britain in which Kevin Gately, a young anti-fascist student, was killed and many others anti-fascists were injured during what was effectively a police riot.
At the time the main fascist enemy on the streets was the National Front, notorious for its violence and its policy, put forward by Martin Webster, of “kicking its way into the headlines”.
It was winning some support on its strongly anti-immigration platform but not far beneath the surface, its hard core centre was solidly neo-Nazi – not only racist but out-and-out fascist.
The NF booked a meeting for 15th June at London’s Conway Hall. This was run by the South Place Ethical Society which had at the time a policy of free speech for all which allowed the extreme right wing a platform on the theory that spouting their poison would show themselves up and be more likely to turn people away from their policies. It was a naïve and mistaken view. Fascists rarely reveal their true nature from a platform; they lie about their real agenda.
Throughout London left-wingers – a diverse array including the Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain and dozens of small groups of Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists and others – there was an anti-fascist consensus that this NF meeting should be opposed and a march and a counter meeting, which were was organised by Liberation, formerly known as the Movement for Colonial Freedom to begin earlier than the NF meeting.
The plan was to fill the building and its approach so full of anti-fascists that the NF would be peacefully prevented from entering the Conway Hall. And although the event was organised by Liberation it was supported by many groups, including the Trotskyist International Marxist Group (IMG) and the International Socialists (who later became the Socialist Workers’ Party).
Police had other ideas and the counter meeting inside the Conway Hall was banned. As the anti-fascist marchers coming from Clerkenwell along Theobald’s Road turned into Old North Street and into Red Lion Square they were diverted by a huge police cordon, including mounted police and the Special Patrol Group, from turning left towards the Conway Hall.
Instead they were directed right to where the event organisers were setting up a platform for an open air meeting on the north side of the Square. The organisers included veteran campaigners Kay Beauchamp, Tony Gilbert and Labour MP Sid Bidwell.
As the march turned some of the younger Trotskyists and anarchists tried to challenge the police cordon and force a way through to the Conway Hall. They stood no chance. But one or two bottles and other objects were thrown at the police lines. Many suspect they came from police provocateurs.
The NF were not due for another hour or two and most anti-fascists did not see the point of picking a fight with the police at this point and time.
The thrown objects acted as a trigger for the police; the cordon advanced rapidly with mounted police using their truncheons vigorously to clear away all in their path. They did not hesitate to strike the veterans who had been setting up their platform and microphone as previously agreed with the police.
Soon it was mayhem, confusion and bloodshed everywhere. Some demonstrators were forced back up Old North Street; others fled towards Southampton Row.
Police forcibly cleared all demonstrators from the Square, including those who had been preparing peacefully for the open air rally.
Soon after this, word spread among the Liberation demonstrators that the NF were approaching. Many demonstrators regrouped at the junction of Vernon Place and Southampton Row where they were held back by a police cordon on the east side.
The National Front, accompanied by an Orange fife and drum band, marched down Bloomsbury Way to the west side of Southampton Row where another police cordon stopped them. Neither side attempted to breach the cordons that separated them.
After a few minutes mounted police came up Southampton Row from Red Lion Square and moved straight into the Liberation crowd without warning. Supported by foot police, they used truncheons indiscriminately on demonstrators.
Another police cordon behind the crowd effectively prevented their escape and a large number of arrests were made.
A large number of demonstrators were arrested. Photos show that many who were arrested had their hair pulled or were otherwise treated with what appeared to be excessive force by police. Some had faces covered in blood after being hit on the head by truncheons.
While this was happening the National Front were allowed to turn right into Southampton Row and escorted round the south side of Red Lion Square into Conway Hall.
Kevin Gately, a 21-year-old student from Warwick University, was not a member of any political group and this was his first attendance at a political event. He came with a group of friends attached to an IMG contingent and was caught up in the first clash in Red Lion Square.
Photos show Gately moving through the crowd, possibly trying to escape from the tight press of bodies during the pushing at the police cordon.
His unconscious body was found by police after the crowd was driven back and taken in an ambulance to University College Hospital.
Gately's fellow students only realised that he was missing when they met after the demonstration ended. A student who enquired at University College Hospital was shown Gately's body and asked to identify him.
A coroner's inquest at St Pancras Coroner's Court concluded that Gately's death was the result of a blow to the head from a blunt instrument. Many suspect this was a police truncheon. Police later claimed that Gately was found to have an unusually thin skull at certain points and that his death was a tragic accident.
Kevin Gately was the first demonstrator to be killed in Britain for 55 years.
The next Saturday, 22nd June 1974, a silent march retraced the route of the Liberation counter-demonstration from the embankment to Red Lion Square. The march was led by personal friends of Kevin Gately, followed by University of Warwick students and then by students from many other universities and colleges as well as contingents from many of the left wing groups that had taken part in the original march.
The Inquest into Kevin Gately's death was followed by a public inquiry headed by Lord Scarman, which considered a wide range of evidence from police and marchers. The IMG leaders on 15th June – Brian Heron and David Bailey – initially denied charging the first police cordon but later admitted doing so to the Scarman tribunal.
The sabbatical officers of University of Warwick Students' Union commissioned a Kevin Gately memorial painting which still hangs in the student union building. It was restored in 2004.
Tony Gilbert went on to write a book about the police riot, Only One Died: An Account of the Scarman Inquiry into the Events of 15th June 1974, in Red Lion Square, when Kevin Gately Died Opposing Racism and Fascism, published in London by Kay Beauchamp, 1975.