Twenty years ago today the leader of the UK’s far-right skinhead movement, Ian Stuart Donaldson, died in a car crash in Derbyshire. Two decades after his death we look at his cult following.
Born in Poulton, Lancashire, Donaldson rose to infamy as the singer of white power rock band Skrewdriver. He also co-founded Blood and Honour, a neo-Nazi music network used to raise funds for far-right movements – that at its height was thought to be a million dollar enterprise.
Since his death he has become the icon of far-right skinhead groups, with concerts planned each year in commemoration, where white power bands perform in front of swastika banners with Third Reich memorabilia openly on sale.
In the UK Blood and Honour regularly hosts secret festivals several times a year, the largest is Donaldson’s memorial each September.
Last year saw hundreds of skinheads gather at a field near Northampton. It is expected that as many as 5,000 neo-Nazi sympathisers could make the trip this weekend for the secret 20th anniversary event in Upper Heyford.
I was having a quiet drink… 15 of them came storming in, they had baseball bats. They tried to smash my elbows and knees.
Ian Stuart Donaldson
In the United States and eastern Europe, the Blood and Honour network still plays an influential role in recruiting angry young men to the far right. In May 2012 Russia banned the organisation claiming members were plotting a “state coup” and linked them to terrorist attacks.
Donaldson was no stranger to illegal activities. In 1985 he was sentenced to 12 months in prison for attack on black youths at King’s Cross station. He was in Wormwood Scrubs prison when Skrewdriver’s third album, named Blood And Honour, was released.
His former friend and mentor Joe Pearce, once a leading member of the National Front, explained that during his time in prison Donaldson became more hardened in his beliefs.
Skrewdriver had initially toured as an apolitical punk band in the 70s but Pearce convinced Donaldson to relaunch the band in 1982 with a new line up and to promote the National Front’s agenda.
Pearce found religion and rejected extremism, moving to the US to become an academic, but claims that when he last saw Donaldson in 1992 he had become “worn out” from constant street-battles and infighting within the movement.
In the late 80s Blood and Honour were publishing quarterly magazines and staging concerts across the country but they had also provoked a highly organised opposition group called Anti-Fascist Action.
While Donaldson had drawn the most violent elements of the skinhead scene into Blood and Honour, on the streets around King’s Cross he often faced peril in the early 90s at the hands of militant anti-fascists.
The memoir No Retreat confesses how he was constantly targeted. “The event that seemed to give Stuart the real horrors was when he went out early one morning to buy a newpaper and a pint of milk and was hit across the head by a large mancunian wielding a Lucozade bottle.”
Donaldson told the Evening Standard of one attack in 1989 ahead of a gig; “I was having a quiet drink with my mates… 15 of them (anti-fascists) came storming in. They had baseball bats. They tried to smash my elbows and knees.”
Skrewdriver gigs were regularly the scenes of violent clashes, with their 1992 planned London concert becoming the “battle of Waterloo”, with hundreds of skinheads and anti-fascists fighting running battles on the streets.
In 1992 the movement suffered a blow when Donaldson’s closest friend and Blood and Honour co-founder, Nicky Crane, confessed he was gay on the Channel 4 programme Out. Footage from the time shows Donaldson calling for his murder while on stage with Skrewdriver.
Crane died of an Aids-related illness just two months after Donaldson was killed in a car crash, both aged 36.
In the aftermath of his death the anti-fascist bulletin Fighting Talk made a number of mocking references to their “Mechanic” as a number of far-right bands had suffered car crashes around that time. This led to far-right publication Target reporting them to the police.
His former friend Joe Pearce believes the death was just a tragic accident, though far-right supporters have tried to blame security services. A nail was found in the rear tyre causing a slow leak and the front shock absorber was leaking.
At the time the coroner delivered a verdict of accidental death stating: “We are still no nearer finding out what caused this tragic accident. All we can say is that because of the car’s two defects the car became less easy to control.”
Donaldson’s vision for the movement can be seen at its worst in places like Bialystok in Poland, a city close to the border with Belarus where hooligans linked to Blood and Honour have used extreme violence against left wing opponents and the gay community in recent years.
However, his death also coincided with a period of heavy defeats for far-right streetfighters, who became increasingly isolated and secretive, and the start of the BNP’s move towards electoralism, taking the skinheads off the streets.