Challenge archive: we interview an ex-terrorist

In this article from 1979, Steve Munby interviews Tony Swash, a former terrorist in Britain, about his past life
In this article from 1979, Steve Munby interviews Tony Swash, a former terrorist in Britain, about his past life
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Published after the peak of the ‘Angry Brigade’ attacks in Britain, this interview provides a valuable insight into what it was like living as a terrorist in London during the 1970s, and why the RAF in Germany were more successful

None of the views in this article represent Challenge

Tony Swash was arrested in September 1970 for taking part in 6 petrol bomb attacks over that summer. He was 18 at the time having just left school. Targets included an army recruiting office, a court, Tory Party offices and an army intelligence office. He was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in March 1971 and sent to Borstal for 10 months. After his release in January 1972 he became involved in the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group, formed in response to the ‘Angry Brigade’ arrests and trials. Since that period he has broken completely with terrorist politics and become involved in community politics in Islington and Hackney.

What made you become a terrorist?

To people outside it often seems that things are carefully worked out and part of a big strategy. In fact it arose pretty spontaneously from the things we were doing and once it began, took on a logic of its own. Although I was quite young, the people I was associating with were people who’d been brought into politics by the upheavals associated with 1968. 

The key formative events were the Vietnam War and the struggle against it, particularly the whole series of violent demos around the American Embassy. Then there was May ’68 in Paris, the whole wave of youth, cultural rebellion in the 60’s, particularly in America and the general upsurge of struggles around the world against imperialism.

What’s striking is that the important influences on us were international rather than British. Our images were of total confrontational rebellion – Che Guevara, the Vietcong, the Weathermen. I was completely uninterested in and knew nothing about the history and development of the labour movement. I had no contact with more traditional Labour Movement politics. 

We felt that for the first time we were total revolutionaries – that every aspect of our lives was a total rebellion, from the way we dressed, to the way we brought up children, our music, our sexuality, the books we read and the drugs we took. We felt that we were questioning everything and that all one had to do was literally live out the revolution in one’s everyday life and in some way this would generalise itself.

That sounds farcical in retrospect, but at the time there were important events that seemed to reinforce that picture. The events in Paris seemed a clear indication that all one had to do was take to the streets, fight the ‘pigs’ and everyone else would follow you in some sort of spontaneous rebellion. In fact we were very arrogant and ignorant, but we just felt history was on our side, which is a common enough feeling I think.

How did you take the step from these general beliefs to actually carrying out bombings?

I had a close friend at the London School of Economic and I was around there a lot. When America invaded Cambodia there was a demonstration at the American Embassy. Along with a fair number of other people we met before the demonstration and planned to attack the Embassy. We tried to work out very detailed plans for attacking the Embassy and a number of other buildings in the West End.

On the day all our plans were thwarted by the activities of the police. There was a prolonged confrontation in Grosvenor Square, which spread throughout that part of the West End. A large number people and police were injured. A large number of people were arrested and a lot of property was damaged. At the end of the day we were feeling pretty frustrated and remember coming home with this friend who had a car, feeling really pissed off and that we had to do something – make a gesture. All of a sudden we were talking about doing something that night. My friend had a can of petrol, so we decided to go off and petrol bomb a court that was nearby. 

There was no political motive doing that particular court. We just felt we had to do it. It was a fantastically exciting and dramatic thing to do. We stayed up very late,ma de the petrol bombs and drove in the car. Feeling very excited, like being in a thriller, we got to he court and got out of the car. I felt very exhilarated and scared.

I remember throughout all the bombings, particular physical symptoms that went along with it – a tightness of the throat, a dryness of the mouth, the general flow of adrenaline and excitement we felt we’d lacked in our lives. So we got out of the car, lit the petrol bombs and threw them. 

There was a sort of dramatic burst of flames and we rushed to the car and drove off, feeling absolutely over the moon that we’d done this. It was a gesture, an exciting thing to do and we’d got away with it which was the most amazing thing. Getting away with it fitted in with our view of the world.

We were very influenced by situationism. This saw the whole of repressive capitalist society as an enormous facade, that was actually quite fragile. If people acted in a dramatic fashion they would puncture the illusions and the restraints on people. This would unleash an inherently revolutionary outburst. 

So getting away with that first bombing fitted in with that feeling, that all one had to do was act and you’d break with the past, unleash a revolution. So it was quite natural for us that having got away with it once, we’d do it again and again. Which is what happened. 

What did it feel like at the time?

Thinking back I enjoyed myself more than at any other time in my life. We just had a fantastic laugh doing these things. You’d get more and more tense in the evening that you were going to do an attack. Then you’d go and do it and the whole thing would be an amazing release of that tension. You’d feel completely exhilarated, just laugh and joke. We couldn’t sleep, so we’d go off to an all-night cafe and wait for first editions of the newspapers.

We felt we were doing something real for the first time. There’s a logic to it. Once you think you’ve broken through the what we saw as the ‘legality fetish’, you feel you’re not going to get caught, that other people will take the idea up. In some mysterious way the thing’s going to generalise itself into an armed assault on bourgeois society. We were becoming more and more confident that we’d never be caught, so we took more risks. We attacked buildings that were in more and more public places, earlier in the evening…

And that attitude led to your being caught?

Yes. What we didn’t realise was that the police were amassing small amounts of evidence that would tie in these attacks together as we were doing them. The last thing we did was the Hampstead Tory Association and that was in a fairly busy road. It was a crescent so you couldn’t see all along the road to tell if it was clear. It was relatively early, around midnight, whereas previously we’d done jobs at 3 or 4 in the morning. And someone saw us as they came down the road.

I got out of the car while my friend stayed inside with the engine running. I threw the bomb and there was a big burst of flame and a lot of noise. As I turned round and ran back to the car there were these passers-by looking at me. We drove off and of course they got the number of the car. The car was traced and the next day the two of us were picked up. We’d had no real contact with the police and they’ve got very sophisticated interrogation techniques which broke us. They weren’t brutal or anything. It was just sophisticated crossexamination. We confessed to it and the whole thing was brought to a swift end.

What did you feel about the morality of your actions?

We saw ourselves as attacking property not people. Although I think if we’d carried on not being caught, our own self justification would ultimately have allowed us to injure and kill people. It’s clear that that’s a logical development of a terrorist position. We thought we’d attack buildings that were empty, late at night, when no-one was there. In fact there were people in the buildings, luckily no-one was hurt, but we just didn’t think about it. 

How did you make sense of what you were doing politically? Did you see it a having any real effects?

In retrospect we were a tiny part of a tiny section of the left We were completely isolated from the dominant trends in left wing politics and certainly British polities. But we felt part of this sobal process, this rebellion breaking out across the world. and this hid from us our own isolation and political bankruptcy. We did consider the political implications of what we were doing, but in a very facile way.

In the student movement of the late 60’s we felt that there were a serious and boring element. These were people who were struggling for actual change in institutions. They wanted to sit and discuss strategy, to have what we saw as more and more boring meetings. There was also what we saw as the action faction or at other times, the ‘hooligan element’ as we called ourselves. That was the name we adopted and it carried over onto demos. We wanted to break free of all restraints and just act. 

One of the things about being involved in terrorism was that we no longer felt guilty about not taking part in the more serious aspects of left politics. It creates a very specific world. You can’t talk about what you’re doing, but you’ve got a complete justification for it – security. You’re taking a risk which means you must be taking it more seriously than anybody else, including the so-called serious people who just want to sit in meetings. 

Doing the bombings was just so much more exciting than sitting down and working out programmes or statements, producing leaflets or analysing how the institutions you wanted to change actually worked and the forces that could transform them.

From what I’ve learned about terrorism I think that’s a general characteristic of terrorism in Western Europe. I think you’vgot to separate movements like the Palestinians, the IRA and the Vietcong, quite clearly, from people like the Red Brigades, the Weathermen, the RAF and the Angry Brigade. I think the latter groups are clearly terrorists, whereas I don’t think it’s correct to describe these other armed movements as simply terrorists. They’ve arisen from profound social upheavals and at various times have had a very deep mass social base.

Talking to people who were involved in the Angry Brigade and being involved in their defence, 1 found that they suffered from the same illusions as us until the moment of their arrest. Within a few months of being arrested, even before being convicted, they’d seen through all the bullshit of what they’d been involved in, but by then it was too late to say “I’m sorry!”

Another important aspect is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of state repression. Our image of revolution was a kind of Petrograd. 1917 – masses in the streets, Ministry of the Interior in flames, barricades, guns, violent action. Now that couldn’t be farther from the political realities of Britain in the 60’s and 70’s. But once you begin to break the law in that systematic way by engaging in terrorism, a very particular sort of selective state repression is directed against you.

The legal apparatus of the state tries to trap you down and convict you – I mean, that’s their job! But the way you experience that is as the confirmation of your image of how the bourgeois state operates, which is that in the end it’s simply a repressive killing machine – that it’s merely hiding behind a liberal democratic facade. You’re exposing the iron fist in the velvet glove.

What made you break with terrorism?

I didn’t break with it when I was arrested. I was self critical only in so far as I thought that what we’d done was pathetic and didn’t represent a serious assault on the state. But the essential politics that came from remained the same. Throughout the period of the Angry Brigade trial I was convinced that armed struggle in Western European democracies was on the cards and something which should be organised.

What did happen was that I recognised that to be seriously involved in armed struggle required systematic planning. But when you begin to plan armed struggle as a serious proposition it quickly becomes apparent that it won’t ever get anywhere – that no base exists for it in our society. The only result of being systematic would be to pull off bigger and bigger outrages and carry on for that much longer before getting caught. You’d go to prison for that much longer and that would be the result of being systematic about it.

The whole experience was incredibly personal. As soon as the dynamic of being involved stopped, there was a period of acute personal crisis. You though Why the have I been to pria Why are some of the nicest people I know going to be locked up in prison for a number of years? What’s the point of what we’ve done that’s led to endless raids of our houses, endless police surveillance?’ Once you stop to think, the whole house of cards collapses. 

The first feeling is that there’s an enormous vacuum. People look for something to fill that vacuum with. The response of the people involved has been varied. Some of us have subsequently joined the Communist Party, a few have joined other left groups, while others are active as non-aligned socialists in areas like community politics, Quite a number have gone off and become mystics. That’s quite significant. Because all our politics at that time was based on a massive act of faith – that the revolution was around the corner The actual way that operated was very similar to religious faith.

One of the aspects of being involved in terrorism with a group of people is that it creates this closed universe. It throws you together very intensely. That’s another reason why terrorism has such a logic, because all moral constraints are removed and the only restrictions you experience are those of the group. The terrorist group and the network from which it emerges produces its own moral code – which is completely divorced from the whole of existing society, but. which is nevertheless very total.

People who were involved in the Angry Brigade have said themselves that in the end they didn’t really want to do what they were doing. But not to deit – to question it, would be an immense betrayal of their comrades. Breaking with terroris, means breaking with your deepest and closest comrades and friends – a personal rupture with the group that’s given you an identity.

Why do you think the Angry Brigade and other connected groups disappeared so rapidly in Britain, while the Red Army Fraction has persisted for so long in West Germany?

At the beginning the people involved in the RAF were incredibly similar to us. The things they did, the politics they were involved in around the student movement and in Berlin were so close to what was going on in London and other cities at the same time. But once they’d started, the dynamic of events was profoundly different and I think you have to look for these differences in the whole nature of West German society.

One of the things we felt very strongly was that with us, history had arrived. Everything prior to us was half-compromised. We were making a total rebellion against the past and bourgeois society. Now in Germany that whole process was overdetermined by the Nazi past of the society and the older generation. If you read about the RAF they experienced that rejection, which freed us from any constraints about what we were doing, much more profoundly – because there was so much more to reject.

Another aspect is the nature of the West German state. Their police and security system is very different from ours as a reaction to the Nazi past. It’s decentralised to prevent them playing a national political role. So to begin with the RAF could get away with much more than the Angry Brigade could because the West German police were quite inefficient at investigating that sort of systematic crime. But on the other hand, the actual state apparatus was that much more repressive – in terms of their handling of street demos, being armed, etc.

Quite clearly, in West Germany the logic of events accelerated that much faster. There was never any question with the Angry Brigade of shooting policemen. They were never in a position of confronting a situation where that was a likely option. But in West Germany they did – from the very beginning. They were up against an armed police apparatus that was behaving in a very clumsy and repressive fashion. The RAF found a much wider resonance among the left than the Angry Brigade did in Britain.

Isolation was a major factor in the Angry Brigade petering out. In Germany because of the legacy of Nazism and the crude response of the police, they were tolerated and sympathised with by a much larger slice of the population. When you look at the people who actually defended and put up the RAF, they were fairly prominent people – left-wing intellectuals, journalists, professionals. There was never any question of that with the Angry Brigade in Britain.

Steve Munby

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