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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 10:56 GMT
From utter racist to anti-fascist

By Cindi John
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Matthew Collins seems like a nice man. When we meet, he shakes my hand warmly and asks if I would like tea or coffee. We chit-chat about the weather and public transport.

Matthew Collins
Matthew Collins fears being recognised by former colleagues
Had we met 15 years ago I doubt our encounter would have been so cordial.

As a top official of the far right National Front, he would not have welcomed my presence in the UK, let alone in the same room as him.

For as he tells me: "I had an absolute and genuine hatred for black people."

Now, however, he works for the anti-fascist organisation, Searchlight, and is co-author of a new guide to the signs and symbols, such as emblems and tattoos, associated with far right-wing groups.

The guide, Signs of Hate, has quickly become an essential tool for police, probation officers, social workers and others involved with young offenders.

It has also been snapped up by groups working with asylum seekers and other organisations at risk of attack as a means of teaching them who to be wary of.

Searchlight guide
A guide to symbols used by racists
"A lot of these people come across the symbols and the signs and the book will help them know exactly what they're dealing with," Mr Collins says.

The guide is the first publication by Operation Wedge, set up by Searchlight to prevent young people from getting involved with race-hate groups. It's a project that Mr Collins returned from self-imposed exile in Australia last year to work on.

"One of the reasons I came on board was it was very important for me this wedge existed in terms of putting a wedge between young white kids who were potential race-haters and race hate groups," he says.

'Revolution'

Those are perhaps strange words from someone who in his own youth wholeheartedly believed in race-hatred, and admits to having been involved in "numerous violent skirmishes" during his NF days.

But Mr Collins, 31, has changed since what he calls his "reckless" youth and does not make excuses for his past.

He and his three brothers were brought up by their mother on a tough, working-class council estate in south London. His father ran off with the family's black baby-sitter when the young Matthew was five years old.

However, he says he was upset to lose the babysitter, of whom he was fond. And neither his father's desertion nor his family's circumstances were to blame for how he turned out.

I've been looking at one of the Nazi websites and they've got me listed as one of their targets
"I was a product of my environment but I grew up on a council estate with lots of other people and I was the only one from my social group who got involved in fascist politics," he says.

But he believes the political climate in the 1970s and 1980s played a major role.

"Growing up in Margaret Thatcher's wonderful Britain we didn't seem to have much future ahead of us," he says.

"I was not a perfect adolescent and the most dangerous and daring thing I could think of when I was growing up was NF, the initials of hatred. And I found that in a sense very attractive and it gave me a huge sense of belonging."

He didn't bother with exams, he says, "because I genuinely believed there was going to be a revolution and a fascist government would come to power and I'd be the minister for transport".

'Message of hate'

After he left school he was employed full-time by the NF as their press spokesman.

"I travelled up and down the country, spreading the message we had of hate," he says.

His mind was changed at a right-wing rally he attended in 1989. He had believed the demonstration was going to be peaceful, but fellow protesters started attacking people nearby, mainly elderly Asian women.

"They physically attacked people, they smashed chairs on their heads. They meted out the most appalling and pointless violence on people."

I genuinely believed there was going to be a revolution and a fascist government would come to power and I'd be the minister for transport
His desire to "right this wrong" led him to approach Searchlight, an anti-fascist group which until then had been a sworn enemy.

For the next three years he led a double life, still in the National Front but reporting back to Searchlight on the NF's activities and those of other right-wing groups.

After witnessing an attack by members of the fascist group Combat 18 on anti-racists in east London he went public in a TV documentary in 1993. As a result of the broadcast several senior members of C18 were arrested and Mr Collins found his own life was in danger.

"Officers from Special Branch came to see me to say there had been a very serious threat made against me, that I was going to be shot and I should leave the country, so I did that with some haste."

Now a target

He went to Australia, initially with the intention of staying for 12 months. Ten years later he decided not to have his life dictated by right-wing groups, and returned to the UK.

But even though more than a decade has passed since he turned on his former colleagues, he still has concerns for his safety, and will not be photographed full-face.

"I've been looking at one of the Nazi websites and they've got me listed as one of their targets," he says. "I never thought it was safe enough to come back."

Signs of Hate is available from Searchlight, price 12


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