Twenty years ago yesterday, a nail bomb exploded in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, killing three people and injuring dozens more. It marked the conclusion of a campaign by David Copeland, a neo-Nazi intent on igniting a race war. Copeland’s previous devices had been set in Brixton and Brick Lane, intended to strike at the heart of black and Asian communities in London. The injuries from the Soho bombing, in a packed bar on a warm Friday evening, were always likely to be – in the insurance industry’s euphemism – ‘life-altering’. They were: lost eyes, lost limbs, lost lives. One survivor described it as ‘like in a Vietnam war film’.

I remember it through the media coverage: footage of fire engines and a policeman with a bloodstained shirt on the Nine O’Clock News that evening; the gouged-out front of the bar in grainy newsprint photos the next day. And I remember thinking: ‘They really hate gay people.’ It’s the kind of awkward thought you have on the cusp of adolescence: ‘they’ is hard to define, but it’s large, out there and armed; and ‘gay people’, you are beginning to sense, however scrupulously you may draw the third-person boundary in speech, includes you. I felt a pang in my stomach when the papers reprinted police photos of Copeland’s bedsit, Swastika flag pinned to the wall alongside neat newspaper clippings of racist violence.

The bombings tend to be remembered as political aberrations in the late 1990s’ gradual exhalation towards tolerance, the actions of a ‘lone wolf’ enraged by the inexorable movement of the political tide. At Copeland’s trial, the prosecution distinguished between the ‘political’ bombings in Brixton and Brick Lane, and the ‘personal’ bombing in Soho: ‘The defendant told police that he was very homophobic. He hated gay men and he said his hatred stemmed from the way his parents had treated him as a child.’ Suggestions of Copeland’s sexual and psychological aberrance – denial, closetedness, sadism – recur in the journalism around the case, though with little supporting evidence.

It may be comforting to believe that an explanation could be found in the sealed unit of a single broken psyche. It would also be a mistake. Copeland’s violent homophobia was commonplace in the neo-Nazi circles he moved in, from the British National Party to the National Socialist Movement. It was as much a part of their politics as racism was: they all declared their intention to outlaw or kill homosexuals. The BNP took pains to distance itself from the perceived tolerance of homosexuality among the directorate of the National Front; the BNP saw queers everywhere, intimately linked to tolerance and cultural degeneracy. Writing in the BNP’s Spearhead magazine in 1999, a few months before he became leader, Nick Griffin decried gay demonstrators against the Admiral Duncan bombing as ‘flaunting their perversion’, showing ‘just why so many ordinary people find those creatures so repulsive’.

Copeland was keen to emphasise his personal responsibility for his crimes, but the pattern repeated throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s: an individual racist – in West Sussex in 1999, Oxfordshire in 2002, East Yorkshire in 2008 – with ideological links to a fascist group commits a crime; racist organisations respond to it as either explicitly praiseworthy or indicative of ‘rising tensions’ that presage a forthcoming race war. For the suited rather than booted end of the spectrum, racist crimes are regrettable evidence of the dangers of migration, or of the way the more ‘traditional’ among us were unsettled by the push for equality.

The figure of the far-right terrorist, politically motivated but acting alone, has returned mostly recently in the shootings of Muslims and Jews in New Zealand and the United States. Yet Copeland and his analogues were transitional figures: their explicit political links to fascist organisations tie them to an older model of political racism. The organised distribution of magazines and propaganda to an official membership – requiring names, addresses, payments – was susceptible to policing and anti-fascist infiltration. The anonymous, diffuse circulation of racism on the internet – with no clear centre, unpredictable actors and an alien cultural battlefield – is not.

Copeland failed to trigger the race war he wanted. In each of the places he planted a bomb, he was astonished and disgusted to find black people living alongside white, gay and straight friends celebrating together, by choice. A few years later, not quite old enough legally to buy a drink, I went to the Admiral Duncan with some nervous friends, feeling an unarticulated compulsion to link my own, still confused coming-out story to that place, still standing. Perhaps it is in a defence of such ordinary facts – multiculturalism lived from below – that a new anti-fascism will find its feet.