When far-right groups like the EDL and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance have taken to Britain’s streets in recent years, the media has focused on the threat posed by the stereotypical tattooed and shaven headed “fascists”, but TJM’s report on the 9th December 2018 Brexit Betrayal protest and counter-protest shines a light on the violent far-left and suggests its tactics are feeding right wingers’ growing sense of resentment.
It’s 1pm on December 9th 2018 in central London and the march against the Tommy Robinson-led (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) Brexit Betrayal demonstration is in full swing, with an estimated 8,000 “anti-fascist” counter-protesters making their way from Portland Place to the end point at Whitehall. As the main procession of counter-protestors reaches Cockspur street, scores of their comrades try to break through a police line on Pall Mall East street, just a few metres away from the National Gallery. Their aim, it seems, is to break free of the police so they can locate and physically attack the Brexit Betrayal demonstrators, who are marching from Park Lane to Parliament street to demand that the Government stay faithful to country’s 17.4 million Leave-voters by taking Britain out of the EU.
Police reinforcements rush in, including two officers on horseback, and hold the line. But more “anti-fascists”, many of them dressed in black and wearing masks, stream into Pall Mall East street and within minutes there are well over two hundred of them, their ranks festooned with red Antifa flags. Emboldened now, they heave against the line of police, but the officers, batons drawn, keep them back. A purple smoke bomb goes off and multiple skirmishes break out between law enforcement and the youthful counter-protestors. A shaven headed man is dragged from the crowd, pinned to the floor and handcuffed. A few moments later, the “anti-fascists” calm down, having accepted they are unlikely to break through the cordon.
On the other side of this police line, among all the bemused-looking tourists, a group of about ten other “anti-fascist” counter-protestors is milling around. They are free to make their way to the Brexit Betrayal protestors, who are a couple of streets away, but they have evidently decided not to do so, almost certainly because there are too few of them to guarantee a successful assault. Suddenly a tall man with short grey hair and pebble glasses runs up and snatches a flag from one of the women in the group.
“Hey! That’s my flag,” shouts the woman, who is olive-skinned looks to be in her late 30s. The man throws her flag across the pavement and raises his hands in a “come on then” gesture. He isn’t wearing or carrying anything that gives away his political allegiance, but it seems likely that he and the five tough-looking men standing several metres behind him are far-right protesters.
The small group of “anti-fascists” rush in to attack the aggressor and he disappears behind a flurry of flying sticks, fists and kicks. Belatedly, his friends jog in to join the fight, but two police officers then arrive and separate the two groups.
It looks like no one was hurt in the mele, including the bespectacled man, who is standing alone again, his face unmarked. Since the time he snatched the “anti-fascist” woman’s flag away he’s been struggling to keep his balance, suggesting he might be drunk.
I tell him I’m a freelance journalist and ask him why he’s come to the protest. I’m here for democracy,” he explains, adding that he is a member of March for England, a small far-right street protest group. “I can’t understand all this,” he says, gesturing towards the main crowd of counter-protestors on Pall Mall East street.
The pro-Brexit demonstration has attracted an assortment of right and far-right groups and supporters and a few of them have opted to come to the Trafalgar square area to defy the “anti-fascists”, who believe that people with nativist sympathies should have no platform to speak.
The group of “anti-fascist” counter-protestors that attacked him is now standing a few metres away from him, shouting out threats and challenging him to approach them. Switching over to their side, I speak to a man who introduces himself as Abraham Abcil and tells me he’s a Turkish refugee and dedicated “anti-fascist”. “The police are protecting the fascists,” he says. “We have to stop them. It’s the duty of humanity to stop the fascists, they shouldn’t have any platform to speak,” he adds.
The failure to break though the police line notwithstanding, Abraham is happy with how the day’s events are panning out. “It’s a total humiliation for the fascists. There are tens of thousands of us here. The fascists are only, what, one thousand five hundred of them on the streets,” he says.
Hosted by the anti-racism campaigning group Stand Up To Racism, the “anti-fascist” counter-protest has drawn support from Unite Against Fascism, Momentum, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Jewish Socialist Group, Brazilians Against Fascism, local Labour Parties and Trade unions including the RMT, Unison and Unite. Stand Up To Racism’s website said that their demonstration is “for all anti-fascists, regardless of their positions on leave/remain on Brexit, and the demonstration’s focus is opposing Tommy Robinson, fascism and racism”. It goes on to state that while Tommy Robinson claims his march is about a “Brexit Betrayal”, the reality is that he is a fascist who is looking to build a far-right street movement here in Britain.
But not all the counter protestors agree with the tactics of the hard-core elements of their camp. “I think they shame us,” says Helen, a 64-year-old retiree and veteran “anti-fascist” protestor from Cambridge who has made her way to Nelson’s Column after being roughed up by her fellow activists.
“The man who seemed to be the leader (of the “anti-fascists”) was walking around taking down police officers’ ID numbers before the trouble started. He actually told me the only way to stop the fascists was by using force,” she says, holding her camera out to show me an image of the man. He had short hair, steel rimmed glasses and looked much older than his fellow protesters, many of whom could pass for university students.
“One of them because they saw I was holding up a camera rushed over and shouted ‘she’s a fascist’, pushed me against the wall and tried to grab my camera. I felt really threatened,” she says.
The morphing of the right and far-right
The protests have come at a time of heightened concern among left-wing activists about the changing face of Britain’s far-right movement. Research conducted by the anti-racism campaigning organisation Hope not hate says that while the British far-right is weaker now, both politically and organisationally, than any other time in the last 25 years, it has new and significant online presence, with three out of the five of the world’s most popular far-right activists hailing from these shores (Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson and Tommy Robinson).
This online activity allows far-right figures like Paul Joseph Watson and political parties like Britain First, which opposes Islamic extremism and mass immigration, to reach numbers of people that would have been unthinkable in the past. Tommy Robinson, an anti-Islamist and the founder of the English Defence League had over 1 million online followers at the end of last year while Britain First had 1,948,000 Facebook followers in December 2017, more than the Labour or Conservative parties. With such large online followings, people like Tommy Robinson can occasionally mobilise large-scale street protests around single issues such as Islamist terrorist attacks or free speech. On 9thJune 2018 15,000 people attended the Free Tommy Robinson rally while on 13thOctober 2018 as many as 50,000 protestors joined the anti-Islamist terror demonstration organised by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, an anti-Islamic extremism street-protest group.
According to Nick Ryan, Hope not hate’s Communications Director, other issues of concern are Tommy Robinson’s movement, the hardening of UKIP’s stance and its alliance with far-right figures like Tommy Robinson, and the possibility that Brexit might give impetus to far-right/radical right populist.
“We know they train their people to assault.”Diane Rose, member of For Britain.
The Brexit Betrayal rally appears to be a manifestation of precisely this combination of perceived threats, having been jointly promoted by Tommy Robinson and UKIP leader Gerrard Batten. The Facebook page promoting the event said it would show MPs that the 17.4 million who voted Leave really meant what they said, but Tommy Robinson’s involvement suggests the rally aims to address a wider range of right-wing concerns than just immigration from the EU or Brexit. In the event, the founder of the EDL (English Defence League) keeps his speech tightly contained, saying little about Brexit except that he believes it was cultural factors more than anything else that prompted his Leave-opting friends to vote the way they did in the EU referendum.
Judging by the size of the crowd on the pro-Brexit side of the police cordon on Whitehall, however, this fledgling partnership between a far-right figure-head and the leader of a populist party (UKIP), with both rallying behind Brexit, is a long way from generating mass national support. Standing beneath the fluttering UKIP and Union Jack flags is a subdued gathering of only 3,000 people. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful, the police presence is minimal and the air carries the smell of cigarettes. As might be expected, there are perhaps more tattooed people and more worn and tough-looking faces on this side than the counter protest side. But the crowd appears more socially diverse than traditional nationalist, anti-immigration or anti-Islamism street gatherings, having drawn in larger numbers of women and older people and a fair sprinkling of rosy-cheeked men in tweed caps and olive green Burberry jackets. Many of those present will have concerns about Islamism, mass immigration, multiculturalism or the influence of the European Union in Britain but few, if any, would agree that such concerns qualify them as far-right, let alone fascists or racists.
“We’re all anti-fascists,” says Wayne, a 51-year-old ex-member of the Royal Artillery whose dog is sporting a Union Jack coat. “They’re (the counter protestors) the fascists! They want to stop free speech.”
Diane Rose, a 61-year-old American who is carrying a banner declaring her support for For Britain, a pro-Brexit party that believes in minimising immigration and combatting the “Islamisation of the UK”, echoes Wayne’s sentiments, saying: “They don’t want to debate the real issues so they’re using this racist, fascist, far-right thing as a cloud to obscure them. We are concerned that this country is losing its democracy and that we’re being stopped from speaking.”
Explaining the low level of attendance at the demonstration, Diane says that the threat of left-wing violence will have scared some people off although it has never discouraged her from making her voice heard in public. “It doesn’t scare me. I’ve been assaulted already at a hustings in Lewisham. I was attacked by a big man. He did it very cold bloodedly. We know they train their people to assault, we know what goes on in their meetings,” she says.
Not everyone is as brave as Diane and there is little doubt that the tactics of far-left extremists have generally succeeded in limiting the numbers of far-right sympathisers who turn up for street protests or even political events.
Anne Marie Waters, former UKIP leader contender and current leader of the For Britain party, says that violent attacks by left wing groups have made it difficult for her party to operate in public spaces. “I’ve seen a lot of violence and intimidation coming from the UAF (Unite Against Fascism) and other groups like that. I wasn’t able to turn up to a hustings event when I was a parliamentary candidate in Lewisham because it was deemed unsafe for me to turn up because of Stand Up To Racism. Members of our party were pushed around and physically assaulted by Stand Up To Racism,” she says.
Fear of violence has certainly affected the Brexit Betrayal protestors, several of whom are carefully folding away their flags and hiding them as the protest winds down. “Had to tuck my UKIP flag away”, says Danny, tapping his jacket as he walks towards Westminster tube. “Didn’t want to get beaten up on my way home,” added the 24-year-old Mancunian. And it’s not just the prospect of being assaulted that has spooked people. Some on both the pro-Brexit and counter-protest side declined to give their full names, saying they believed groups like the UAF and Stand Up To Racism would be able to track them down to their homes and work places and harass them and their families.
But the drive to muzzle those who oppose uncontrolled immigration, multiculturalism or the influence of Islam in the UK has added the denial of free speech to their list of grievances, intensifying their feelings of resentment towards the counter protestors, the mainstream politicians who back them and the media. “They (the counter protestors) call other people fascist, but they go around dressed in black with masks and try to intimidate people from attending an event. What’s that? That’s what the Brown shirts did,” says Anne Marie Waters. “They’ve been effective but largely because of the media, which prints their side of things without question,” she adds.
Radical left-wing groups may well celebrate their success in denying their opponents the right to speak freely or operate effectively in public, but it seems the increasing sense of anger and injustice felt by those with views labelled as right and far-right wing are simply finding expression elsewhere, with the Brexit vote and far-right online activism being prime examples of the displaced rage.