In previous articles, I have argued that the Free Tommy Robinson campaign is the domestic expression of the rise of the far right internationally and described how it begins with the launch of the Football Lads Alliance last year.
Free speech for Hate speech?
On 6 May this year, various parts of the far right came together to hold a Free Speech demonstration in Whitehall. Billed a ‘Day for Freedom’, the purpose of the event was to protest Twitter’s decision to close down Tommy Robinson’s account, and to link this to what the organisers’ claimed was a ‘war on freedom of expression’.
As explained in the previous article, the immediate context to the closure of Robinson’s account was his encouragement of Darren Osborne, who had initially intended to kill Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, before settling on a terrorist attack against Muslims praying at the Finsbury Park mosque in Islington. The ‘speech’ that needed to be protected was, in other words, Robinson’s support for murder.
Various figures declared their support for Robinson; most were C-list figures: including Raheem Kassam, recently at Breitbart London, and Anne-Marie Waters whose For Britain party won a mere 266 votes in the Lewisham East byelection. By far the most important was Gerard Batten, whose leadership of UKIP has been characterised by repeated attempts to woo the extra-parliamentary far right.
On the day, websites such as Hope not Hate reported the presence of any number of open fascists on the march, and it is true that compared to 2017 when the FLA was being set up, the initial ban on open politics seemed to have been dropped.
That said, many of the groups present on the march (eg Generation Identity) were there in small numbers and were peripheral to the event. Rather than seeing GI and similar as the cadres of a fascist revival, the largest numbers seem to have been football supporters and Tommy Robinson online’s fans. The event became a turgid open-air mass meeting with Robinson speaking last.
Robinson’s arrest and detention later that month has – plainly – increased the potential for the new movement. It has consolidated his decision to return to politics (he is already in jail, there is nothing he could lose if he was prosecuted for his involvement in Finsbury Park). A vast number of international far-rightists have spread the news of his imprisonment, which has increased his audience and his funding, and brought in new group of supporters.
There is no little irony to a movement calling for Robinson to be freed where he pleaded guilty to contempt of charges, and was already subject to a suspended sentence which he has never challenged. His lawyers have submitted an appeal to his new sentence, but what are they going to argue: that his 13 month detention should be reduced to 12.5?
The demonstration in his support in June 2018 copied previous mobilisations: it was organised in central London, near the institutions of state power, but as far as possible from the politicised black communities where previous versions of the far right have come under attack (Lewisham, Southall, Walthamstow…).
Tommy Robinson’s supporters outnumbered the left very considerably, by around 15,000 to 200. They did not attack the left, showing again that this is a far right and not a fascist movement; from its perspective the left is an annoyance rather than its main strategic enemy.
They did attack the police, something which the far right has previously done all in its power to avoid. This reflects a subtle shift in the movement from its origins in the FLA/DFLA. At least initially, you were talking about a campaign which had a clear pyramid structure, from groups of football casuals who were organised around particular clubs, up to a DFLA Council who were the leadership.
By contrast, now that the Tommy Robinson fans are in control, the campaign is run by a much smaller group of people who are not accountable to anyone nor do they have a network of supporters, other than a great mass of online followers, to whom they speak as a leader might address a crowd – through a virtual megaphone.
The difference between these two models is that the former involves intermediary kinds of authority between the rank and file and the leadership. The latter does away with them, which means that there is no-one on demonstrations to tell people where to go or what to do, other than wait for Robinson or Batten to speak. It is a much larger movement but also more fragile and harder to control.
Seeing the movement as a whole
The Free Tommy campaign does not have a fascist programme, its supporters see themselves as being in a cultural conflict with the state but their main enemies are Muslims and liberals not socialists. It has no ambition purge the state or any inkling of how to challenge it other than (as with the EDL) simply calling more and more demonstrations. Until, inevitably, the marches reach their maximum number, cease to be exciting, and the campaigns supporters start to look for something new.
That ‘next stage’ could, in principle, be some kind of fascist party. Although in recent years where similar movements have emerged and declined the people who have gained have in general been electoral rather than fascist parties (eg Germany: where the anti-Islamic street movement Pegida created the conditions for the AfD).
When the left has conceived of taking on fascism we have assumed that its weak point is the streets. We have assumed that if only the great British public could see a street army of fascist sympathisers using violence the watching audience would grasp they were fascists, would be horrified and reject them.
Very little of this equation works in quite the same way it once did: this is a movement whose strength is on the streets, which has no fear of using violence, and is not guilty about its fascism.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the far right revival is its dependence on allies who are much closer than it is to mainstream politics.
One example is UKIP, which won just 1.84% of the vote in the 2017 general election, but not so long ago had two MPs and still claims the support of three members of the House of Lords. If UKIP ever wants to return to where it was, then such stunts as Gerard Batten covering his face with masking tape and pledging his support to far-right street warrior Tommy Robinson is plainly the wrong place to start.
UKIP brings to the campaign infrastructure, resources and people. It is involved because it wants to take the energy of this street movement and draw the people involved back into UKIP and into electoral politics.
But its involvement is controversial within UKIP: Nigel Farage is no Robinson supporter. Batten has said that there will be another UKIP leadership election as soon as spring 2019. Farage is already threatening to stand against him.
Apart from UKIP, the other major institutional ally for the new campaign has been justice4the21, a Birmingham campaign for a proper inquest into the 1974 pub bombings (i.e. an inquest which names the killers). This is an extremely well-rooted local campaign, presenting itself as the equivalent of, say, the Hillsborough justice campaign. It has hundreds of local volunteers and an income in at least the tens of thousands of pounds. Julie Hambleton the key force in the campaign is closely allied with the DFLA, regularly uses her platforms in the Birmingham press to call for people to join the DFLA, and has called joint DFLA/JF21 events.
Meanwhile JF21 has been supported by Labour MPs and any number of mainstream justice campaigns, for example, Liberty, which (prior to J421’s support for the DFLA) awarded the campaign its Long March to Justice Award.
There is something truly extraordinary about the contrast between JF21’s role in Birmingham, where it is almostuniversally eulogised, and its role as a national prop of the DFLA and therefore of the Tommy Robinson campaign.
If anti-fascists are serious about confronting the new far right, then we could be spending our time not merely opposing Tommy Robinson’s supporters on the streets but challenging the right’s more moderate allies.