This article, by Martin Smith and Tash Shifrin, first appeared on Dream Deferred on 10 May 2018.
Thousands of racists, far right activists and fascists marched through central London and staged a festival of hate outside Downing Street on Sunday 6 May. We want to set this event in a wider context – it illustrates how the far right is operating today and how it is drawing on trends across Europe and America. It marks a new departure even from previous mobilisations by Tommy Robinson and the Football Lads Alliance.
More than 5,000 took part all told, with up to 3,000 joining a feeder march organised by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) from Speaker’s Corner to the rally staged by “Tommy Robinson” (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) in Whitehall.
Precise numbers were hard to gauge – many of those of the DFLA feeder march did not go all the way to the rally, with large numbers preferring to go to the pub instead. At Whitehall, it was clear a different broader crowd had come directly to the rally, and large groups continued to arrive throughout the more than three-hour event.
But the scale and prestigious nature of the so-called “Day for Freedom” marked something new on the far right in Britain. Not since Oswald Mosley’s fascist rallies in Olympia and at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1930s have we seen such a professional set-up for the far right in Britain.
A large screen dominated Whitehall, which was closed off all afternoon, a powerful sound system played music and slick video clips set the mood. It was a cross between a festival and a political rally. And it had a strong ideological component.
A year of realignment
This is a rapidly developing far right racist movement, with fascists openly operating within it, but it has not emerged out of thin air.
Over the last 11 months Dream Deferred has reported on four separate protests organised by Robinson, the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) and the DFLA.
As early as June 2017 we warned that Tommy Robinson had mobilised “the EDL reloaded” in Manchester as a huge demonstration raised the ghosts of his previous organisation, the English Defence League.
Several thousand racists, fascists and assorted Islamophobes took to the streets of Manchester on Sunday 11 June. The so-called “UK Against Hate” demonstration was the biggest organised by a fascist street movement in Britain for more than five years.
We also produced an eyewitness report of the FLA’s first march in London, just two weeks later.
Two large scale mobilisations in the space of two weeks clearly shows that the far right are finding new ways to organise. We have not seen anything on this scale for more than five years.
Sunday’s demonstration is further evidence of the realignment of the far right in Britain. Now we see the two elements of last June coming together – Tommy Robinson, the poster boy of the far right with a huge social media following, and the DFLA – an alliance of football hooligan firms putting feet on the street.
And its nature has changed too, with a more visible presence of nazi and fascist groups and a much stronger presence of ideological figures from across the international far right – including the nazi activists and theorists of Generation Identity, and key figures from the “alt-right” and its growing media platforms in the US and Canada.
This is a new and complex movement, one that spans the full spectrum of the far right both in Britain and internationally, from UKIP to hardcore fascists. It is mobilising primarily around Islamophobia – but along with Muslims a range of the far right’s other targets are also in the frame.
We will look here at the range of groups and individuals taking part, at how the events of the day unfolded, at what the new movement is seeking to do and at some international parallels.
Components of the new movement
The star figure in this new movement and at Sunday’s protest was longtime fascist “Tommy Robinson” / Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, once a member of the nazi British National Party and later founding member and leader of the EDL. Until recently, he was aligned with Canada based “alt-right” media outlet Rebel Media, before going independent.
Yaxley-Lennon has built a huge social media following – and his political positions have hardened to the extent that he is now openly promoting and assisting leaders of the international Generation Identity groups.
The DFLA is the group that looks to have emerged strongest from internal tensions inside the FLA earlier this year. It is a far right racist alliance of football hooligan firms – “football lads” are not ordinary fans, it is what the hooligans call themselves. These are the footsoldiers of the movement.
In Britain leaders of some of the largest and most violent hooligan firms – associated with Chelsea, Millwall, Tottenham and West Ham – have long been associated with fascist groups. These associations stretch back as far as the 1980s.
Right wing hooligan firms and fascist sections of football “ultras” are playing an increasingly important role in racist movements across Europe.
The event was compered by Raheem Kassam, a powerful figure across the British and US far right, a personal associate of Donald Trump, former aide to Nigel Farage and editor in chief of the London wing of major “alt-right” media outlet Breitbart News.
Milo Yiannopoulos was one of the most popular speakers on the day. He is a major figure in the “alt-right” movement, a Donald Trump supporter with a huge social media following across the US and Britain. He is also a former senior editor for Breitbart. Yiannopoulos’s regular “shock jock” style is repulsive – but he is an important part of the re-education of the far right.
The day after Robinson’s rally Yiannopoulos announced that he had accepted the invitation of the Hungarian far right authoritarian Fidesz government to speak in Budapest at the end of May. The subject? Why Hungary and Poland are models of defiance and resistance to the European Union.
In a notable departure from previous party policy UKIP leader Gerard Batten spoke at the protest. While Nigel Farage took over a party that grew out of the Tory hard right and built it up through racist populism, he shied away from any association with fascist parties such as the BNP or the racist street thugs of the EDL.
Since the Brexit referendum UKIP’s vote has collapsed. Now Batten is seeking to rebuild it through a very different set of alliances. On Sunday he made a direct appeal to protestors to join UKIP. If the party re-emerges as a serious electoral presence on this basis, it would signal a much more dangerous prospect than the Farage party.
Anne Marie Waters, a virulent Islamophobe, leader of the far right For Britain party and the director of Sharia Watch UK, also spoke on Sunday’s protest, along with Shazia Hobbs, one of the far right’s favourite “ex-Muslims”.
The rally also heard from a speaker who has been banned from Britain by the home office. Lauren Southern, who appeared by video link, is significant both for her wide social media reach and for the increasingly extreme messages she spreads.
Southern, a Canadian whose profile grew through the far right Rebel Media outlet where Robinson also worked until recently, is now a regular mouthpiece for Generation Identity. GI and the Identitarian movement began in France and has deeply fascist roots. GI promotes “ethnopluralism” – effectively an all-white Europe, with non-whites removed elsewhere. GI has only a tiny presence in Britain, but its ideas are very influential across the European far right.
Other speakers included Gavin McInnes, founder of the “Western chauvinist” men-only Proud Boys organisation, which became notorious in the US for its members’ participation in a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where an antifascist protestor was murdered.
Entertainment at the event was provided by to far right “comedians”, sexist Liam Tuffs and “Count Dankula”, the YouTuber who was recently convicted of hate crime for videos in which he encouraged a pet dog to raise its paw in the nazi salute in response to phrases such as “Gas the Jews”.
The final component is Veterans Against Terrorism, whose leader Richard Inman spoke on the platform. Though small in number they play a key role in this movement, engendering nationalist pride and an over-inflated sense of British military might.
Robinson’s rally also drew significant international support, including a goodwill message from Australian senator and virulent racist Pauline Hanson. This is another signal of how internationalised the far right has become.
How the day unfolded: the DFLA feeder march
The DFLA feeder march was not a full mobilisation for the DFLA, but was called in support of Robinson’s event after he abandoned his own previous plan to march from Speaker’s Corner to Twitter HQ. This was not the DFLA’s own choice of date.
Previous FLA and DFLA events have all been called during “international weeks” when there are no top-tier domestic football matches – Sunday’s rally, by contrast coincided with crucial end of season fixtures for many teams. This reduced the mobilisation from the hooligan firms and key DFLA leaders were noticeable by their absence.
However the DFLA group was still up to 3,000-strong. Compared with previous FLA/DFLA events, this had a more aggressive feel and, in a new development, fascist and far right flags and insignia were openly displayed by some grouplets.
Marching happily alongside the “football lads” were supporters of the White Pendragons, Generation Identity (with a prominent flag), EDL members and other fascist grouplets. A flag of “Kekistan” – a fake country that is a regular motif on the international far right – was also visible. It is based on the Nazi war flag of Hitler’s Germany (see photo).
At the head of the march were current UKIP leader Gerard Batten and members of Veterans Against Terrorism in camouflage uniform, also apparently happy to associate with thugs and nazis such as GI.
The march grew as it progressed along the route and hundreds more football lads poured out of pubs and joined the demo at Trafalgar Square.
Other groups of hooligans wandered around central London looking for targets to attack. A group of the Chelsea Headhunters, a notorious nazi hooligan firm associated with the violent nazi group Combat 18, attacked the counter protest organised by Stand up to Racism.
Such violence clearly demonstrates the true nature of this movement. If it gets a chance it will try and smash any opposition it faces.
But the key event for the racists and fascists was Robinson’s rally at Whitehall.
This clearly had a broader appeal. Many on the DFLA feeder march wandered off to the pub as soon as the marching part of the day was over. Those assembled at the rally were a younger crowd that included more women. As you would expect the demo was overwhelmingly white.
The production was impressive. Whitehall was completely blocked by a huge stage, with giant video screen, a sound system and music blaring out before the speakers got going.
There was symbolism too in the presence of flags such as that of nazi Generation Identity flying directly outside Downing Street. Whatever our views of the Tory government, this is a location central to the idea of electoral democracy in Britain.
For over three hours thousands of people listened to speaker after speaker spewing out putrid racist, anti-left and misogynist bile.
Compering the event, Raheem Kassam described the rally as “Our Woodstock”. This was clearly over the top but the speeches were interspersed with a Bernard Manning style comic turn from Liam Tuffs and a Donald Trump supporting drag queen singer, Vanity Von Glow.
Happily, the organisers’ attempts to co-opt sections of the LGBT+ community through the inclusion of Von Glow and Yiannopoulos, who is gay, appear to have backfired severely in London where several venues promptly cancelled Von Glow’s bookings.
The rally was called ostensibly to defend “free speech”. But in reality it was about promoting the far right’s “right” to taunt, mock and intimidate its enemies.
The modern far right’s keenness on taboo-breaking “comedians”, twisted humour and so-called irony is part of a strategy of desensitizing people to the reality of racism, sexism, violence and even genocide – this is why stunts like getting a dog to seig heil in response to the phrase “Gas the Jews” are genuinely dangerous.
It was clear from the speakers that they regarded Muslims as the main target. The speakers also aimed their fire at the “ruling elites”. Finally particular venom was aimed at Labour politicians Diane Abbott – Britain’s first black woman MP – and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. The left in its widest sense is a target too.
Significantly, this was also in parts a seriously ideological event, designed to “educate” and raise the political level of the far right in Britain. When Yiannopoulos got up to speak, one commentator said, “Respect the man: he is our Chomsky.”
Some speakers referred to concepts such as ethnopluralism, the “clash of civilisations” and privilege theory. This kind of discussion would have been unthinkable even a year ago – and would never have taken place at an EDL or BNP rally.
Introduced with a musical fanfare, Tommy Robinson was the final speaker of the day. It was self-congratulatory, anti-elite and anti-Muslim rant. But he did provide antiracists with one important insight. At one point in his speech he said:
“The mainstream media, no one trusts them, people are searching for an alternative, that’s what we want to do.”
Sunday’s event drew heavily on individuals and ideas drawn from across the European and American far right – the far right is growing in confidence right across the piece.
These movements are very ideological and draw on a variety of fascist and far right theories. Figures such as Yiannopoulos and Lauren Southern are self-proclaimed “neo Gramscians of the right”. They believe that political victory can only be achieved after a cultural victory and therefore aim to establish a far right cultural hegemony.
Those on the left who are familiar with the old slogan, “Educate, agitate, organise”, should understand that this is in effect what the far right is now seeking to do on a huge scale.
There is now a far right in Europe that is not only cross-fertilising ideas but in some cases they are also working together in united causes. Therefore we are seeing UKIP happily sharing platforms with fascists and visa versa.
The coalition of forces involved on Sunday – unstable and in flux though their alliances may be – also bear a resemblance to developments elsewhere. The rise of the new right in Britain shares many similarities to the German street movement Pegida, for example.
Pegida was launched in October 2014 as an Islamophobic street movement, particularly targeting asylum seekers. Between 2014 and 2015 Pegida held a number of large street protests – on occasions they were able to mobilise over 20,000 supporters.
The founders of Pegida were influenced by the rise of the EDL, and Tommy Robinson, along with Anne Marie Walters, later made a failed attempt to form a branch of Pegida in Britain.
Pegida brought together far right and fascist football hooligans with parties such as the neo-nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), the racist populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and leading figures from the Identitarian movement.
This is a similar configuration to the combination of the DFLA, the fascist grouplets and the far right politicians we saw on Sunday’s “day for Freedom”.
Pegida was a foul racist movement, with fascists able to build in its midst – and was also able to mobilise significant numbers of people who previously had no political involvement.
Robinson’s event also illustrates the far right strategy of circumventing the mainstream media. His approach is modelled on the alt right in the US and the nazi Jobbik model in Hungary.
In the US the alt right has a massive social media presence and created its own news outlets, such as Breitbart.
In Hungary, Jobbik also has a large social media platform, its own internet-based television channel and radio stations. It also controls several newspapers and promotes large rock concerts and cultural events.
Jobbik has a significant presence in the Hungarian parliament – where it is the second party, after the authoritarian far right Fidesz – but it is also linked to a huge paramilitary organisation.
The potential impact of far right and fascist ideologues linking up with streetfighters provided by the football firms should not be underestimated.
The racists and fascists are in a buoyant mood and will try to capitalise on their recent successes. At the same time, this is a fast developing situation, with the personalities and organisations involved – and their relations with each other – in a state of flux.
The recently ousted leader of the FLA, John Meighan, had called a demonstration for 19 May in Manchester – the date, which coincides with the FA Cup Final, was not popular with FLA members and it remains to be seen how committed his allies will be to that date. But the DFLA, which appears to have won the battle for leadership of the football firms has called a march in the same city on 2 June.
It is not yet clear what the next move of the likes of Tommy Robinson, Raheem Kassam, Milo Yiannopoulos or Gerald Batten will be. But against a background of far right racist parties and fascist movements growing across Europe and America, we have now seen a new departure for the far right in Britain.
The “Day for Freedom” was not just the EDL Mark II, but a far more ideological event. The dangers of hardcore politics, propagated on a wide scale through the internet, and allied with a racist street movement must not be underestimated.
Thanks to Nick Ullmann for additional photos.