This article by Martin Smith and Tash Shifrin first appeared on Dream Deferred on 11 June 2018.
Thousands of protestors turned out in Whitehall, central London, on Saturday 14 July for the latest “Free Tommy Robinson” demo – and the latest in just over a year of far right racist street protests, which we have listed in a table, below.
The series of mobilisations on Whitehall – with a large scale sound system and on Saturday, as in May, a giant screen – has to a great extent normalised the presence of the far right on the streets close to the seat of government.
The demo illustrated the violence that has become typical, with vicious attacks on antiracist protestors and leading trade unionists by fascists linked to the football hooligan firms.
It also showed how a hardening up of the disparate movement’s politics is taking place, with increasing numbers of speakers from fascist parties on the platform and the growing influence of the nazi Generation Identity group – graphically shown in a video below.
Individual EDL members and supporters of the US alt-right were also visible, with T-shirts and flags, along with an increasing array of “Free Tommy merchandise”.
Many of the key figures and groups in this movement believe that the crisis of the Tories over Brexit will open up a political space for the far right.
This is a developing movement and Saturday’s demo will certainly not be the last. “Tommy Robinson” – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – is still in jail after pleading guilty to contempt of court, with an appeal over the length of his sentence due to be decided this month.
Robinson is a former member of the fascist British National Party and ex-leader of the English Defence League, who is now promoting the nazi Generation Identity (GI). Now he has become a figurehead of the new far right movement in Britain and, increasingly, internationally. We look here at how the far right movement is developing and what the latest mobilisation shows.
On Saturday, estimates of the turnout on the Free Tommy protest ranged between 6,000 and 10,000.
On the previous protests we were able to provide relatively accurate numbers for the size of the far right demos. This time it was more difficult to put a precise number on it because of the movement of the crowds and the density in some places.
The panoramic shot below shows thousands already in Whitehall at 3pm – the official start time. Large numbers had arrived up to an hour earlier and continued to arrive all afternoon, many of them streaming in as earlier attendees streamed out again. There was a continual two-way flow on Whitehall.
Numbers seemed to be down overall on the previous protest of 9 June. But England’s unexpected progress in the World Cup meant their final match kicked off just as the demo was set to start – a factor that undoubtedly hit numbers and also prompted lots of early exits for the pub.
A planned feeder march from the US embassy under a “Welcome Donald Trump” banner was disrupted by a police ban on the march route, but attracted a few hundred.
In a welcome development, there was a substantial and broad-based counter-protest called by Stand Up to Racism, with 3,000 or so gathered nearer the parliament end of Whitehall, and including a strong Labour and trade union presence.
The antiracist and antifascist protestor was buoyed up by the huge demonstration against US president Donald Trump the day before. The anti-Trump protest demonstrated to the far right the mobilising power of the left.
But as we have argued on Dream Deferred before, Britain’s new far right street movement is a broad and disparate one, made up of a range of elements stretching from UKIP to the white supremacist nazis of GI and including substantial groups like the far right football hooligan firms lash-up, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA).
At different times different elements come to the fore and other factors can affect the size of the various mobilisations. This is why looking at single protests in isolation is not a fruitful way to understand the movement’s trajectory. It is developing fast and in a state of flux.
A year of protests
Here is a table we have compiled of major far right protests since June 2017 – just over a year ago. Click the links on the dates for our reports and analyses of each event.
|Date||City||Organisation||Number on protest|
|24.06.17||London||Football Lads Alliance (FLA)||up to 5,000|
|18.03.18||London, Speakers Corner||Tommy Robinson||500+|
|24.03.18||Birmingham||FLA and Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) hold separate protests on the same day||Up to 5,000 in total. Around 3,000 attend the DFLA protest and around 2,000 the FLA event|
|06.05.18||London, Whitehall||Tommy Robinson “Day for Freedom”||5,000+ including DFLA feeder march of around 3,000|
|26.05.18||London, Whitehall||“Free Tommy Robinson” supporters||400|
|01.06.18||Leeds||“Free Tommy Robinson” supporters||400|
|09.06.18||London, Whitehall||“Free Tommy Robinson”||15,000|
|23.06.18||London, Westminster||UK Freedom Marches||2,500|
|14.07.18||London, Whitehall||“Free Tommy Robinson”||6,000 to 10,000|
The table shows that the sheer scale and numbers on these far right protests is unprecedented. Most have been far in excess of the 2,000 to 3,000 that the EDL was able to mobilise at its peak.
The 14 July demonstration was smaller than the previous protest: obviously the England football match starting at the same time and the cost of repeatedly travelling to London put some people off.
The DFLA did not mobilise for the event and the football hooligan firms that make it up did not turn out en masse, although some DFLA members joined the demo of their own accord.
As the table shows this movement is growing in size and influence. This is in part due to the political crisis in Britain. It should also be seen in the context of the growth and increased influence of far right and racist parties and politicians in the US and across Europe.
Far right street movements have their own dynamic. They have to keep growing to provide the troops with a sense of power, excitement and strength. They are also very prone to power struggles and splits.
Historically far right street movements have risen rapidly and have either imploded or developed into political movements. This was true of the squadristi in Italy (1918-20) and Adolf Hitler’s SA.
Today, many inside the new far right movement understand that it can “burn out” and want to solidify it into their own organisations or create a political party around it.
The US connection
It is not only US president Donald Trump’s election that is giving confidence to the far right in Britain. The US far right is also providing financial and political support.
Trump’s former advisor, Steve Bannon, has also been touring Europe – and its newsrooms – firming up links with the European far right. He voiced his support for Robinson last week on LBC radio, and told the interviewer that the country’s best-known anti-Muslim racist was “the backbone of Britain”.
It was also revealed this week that Tommy Robinson’s campaign is receiving substantial funding from the US.
A deeply anti-Muslim and neoconservative “think tank”, the Middle East Forum, run by the notoriously Islamophobic Daniel Pipes, announced:
MEF is sponsoring and organizing the second “Free Tommy Robinson” gathering in London on July 14. MEF previously provided all the funding and helped organised the first “Free Tommy Robinson” event held June 9 in London.
It also said it was financially supporting Robinson’s legal case and working for him “diplomatically” by “bringing foreign pressure on the UK government”.
It has been claimed separately that Trump’s “ambassador for international religious freedom” Sam Brownback had raised Robinson’s case with British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch, allegedly after being lobbied by US-based far right media outlet Breitbart.
Canada-based far right outlet Rebel Media also claims to be raising funds for Robinson’s legal defence, while much of Robinson’s own huge social media following – and very likely the donations made through his website – also comes from the US.
It is not the first time Tommy Robinson has tapped the extensive funds of the US racist far right.
Among the founders of the EDL were representatives of a well funded US organisation, the Center for Vigilant Freedom (later the International Civil Liberties Alliance). CVF received substantial donations, including on at least one occasion a single gift of $70,000, which it used to fund its work building the EDL and other Islamophobic far right groups in the US and Europe.
In his EDL days, major US figures in the Islamophobic far right such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer also raised money for Robinson.
The international context of Saturday’s Free Tommy event was also highlighted by platform speaker Kent Ekeroth, of the fascist Sweden Democrats party. In his speech he listed a slew of European countries where the far right is either in government or has won sizeable representation in parliament, ending with Hungary’s authoritarian ruling Fidesz party.
Ekeroth is also notable for having invited “Alan Lake” – real name Alan Ayling, a key ideologue and funder involved in setting up the EDL – to Sweden. Interestingly, Lake was also at Saturday’s event.
The platform speakers showed off both the international dimension of the protest and a political hardening.
At the “Day for Freedom” protest called by Robinson in May, most of the speakers were drawn from big far right social media figures, many of them with very large followings. As we noted at the time, the political level was far higher than at previous public events held by the BNP or EDL.
By June, the speakers list had stepped up a level to take in major political figures across Europe, with speakers including Geert Wilders, leader of the racist populist PVV party in the Netherlands, and Filip Dewinter of Belgium’s fascist Vlaams Belang, a man who has openly praised Hitler’s SS. The French Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) sent a message of support, as did Steve Bannon.
This time there were more politicians from Europe’s leading fascist parties on the platform, with Dewinter joined by the Sweden Democrats’ Ekeroth and Jerome Riviere, a senior member of the Rassemblement National. Wilders sent a video message as apparently his security requirements could not be met for another visit.
US Republican congressman Paul Gosar also spoke. In addition to anti-Muslim rhetoric, Gosar also promotes antisemitic conspiracy theories and even boycotted Pope Francis’s visit to Congress, comparing him to a “leftist politician”.
This international support provides a big boost to Britain’s far right. But Robinson’s case is now a cause celebre for the far right internationally as well – the politicians backing him know this will also play well with their domestic audiences.
But it was strikingly clear on Saturday’s demo that the hardening up process is not coming solely from the top of this movement.
As our video below shows, the nazis of GI marched into the Free Tommy rally to applause and cheers.
GI is not merely far right and racist – it is a nazi group, which wants an all-white Europe. It promotes the theory of “the Great Replacement” – the idea that Muslims (and other religious and non-white minority groups) are somehow “replacing” the white population. It wants this so-called “replacement” to be reversed, with non-whites removed elsewhere.
Its membership in Britain is tiny but it is a significant group across Europe, pushing its hardcore ideology out into the wider far right. GI is a cadre organisation made up of ideologically committed activists.
We have seen its influence in Britain grow sharply as the new far right movement has developed. At Speakers Corner in March, Tommy Robinson allied himself clearly with the organisation, reading out the speech of Austrian GI leader Martin Sellner who had been banned from Britain.
Its initial presence on the far right demos was relatively low key – a handful of activists with couple of flags on the DFLA feeder march into the “Day for Freedom” event in May. Their presence was tolerated but barely remarked on.
But GI is attracting followers and building its influence by providing both theoretical arguments and an eye-catching physical presence. GI literature was on sale at the Free Tommy event in June as the grouplet seeks to “educate” a wider audience.
GI wants to show its members to be the best, most impressive activists – and win influence as potential leaders. Saturday’s carefully staged march into the main rally, with a small procession of flagbearers behind a long banner did just that.
The reception these nazi ideologues received sounds a very clear warning: within a mixed far right movement of racists and Islamophobes with widely varying levels of commitment, GI is able to build and grow.
GI’s credibility is also boosted by its links with elected politicians in Britain. UKIP leader Gerard Batten – who is becoming a demo regular – spoke again on Saturday and is clearly happy to be at an event with leading fascist politicians and the open presence of a nazi group.
And Janice Atkinson MEP, once of UKIP but now an independent, tweeted a response to our video in support of GI, with a link to an interview she carried out in Brussels with UK GI leader and sacked banker Tom Dupre, helping him spread his poisonous ideology.
Attacking trade unionists
Another sign of the hardening of sections of the movement came with renewed violence.
Despite the good size of the antiracist counter-protest, members of football hooligan firms – including those involved with the Chelsea Headhunters, with its links to nazi Combat 18 – felt confident enough to try to attack it.
At the top of Whitehall by Trafalgar Square, a Muslim woman bus driver was targeted by thugs as she attempted to drive her bus.
And after the demo a squad of fascists attacked a group trade unionists drinking in a Westminster pub with glasses and chairs.
They targeted Steve Hedley, the assistant general secretary of the RMT railworkers’ union who had spoken at the antiracist event, leaving him with head and face wounds. A woman in the trade unionists’ group was later hospitalised with breathing difficulties.
Such attacks on well-known trade unionists are a hallmark of fascism. While fascists build through racism and this is a key element of its ideology – taken to its most horrific conclusion in the Nazis’ Holocaust – fascism has historically been directed against the organised working class.
Elsewhere, on the same day, a handful of supporters of Anne Marie Waters’ far right For Britain party and DFLA members attempted to join the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, a major trade union event attracting many thousands every year.
The miners rightly ensured the far right racists were removed – but again, the attempt marks a sign of confidence among the disparate far right organisations.
The concept of an electoral strategy for the far right was represented on Saturday by UKIP leader Gerard Batten and former leader Lord Pearson. As we have noted before, Batten is seeking to rebuild the party after its electoral collapse by associating with street protests and outright fascists. This is a clear departure from Nigel Farage’s position of distancing himself from both.
Others in and around UKIP are also keen on this strategy. Much of the 2,500 turnout on the 23 June march called by the UK Freedom Movement was mobilised through two UKIP-oriented social media networks, Luke Nash-Jones’s People’s Charter / Make Britain Great Again and Kipper Central, set up by teenage UKIP youth leader Reece Coombes.
Both Batten and Pearson are longstanding Islamophobic activists. Batten attended a “Counterjihadist” conference in 2007 organised by the European offshoot of the EDL’s backers, the CVF. He has also admitted to meeting Alan Lake.
Pearson notoriously invited Geert Wilders to the House of Lords for a showing of the Islamophobic film Fitna in 2009, prompting an early EDL demo in support.
But Batten and Pearson’s appearances at the Free Tommy Robinson event this time had a new context: after the resignation of ministers including Boris Johnson from Theresa May’s cabinet amid Tory chaos over Brexit, UKIP has seen signs of a revival in the polls.
An opinion poll for the Observer newspaper published on 14 July showed UKIP up five points to 8%, with the Tories down by six points to fall four points behind Labour.
Farage himself has announced that he might consider once again taking charge of UKIP unless May puts Brexit “back on track”. Meanwhile Batten followed his speech at the demo with an appearance on Newsnight in which he argued Robinson’s cause on national TV.
It is not clear what will happen next within UKIP. But the prospect of Batten’s alignment of UKIP with the far right street movement coinciding with any sustained rise in the polls is a dangerous one.
For the first time since its launch this new far right movement faced serious opposition in London. However there will be no quick fix: this movement has mobilised numbers on the streets unmatched by previous far right movements in Britain. It is buoyed by the electoral success of the far right across Europe and the US.
There are many pulls on this new far right movement. UKIP is using it to rebuild the party and former Breitbart London chief Raheem Kassam – who has compered the Free Tommy demos – told a BBC Newsnight reporter the movement might make a turn into electoral politics.
He even hinted that it might become a “right wing” version of Momentum – the leftwing group inside Labour– and work inside another party. We are also seeing nazi groups such as GI building influence within the wider far right movement.
Robinson and Batten think history is on their side. The key task for all antifascists and antiracists is to ensure that these dreams remain just that and do not become reality.