In June this year, in central London, there was a rally of ultra-rightist and neofascist demonstrators in support of one of their own leaders, Tommy Robinson. At least 10,000 marched in the demonstration, and some estimates put the crowd numbers at 15,000. Robinson, (whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) is a long-term racist and Islamophobic activist. The details of his court case are irrelevant here, and you can easily find the particulars of his legal drama by Googling the relevant search terms.
What concerns us here is the rally itself, its international dimension, and the attempt by the far right to present Robinson as a martyr for ‘free speech.’ First of all, let us be clear about the nature of the June rally – it was arguably the largest gathering of neofascistic and ultra-rightist nationalists since the end of World War Two. Secondly, there was no mistaking the international significance of the protest. A number of European far right politicians and political activists sent greetings to the London rally. Dutch ultra-rightist Geert Wilders addressed the rally, and greetings were sent by the French National Front.
Richard Burgon, Labour MP for Leeds East and Shadow Justice minister in Britain, wrote that this march places Britain in the epicentre of attempts to resurrect the European ultra-right. Burgon wrote that openly Islamophobic parties are gaining not only votes, but powerful friends in high places in European politics. Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former campaign manager and adviser, also sent greetings to the London protest, highlighting the ability of the ultra-right to build a cross-national network.
We must be ever vigilant against the resurgence of far-right parties and their ideology. But do not mistake the English rally as a purely foreign importation. As the activists from the English group Socialist Resistance wrote, the demonstration was striking for the number of Union Jacks, St George crosses and English nationalist symbolism on display. English neofascism has domestic roots, and the ultra-nationalists who marched on that day have been reinvigorated by the anti-immigrant outpouring that characterises Brexiteer nationalism.
Brexit and the far right
The Brexit referendum in June 2016 provided a platform to rejuvenate the anti-immigrant far-right parties. While the major players of English capital wanted a Remain vote to emerge victorious (the Bank of England, the major British financial institutions, and so on) the Leave vote achieved a narrow victory on the basis of anti-immigrant opposition. Gary Younge, columnist for The Guardian, wrote that while there are perfectly valid reasons to leave the EU, the Brexit referendum was not fought on those grounds.
Younge wrote that it was anti-immigration, coupled with fantasies about resurrecting a mythical version of British Imperial greatness, formed the primary motivation for the Leave campaign. This is not to suggest that every single Leave voter is racist – by no means. The reaction of the corporate media to the Leave victory is instructive. For the first time in decades, the mainstream media discovered racism among the working class. Strange, seeing that the British financial elite have routinely deployed racism for electoral gain over decades.
Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Intercept, states that the Brexit vote is a stark repudiation of the seeming wisdom and political judgement of the ruling elites in Britain. Having offered neoliberal policies and austerity under the veneer of cosmopolitan multiculturalism, British voters responded with rejection. However, the anti-austerity message, promoted bravely by the Lexit campaign (Left Leave) was drowned out by the overwhelmingly anti-immigration message of the Leave campaign.
Before we quickly dismiss the influence of the anti-immigration platform of the Leave campaign, let us remember one important fact – former Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered on the eve of the Brexit referendum by an ultra-rightist terrorist, motivated by the white supremacist and xenophobic ideology of the British neo-fascist Right. The killer, Thomas Mair, had circulated among ultra-right circles in the years leading up to the murder of the late Jo Cox. Mair made clear his motivation in carrying out the killing by shouting the slogan of ‘Britain First’ – a statement that is a staple of the anti-immigrant far right.
Tory Brexit provided the far right with the political confidence to brazenly demonstrate their message of hate in London. Let us not forget that London has become a very multi-ethnic city. Minority communities are frequent targets of hate crimes by ultra-right terrorists. It is no coincidence that the neo-fascist march was held in central London. It was intended as an arrogant display of violent British nationalism.
Far right wants free speech – to spread its bigotry
The Tommy Robinson rally was significant not only for the number of its participants, but also for the rationale used the organisers to justify it. Tommy Robinson was upheld as a proponent of ‘free speech’. What could possibly be wrong with defending free speech? Is not the hallmark of a mature society the ability to uphold its core values, one of them being free speech?
The far right parties in Europe and America have used the mask of ‘free speech’ to disguise their hateful bigotry. This is not a new tactic – in the past, Holocaust deniers, such as David Irving, have promoted their racist and anti-semitic views by portraying their work as scholarship free from partisan political influences. This misuse of ‘free speech’ or ‘free thinking’ is a clever ruse to disguise attacks on the rights of others.
Owen Jones, writing in The Guardian newspaper, states that the far right are the “victimisers who clothe themselves in the garb of victimhood”. The use of the slogan ‘free speech’ is a political ploy to deliberately spread hatred against ethnic and oppressed minorities. While ultra-rightist parties and politicians have complained that their right of free speech is violated, they have no hesitation in denying free speech to others; specifically advocating the closure of mosques, banning the Quran, and suppressing Islamic community organisations.
Jones goes on to write that:
There is a chasm separating the right to free speech and the privilege of being given a platform to make your views known. No one has a right to a platform. If I offer you a megaphone, and then take it back off you, you can continue to say what you like, just not with my megaphone.
In this day and age of social media, digital content creation and viral marketing have exponentially increased the reach and spread of media content. Anyone with a social media platform can now write, comment and disseminate their views on a vast scale. But this is not free speech – this is simply viral content. Freedom of speech is not derived from the generosity of wealthy benefactors who generously provide a platform for ordinary people.
As Jeff Sparrow writes, freedom of speech was won through uprisings and struggles by working class people in the context of revolutions, and must be defended from being monopolised by the large multinational corporations. Free speech is an industrial issue, Sparrow writes. It is easy to have a social media platform, but when these platforms are owned and operated by an increasingly narrow financial layer of elite corporations, then it is all the more difficult for minority groups to have their voice heard.
Indeed, the assertion of the far-right that their activities defend free speech is a perverse allegation. Racist attitudes and beliefs that were once acceptable, have been driven out of the mainstream by the organised political campaigns of racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, refugees and immigrants. The misuse of the label ‘free speech’ is a tactical contrivance deployed by the far right to push back the gains made by minority communities.
Owen Jones wrote that while the ultra-right claim to be opponents of the capitalist order, they are very much the bastard children of it:
The mainstream press endlessly propagate myths, distortions, half-truths and outright lies about Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ people, women and benefit claimants.
It is the ongoing and steady normalisation of hate and bigotry in the corporate media that has given rise to the bastard children of the ultra-right and white supremacy. Jacobin magazine commented on this very issue, examining the relationship between the the media, government and political circles, and the growth of the far right. Since the September 11 attacks and the ‘war on terror’, railing against Islam and Muslim communities has become acceptable and normalised in the media.
Islamophobic hatred and fear of Muslims has become a standard feature of political discourse in the Western nations. We will examine this issue in greater detail in the next article – stay tuned.
For the moment, we would do well to remember that the ultra-rightist resurgence is a threat to the entire labour movement. We must reject the message of racism that they disseminate, and oppose the austerity-driven capitalist system that provides willing recruits for their ranks.