Far right on the march
The chauvinist atmosphere in the wake of the Lee Rigby murder has thrown the British far right into the spotlight. Paul Demarty assesses the balance of forces
The murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich was, among other things, a gift to Britain’s far right.
Had any of the crackpots at the head of the various far-right organisations sat down to write the script, they could scarcely have done better. Two Muslims - black Muslims! - were caught, in a morbidly literal sense, red-handed after butchering a (white) British soldier in the streets. There is something here for every variety of racist, Islamophobe or chauvinist (except, perhaps, the oddball ‘third positionists’, who used to consider such people allies against the depredations of international Jewry).
So it has come to pass. The UK Independence Party continues to ride high in the polls, and the fact that the suspects were British-born and possessed of thick south London accents will not prevent them making an immigration issue out of the whole affair. More spectacular, however, is the response of the English Defence League, which has managed to get serious numbers out on the streets to push its Muslim-baiting agenda. Altogether less successful was the British National Party, which betrays all the signs of disintegration.
The BNP’s flagship post-Woolwich protest was a complete disaster. The organisation was initially barred from protesting in Woolwich, or indeed marching anywhere at all by the police. Nick Griffin used his Twitter feed to call on his faithful followers to defy the latter order; but in the event a few dozen dishevelled racists were penned in on Whitehall Gardens, with a much larger anti-fascist contingent nearby (see opposite).
It is a measure, in fact, of how dramatically its star has waned in the last half-decade. Four years ago, Griffin and Andrew Brons were elected to the European parliament, on votes approaching 10% in the North-West and North-East England regions respectively. Since then, nothing has gone the BNP’s way at all; the European courts ordered it to change its constitution to allow non-white members, leading to a costly court battle, and after that to a perpetual financial crisis. Griffin’s much heralded appearance on the BBC’s Question time show was a total humiliation for him, leading to further leakage of support.
The rise of the EDL, meanwhile, cut into some of the traditional reservoirs of far-right support - football casuals, the most atomised lower working class youth. The BNP had demobilised such elements in favour of pursuing an electoral strategy, which seemed a smart move until Ukip - a slicker, more moneyed electoral operation - was able to recover from its own mid-2000s troubles.
The BNP will no doubt slope on until Griffin and Brons are squeezed out of the European parliament next year; but any anti-fascist types feeling triumphant should remember that it was the BNP’s own contradictions, not the endless hysterical counter-mobilisations, that did for it in the end.
It is one thing to position your party as a British chauvinist-populist alternative to the main parties, as Griffin attempted to do. It is quite another to do so with the human material actually at the BNP’s disposal - people who, like Griffin, have danced around in every fruitcake fascist sub-sect of the last three decades. Griffin has been a Strasserite Nazi, a Hitlerite Nazi, a third positionist, a Powellite, a Leesite and almost everything else. In a country whose modern national myth is the wartime triumph against Hitler’s barbarism, no group will ever get too far with as many stock photos of leading members making stiff-arm salutes as the BNP.
EDL on the rise
Which brings us to the EDL. The comparison is instructive, not least because recently the group has been beset with the same kinds of trouble as the BNP.
Its leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka ‘Tommy Robinson’), was recently arrested by US border authorities (of all things) for travelling on a friend’s passport in defiance of a banning order. Like Griffin, he has assumed absolute dictatorial control of his group, which (when its initial flurry of successful marches started to peter out) has led to internal grumbles and strife.
Ridding the EDL’s ranks of closet Hitler-worshippers and die-hard racists has proven a fraught affair at the best of times; and a putative electoral intervention with the British Freedom Party came to nothing - again, at least partly due to Ukip’s recovery. The result was - until a week or two ago - much smaller demonstrations, boxed in by police and outnumbered and harried by anti-fascist groups.
Yet, while Woolwich showed up the BNP as an utterly spent force, the EDL has returned to its former strength almost overnight. It is not difficult to see why. The group was formed ostensibly in response to protests at the funerals of British soldiers organised by the likes of Anjam Choudary, the noted Islamist lunatic. The murder of Rigby provided almost exactly the same backdrop, albeit that bit more grisly.
The EDL turned out over 1,000 people in both London and Newcastle, and several hundred elsewhere in the country. It organised a coordinated series of much smaller marches to lay wreaths on war memorials. The sun was shining; it made hay. Anti-fascist counter-demonstrations have almost invariably been utterly outnumbered; where scuffles have broken out across police lines, the anti-fascists have come out worse.
Why, then, has the EDL benefited so dramatically, while the BNP has been humiliated? It is because the EDL is both more and less fascist than its erstwhile competitor. It is less fascist inasmuch as its credentials are far less problematically English. Its provenance in and around the military helps; it is relatively untroubled by overtly neo-Nazi personal history on the part of its leaders; and the bonehead hard core have tended to produce splinter groups (North-West Infidel and North East Infidel are geographically self-explanatory examples). Both the BNP and EDL brandish the cross of St George; only the EDL, however, has proven truly able to make the banner its own.
On the other hand, the EDL is more classically fascist in its methods. Its orientation is to the streets, not the ballot box. While its protests are ostensibly non-violent, its membership base is generally made up of fighting men: EDL members have attacked picket lines and leftwingers selling papers. Add it all up, and the post-fascist BNP is in a far worse position to turn the Woolwich murder into street intimidation than the fascist EDL.
What is equally clear is that the anti-fascist response has been mediocre at best. For once, it appears that the participants realise this.
Unite Against Fascism, the front group led by the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action, is hardly in rude health. The National Union of Students executive voted down a motion on fighting racism from its Black Students campaign (for most of recent history, effectively stitched up by SA) on the basis that it included a call to re-affiliate to UAF. The latter’s reputation has been tarnished by association with the SWP - a situation not helped by the prominence within UAF of the alleged rapist at the centre of the SWP’s recent turbulence.
Reports from ground zero at recent anti-EDL mobilisations speak to a creeping demoralisation. The hysterical chants of the UAF faithful ring increasingly hollow from inside a police kettle, with two, three or four times as many EDL boot boys a couple of streets away. The UAF contingents are smaller and more isolated from kindred anti-fascist groupings and campaigns than at any time in recent years.
Dave Renton - an SWP oppositionist who continues to publish critical writings under his own name - has a not uninteresting post-mortem of the major EDL counter-demonstration in London. He quotes various comrades, including one pretty perceptive remark from ‘RS’: “Our tactics didn’t really work ... A month ago the EDL looked like a spent force. But clearly that was rather superficial, since all it’s taken is a single murder for them to launch multiple mobilisations and outnumber anti-fascists. We seem to have made very little impact on actually undermining the basis of Islamophobia in Britain.”1
It is the latter sentence which is the most encouraging, as far as these things go. Why did the EDL suddenly brush away all its internal strife and problems? Quite simply because it feeds off the chauvinism present in the ideological atmosphere: it is given strength not necessarily by holding successful demonstrations (barring total routs, even a march smashed by police or counter-protestors can put fire in the belly if it is well handled), but because its ideology is coterminous with the xenophobic, jingoistic bilge thrown about by the gutter press, and the concessions made to it by a rudderless, cowardly political class. That bilge has been flowing all the more freely since Rigby’s murder.
Defeating the EDL - or whatever fascist sect replaces it when Tommy Robinson commits one embarrassment too far - means defeating the reactionary ideology of the state and the bourgeois establishment. Renton nudges in this direction to a point, but is rather trapped in nostalgia for the old Anti-Nazi League:
“A large part of the campaign’s dynamism came from the activity of a relatively small group of comrades in Rock Against Racism. They made sure that fascism was never misunderstood as just a very aggressive form of popular racism. They fought all the time to join up the popular racism of the [National Front] to the institutional racism of the police, prisons and courts; its anti-black racism to its simultaneous, swaggering and homophobic masculinity. They fought, in effect, for a broader, more heterogeneous anti-racism.”
It is very easy for an SWPer to look back to the high point of the ANL and RAR as a “model” for anti-fascism, as that period marks the high point of the SWP’s impact in society beyond the far-left fringe. Yet a truly honest assessment is that, as campaigns to defeat fascism and the far right, the ANL and UAF are both unqualified and total failures. The National Front collapsed not because the Clash headlined a couple of gigs with SWP stewards, but because Margaret Thatcher was rightwing enough to attract back their floating, peripheral supporters. The BNP was defeated by Ukip, not UAF - let alone Love Music, Hate Racism, RAR’s culturally moribund descendant (let’s face it - Hard Fi are a bit of a step down from The Specials).
UAF’s decade-long stretch of jumping up and down and shrieking ‘Nazi!’ has achieved absolutely nothing; in the same period, the centre of gravity in Britain has shifted markedly to the right. Our side has gotten more disorganised and marginal; the far right, meanwhile, now has by all appearances a stable party capable of achieving mass votes and pulling the Tories in a chauvinist, revanchist direction, in the form of Ukip.
In a sense, this is an entirely obvious and expected outcome. Fascism and similar far-right lunacy is an effect of the decomposition of capitalist politics and ideology - cyclical to an extent, but also a long-term secular trend in tandem with the decline of capitalism as a system. Anti-fascism as a permanent campaigning priority necessarily poses an alliance between the far left and the bourgeois political mainstream; it forces us to prettify, however much we gripe about biased policing and ‘institutional racism’, the very political state regime which makes the emergence of far-right groups inevitable (as if David Cameron is incapable of physically smashing the left or attacking migrants!). It is utterly self-defeating.
Marx remarks that history only sets itself such tasks as it can achieve. Unfortunately, the far left is not quite so wise as history. UAF, the ANL and more ‘militant’ competitors such as Anti-Fascist Action, set themselves the impossible objective of defeating fascism once and for all, or for whole historical periods, without overcoming its actual material grounding in capitalist society and the imperialist system of states (such complicated matters are left for the Sunday sermons).
Genuine united front work - to defend mobilisations of the movement, neighbourhoods, places of worship or whatever from genuinely likely fascist attacks - has value in itself. If the EDL’s newfound vigour should continue (which is by no means inevitable, but a real danger), such work will become all the more urgently necessary in localities around the country. ‘Anti-fascism’, as a strategic campaign and objective, is not, has never been and will never be more than a waste of effort.
Renton notes approvingly that “a younger generation of party comrades (the very ones, it seemed, who had been on the losing side of the recent faction battle) took it upon themselves to organise. They produced their own leaflets; they distributed them by their thousands.” Very good, coming from an organisation not known for the rank and file taking initiative - but when was the last time these comrades took it upon themselves to print and distribute thousands of leaflets calling for the revolutionary transformation of society? The answer, one suspects, is ‘never’ - and that, more than anything else, is the problem; the idea of a real alternative to this suffocating society has been allowed to wither. Not even the murder of Lee Rigby is a more generous gift to the EDL.