EDL: Oxygen of stupidity
Socialist Worker complains that the BBC is giving the English Defence League publicity - a bit rich, reckons Paul Demarty
It is business as usual over at Socialist Worker. The world is broiling with resistance. The ‘Syrian revolution’ is on the march - though now it might be “becoming a pawn for imperialist powers”. And, of course, Britain is in danger of imminent fascist takeover.
Once again, it is the BBC’s fault, for giving a platform to far-right demagogues - this time, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, goon-boy in chief of the English Defence League. I say ‘giving a platform’, but a typically frothing editorial chooses an incomparably less fortunate phrase: “Racist EDL leader Tommy Robinson was given the oxygen of publicity three times last week when the BBC broadcast interviews with him”1 (our emphasis - and a point to which we shall return).
Three times! The BBC has clearly been infiltrated by peculiarly devious and media-savvy football casuals. It is fair to say that, in society more broadly, one of these shameful occasions has been more controversial than the others. He appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme on June 11,2 and many people believe he was given an easy time of it. Denis MacShane, the odious, chauvinist former Labour MP, griped on Twitter: “Now Today provides non-critical platform for EDL. Has she [presenter Sarah Montague] ever seen them close up? Heard their racist insults? Violence threats?”
The show was chided more diplomatically by its former editor, Kevin Marsh. “It wasn’t a bad interview and I’d certainly have put it on air, had I still been editor. But I might have been disappointed that we heard more of Robinson’s view of the world than we heard it challenged. And, yes, I would have liked to have heard more of him trying to explain some carefully chosen precise details of his and his group’s track records.”3
The idea that it was an entirely uncritical interview, put about by Socialist Worker, is fatuous - perhaps their infamously inflexible policy of ‘no platform’ means they are not allowed even to listen to it. Robinson is asked questions along the lines of “If you’re non-violent, why were the letters ‘EDL’ scrawled over a torched mosque?” “If you’re non-violent, how come you wear a balaclava all the time?”
Yet there is some truth to the complaint, such as it is, in that we know very well the BBC is capable of going up a gear when dealing with, in Marsh’s odd phrase, “quasi-unacceptable” views. We know this because of the treatment meted out to the British National Party Führer, Nick Griffin, when he was invited onto Question time, and pummelled remorselessly for an hour by all-comers. Robinson had an easier time of it than Griffin, certainly, in the same way that it is better to lose a finger than a whole arm.
The sad truth is that the Socialist Workers Party has gotten itself into a fine mess over the EDL. You could start with their insult of choice - the EDL is ‘racist’, as opposed to the BNP, which is ‘fascist’. In truth, it is almost the other way round.
The EDL is a street-fighting outfit - quite transparently, for all Robinson’s denials. It is classically fascist: a vehicle for the violent venting of reactionary rage against the left and one or another luckless minority. It is not classically racist - its virulent Islamophobia inevitably phases into racism, but is not racism in itself, and the left’s insistence that it is says more about the left than Islamophobia. The BNP, meanwhile, has a quite explicit racial component to its politics - the defence of a very definitely white British identity. It is, however, an electoral formation, and more or less gave up on the streets a decade and a half ago. The taxonomy is perfectly simple: the BNP is racist, but not fascist; the EDL is fascist, but not racist.
Why does the SWP get this the wrong way around? We would offer a guess: the comrades have tiresomely insisted on arguing in public what nobody - not even Tony Cliff, who came up with the idea - truly believes: that anyone who can be called a fascist can be called a Nazi. If the EDL is fascist, then the whole tradition of SWP anti-fascism, going back to the Anti-Nazi League, demands that it be ostracised as a bunch of Hitler-worshippers.
“‘Anti-racist’ - too soft! ‘Anti-fascist’ - not tough enough! ‘Anti-Nazi’ - yes! After all, Hitler went much further in his bestiality than Mussolini” - that was Cliff’s reasoning in the 1970s, and it has not changed in the hands of his successors.4 To split them apart at this point would mean undermining three and a half decades of SWP propaganda.
The Hitlerite tag just does not stick to the EDL, whose political origins - and, indeed, political present - are in vociferous support for the British armed forces, which is, of course, entirely tied up with ‘our finest hour’: World War II, in which democracy (and, whisper it quietly, Stalinist tyranny) triumphed over Nazi barbarism. So the EDL may only be called ‘racist’.
But this causes other problems. The SWP insists that the ‘principle’ of ‘no platform’ applies only to fascists.5 So why the hell is Socialist Worker so worried about Tommy Robinson getting on the BBC? After all, he is (apparently) not a fascist, to whom (apparently) different rules apply. It is a hopeless muddle, which is proof - if more were needed - that the SWP’s anti-fascism is stridently irrational. No reasoned argument can lead out of this chaotic jumble of half-formed premises to the conclusion that Robinson should be denied the “oxygen of publicity”.
Ah yes, that phrase. A little over two months ago, the SWP was crowing over Margaret Thatcher’s death with frankly embarrassing enthusiasm; you would almost believe that Charlie Kimber himself had pulled the plug on the life support machine. Now, it paraphrases one of her most famous Iron Ladyisms. For Thatcher, in a 1985 speech to the American Bar Association, this oxygen was to be denied to “terrorists and hijackers”;6 the slogan has since become most closely associated with a later broadcast ban on Northern Irish paramilitary groups (and Sinn Féin).
This is not the sort of echo a revolutionary socialist organisation would typically want to make. Yet that is the SWP for you - when it puts its anti-fascism hat on, the group is unable to say anything even crudely consistent with Marxism. It becomes liberal, at best.
Yet there is, perhaps, a lesson from Thatcher’s policy on oxygen that the comrades would do well to heed. The ban on Sinn Féin was an obviously counterproductive disaster. It was clear from the off what the target of the ban was; it did not, in the event, stop the ‘terrorists’ from accessing the media, but merely led to their voices being farcically replaced by those of actors. The whole ballyhoo was a gift to opponents of British rule in the Six Counties - and, of course, gave them plenty of publicity, as the victims of a farcical policy of censorship.
Consider also, for a moment, poor old Nick Griffin. Does he perhaps wonder, as his political career falls apart around his ears, how much better things would have gone for him if the BBC had caved into the shrieking hordes of SWPers outside Television Centre and withdrawn his invitation to Question time? He could have been a free speech martyr - but under the harsh glare of studio lights, he was humiliated and made to look like the bitter, slimy racist he actually is. There are more reasons than this for the BNP’s decline, but no one moment more closely resembles the precise point when it went into freefall.
Here is the irony: if there is any force in society that consistently gives the EDL the “oxygen of publicity”, it is the SWP and other anti-fascists. Where the bourgeois media and state apparatus sees a motley band of thugs and, at worst, a persistent public-order irritation, the SWP would like us to see the shadow of Bergen-Belsen. In absolutising the fascist danger, rendering it a permanent existential threat to civilisation, the SWP makes it look far bigger than it is. Tommy Robinson was on the BBC a few times last week, yes. When was the last time he didn’t feature in Socialist Worker? When was the last bourgeois news report of an EDL march, for that matter, that did not focus on clashes between anti-fascists and police? Tommy Robinson could not big himself up like the SWP bigs him up if he tried.
True, fascism poses a particular kind of threat (extra-state violence) to the workers’ movement - which may be an irritant or a mortal threat depending on the circumstances. A small clutch of EDLers stopped outside the People’s Assembly on Saturday, to a predictably hysterical reaction; but the idea that a dozen boneheads could take on 4,000 lefties is transparently absurd. On those occasions where the numbers are reversed, different tactics may be in order.
As for the “oxygen of publicity”, Thatcher’s policy in part failed because it treated the public like idiots. British people had a variety of violently different opinions on the Irish war - none of which had anything to do with the specific cadence of Gerry Adams’s voice. Let Tommy Robinson onto the Today programme! The harsher the glare of publicity, the more likely he is to start sweating. Instead of worrying about one fascist idiot’s media career, the left would do better to get some publicity of its own, and beat down the chauvinist ideas that Robinson feeds off.
1. Socialist Worker June 22.
2. A stream is available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22852764.
3. The Guardian June 12.
4. T Cliff A world to win: life of a revolutionary London 2000, p164.
5. A recent example: http://swssnet.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/swss-statement-on-nus-nec-motion-no-apologies-for-rape-apologists.