As the dust settles and the empty beer cans are cleared away after Sunday’s far-right “Day for Freedom” gathering outside Parliament, it is clear that it was a landmark event in terms of development within anti-Muslim and far-right politics in the UK.
The march from Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to a large stage just outside 10 Downing Street was the latest and by far the largest of a series of “free speech” (read: hate speech) events led by former English Defence League (EDL) leader and far-right extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson).
HATE SPEECH NOT FREE SPEECH
If you’re just tuning in, the far right are mobilising supporters on the streets. But their “day for freedom” demo is about hate, not freedom. Watch, share and RT this so people know the real views of these extremists. pic.twitter.com/kBpCeRtFdo
— HOPE not hate (@hopenothate) 6 May 2018
The event was compered by Raheem Kassam, the editor of the anti-Muslim “news” outlet Breitbart London, and was graced with speeches by a gamut of significant far-right figures, including founder of the “Proud Boys” fraternity Gavin McInnes, alt-light misogynist Milo Yiannopoulos, and UKIP’s Islamophobic leader Gerard Batten.
The “Day for Freedom” marks a troubling convergence of multiple disparate radical right and far-right groups and individuals in the UK, who, at least for the time-being, seem willing to sideline ideological differences and personal emnities to unite around an anti-Muslim and pro-“free speech” agenda.
At a time where the far right is, in terms of traditional organisations, weaker than it has been in decades in the UK, Sunday demonstrated the post-organisational threat of the modern far right; with extreme figures who have made their names online (such as Yiannopoulos), in electoral politics (such as Batten) and on the streets (such as Lennon) coming together around a set of core ‘values’.
The advent of the internet has also enabled transnational cooperation of an unprecendented kind: prominent alt-light YouTuber Lauren Southern was able to address the crowd via screen, despite being permenantly banned from the UK, and the event itself was broadast live online.
Sunday also brings home the point that as the far right in the UK is now routinely battered at the ballot box, efforts are being increasingly focused both online and on the streets.
Despite many initial hurdles – for example, a lower than expected turnout, inevitable difficulties produced by the broad range of attendees, and a general sense of confusion at points during the speeches – the “Day for Freedom” was a major moment in the formation of a movement that has the potential to resemble a broad, popular far-right front.
Event attendance was at an estimated 2,000- 3,000 (although organisers have claimed the number as 4,000-5,000). The numbers seem small in comparison to the hooligan-led Football Lads Alliance (FLA), which turned out as many as 50,000 people on the streets of London in October 2017.
Some have expressed disappointment at this turnout, including several important figures from the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), an offshoot from the FLA, who led a march of several thousand from Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner to the rally in Whitehall.
However, the FLA was established as a direct response to Islamist-extremist inspired terrorist attacks in the UK and did not, at least in its early days, hold an explicitly far-right agenda.
In terms of events comparable in their level of open, anti-Muslim sentiment, Sunday us perhaps only matched in size by the EDL’s march in Newcastle in the wake of Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Sunday was very different to the heyday of the EDL, however, not least by the fact that the groups represented ranged from those courting mainstream respectability to the very worst British politics has to offer.
The UKIP youth group Young Independence (YI) made a showing, as did Katie Fanning, a member of UKIP’s National Executive Committee (NEC), who was previously exposed by HOPE not hate for spreading white nationalist content online.
Members of the UK and Ireland branch of Generation Identity (GI), including Benjamin Jones, Harrison Clewes, Sam Sibbons, Seb Seccombe (AKA Seb James), Damien McAlinden, Gabriel Harrison, Scott Williams and Deirdre McTucker (AKA Damhnait Mckenna) were present, as were three members of the GI-linked campaign group #120dB, specifically Aline Moraes and Freya Honold of the Dresden branch of GI and Alice Milot of the Paris branch of GI.
Members of the fringe “constitutionalist” White Pendragons group, founded by former EDL activist and convicted racist David Russell, marched from Hyde Park before convening at two pubs on Whitehall – The Lord Moon of the Mall, (where speaker Anne Marie Waters of the For Britain movement could be found at the same time) and The Silver Cross – before they were allowed to film close to the stage due to a member of the group working as a security guard for the event.
Representatives from the London supporters of Wolność (Liberty), a Polish party led by far-right former MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, were also in attendance and claimed to have invited Yiannopoulos to their ‘Freedom Picnic’ to be held at the White Eagle Club in Balham on 8 July.
Also present was the fascist gang the Pie & Mash Squad, and remnants of the EDL, the far-right street movement founded by Lennon in 2009.
The rally’s press pit was graced by the likes of Michael Brooks, a Conservative Party activist who has attended a number of far-right events, including the Traditional Britain Group (TBG) and GI conferences. Brooks has previously described himself as “14 and 88”, an infamous white supremacist slogan.
Most worryingly, open white supremacists made up a noticeable presence. These included Stead Steadman, organiser of the far-right London Forum, as well as Luke Pippen, a former member of the Racial Volunteer Force – a Combat 18 (C18) spin-off – and a group of fellow Nazis.
Rob Gray, a former C18 member now heavily involved with the Polish nazi group National Rebirth of Poland (NOP), was there, as was Jacob Bewick, former member of the now-banned neo-nazi terror group National Action, turned GI activist.
The conflicting positions at the event were best demonstrated by the fact that the march was simultaneously co-led by “Veterans against Terrorism” and supported by the attendance of several members of the London Brigade of the Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
Also in attendance were various football firms, although roughly 200 of the Chelsea mob decided to forgo the demo and speeches and instead confronted the counter-protesting Socialist Workers’ Party/Stand Up To Racism group in Whitehall.
Given such a range of attendees, it is unsurprising that many at the rally seemed at points somewhat nonplussed at what took place on stage. The fact that the speakers’ roster included grown adult men calling themselves “Sargon of Akkad” and “Count Dankula” may have contributed to this general sense of bemusement.
As the event wore on over its long running time, much of the energy of the Whitehall rally dissipated over its three and half hour duration (for marchers, five hours) in the blazing sun.
Kassam kicked the event off by referencing the wide range of flags on show, including those for UKIP and Kekistani flags. For some unfathomable reason he neglected to reference the several large flags for the racial separatist GI movement and the far-right For Britain Movement clearly visible. Kassam went on to praise the police for protecting the event, despite the infamous Millwall chant of “Harry Roberts is our mate, he kills coppers” being heard on the march.
While Southern had a pre-recorded speech played to the crowd, notably this was not the case for Martin Sellner, co-leader of the Austrian branch of GI and de facto spokesperson for the movement, who was recently barred from entering the UK and was featured in the promotional video for the event.
It is possible that GI’s message of racial separatism was ultimately viewed as too extreme for the event’s organisers, though given that many Austrian GI activists’ homes and offices were raided on 27 April (including Sellner’s) this may have kept him preoccupied.
The alternative right’s shock-jock style “jokes” often received a poor response. VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes, for example, made an extremely off-colour and graphic joke about paedophiles in reference to Milo Yiannopoulos which, needless to say, fell flat.
Yiannopoulos’ much-vaunted appearance got off to a bad start, the crowd unimpressed by his lengthy ramblings about his own wealth, and his jokes about his own sexuality received a frosty reception amongst many attendees. However, the most notably divisive moment came when drag queen Vanity von Glow appeared on stage to perform Shania Twain hits, prompting a large number of exits.
However, despite such conflicting stances and tensions (there were reports of squabbles between Lennon and the DFLA figureheads on the day) there were big rallying moments during the speeches that clearly united most in the crowd.
Alongside the obvious and pervasive anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment of the event, Stephen Lennon remains overwhelmingly popular, his name sung at regular intervals throughout the day. Whenever mentioned, Labour Party figures – especially London Mayor Sadiq Khan – were vociferously booed, and mentions of US President Donald Trump were likewise cheered.
Of course, the most obvious uniting factor on Sunday was the basic premise of the event – the notion that “free speech”, especially criticism of Islam, was being restricted in the UK, and that right-wing viewpoints were besieged by the mainstream. We have covered at length the reasons why the far right does not understand or believe in free speech, but continues to use it as a tool, trumpeting a fake victim narrative as part of a strategy to help boost its appeal.
The free speech premise was contradicted by the events of the day. Ali Dawah, a controversial Muslim YouTuber, was announced late-notice as a speaker by event organiser Lucy Brown, much to the consternation of many attendees. In the end, Dawah was refused a platform and a scuffle broke out after he and his associates arrived backstage. Dawah went on to claim that they were “physically attacked” by FLA members.
The notion that speakers’ rights to attack Islam were being “repressed” was also somewhat undercut by the fact they were permitted, at great expense to the taxpayer, to spend over three hours attacking Islam from a large stage and screen, in front of a sizable crowd, in the centre of London and within a stone’s throw of 10 Downing Street!
This new, loose, far-right coalition face many internal obstacles, not least its own competence. It is by no means certain that such a loose coalition can be maintained in the long term. Nonetheless, Stephen Lennon remains hugely popular among the majority of those present: if he wants it, there is a movement there for him to lead, one that is as big – if not bigger – than the EDL but may be more acceptable to the mainstream.
The alarm bells of this new threat deserve to be heard loud and clear.