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EVERY advocate of a better world should be deeply alarmed by an estimated 10,000 people taking part in a far-right march in London last weekend in support of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, more widely known by his assumed name “Tommy Robinson.”
Racist slogans were chanted. Nazi salutes were thrown. Mobs went on the rampage. The police were violently attacked.
Yaxley-Lennon is a co-founder of the English Defence League and a former British National Party member.
The demonstration was addressed by Ukip’s Gerard Batten MEP and Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, who had previously been banned from entering Britain when Gordon Brown was prime minister.
A message was also sent by the deputy leader of the far-right French National Rally, the new name for the National Front.
The march appears to be an attempt to place Britain at the centre of the far-right movements in Europe, where openly Islamophobic and anti-semitic parties are growing and exerting a worrying influence on wider politics.
Very significantly, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff Steve Bannon sent solidarity greetings which were read out at the protest.
Some clearly want to create a far right in this country with the influence that its US counterparts have on the US body politic. The next such march is planned to coincide with Trump’s visit to Britain in July.
The consequences of any growth of such far-right forces is frightening. Just days before, in Leeds, where Yaxley-Lennon was convicted after pleading guilty to contempt of court laws, a mosque and a Sikh temple were subjected to arson attacks within an hour. This followed a march of Yaxley-Lennon supporters in Leeds the week before.
And when it comes to the far-right, we must never forget that the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox who said working-class communities have more in common with refugees than that which divides us, was committed by a neonazi white supremacist.
Those who have dismissed the huge and violent London march as “no big deal” couldn’t be more wrong. This is one of the largest extreme right gatherings in Britain in recent years. The response of the left must be resolute.
Some may have been labouring under the misguided belief that for some reason Britain is immune from the rise of the far right that we have witnessed across Europe.
Some may have thought that the disappearance of the last BNP councillor in Britain — a far cry from when nearly one million people were persuaded to vote BNP in the 2009 European elections — showed that “it couldn’t happen here.” Or that the collapse of Ukip meant that xenophobia was being driven from the political agenda.
But austerity-hit Britain is not immune from the plague of certain forces trying to scapegoat minorities by wrongly blaming them for the political and economic decisions of the gilded elite. So the left should never dismiss the threat of the far right on the basis that “it’s just a march of a tiny minority of extremists.”
As the poet Michael Rosen wrote,
I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.
Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...
It doesn't walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
Any growth of the far right can have an impact on politics much wider than its small direct influence. And, in turn, it can gain greater significance on the back of a wider politics where racism is not challenged head-on.
So-called “mainstream” newspapers in Britain peddling Islamophobic hatred helps legitimise such views. As do the “clash of civilisations” ideas often called on to try to garner public support for — or at least non-opposition to — military interventions in the Middle East and which then fuel far-right prejudices at home.
We can never be complacent about racist ideas being exploited to explain the hardship that populations are experiencing in the aftermath of the great recession. Not when we have a president of the United States who proposes instituting a Muslim ban, who refers to immigrants as “animals” and refuses to condemn white supremacists who killed an anti-racist protester. Not when we have an Italian government that has exploited the weakness of the progressive forces and people’s desperation for change by proposing an “alternative” that scapegoats the most vulnerable, even refusing to take in hundreds of migrants rescued from drowning at sea. Many of those of course will have been fleeing the effects of global free-market policies and military interventions.
We can be proud that the overwhelming majority of people in this country will not tolerate their friends, neighbours and colleagues being scapegoated. The outpouring of support for the victims of the Windrush scandal showed that. But it needs constantly bold political leadership like that we saw from Diane Abbott, unafraid of the tabloid right, to shape the alternative. Such leadership contrasts with a Conservative government that has organised “Go Home” vans to tour our neighbourhoods and boasted of the “hostile environment” created.
Strategies to drive back the far right’s influence can never involve mainstream politicians making opportunistic concessions to racism. Labour can be proud of having a leader who will not do so.
It is also very positive that the leader of the Labour Party is committed to defeating the austerity and class war propagated in the interest of the super-rich which has always been the perfect incubator for the spread of far-right ideas to some of those who have lost hope and fall prey to easy answers as to why their community has been left behind.
Such a progressive alternative — challenging racism and scapegoating in all its forms and pushing for an irreversible shift in wealth and power to restore dignity and hope to working people — can mobilise the overwhelming majority and help drive back and isolate the far right.
Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East and shadow justice minister. This column appears fortnightly.
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