As descriptions of the June 1 British National Party demonstration and the anti-fascist counter-protest in Westminster, phrases such as ‘good clean fun’, ‘solid Saturday afternoon entertainment’, and ‘decent spectacle’ spring to mind. Following years of infighting, financial troubles, and near-absence from the public eye, the whites-only outfit was attempting to test the waters in the wake of Woolwich – and we were curious to find out just how many followers it could still mobilise.
Instead of enduring UAF speeches about defending multiculturalism, Cable Street and the Nazis in World War II, our expedition team headed straight for the BNP assembly point in the Old Palace Yard, which the BNP web team had renamed “Old Place Yard”. Depending whether you consulted the party’s website, Facebook or Twitter pages, the demonstration was either about Muslim men grooming pubescent girls, Islamic “hate preachers” or the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.
Furthermore, patriots were asked to “dress smart”, implying that the party aimed to preserve its pointedly petty bourgeois image rather than try something a bit more English Defence League. Nonetheless, Nick Griffin reportedly attempted something known to us on the left as a ‘cynical recruitment raid’: the leader with the radiant smile extended a warm welcome to the competition, cordially inviting EDL members to join the protest.
But rival leaders guard their flock jealously, and the EDL’s Tommy Robinson is no exception. Among the assembled BNP supporters, only one ‘footy lad’ sporting the EDL’s ‘No surrender’ brand was spotted. A man with a 1981-style Mohican haircut, who looked suspiciously like he had got his punk costume from a fancy-dress shop, raised the union jack and a St George’s cross banner for the press photographers. With images of punk serving as testimony to Britannia’s national heritage at the Olympics opening ceremony, perhaps this display was the logical conclusion.
A more characteristic sight, however, was that of the BNP’s London assembly candidate, Clifford Le May, who had donned his – now ruined – best suit for the occasion, as he later confessed to The Guardian. The paper reported between 50 and 100 protestors, but to us the number appeared closer to 40 – a truly miserable figure and certainly not the cash-in Griffin had hoped for. With the UK Independence Party serving, for the time being, as a respectable and dynamic umbrella for rightwing nationalists, and the EDL lending weight to its defence of our ailing imperialist bloc through street thuggery, perhaps the sapless BNP veterans were just not the men of the hour.
It was not long before a couple of hundred black-clad antifa activists, who had broken away from the designated Unite Against Fascism route, came running towards us and the BNP, chased by an apparently ill-prepared police contingent. The thin blue line of cops managed to prevent the heavily outnumbered BNP activists from being attacked physically, but they could not safely escort individual BNP latecomers through the crowd of counter-protestors. The aforementioned Clifford Le May, for example, had to fight his way through a heavy rain of fists, and there were one or two more such incidents.
In one instance, a BNP supporter ran in my direction, tailed by some 30 anti-fascists. I could have easily tripped him up. But within the two seconds or so I had to contemplate my actions, something in me must have decided that 30 people jumping on one was hardly a useful response. Naturally, there is nothing intrinsically reprehensible about using physical force against your enemies. But should such tactics not correspond to the actual threat posed? For the life of me, I could not see what great peril a small group of washed-out nationalists waving union jacks in Westminster posed to anyone. Even if the Führer’s famous words about the left’s failure to crush the Nazi movement “in its infancy” are your sole guide to anti-fascist strategy – rather than, say, a tactical assessment based on actual material and historical factors – then it is still hard to fathom how the right-populist ex-fascists of the BNP fit the bill.
Whatever criticisms one may have of the antifa, it is hard to conceive of a bigger waste of time than the SWP’s liberal ‘united front’, Unite against Fascism. Having held a lengthy counter-protest with speakers in Whitehall – where it partly managed to get kettled – UAF ultimately did march down Parliament Street towards Westminster, but came to a halt at a distance sufficiently far away for the BNP to be unable to hear nor see it. As far as SWP organisers were concerned, it was now time to strike a militant posture and erupt into over-excited chanting.
What was the UAF objective? It had decided that the BNP “shall not pass”. Why? First of all, because that’s what the anti-fascist slogan from the Spanish civil war says – even if, in this case, it was just a handful of no-hopers totally outnumbered by police. Secondly, the BNP was planning to march to the Cenotaph, the United Kingdom’s official war memorial. As every UAF activist knows, British troops were “fighting fascism” in World War II. So who, if not UAF, will defend the empire’s monuments to freedom – even when they happen to mark the signing of the Versailles treaty as a milestone for peace?
Incidentally, the fact that UAF did not get anywhere near the action did not prevent some of its activists from getting arrested later on, as police orders to clear the street by 4pm were ignored. The BNP’s deadline, meanwhile, was extended till 5pm – presumably to avoid its supporters getting beaten to a bloody, humanoid pulp. This prompted indignation in Twitterland: “Anti-fascists being arrested en massewhile BNP free to leave,” lamented Laurie Penny, before concluding that the Met had “clearly picked a side today”. Likewise, a UAF newsletter sent out on Monday complained that police tactics were “biased towards fascists”.
Oh, how the left loves its conspiracy theories. Has Laurie Penny never been at a demonstration where police effectively protected weedy leftwingers from pissed-up fascist hooligans? Has she never heard of rampaging EDL members getting arrested or compelled to leave the city limits? And if she has, does this mean police had “picked a side” and decided to support the left on that day? Did UAF expect the Met to arrest BNP protestors for being ‘fascists’?
Frankly, this is almost as silly as the BNP ‘theory’ that UAF is a rent-a-mob employed by the ‘communist multiculturalists’ who ‘rule Britain’. Short of a severe political crisis of Greek proportions, the police do not ‘pick sides’ in confrontations between marginalised groups on the far left and far right. Nor does the bourgeois establishment normally court the extreme right, which it regards as unwelcome political competition. What the police do is uphold the ‘rule of law’ in relation to property rights, while defending the state’s monopoly on violence – often aggressively so and to the point of severe physical abuse. At a demonstration where one side complies with police instructions while the other side does not, it is not hard to work out whom the forces of order are more likely to target.
As mentioned earlier, proceedings in the antifa section of the protest were not without their entertainment value. A surrealistic note was added when the ill-fated patriots were chased by young women in badger costumes, who had attended a nearby protest against the government’s badger cull.
After several hours of a fairly laisser-faire approach from the Met, the predictable kettling ensued, with arrests peaking at a reported 58. Having enjoyed the circuses and aching for bread, our team had already left by that time.
UAF and fellow anti-fascists were not slow to declare the counter-protest a victory, for the “fascists did not pass”. Like most anti-fascist success stories these days, this one was of a very notional nature.