A march of thousands led by “Tommy Robinson” and UKIP leader Gerard Batten marked the first outing of a new project for the far right in Britain – bringing together a racist street movement and what was once a traditional electoral party, UKIP.
The move marks a new direction for fascist Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and a sharp turn for UKIP, which under previous leaderships had sought to keep a distance both from fascist organisations and from street movements such as the English Defence League.
But the new direction is not unprecedented in Europe. The move closely echoes the strategy of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which built its size and influence through the anti-Muslim racist street movement Pegida.
The sharp turn is also producing its own contradictions, with former leader Nigel Farage at the head of a clutch of senior UKIP figures who have resigned over Batten’s tie-up with longstanding fascist street activist Robinson.
The march on 9 December 2018 also comes against a backdrop of a resurgence of the far right in Britain over the past 18 months – and the dangerous growth of fascist and far right parties across Europe and internationally. Here we look at the events of the day and what they might mean for the future.
What happened on the day
Our report and analysis here is of the Tommy Robinson-UKIP event. But we were pleased to see the large, united antifascist counterdemonstration – see the report here.
The far right march set off from Hyde Park Corner, past parliament to the rally site in Whitehall – with this just the latest of a series of far right demos that have focused on the location so symbolic of political power in Britain.
We counted the demonstrators as the march set off, when they numbered over 7,500. More groups joined the demo on route and a further 400 or so people were waiting for it in and around Whitehall. The video below shows thousands still streaming into Whitehall as the rally begins.
The march was organised and disciplined, with stewards continually holding back the front ranks to ensure it remained tightly packed throughout. It was lively and confident.
Wave after wave of “Oh Tommy, Tommy” chants made it clear who brought the lion’s share of the demonstrators. But throughout the march there were Home Counties-type UKIP supporters.
UKIP activists peddled their “Join UKIP” cards, and there were UKIP placards and flags as well as union jacks. A few marchers had appropriated the hi-vis vests of the French gilets jaunes protestors.
At the head of the march Batten was joined by UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch. They both seemed completely at ease marching alongside obvious fascists and nazis.
On the march we identified a number of BNP and NF members. There was also a small band of people from Anne Marie Waters’ For Britain party. For Britain has now become home to a number of leading former BNP figures, including Eddy Butler, architect of the nazi party’s “Rights for Whites” campaign.
Most prominent of the fascist hardcore were the nazi members of Generation Identity (GI) carrying very visible yellow and black lamda flags. Also present were the conspiracist White Pendragons, Donald Trump supporters and a marcher carrying the flag of “Kekistan” – a fake country that is a regular motif on the international far right.
There were also a number badge sellers, including one who sold badges displaying the words “Ban Islam” and a death’s head reminiscent of the Nazi SS Totenkopf symbol.
Apart from repeated Tommy chants, there were chants of “Brexit Now”, the more hostile “We want our country back” – a traditional racist chant –and “May is a banker, Corbyn is a wanker”.
In the build up to the “Brexit Betrayal” march it was clear both Robinson and Batten believed they could capitalise on the anger surrounding Brexit, capture a position as leaders of a mass Brexit movement and win over a large tranche of new supporters. In this they clearly failed.
But although there was no sudden spike in support, the demo succeeded in consolidating Robinson’s support and bringing it behind the new project – the tie-up with Gerard Batten and UKIP.
And while the summer’s Tommy Robinson events were a general racist free-for-all, this was a demo that required a level of interest and commitment to a more specific political demand. Robinson himself admitted at the rally that he has not previously campaigned around Brexit, but against what he terms “the Islamisation of Britain” – anti-Muslim racism.
The march has also secured Robinson’s place as the de facto leader of Britain’s far right street movements.
This has been made easier by the implosion of the Football Lads Alliance and the apparent decline of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, which looked as if its outing in October might be its last as a mass organisation.
So marginal are the DFLA now that several of its key supporters spent the day lurking around central London trying to attack anti-fascists.
We can see how the numbers on far right demos over the past 18 months have fluctuated, with different combinations of forces and circumstances producing different turnouts. The 9 December march was again sizeable – with greater numbers than the English Defence League was able to muster at its peak (see table, below).
|Number on protest
|Football Lads Alliance (FLA)
|up to 5,000
|London, Speakers Corner
|FLA and Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) hold separate protests on the same day
|Up to 5,000 in total. Around 3,000 attend the DFLA protest and around 2,000 the FLA event
|Tommy Robinson “Day for Freedom”
|5,000+ including DFLA feeder march of around 3,000
|“Free Tommy Robinson” supporters
|“Free Tommy Robinson” supporters
|“Free Tommy Robinson”
|UK Freedom Marches
|“Free Tommy Robinson”
|6,000 to 10,000
|Old Bailey, London
|London, Hyde Park to Downing St
|Old Bailey, London
|London, Hyde Park to Whitehall
|Tommy Robinson and UKIP
Table compiled by Dream Deferred. Links go to demo reports
In his rally speech Robinson outlined the shift in his tactics and strategy.
You can’t solve the problems of Islamisation without getting out of the European Union… thanks to Gerard Batten and Nigel Farage this has become possible. While I have been in prison I have thought long and hard about this issue. We can’t just be on the outside. We have got to work on the inside.
Robinson urged his supporters to join UKIP and hinted, “One day I will be sitting among the MPs.” He sees the limitations of solely building a street movement.
He is clear about the potential of power on the streets, telling the crowd:
What you’ve witnessed from the media and establishment this week is fear. They fear this. They fear a movement that can be politicised across this country.
But he now wants to use his street army to build an electoral machine.
In order to achieve the same goal as Robinson, Batten is bending UKIP in the opposite direction – from an electoral party towards the street. UKIP began as a hard right split from the Conservative party.
Farage built it up through a turn to racist far right populism, seizing on anti-immigrant themes to take it to a level where it looked set to become the third party in British politics.
Despite his racism, Farage steered clear of any association with fascism or potentially violent street activity, barring former BNP and EDL members from UKIP’s ranks. But since the Brexit vote, the party has hit a decline.
Now Batten hopes that by aligning himself with Robinson and his supporters in a further sharp turn he can rebuild UKIP from the bottom up.
Since the Brexit referendum UKIP has been in freefall. At its height in 2015 its membership reached a peak of nearly 46,000. The month before Batten took over the reigns of the party in December 2017 it stood at just over 20,000.
The Brexit crisis and Batten’s strategy of openly courting the far-right appears to have reversed the party’s decline. In July 2018 UKIP’s membership increased to 24,000 members – an increase of 3,200. The polls also show 3% to 5% support for UKIP – modest, but an improvement on the 1.8% UKIP got at the last general election.
However UKIP has played a heavy price for Batten’s turn. The joint demo, plus Batten’s appointment of Robinson as an advisor on “grooming gangs and prisons”, has appalled senior figures in the party.
Nigel Farage has resigned from the party as has former leader Paul Nuttall. MEPs Patrick O’Flynn, Bill Etheridge, William Dartmouth and Jonathan Bullock have all quit over the Tommy Robinson link. In all more than half of the 24 UKIP MEPs elected in 2014 have now resigned.
Farage and Nuttall may complain about Batten’s turn. But they were both responsible for UKIP’s move away from a single issue, hard Tory pressure group into a racist populist party that adopted anti-immigrant and Islamophobic policies. Batten, however, has stepped much further along the path.
Both Batten and Lord Pearson are longstanding Islamophobic activists. Batten attended a “Counterjihadist” conference in 2007 organised by the European offshoot of the EDL’s backers, the US-based Center for Vigilant Freedom. He has also admitted to meeting EDL founder and political guru “Alan Lake” (real name Alan Ayling).
Pearson notoriously invited Dutch racist populist leader Geert Wilders to the House of Lords for a showing of the Islamophobic film Fitna in 2009, prompting an early EDL demo in support. Notably, Wilders was filmed this week showing Robinson around the Netherlands parliament.
Over the past year Batten has flirted with the various far right street movements, meeting the leaders and speaking at their marches and rallies. He has called Islam a “death cult” and called the prophet Muhammad a paedophile.
This is a deliberate attempt to entrench UKIP further inside the far right camp.
Batten wants to portray himself as a great populist leader, something that was made crystal clear when the chair of the rally introduced him as Gerard “bulldog” Batten. His speech at the rally focused on urging people to join UKIP. To big cheers he bragged that he had “got Tommy to talk about Brexit”.
He is also maintaining a typical far right populist’s stance as someone supposedly outside the system, declaring his aim to “take votes away from the treacherous and treasonous political class”.
Batten, Robinson, and Pearson – who also spoke at the rally – were bolstered by other UKIP figures including disgraced former Tory MP Neil Hamilton.
Another notable presence at the rally was Carl Benjamin, better known as Sargon of Akkad, a foul far right YouTube broadcaster with a following of 864,000 subscribers.
Benjamin, who is notorious for sending a rape tweet to a Labour MP, is virulently Islamophobic and misogynist. Last February, during a livestreamed broadcast, the depths of his racism were exposed when he accused commenters of “acting like a bunch of niggers”.
He has also joined UKIP recently, along with a number of other far right YouTube personalities. His role at the event was to reinforce a level of general far right ideology.
The speakers’ list was notable for the absence of major international speakers, although Lubomír Volný, an MP from the Czech Republic’s far right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party was present.
This lack of international clout maybe linked to the absence from proceedings of Raheem Kassam, the well connected international far right fixer with close connections to Donald Trump and European fascist and far right figures and who formerly worked for Nigel Farage.
Kassam had compered the Free Tommy rallies over the summer but has openly disagreed with the Tommy Robinson-UKIP tie up. Publicly he has suggested that he thinks Robinson is more useful to the far right as an independent disruptive force and street leader rather than as a UKIP member.
Since the fall of the BNP, the far right in Britain has undergone many organisational changes. There have been attempts to repackage its ideas and policies in order to win over wider audiences.
A key development from 2009, was the growth of the EDL, the anti-Muslim racist street movement led by Robinson. He and several of its other key figures were former BNP members, but the organisation was also inspired by fanatically anti-Muslim “Counterjihadist” activists, including “Alan Lake”.
The EDL never succeeded in getting an electoral vehicle off the ground, although it did try, and was eventually defeated after huge mobilisations of antifascists and local people confronted it and prevented it from marching in a series of key encounters in east London.
Now Robinson and Batten’s UKIP are bringing together an existing electoral organisation with a street movement.
The combination of an electoral wing and a street fighting wing is a dangerous one – this is the classic fascist strategy pioneered by Hitler and Mussolini.
But there are more recent examples of how the far right can move between electoral and street movement routes.
Street movements in Germany and Hungary have prompted the development of electoral parties such as the AfD in Germany, which grew substantially out of the racist Pegida movement, and the Nazi Jobbik in Hungary, which retains links with a paramilitary wing.
If UKIP re-emerges as a serious force on this basis, it would signal a much more dangerous prospect than the Farage party.
The closest model for Robinson and Batten is the AfD and the street movement Pegida.
The AfD was formed in 2013 as a rightwing, conservative Eurosceptic party while Pegida was an Islamophobic street movement launched in October 2014.
Between 2014 and 2015 Pegida held a number of huge street protests aimed against asylum seekers. The founders of Pegida were influenced by the rise of the EDL – and Robinson later made a failed attempt to form a branch of Pegida in Britain.
Pegida was a foul racist soup, in which members of the hardcore, Hitlerite NPD party and other nazis mingled with fascist football hooligan gangs and softer racists.
In 2015 the AfD made a sharp turn to the right, drawing into its ranks Pegida supporters and members of other nazi-type groups. Today the AfD has 92 MPs in the Bundestag, the German parliament, and is in second place in two of the regional parliaments with strong showings elsewhere.
The AfD has also shifted from general racist populism towards politics that are much closer to fascism, following a series of splits and internal faction fights. The hardline elements of the AfD, centred around co-leader Alexander Gauland and Thuringia-based Björn Höcke, are now in control of the party.
A similar development in Britain would break new ground. Never before in British history has a parliamentary party broken towards the right and joined forces with a fascists and far right street thugs. This is a dangerous and very worrying development.
From its very inception this new formation is going to be very unstable. UKIP is already deeply divided between those members who want tos their energies on winning over rightwing Tory voters and those who want UKIP to adopt a more aggressive racist agenda.
Robinson and his supporters joining UKIP will only exacerbate those tensions.
Of course just like its far right predecessors this formation could just implode.
But the objective conditions – against a background of austerity, political chaos and the rise of the far right internationally – make it possible for this type of party to take hold. The stakes have just got higher.