By Jeremy Dewar
SINCE THE heyday of the National Front in the 1970s, British Nazis have always dreamt of lashing up with the football hooligan scene.
If they could inculcate fascist ideas into the heads of the leaders of the various “firms” – often full of racist and socially conservative prejudices already – then, they reckon, they would have the street fighting presence with which to smash the left and terrorise black and Asian communities.
It has remained a dream. At least until recently. The Football Lads Alliance, launched a year ago this month, represents the biggest opportunity in the last five years for the far right to reach this elusive mass audience. The FLA brought out 10,000 for its first demo in June 2017, and possibly twice that number on its second in October.
From anti-extremism to anti-Muslim
The timing of the launch was crucial, coming immediately after the terror attacks on Westminster and London Bridge, and again at Manchester Arena. More importantly, if less obviously, it followed the Brexit referendum a year before, which heralded a spike in racist and Islamophobic attacks and generally made anti-immigrant prejudice “respectable”.
And of course after Trump’s election which did the same in the US, and whose alt-right cheerleaders have been busy in Britain and around the world.
Wary of the demise and splintering of the EDL (2009-13), FLA founder and (until recently) leader John Meighan repeatedly explained that the group was “not right or left” and against “all extremism”. He was not against Islam, just “terrorists” and “jihadis”, which he extended (an old EDL chestnut, this one) to those who want to impose Sharia law in the UK. The FLA banned Union flags from events.
But this all soon changed and the same old problems emerged. The first fig leaf to fly off was the claim to be against all extremism. While it is easy to simulate “outrage” at Islamist terror and gently fan the flames of Islamophobia, when Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd outside Finsbury Park Mosque the FLA was silent – except to call the BBC “twats” for questioning the role of Tommy Robinson in Osborne’s radicalisation.
And, yep, sure as beans are beans, Robinson turned up for the next demo in October, mobbed by “fans” wanting a selfie with “the man”. Meighan himself seemed delighted to have attracted such a big name, as if he had just successfully enticed a fly to circle a turd. Soon the more traditional right wing boasts started to circulate.
The Observer infiltrated and exposed the content on the FLA’s closed Facebook group, which regularly targeted Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Sadiq Khan. One post, which wasn’t taken down as it did not infringe the FLA’s “no racism” policy (!), called for Sadiq to be “hanged”. When confronted, Meighan said, “I don’t think saying ‘hang Sadiq Khan’ is racist”.
And to show where he drew the line, he continued, “We’re not racist. We’ve condemned the actions of [the overtly Nazi] National Action.” This is like saying, “I’m not antisemitic – look, I condemn Hitler.”
If everyone to the left of National Action (for now) is ok, then there’s an open door for the far right. Hence Britain First (whose devotee Thomas Mair murdered Labour MP Jo Cox) and For Britain (former Ukip hopeful Anne Marie Waters’ new party) have started to appear on FLA and splinter group Democratic FLA marches. So too have violent racists like Gary Crane (Right Wing Resistance), Eddie Stampton (Anti-Terror Alliance) and Keith Sutton (South East Alliance)– all looking for a new home.
The right wing pull exerted by the FLA’s leaders and would-be leaders have done it no good… in the short term.
As well as adverse media coverage – the big bourgeoisie has no need for a resurgent racist street fighting force in the run-up to Brexit, indeed quite the opposite – the organisation has been plagued with rows over finances, leading to chants of “Where’s the money gone?” at recent demos. The British Legion has complained about the unofficial use of its poppy logo by the FLA and returned a £1,000 donation because it has “expressed views and opinions that are not compatible with the values of the Royal British Legion”. And that’s saying something!
In March, the FLA suffered a split, with a number of football firm leaders departing with their followers to form the Democratic Football Lads Alliance. The rival outfits only managed to put at most 5,000 on the streets of Birmingham in March, evenly split between the two. Meighan resigned his position at the end of April and has promised to dissolve the limited company that forms the legal basis of the FLA, presumably as a way of avoiding prosecution for money laundering, though this is unlikely to defuse arguments over the profits from FLA merchandise.
Indeed, since then it appears that the FLA has lost the battle for the allegiance of the football firms, with the DFLA now openly, and successfully, calling for hooligan outfits, far right grouplets and individuals to join its ranks. A group called Freedom Marches UK, also led by hardened fascists (e.g. former BNP cadres) and far right ideologues and activists, played a part in reuniting the movement, with Tommy Robinson increasingly seen as its leader.
On 6 May, an FLA march was joined by a DFLA feeder march to a rally in Whitehall. Numbers were difficult to gauge, as many of the ultras peeled off, presumably to watch the football though emphasising that fascist politics remains peripheral to their interests; but it has been estimated that around 5,000 were there, 3,000 for the rally.
There they were “entertained” by a sound system, comedians… and a procession of speakers (the whole event lasted three hours), all beamed across on a huge plasma screen. The array of speakers was equally a departure from traditional fascist fare. Sure, there were British far right political leaders, like Waters and Ukip interim leader Gerard Batten, possibly in a move to open up their electoral base to the movement.
But they were joined by speakers from the US and Canadian alt-right and the pan-European white supremacists, Generation Identity. Breitbart editors who had worked with Trump shared the platform with others from the hard right of the Pegida movement/AfD and the Hungarian Jobbik.
It is a common misconception that the fascist movement, because it is nationalist, cannot be international. It is as international as the system of which it is a product: imperialism. Mussolini inspired Hitler, who aided Franco; the UK National Front provided the template for the French Front National.
Today, the far right is exchanging ideas, essentially about how to repackage the fascist message in modern, even eco- and trans-friendly, ways and how to influence a wider audience, via far right football firms and the use of social and alternative media. The London Forum, a far-right think-tank, which regularly hosts speakers from around the world, has recently expanded, e.g. to Bristol, and is increasingly an organising hub for actions.
Robinson, himself associated with the alt-right through his work for Canada’s Rebel Media TV, was the keynote speaker at the so-called Day for Freedom rally, where again his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, “Defend British culture” message went down well, both in Whitehall and on social media.
Buoyed by success, he pulled a stunt by filming and identifying (Asian) suspects in the trial of the sex grooming and prostitution/slavery ring from Rochdale. Robinson well knew, and clearly intended that he would be arrested and, five days later, on 25 May, he was jailed for 13 months for contempt of court, allowing him to appear as a martyr, or at least a tough guy, a “lad” like the best of them.
Robinson is well known to have groomed a large social media presence; on Facebook he has 780,000 followers and now he made use of his international links. Donald Trump Jr tweeted support, Geert Wilders condemned the sentence and Breitbart headlined the court’s reporting restrictions. The reported figure of 500,000 signatures to an online petition to call for his release suggests the US alt-right may have launched its army of social media bots in his support. In an alt-right, post-truth world, what matters is to create a buzz and boost the cult figure.
Hate crimes have risen according to the Home Office by 29 per cent during the year to October 2017 and crimes based on religious prejudice by 35 per cent. In the past five years, the number of attacks has nearly doubled to 80,000 a year. Whether or not FLA demos turn into a brawl, it would not be a wise thing to wander through their vicinity after the event on your own if you’re black or Asian, let alone Muslim.
As the devastating reality of Brexit becomes clearer, the scapegoating of migrants and ethnic minorities will put on another spurt. As the West’s leaders start trade and diplomatic wars or threaten shooting ones, patriotic drums will beat. As reactionary Islamist terror strikes in European city centres, Muslims will again be branded the “enemy within”.
In short, conditions are ripening for a significant growth in fascist forces, not just in Britain, but across Europe and North America. Their leaders clearly know that one event, played on cynically, could put them in front of 20,000 angry white men again.
But this is no time for liberal hand wringing about an inevitable rise of the far right. On the contrary, 6 May should be a wake-up call for the working class, especially those in the multicultural inner-cities, who have resisted the anti-immigrant message of the Brexiteers and rallied to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
For one, the fascists have not yet put together a reliable, indoctrinated fighting force. They are small. According to BBC analysis, over 80 per cent of FLA Facebook and Twitter followers are over-35. Eighteen to 25 year olds are rare on their demos as, needless to say, are non-whites and women. What is needed is a clear, bold lead.
We should call on the Labour Party, trade unions, anti-racists and anti-fascists to mobilise a mass movement, opposing and exposing every instance of racism at the football grounds, in workplaces, schools and colleges, and on the estates. We should appeal especially to the youth, who face racism and bigotry on a daily basis and are not afraid of struggle.
- No platform for fascists or organised racists
- Break up far right rallies, demos and meetings with organised self-defence groups
- For a socialist youth organisation to provide a message of hope instead of hate