The far right is on the streets again – but this time it’s deep inside our Tory government too

A legitimate proud patriotism in the generation and its leaders who fought for freedom in the last war – including many people of colour from what was then the British Empire – is being perverted and stolen in front of our very eyes

Sean O'Grady
Monday 15 June 2020 17:51 BST
More than 100 arrested as PM brands far-right protests ‘racist thuggery’

There is the deepest of ironies in the statue of Winston Churchill, a man who wanted to extirpate Hitlerism from the face of the earth, being “defended” by a bunch of thugs giving the Nazi – or, as they would have you believe, the “football” – salute. I note that Katie Hopkins, the Mother Theresa of the hard right, has issued this appeal on Twitter: “If you were paid to chuck Nazi salutes at the cameras yesterday in London, by ANY organisation, I would love to hear from you (and compensate you for your time).”

Well, me too.

Actually I can believe that the arm gestures, for some – as with the singing of the national anthem and the chants of “EN-GER-LAND” – owed more to the football terraces than the Nuremberg rallies. After all, the National Socialist German Workers Party were quite fussy about the way the “Hitler Greeting” was done – though understandably no provision was made for how it might be later performed beneath a statue of Churchill, ally of the Bolsheviks and corrupted emblem of democratic decadence as he was supposed to be. However, there’s no doubting the scenes of inchoate violent fascism on Saturday.

These chaps were looking for a rumble, not a debate about Britain’s past and future. When Black Lives Matter protesters failed to turn up, they had to fight the police instead, WPCs included. According to one eyewitness video doing the rounds on social media, where there were no coppers about they resorted to taking on the clear threat to British identity represented by some people having a socially distanced picnic on a sunny day in the park.

Perhaps the young picnic-goers were socialists who aren’t that bothered about immigration, or who believe what they see on the BBC. In that case, in fascistic street-fighting terms, they’d deserve having their day out spoiled. In any case their quiche got a good kicking.

Some say bodies such as the Football Lads Alliance, its splinter group the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, Britain First, and other far-right groups were involved in marshalling this angry mob, using the indignation and anger to infiltrate, recruit and radicalise. It is the kind of tactic that’s always been associated with the far left, to try and exploit any demo to win (desperately needed) new members.

It would hardly be surprising, and that’s one of the biggest shames of it: the hijacking by the far right of symbols of British national unity, and those of England. The union flag; the cross of St George; our (ethnically diverse) football team; “God Save the Queen”; the Cenotaph; veterans; and, yes, Winston Spencer Churchill. They are all now being culturally appropriated by people who think Adolf might have had a point. If these symbols are allowed to become objects of racism, nationalism and fascism, it is no wonder they are attacked and burnt by anti-fascists. Yet the anti-fascists are taking the bait – and that is also dangerous also.

A legitimate proud patriotism in the generation and its leaders who fought for freedom in the last war – including many people of colour from what was then the British Empire – is being stolen and perverted in front of our very eyes.

It is nothing new. When Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s, and the National Front in the 1970s, used to march – deliberately and provocatively – through areas with a large immigrant population, they always carried loads of Union Jacks. Their manifestos were plastered in them.

The old National Front leaders were such militant neo-Nazis that they’d dress up in Brownshirt uniforms and go on camping holidays together, where, around the fire of an evening, they’d discuss Mein Kampf, racial theories and who’d get what job in a future National Front cabinet. Their leader, an unprepossessing man from Hove named John Tyndall, like Oswald Mosley before him, used to try to ape Hitler’s oratorical style, with absurd results. When they weren’t being terrorised or beaten up by them, the British people rightly found these fascists quite ridiculous

Later on, the BNP and Nick Griffin put suits on and tried to sound more normal – but it was the same old poison, and the people could taste it. They too split and died. Traditionally, Britain’s far right said and did cruel things, but they were never really a threat to our democracy or tolerant way of life.

Are they now? There’s no leadership and no political party to speak of, but it’s easy to imagine how the culture war could be politicised. I see our old friend Nigel Farage is out and about counting the boats arriving on the south coast, tweeting and crying about “Brexit betrayal”. He left Ukip behind because it had become racist – but you wonder what his next gig will be, now the LBC contract is finished. I wonder if even he could ride the tiger that is modern British nationalism.

Far more likely, Boris Johnson will be doing the job for him. He is already tacking that way, with appalling remarks about how black people think of themselves as victims – a nasty echo of what he once wrote about the people of Liverpool. He wants to be the statue defender who stands up for Britain’s history, or his version of it.

The Tory party today is already a kind of low-fat alternative to fascism which, with the complexities of the British electoral system, has usually managed to subsume the hard right into its own ranks and marginalise the remaining groups. It did so in the 1930s to the Moselyites, in the 1980s to the National Front, and again in the 2010s with the BNP and the atavistic nationalists in Farage’s Ukip and Brexit parties. Which sounds helpful, until you remember that you have to put up with a watered-down version of fascism running the country. An elective dictatorship.

And that is where we are now. I’m not sure what Churchill would make of it all.

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