The day the UK was due to leave the EU should have been a day of triumph for the far right. Nevertheless, as it became increasingly clear that Brexit – in any form – was going to be delayed, a betrayal narrative could have been a rallying cry under which far right elements co-opted the wider moderate base of the Leave campaign.
The split was obvious early in the day. Two stages were set up: Vote Leave on Parliament Square and UKIP 200 metres away on Whitehall. There was some crossover amongst the crowds, but ultimately there was a clear distinction between the middle class, middle England audience that went to see Nigel Farage, and the ex-EDL and UKIP hardcore who came to see Tommy Robinson.
A common perspective is to think of Robinson capturing UKIP, yet this platform felt like an attempt by UKIP to capture Tommy’s supporters and direct their anger into new electoral base. Despite Robinson’s branding visible all over the stage, the rally was dominated by UKIP speakers: Neil Hamilton, Lord Pearson, Gerard Batten, and youtuber Carl Benjamin. Whether this strategy works remains to be seen; repetitively, Robinson’s narcissism has prevented him from committing to a wider political project.
Generation Identity had a national mobilisation, but the group seem stuck in a bit of a dead end. They remain active and scored big with an opportunity to air their views uncontested on an episode of Newnight after the Christchurch shootings. However, a year on from their disastrous conference in Sevenoaks, they could only bring 20 or so activists and supporters to the rally. While some key figures remain, there has clearly been a high turnover in the membership. It remains to be seen whether they can find their footing and antifascists should continue to monitor them.
London Antifascist Assembly were active during the day, stickering the area the evening before and staging a banner drop proclaiming London an antifascist city. Stand Up to Racism also organised a small demonstration. Though initially attacked near Richmond Terrace by some of the hardcore of the DFLA, police stepped in and allowed them to stage a rally on Whitehall.
The day ended in disappointment and chaos for various factions and activists on the far right. When the duelling rallies ended, most leave activists – including Ukippers – dispersed, leaving the DFLA and other fascist groups isolated on Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. Later in the evening Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism and several other groups of independent antifascists stood up to the remnants of the DFLA, who promptly backed down.
Tommy Robinson was attacked by a group of around 10 rival right wingers with at least as many defending him, including his bodyguards. He looked genuinely scared and was hustled out of the area quickly. All the while, a clueless group of nearly 150 chanted ‘oh tommy tommy’ from the far side of the street. It’s unclear who the culprits behind the attack on Robinson were; observers suggested it likely involved activists connected to the Reality Report, a conspiracist far right youtube channel, angered by an attack upon and the subsequent arrest of their leader earlier in the day.
This was not the triumphant coming together of the right, far right, and fascism that some clearly wanted it to be. But antifascists should not be complacent. Brexit is likely to continue to be an ongoing crisis for the ruling class and there will be many more opportunities for coalition building and growth. Antifascists need to come together in a coherent response to any future demonstrations, and should look to the mobilisations of last year to build effective counter demonstrations.