Show Hide image

Laurie Penny spends afternoon with the English Defence League

Tired, hot and frustrated -- they've been drinking since breakfast.

A drunk woman in a bright yellow tabard that marks her a right-wing organiser is crying on the pavement, as a yelling man is cuffed by the police inside a closed betting shop on Minories Street. Her face is red, and she is shouting incoherently at the officers.

It's unclear why her friend broke into the bookies, but on a hot Saturday afternoon, any semblance of order or purpose is disintegrating under the September sun. Behind her, a thousand tanked-up fellow members of far-right protest group the English Defence League are shoving and screaming as they try to break through the lines of police driving them away from Aldgate, where a thousand anti-fascists and local Muslim youths are waiting for them.

As marches go -- and despite the controversial police ban, this looks very much like a diverted march -- this one sends mixed messages as the crowd wrestles its way down the side-streets. Some of the EDL members are half-naked skinheads, some are wearing football shirts, and one sports a Yarmulke; even as other members at the front of the march gave Hitler salutes, according to a journalist who was embedded with the crowd.

At least one marcher is black, and there are many women, wrapped in England flags and looking curiously at the few journalists who have dared to stay with the march after a press photographer was attacked with burning lighter fluid.

By this point, the English Defence League have been on the streets of London for several hours, are tired, hot and frustrated and have been drinking since breakfast.

Almost exactly 75 years since the British Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East End at the battle of Cable Street, Oswald Mosley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren't wearing any shirts at all.

They had congregated at Liverpool Street after the RMT union obstructed their arrival by closing underground stations, and were met by thousands of police and prevented from clashing with anti-fascists by mounted officers and several lines of riot police. To prevent the EDL from marching, the Home Secretary had declared a 30-day ban on all marches in the London area, neatly curtailing several other less proto-fascist demonstrations in the process, and setting a worrying precedent for the prevention of future protests.

Given that London is a tinder-box of social tension, with nights of violence and looting and clashes between rival gangs and the police fresh in everyone's memory, the immediate concern, as is so often the case in this new state of exception, was to prevent more riots. On both sides of the police lines this Saturday, I see angry, disenfranchised social groups spoiling for a fight with people they see, with varying degrees of accuracy, as alien intruders threatening their way of life.

Two or three young Asian lads appear in the alley my friend and I have just ducked into. They are far enough away to be safe while they goggle at the EDL. As soon as the march catches sight of them, they start to jeer and holler, stabbing their fingers in unison like pikes.

The EDL claim to be opposed only to the "threat" posed to society by the Islamic faith, but there is nothing at all to identify these teenagers as Muslim, nothing at all that differentiates them from some of the teenagers in the crowd, apart from the fact that they have brown skin.

"Scum, scum, scum, scum!" yell the EDL, as the boys hang back, afraid. The street is narrow, the air still, and you can feel the force of the chant on your face. The EDL really hate these boys, and it's a wild, hopeless hate, and it's not just about religion. "You're not English, you're not English, you're not English anymore!" they chant, in an ugly parody of a football song. "YOU'RE not E-e-ngli-ish a-ny-mooooore!"

Behind some railings, Connor, a sixteen-year old white boy, is standing with his mother, applauding the EDL as they go past. "I agree with them," he says. "They're the only people speaking for us."

"You're not allowed to be British in Britain anymore," says Connor's mum, who doesn't want to give her name. I ask her what she means. At first she is hostile -- "what, don't you agree with them?" -- but when I say that I'm a journalist, she visibly relaxes, almost as if she's been waiting for someone to talk to about what's really bothering her. As if the connection was obvious, she immediately launches into a diatribe about services.

"You have to fight for everything, you're fighting to get into a doctor, you're fighting to get into schools, you're fighting to get housing. You see him?" She indicates Connor, who grins. "I had to fight to get him into high school because of all the ethnics in the area. My friend, she's got six kids, she's been on the council waiting list for fifteen years, she's been in hostels, no deposit to put down to privately rent, and the council will not house her.

"Now, it's not about religion or anything, but it's like my mum says, we grew here and they flew here, so we should be first on the list. If you're going to let all these people in" -- we both know which "people" she's talking about -- "then build more hospitals, build more schools. They're closing the schools, aren't they?"

A bottle smashes into the pavement a foot in front of us. The EDL bellow at the boys disappearing down the alley, a sing-song crowd chant that bounces eerily around the bright, deserted sidestreet."Allah is a paedo! Allah is a paedo!"

"You'll be picking up your benefits on Monday morning, won't you?" hollers one man in a blue football shirt.

Clearly, this is about more than just Sharia law, whatever the EDL's leadership claim. I catch the man's eye, and he must be able to see the horror in my face, because he laughs, loud, and points at me. He feels powerful. He is with his friends. "Whose streets?" they shout, claiming the space aggressively. "Our streets!"

"Whose streets? Our streets!" chant the anti-fascists three roads away, behind a double row of police lines and riot vans. The Unite Against Fascism rally began with music and speeches, but several hours later, hundreds of activists from Tower Hamlets and the surrounding areas -- black, white and Asian; old and young, though mostly young -- are waiting for the EDL, the mood tense and frustrated under the mad glare of the afternoon sun. Prayers have finished, and the Muslim boys from the area have turned out in large numbers to defend the Whitechapel mosque.

Every so often, there is a rush into Leman Street, or another side street, and running scuffles with the police; there are some young men here who are, one suspects, more than a little disappointed that they won't get the chance to scrap with the far-right today.

There is anger here, too. There is frustration and fear, and a willingness to protect the community at all costs. Later on, a coach carrying members of the EDL is attacked as it goes through Stepney Green, its windows smashed and placards and traffic cones hurled inside by young Asian men who do not bother to cover their faces: confident, perhaps, that the retreating proto-fascists will not be able to tell them apart anyway.

Less than a month ago, when young Muslim men came out to defend their homes, mosques and places of business against the violent despair of mostly non-white rioters from the inner cities, they were lauded as heroes. Today, when young Muslim men use the same vigilante justice to defend themselves from the violent despair of a mostly-white, racist rabble, no one knows quite where to look.

On both sides of the political spectrum, politicians and policymakers have urged us to try to understand the disenfranchisement of white, far-right groups like the EDL, rather than dismissing their protests as "mindless violence".

Rioters from the inner cities, by contrast, are sent to jail for six months for stealing bottles of water; their rage at a system which does not want to educate, house or employ them written off as "pure criminality".

Behind the mounted, armoured cops, you can see St George's flags waving, and you can hear the thump and echo of smokebombs and the chanting of hate-tourists out to scrap with members of another disenfranchised community that happens to look and pray differently. The East end is in lockdown, and there are hundreds of police everywhere. The horses are spooked, and so am I.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder