On Monday, less than a week after Boris Johnson repeated the fascist libel that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for failing to prosecute the paedophile rapist Jimmy Savile, anti-vaxxers surrounded Starmer in the street, shouting “paedophile” and “traitor” and threatening violence.
One video of the event, posted on the Telegram channel of the far-right leader Tommy Robinson, shows a man chanting at Starmer: “You dirty paedophile. Child abuser. Where’s Jimmy Savile?” The perpetrator is close enough to the Labour leader that you can see how shocked he is.
This is the third iteration of a phenomenon Johnson introduced to British politics: a far-right mob, inspired by words he’s said, harassing politicians in the streets around Westminster.
The first iteration came during the prorogation crisis of 2019, when far-right demonstrators chanting Johnson’s name repeatedly attacked and abused Labour politicians who were campaigning for a second Brexit referendum, clashing with police over several days. The second came during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests when, again responding to words from Johnson and other conservatives, the elderly boneheads of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance descended on Parliament Square to “protect” Winston Churchill’s statue, violently attacking not just BLM protesters but the police.
I was at both of these events and, on both occasions, heard Johnson’s name chanted by people who physically intimidated me. The existence of a small, semi-permanent fascist mob around Westminster is one of the innovations history will associate with the Johnson era. So is the total failure of the Metropolitan Police to deal with it. The police force that charged into a crowd of black teenagers on horseback, and which floored women mourning the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021, cannot seem to bring itself to arrest people engaged — live, proud and on camera — in threatening words and behaviour against left-wing politicians.
When he threw the Jimmy Savile slander onto the floor of the House last Wednesday, Johnson was making a calculated move. The calculation was not that public opinion would suddenly turn against Starmer. It was that controversy over the libel would push Johnson’s own alleged lawbreaking out of the headlines.
For that tactic to work, there always has to be a mob. The anti-vax crowd currently roaming London is a diverse bunch. Some are just genuinely and performatively ignorant about science. Others believe in a complex set of conspiracy theories, for example that Covid-19 is caused by 5G mobile phone antennae.
But at its core is the far right. Across the world — as evidenced by the current occupation of Canada’s capital by the “Freedom Convoy” — the far right has seized on the instincts of conservative-minded libertarians during the pandemic. Robinson’s Telegram channel for example, with 155,000 subscribers, is so swamped with anti-lockdown memes that you have to look hard to find familiar racism against black people.
The libel against Starmer is a purposive fabrication. It was propagated on a far-right Facebook page, amplified by the far-right website Politicalite and it has been circulating in far-right channels ever since. It forms part of an ecosystem of conspiracies in the far-right mind, linking Starmer as the former director of public prosecutions to grooming gangs and encompassing the QAnon theory that the liberal elite is engaged in systematic child abuse. All of it, of course, is derived from the original far-right blood libel against Jews, and all of it leads to fantasies about violence.
In replies to the video on Robinson’s Telegram channel, one anonymous user comments: “This should be done to every Labour MP. Rotherham, Telford, Newcastle, Leeds, Rochdale… a nationwide rape culture was instigated by the Labour Party.”
No responsible politician would vocalise the prejudices that are swirling in the far-right subculture, because there are thousands of people — possibly hundreds of thousands of people — discussing this stuff in the dark corners of small-town pubs, just waiting to be summoned into the kind of action the mob took against Starmer.
Hannah Arendt once described fascism as the “temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”. Well, that’s what the Prime Minister has created. The question is not whether Johnson can bring himself to stop repeating fascist smears. It is why anyone who calls themselves a Conservative can live with what he’s done to British politics.