During my many years as a journalist I have covered countless protest movements. I witnessed the first stirrings of Iran’s Green Revolution after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s theft of the 2009 presidential election. In 2011 I stood in Tahrir Square in Cairo with tens of thousands of young Egyptians bent on deposing their dictatorial president, Hosni Mubarak. That same year I joined hordes of Libyans as they stormed Bab al-Azizia, Colonel Gaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold. I was in Syria as the popular uprising against the Assad regime gathered pace in 2013.
I know a legitimate protest movement when I see one, and Black Lives Matter certainly qualifies, though it is a shame that a tiny minority played into the hands of its critics by defacing the Cenotaph and Winston Churchill’s statue.
By contrast, those overwhelmingly white, mostly male, shaven-headed, heavily tattooed, bare-chested, big-bellied, beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed, hate-fuelled thugs who gathered in Parliament Square on Saturday afternoon, ostensibly to protect those monuments, emphatically do not qualify. They were a mob – not just a few of them but all of them.
I was there, observing. I watched in disgust as they taunted the police – hurling bottles and beer cans at them, taking close-up videos of their faces, and berating them for their prudent light-touch policing of the previous weekend’s BLM protests. “You’re a fucking embarrassment,” they screamed. “You’re a shower of fucking wankers.” “Treasonous cunts.” “You’re bottle jobs, all of you, letting them do what they want to our statues.”
I watched in disgust as they sought to portray themselves as patriots – wrapping themselves in Union Jacks and St George’s flags, singing “Rule Britannia” and the national anthem, and chanting “In-ger-land, In-ger-land” even as they subverted the traditional British values of tolerance, inclusivity, compassion and moderation. Some wore military berets, England football jerseys or “Help for Heroes” T-shirts.
They chanted “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy Robinson”. They chanted “No surrender”. They chanted “Winston Churchill is one of our own” when, in truth, the man who did so much to defeat the fascism of Nazi Germany would have been appalled by the neo-fascists purportedly protecting his statue.
As I watched those disgraceful scenes unfold, I remembered the warning that Craig Oliver, then Downing Street’s director of communications, gave David Cameron shortly before the prime minister announced the Brexit referendum of 2016: “You may unleash demons of which ye know not.”
And so it has proved. All that has happened since Cameron called that referendum has encouraged, emboldened and given licence to the mob that desecrated the heart of British democracy on Saturday.
There was the cheap nationalism, the nasty jingoism, the cynical populism, the dog-whistle xenophobia and the deliberate inflammation of fears and prejudices of the Leave campaign – one that fostered the ugly divisions that led to the murder of Jo Cox and the surge in racist attacks.
There was the Brexiteers’ subsequent disparagement of Remainers as wreckers, plotters, foes of democracy, citizens of nowhere and metropolitan elitists. Their tame newspapers ran front-page stories denouncing rebel Tory MPs as “mutineers”, and judges who delivered adverse rulings as “enemies of the people”. Andrea Leadsom, then leader of the House of Commons, demanded broadcasters should be more “patriotic”.
Later, after Boris Johnson became prime minister, there was the shocking harassment of Remainer MPs – particularly women. They received death threats and required police protection. Their offices were attacked. Anna Soubry and others were abused and harassed right outside parliament. When opposition MPs told Johnson he was inciting hatred and violence by accusing his opponents of “betrayal” and “surrender” he replied: “Humbug”.
Johnson likes to invoke “the will of the people”, but he is now enslaved by it. He dare not upset his party’s new base. Hence his failure to utter a word of criticism against Donald Trump’s disgraceful response to George Floyd’s killing. Hence his carefully calibrated Twitter thread after the UK’s initial BLM protests, in which he condemned racism but simultaneously asserted that those protests had been “hijacked by extremists intent on violence”.
Hence his thread following Saturday’s disgraceful scenes in which he rightly asserted that “racist thuggery has no place on our streets”, but went on to equate the BLM movement with the thugs of Parliament Square by saying: “These marches and protests have been subverted by violence.” For the record, the BLM cancelled its planned protest in London on Saturday to avoid the possibility of violence, and its protests elsewhere in the country were almost entirely peaceful. There is no equivalence.
Johnson has now announced yet another commission on racial inequality – a cynical ploy to grab headlines and change the narrative. If it was a serious move he would have announced it in parliament, not in a column in his old mouthpiece, the Daily Telegraph, the very same paper in which he used to write about “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.
What we saw on Saturday was a new front in the vicious culture war unleashed by Brexit. This is not a war between left and right, but between right and wrong, decency and indecency, justice and injustice, tolerance and intolerance, harmony and division, the Britain of the 2012 Olympics or the Britain of hooliganism. Sadly, our government is on the wrong side of that divide.