It's time I put the text of my speech to the South London Anti-Fascist Group's AGM online.
The talk nearly did not happen. Much to my surprise, Hope Not Hate objected to me speaking, describing my presence as 'intolerable'. Hope Not Hate's predecessor organisation, Searchlight, long enjoyed a monopoly over media coverage of the far-right - it is worrying if Hope Not Hate believe they have a similar monoply over analysis of fascism, or even of opposition to it?
Anyway, after the AGM's business those present had a talk by Hackney Unites on their work in east London, and performances by Dean Atta and the Ruby Kid. That gave me the most difficult slot of all - the last one. Here's what I said:
Talk To South London Anti-Fascists
I am slightly embarrassed at being described as an activist. I'm as active as anyone with 3 part time jobs, twin sons and a PhD to finish.
I was very active for best part of two decades, a member of Class War for 16 years, I was involved with Anti-Fascist Action on an occasional basis (those who remember Red Action will know Anarchists were always kept in reserve for when the numbers were short, we were the auxillary force) and a founder member of No Platform and Antifa.
If I have theme this evening it is that things are very different today to 1992 or 1993 – but in some ways they can still be rather similar.
In 1993 anti-fascists had to contend with a large, fluid group of disparate young men, ostensibly protesting about terrorism. Their numbers certainly contained organised fascists, loyalists and ex-soldiers, but also from football firms, people with little or no political background, and people looking for a scrap. Those anti-IRA demonstrations – the cries of No Surrender – were the precursors of the EDL demonstrations of today.
Those demonstrations passed. Indeed they were a distraction from doing what was necessary – reaching a mature peace in Ireland. And the EDL are a similar distraction
- The first is that they will stimulate racist attacks - either on lone Muslims on the fringes of demonstrations, or as we have seen in Luton in an attack on a mosque.
- That EDL actions will stimulate racist attacks by Muslims on whites. At the counter-demo to the EDL in Birmingham at least one white passer by was beaten up, with footage of the incident displayed across the papers.
With hindsight, there are other dangers we could perhaps add, although I have to say the idea of the EDL as an electoral force conjoined with the British Freedom Party is one that at this stage I don’t fear. Social movements tend to lose something, some of their sparkle when they try and become political parties.
3. The third danger I saw, which is by far the biggest, is that the EDL retard debate about Islam, and more importantly Islamism, in the UK. There is something different potentially about the EDL to the anti-IRA – read anti-Irish - demonstrations of the 1990s.
Lets consider where the EDL emerges – in Luton – following the Al-Mujihiroun demonstration against the Royal Anglian Regiment. Historically Luton is a town with comparatively good race relations. It has good relations between white and black, and good relations between Irish and British. It has very poor relations between Muslim and non-Muslim. Those problems long predate the EDL.
In 2009 I argued the presence of the EDL runs the risk of dividing debate into racists on one side, and professional anti-racists and Muslim representative organisations on the other, with little or no space for anyone else to operate in. Melanie Phillips on one side and the Muslim Council of Britain on the other. And that divide excludes the vast majority of people in this community, and indeed the UK.
There is a problem, for people on the left, in considering issues in those terms. Look at the hysterical reactions from some on the left when, I think it was Nick Lowles, made the comment that Al-Mujihiroun and the EDL were two sides of the same coin. It was hardly a bizarre comparison to make.
There are problems, and indeed real concerns with some of the brands of Islam we now see in the UK. In Tower Hamlets, the most important political institution is not the Labour Party, trades unions or a particular community group - it is East London Mosque. How we articulate and discuss these issues is an even bigger challenge than dealing with the EDL. They are another distraction from where we want to go, from where we want society to be.
I want to say a few things about multi-culturalism. It is something I suspect everyone in this room is comfortable with. As an Englishman of Irish descent with an African wife, I know I am. A London where we get on with our neighbours and our workmates precisely because they are our neighbours and colleagues. That gives us shared interests and things in common. A multi-culturalism where we see people as people, not as representatives of particular ethnic or religious groups, to be spoken to and interacted with on those terms.
I don’t usually see the need to articulate most of the problems of London in racial terms. That is not to say racism does not exist – it does. But there are two types of multi-culturalism. Kenan Malik’s attack on a top down multi-culturalism, where identities are imposed by authorities – read his book From Fatwa to Jihad – is I think essential reading. He sets out how in Birmingham identities were imposed, by the local authority, and funding and power allocated on that basis. And within two decades, you have blacks and Muslims fighting each other in the streets. In the 1980s they had been fighting alongside one another against the police.
Onto the contemporary far-right. As in the early 1990s, the main far right party is underachieving. The spivvy nature of Griffin’s BNP has been understood by his own supporters, taking a lot of his base away. Griffin’s sole priority is probably to get re-elected as an MEP – those who have served two terms in the European Parliament get a very significant pension. It is hard, but not impossible to see him getting the BNP back to where it was.
These are still challenging times though for anti-fascists. I would recommend to you some of the work Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University has done on far-right voting patterns and opinion poll data across Europe. In most countries the populist (read fascist) party has a rising vote – Norway and the UK being the most noticeable exceptions. It is not hard to see why the vote is collapsing in Norway – in Anders Breivik, they have seen fascism in action. In France and Austria the majority of white working class voters indicated they would vote for the ‘populist’ party.
I am not sure anything about a trend ensures its continuation. To me, a whole series of dangers exist, but one of the most dangerous is to play into the hands of fascists. If there is such a thing as ‘the black community’ or the ‘Vietnamese community’ or the ‘Muslim community’, with fixed leaders, structures and needs, can we really wet our pants in shock and distress when someone says “I represent the white community vote for me”?
Yes we need multi-culturalism. It is what I live. But we need a bottom up multi-culturalism, not a top down government approach that plays into the hands of our enemies.
No Platform, which I tried to uphold for two decades, is harder than ever to implement. Firstly because of police repression – consider the six Antifa members jailed last year, the amount of CCTV, the limitless expenses these specialist police units seem to have. Secondly look at the rise of social media and the Internet – the BNP could be prevented from leafleting, but that same leaflet placed online and seen by hundreds of people within minutes. Which makes no platform more of an occasional tactic than part of a sustainable, permanent programme.
We have to beat the fascists in argument. And we can. Our ideas are better than theirs.
Thank you for listening.