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Anti-fascism now

As the UK far right evolves and wields new power, antifascists must adapt their tactics to defeat it, writes David Renton

7 to 9 minute read

A montage of UK far-right figures including Suella Braverman, Nigel Farage, Nick Griffith, Boris Johnson and masked protesters with St George's Flag and pig masks

To understand the challenges faced by anti-fascists today it is worth starting at some distance in the past – not because we still face the same challenges, but because we don’t. The best-remembered far-right party in Britain in recent times was the National Front. Formed in 1967, it was at its peak in 1976-77. John Tyndall, its leader, had been in a neo-Nazi combat cell in the early 1960s, and several NF leaders, including Martin Webster and John Bean, had gone through the same paramilitary groups as him. When they were interviewed in the press, Front leaders would supply quotations that were little more than a half-remembered passage from Mein Kampf.

That isn’t the enemy we face today; our challenge is a right that has moved past fascism.

For 50 years, the far right has been trying to shed its neo-Nazi image. As long ago as 1973, a Front faction fight pitched ‘populists’ – those willing to subordinate the Front’s street thugs –against a nostalgic old guard. What they were debating was how to get the National Front beyond the 15 per cent of the vote that seemed to be the far right’s limit.

The post-fascist far right

To breach that ceiling, the far right needed to change. Over the following years, the right came up with two solutions. Either existing parties of fascists would moderate, or new parties needed to be launched without the taint of fascism.

In the 2000s, both the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the British National Party (BNP) had councillors elected, even MEPs. Anti-fascists were able to confront the BNP, embarrass the TV stations which gave them a platform, and compel the BBC to put pressure on BNP leader Nick Griffin. But when anti-fascists applied the same tactics to UKIP they didn’t work. Under hostile questioning, Griffin sounded like an extremist. By contrast, Nigel Farage was on Question Time every week.

By the early 2010s, the fastest-growing force on the far right was the English Defence League (EDL). Its members didn’t quote Hitler. They sang songs about WWII pilots shooting down German bombers.

The old fascist right and the new non-fascist far right differ over the extent to which they call for a revolution against democracy. But that doesn’t mean they disagree about everything. At other points, these two groups feel much closer. In the past six months, there have been around 50 anti-immigrant street demonstrations in Britain, several of them targeting proposed refugee housing in Llanelli, Lincolnshire and elsewhere. Fascist groups such as the National Support Detachment have tried to take over xenophobic protest camps.

The way the centre right in Britain has responded to the global economic slowdown has helped the far right. The centre right watched the election of Donald Trump and understood he was unleashing an energy they lacked. The likes of Boris Johnson and Suella Braverman have tried to copy him by flattering their own extremists, treating them as a bridge to a wider group of dissatisfied voters. These dynamics have boosted the far right by making their arguments seem credible – little different from the opinions in the Mail or Telegraph.

The centre left has taken the opposite approach, gatekeeping ever more determinedly against populists, denouncing people without explaining why they exclude them. In so doing, they have helped to grow a broader anti-politics milieu, which sees both Sunak and Starmer as enemies. In that audience, angry and politically homeless, the far right has made recruits.

Resisting the new far right

Anti-fascists have responded to the changing threat. On our more mainstream wing, the anti-fascist website Hope not Hate has built up a great deal of institutional knowledge to be used in challenging the threat posed by the electoral far right. In the campaign to defeat the BNP in Barking and Dagenham in 2010, Hope not Hate distributed 355,000 newspapers, leaflets and letters across that borough in three months. More recently the group placed moles within the neo-Nazi group, National Action, helping to foil their plans to murder Labour MP Rosie Cooper. Its infiltration of National Action was dramatised in ITV’s The Walk-In.

The TUC-sponsored Stand up to Racism has led demonstrations in support of refugee housing, providing an anti-racist infrastructure that is lacking in small towns, though it has an unwelcome reputation for muscling in and taking over local campaigns.

Several cities have vibrant local anti-fascist cultures and infrastructure, including the Cowley Club in Brighton and the Merseyside Anti-Fascist Network.

Activist anti-fascists have set up their own intelligence-gathering organisation Red Flare, independent of Hope not Hate and that campaign’s parent, Searchlight magazine. There is also the lively 12 Rules for What podcast, which puts out monthly shows exploring the latest developments in far-right organising and anti-fascist resistance.

Much of what I have described so far is the sort of campaigning that worked best when its opponents were fascists or a street movement capable of evolving in the direction of fascism. What, though, of the new, more nebulous, far right – how have people resisted it?

The struggles ahead

In autumn 2018 in London, there was a serious attempt to change the way in which activists responded to the latest iteration of the street far right, the so-called Democratic Football Lads Alliance. That campaign tried to pose as a genuine, grassroots movements against sexual violence, albeit with a racist twist – the Football Lads insisted that white men were incapable of such violence, blaming all of it on supposed Muslim predators.

For a time, the groups organising the liveliest anti-fascist protests agreed to change tack in response, inviting a feminist campaign, the Women’s Strike Assembly, to take the lead. Over the summer, the far right had occupied Trafalgar Square, while trade union-sponsored ‘official’ anti-fascist campaigns held token protests at some distance from them.

Under the leadership of Women’s Strike Assembly, the various tribes of London’s left changed tactics, and confronted the DFLA, and were able to block their entrance to their intended assembly, while all the while playing 1970s disco (‘I will survive’), raising hell and setting off flares. When the far right chanted ‘Eng-ger-land’, anti-fascists replied with the Spanish civil war chant, ‘No Pasarán’.

So much of far-right organising at that time involved a generation of beery, middle-aged men posing as the defenders of women and children (as if that was a single category of people) – they couldn’t cope with a crowd of 1,500 opponents with women at the front.

Since 2020, a series of small towns in Britain, including Hebden Bridge, Totnes and Stroud, have seen local community organisations spring up against a particular kind of ‘cosmic right’. All three towns were bases of the anti-lockdown movement during Covid.

The likes of Boris Johnson and Suella Braverman have boosted the far right by making their arguments seem credible

Early in the lockdown, a newspaper The Light began appealing to that milieu. The Light combined criticism of the lockdown with conspiracy theories, articles claiming 9/11 was a put-up job, blaming the docility of the public on the fluoridisation of our water, blaming all the evils of the world on ‘globalists’, denying global warming and promoting such far-right figures as ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson, Italy’s post-fascist leader Giorgia Meloni and Hungary’s autocratic ruler, Viktor Orbán.

The anti-Light coalitions are of interest since the right they have to confront is not fascist: the paper limits its role to critique, keeps silent as to its intended future and its rhetorical violence has not been matched by physical attacks on its enemies.

Also distinctive about this sort of campaigning is its small-town setting. People on both sides of the conflict know each other’s addresses, their political history. Anti-fascists remember supporters of the far-right papers when they were vocal environmentalists. Among the most robust anti[1]fascists are people whose family members have been blinded by The Light.

As a historian, I have interviewed anti-fascists from previous generations of campaigning. I’ve listened as anti-fascists from the 1940s told me that if Mosley had shown up in their city, they would have beaten him. For today’s generations of anti-fascists, facing an opponent that is more ideologically diffuse and closer to the mainstream, a similar approach to the 1940s would be wrong in principle and counter-productive.

This year, several protests have taken place at the Honor Oak pub in south London, pitching on one side of the road Turning Point UK, an astroturf offshoot of a group funded by US billionaires to make sure they never have to pay taxes, and a small number of right-wing nano-celebrities: Laurence Fox, Calvin Robinson, etc. They have been objecting to the pub putting on storytelling sessions, in which drag queens tell stories to children in a tiny one-room theatre. On the other side of the road, has been a mobilisation of LGBT people and allies.

What people are fighting is a battle of ideas, in which the task of anti-fascists is to explain, over and over again, why conspiracy theories are wrong, why Tommy Robinson and his followers aren’t going to save anyone, and to point out the toxic misanthropy on which the likes of Andrew Tate and Laurence Fox thrive.

We aren’t seeing victories on the scale of such historic anti-fascist moments as the battles of Cable Street or Lewisham. But when anti-fascists do our politics well, when we develop tactics to counter the changing nature of our enemy, we can make life uncomfortable for our opponents and pave the way for their defeat.

This article first appeared in Issue #242 Fighting Fascism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

David Renton is a barrister and researcher into the far right

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