english defence league march on parliament

by Amanda Latimer

On March 6th, the fascists marched on Parliament.  More disturbing than their actual presence or message, however, was the fact that someone let them in the front door.

The English Defence League’s (EDL) march on Parliament was called with three days’ notice to welcome the visit of the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to the House of Lords.  Somewhere between the “free speech” placards carried by the 200 or so EDL supporters, the predictable mire of nationalist and fascist salutes and equally predictable targets of their racism, was a feeling that, as one anti-fascist demonstrator put it, “This shouldn’t be happening.”  The march flew in the face of a long-standing rule that no one can march on Parliament whilst it is in session; a rule that was not simply broken by the EDL, but accommodated by the State.  What kind of message does it send when a far-right group is not only given permission for such an extraordinary action, but when their right to “deliver their message” is accompanied by a police presence in the hundreds, also convened over three short days?

It conveys several, actually.  First, that the police are more than willing to crack down on anti-fascist mobilisations to preserve the “democratic expression” of groups like the EDL.  Of the 50 or so arrests that day, most were made against anti-fascist demonstrators as they were assembling in a nearby park, while dozens of others were loaded onto buses, taken to the proverbial “edge of town” and told to go home.  It’s hard not to conclude that the police were clearing the way for the fascists to deliver their hate-filled message to Parliament in peace.

Secondly, in the run-up to the elections, the Labour Party and its ideologues have declared open season on immigrant workers, regardless of their status or degree of “belonging” to Britain.  Gordon Brown’s 2007 opportunistic call for “British jobs for British workers” will likely figure prominently in Labour’s approach to the crisis at election time, insofar as the consensus amongst even mainstream economists is that the real recession is only beginning.

Less than a week previous to the EDL march, Polly Toynbee published a Labour mea culpa in the Guardian (see ‘Our borders are porous’, 27th February) in which she admitted that the Labour Party’s unwillingness to deal seriously with immigration has left England “vulnerable” to an onslaught of low-skilled foreign workers (of various hues) for over a decade.  This is in stark contrast to the reality of thousands of precarious immigrant and native workers in England who are having the brunt of the crisis dumped on their shoulders.  While banks saw record profits and bonuses last year, thousands were losing work and thousands more losing ground in the fight for fair compensation and the very right to unionise.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s government did nothing to address the core causes of the crisis.  The banks were rewarded instead and now, in light of the May election, are on the offensive to ensure that no incumbent government revisits the option of introducing real changes to the way the county regulates financial and investment flows in this country.

Nonetheless, the Toynbee piece, placing the blame for the crisis on the backs of immigrants, garnered over 500 responses on the Guardian website overnight (the tally is now in the mid-700s), shockingly, most in enthusiastic agreement.

On the one hand, it was significant that the Westminster “invite” to the fascists was handed down from the elite House of Lords rather than the Commons where, for the time being, they have no representation.  On the other, it was disgraceful that only one member from the lower house (Jeremy Corbyn) joined protesters on the street or, indeed, fought to maintain the ban on Wilders’ visit to Parliament on the house floor.  That silence can only be interpreted as the major parties’ use of the mantle of liberal democracy to forward an ultimately racist and anti-working class agenda.

In doing so (third message), Labour and its sister parties to the right have issued a strong declaration, not simply that there is no answer to the current economic crisis, but that there will be no answer to the crisis beyond the status quo.  But they will have us at each others’ throats. It’s time to pull the mask off the EDL and the BNP and reveal who is really benefiting from their message.

And what was our message?  Protesters assembled under the Unite Against Fascism banner declared just that – unity across communities and across the working class.  And kudos to the organizers on their ability to get 300 protesters on the street on short order.  But 300 protesters (or the 150 that were left after the police broke up the contingent) are far too few to say “Never again!”

As Polly has rightly noticed, England is not the same place it was the last time the right played the race card to scuttle working class unity.  It is now home to second, third and onward communities of visible minorities, many of whom have come from countries robbed of a future by the activities of European multinationals and reckless, anti-social capital flows, and the wars fought to protect them.  It is also home to communities of workers new and old which are now under systemic and systematic attack, often with these very same multinationals, capital flows and state flag-bearers for capital leading the charge.  This should be a point of unity.

We need to take stock of what happened in the 1980s, to deal with its legacy and admit honestly where mistakes were made, and move forward.  We need to find a way to fight racism and fascism hand in hand.  Amongst other things, we need to build and support a front of young immigrant and British-born to tell the EDL, Polly Toynbee and those of their ilk that they do not ask for permission to call themselves British, and that they are willing to engage in the battle to define this country.