Marching, or "Creeping Fascism"?
FOUR DAYS IN SEPTEMBER
ON Saturday, September 7, the right-wing English Defence League was prevented from marching into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and its leader Tommy Robinson, or Stephen Yaxley Lennon to use his proper name, arrested for incitement. Permitted to march by Tory Home Secretary Theresa May, the EDL's flag-waving army of Islamophobic bigots and boozy brawlers had apparently been promised a rally in Altab Ali park, by Aldgate East, and the prospect of chanting their provocative insulting slogans by the East London Mosque, then marching into Cable Street, symbolically avenging the humiliating battle, when police gave up trying to force a way through hostile crowds for Mosley's fascists, on October 4, 1936.
This time the police did not try to force a way through. Allowed to march from Southwark over Tower Bridge, the EDL were allowed no further than Aldgate, allowed a half hour rally then sent home.
There was a rally in Altab Ali park, but it was much bigger, and composed of anti-fascists, local people mobilised by United East End, and Unite Against Fascism. Speakers ranged from Muslim youth to 98-year old Max Levitas, a veteran of the battle of Cable Street, and included trade unionists, a local vicar, the Labour member of the Greater London Assembly, and Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets. Reminding the crowd that Altab Ali, after whom the park had been renamed, was a young Bengali clothing worker murdered by racists, Dave Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists' Group said allowing the EDL to gather there would be "like dancing on his grave".
Several speakers linked the fight against prejudice and fascism with the need to unite working people against the Con-Dem coalition's austerity cuts and bedroom tax, and for housing and health, while Steve Hedley of the RMT went further, calling for an alternative to Labour, a real workers' party.
Later in the day the crowd surged out to occupy Whitechapel Road and make sure there would be "no pasaran" for fascists. Only after we had heard the EDL had been sent back over Tower Bridge and away from the East End did we turn and march the short distance past East London mosque before ourselves dispersing. "Whose streets? Our streets!" people chanted in triumph.
Well, unfortunately that was not quite true. Earlier that afternoon a section of the crowd, mainly young people, had left the rally in Altab Ali park and, with black-clad anarchists and supporters of the Anti-fascist Network to the fore, marched off eastward with the aim of wheeling around to evade the police and confront the EDL directly. With 3,000 police on duty and helicopters monitoring the streets from overhead, they were blocked, and kettled for several hours. Almost 300 arrests were made, mostly under the Public Order Act, and those arrested, who included legal observers, were taken to police stations some miles away.
Whose streets? The Metropolitan Police had no intention of letting us get away with any illusions on that score.
It was after the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 that parliament passed the first Public Order Act. Though it forbade setting up forces and wearing political uniforms, its main thrust was giving police powers to control marches and public assemblies. The first victims, in 1937, were striking Nottinghamshire miners, who were certainly not fascists, though some of the coal owners were.
In the early 1960s, following a revival of activity by the Mosleyites and other fascists, and clashes with their opponents, petitions to the Home Office to do something were followed by a strengthening of the Act, and it was used to arrest trades unionists again, supporters of Lambeth trades council who were demonstrating against a colour bar operated by a pub in Brixton.
The 1986 Public Order Act strengthens police powers, making it an offence to organise a demonstration without giving police at least six days notice, ennabling police chiefs to ask the Home Office to ban any public procession for three months, and allowing police to set conditions on any public assembly if they think it might lead to "serious disorder", criminal damage, or "serious disruption to the life of the community". It seems most of those arrested on September 7 were charged under sections 12 and 14 of this Act, simply for being there. Some are getting used to it.
The discretion given the police to decide what constitutes "serious disorder" is striking.
In 2005 the Labour government inserted a clause restricting demonstrations near parliament into Serious Organised Crime Bill, and the first person charged under this was peace campaigner Maya Evans, whose only offence was standing near the Cenotaph reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. The following year half a dozen protesters were charged for demonstrating against the Israeli raid on Jericho prison, which took place with what looked suspiciously like British collusion, because they had not given police sufficient notice when requesting permission. As Betty Hunter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign objected, "We did not have 24 hours notice of the Israeli army's attack on the prison".
This reminds me of the way workers who walked out on strike over an immediate issue, safety or even a death on site, say, could be told they were in breach of anti-union law, for not giving notice of a ballot first, by which time, even without employers' lawsuits the issue and the job could be long gone. Police come into industrial relations when unleashed on pickets, as we well recall from the miners and Wapping disputes. On the other hand, they sometimes seemed uncertain what to do when taken by surprise by novel tactics during the electricians' struggle. With all their powers, they may be wary of acting without explicit encouragement from above.
A few days after the September 7 arrests, MPs debated a bill which would not only restrict the right to protest, but to engage in any kind of campaigning. The government's Lobbying Bill comes after years of public concern, not to say contempt, for politicians who front private interests, and lobbyists who sell access to them; but these, together with press barons who want to influence policies but avoid taxation for them, are the last people to be threatened by this Bill.
On the other hand, if your union, instead of handing money over to the Labour Party, spends some of it paying for advertisements and campaign posters on matters of concern during the period leading to an election, it could be in trouble under these restrictions.
A top medic has warned that doctors could be gagged from raising concerns about privatisation of the NHS. The Bill's proposed cap on spending “for election purposes” could stop them speaking out about the impact on patient safety of private companies running NHS services, British Medical Association chairman Dr Mark Porter has warned. “We don’t want to be muzzled or subject to spending caps just because the Government doesn’t like to hear anyone but themselves talking.”
Dr Porter told the Daily Mirror : “The test will change from ‘do you intend to cause people to vote for one party or another’ to ‘could what you say have the effect of causing people to vote for one party or another’. Dr Porter added: “Privatisation of the NHS is a key issue which is bound to be an election topic. Doctors have a right to say what they think about how the NHS is run for patients. ”
The Lobbying Bill — or, to give it its full name, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill - is so slanted away from touching business interests and towards restricting others that opposition has come from well beyond the 'usual suspects'
Some are saying it is an "assault on democracy itself"
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has written to Parliament with the backing of charities including Shelter, the Royal British Legion, the British Heart Foundation and Guide Dogs.
Karl Wilding, the NCVO’s policy director, explains: “At the moment you have to intend to influence an election to be in trouble. "But the wording is being changed to ‘if you have the effect’ of influencing an election.What is really dangerous about this is that you may not intend to influence the outcome of a local election — yet the punishment is you could go to prison. We think this legislation will make people frightened of speaking out.”
The Government has said campaigning by charities or voluntary sector organisations should not be caught by the legislation. But Mr Wilding says: “The amount you have to spend to get captured on this is too low.
"If you spend £5,000 or more in trying to raise awareness about your issue, you will now have to register with the Electoral Commission as a third party. All you need to do is hold a meeting in the village hall, feed everyone and give them all a drink a couple of times a year, spend £5,000 — it soon mounts — and not register with the commission and you could go to prison.
“I am convinced this will deter people from campaigning about things they think are important in their area, whether it be about greenbelt, jobs for young people or beer. This is not the kind of legislation I expect in a country like Britain which has a proud tradition of people being allowed to speak out.”
The anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate fears the bill would slash the amount it can spend on campaigning in the run-up to the election by up to 70 per cent — while the British National Party would still be allowed huge spending.
Hope Not Hate co-ordinator Nick Lowles says: “This is one of the biggest attacks on charities and campaign groups for many years. It is basically an attempt by government to silence groups that might criticise them."
On September 11, as MPs finished debating the Bill, Chileans and their friends were outside their country's London embassy, as at many other locations, remembering the military coup forty years ago which ended democracy in Chile and brought death and suffering to so many of their people. Tanks on the streets, 'planes strafing the presidential palace, trade unionists rounded up in the football stadium, students "disappeared" for torture or death, was the price Chileans paid for touching big business, especially US big business, and trying to gain something like a welfare state. Right-wing dictatorship was the way that capitalism and the CIA imposed the kind of policies we came to know as Thatcherism, monetarism, and the Con Dem austerity measures we face. And we should not forget that among our rulers there was not only admiration and sympathy for General Pinochet, but willingness to consider if necessary imposing his kind of regime here.
Of course, bourgeois democracy, however repressive, is very different from fascism, and we should not make the stupid mistake that some have made in the past, of devaluing the f word by throwing it around so much it becomes a joke, and we at very least are crying wolf. All the same, we should not make the mistake either of complacently thinking the different forms of capitalist rule are absolute opposites, ignoring the real erosion and attacks on our rights, or imagining fascism can only come wearing sinister uniform and a silly moustache, or even stagger in drunkenly draped in an England flag.
In the 1930s, while Hitler and Mussolini were crushing opponents and preparing for war, and Sir Oswald Mosley practicing his salute, not all his admirers wore blackshirts. But as Sir Thomas More, Tory MP for Ayr Burghs, enthused in the Daily Mail (where else!) after coming from a meeting of Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the Albert Hall:
“ What is there in a black shirt which gives apparent dignity and intelligence to its wearer. . . . All seemingly filled with the same emotions, pride of race, love of country, loyalty, hope. ... As I listened to the vibrant tones of Sir Oswald Mosley ... I got my answer. There was little if any of the policy which could not be accepted by the most loyal follower of our present Conservative leaders. The majority of the essentials and many of the details are part and parcel of strict Tory doctrines. ... In truth much of this national Blackshirt policy has already been initiated by the National Government. Why, therefore, the Blackshirts? The answer lies in the one word—Action ! . .
(The Blackshirts Have What the Conservatives Need, Daily Mail, April 25, 1934).
Of course, More was just one MP, if not alone, belonging to a pro-Nazi wing of the Establishment. But even Winston Churchill seven years before had told Mussolini "Had I been an Italian I would have been with you from the start...You have shown the way in defeating the bestial appetites of Bolshevism".
Walter Eliot, (Conservative M.P. for Kelvingrove) advised a different approach:
“ If one wants to do a new thing in this country, one must do it as if it were an old thing. For that reason it seems to me to be courting failure to tell people that they have first to dress themselves in black shirts and throw their opponents downstairs in order to get to the corporative state. . . . This new economic order, i.e., the corporative state has already developed further in England than is generally recognised.”
That was then, and now is now, and a lot of things including a world war happened between. A lot of people came back saying "Never again", and they meant they would not tolerate either fascism or the conditions that led to it. But Europe is in crisis, and we see fascism rearing its ugly head again in more than one country, and its thuggery already claiming victims without waiting for power.
In Britain, while we oppose the far Right groups and racists that seek to exploit confusion and intimidate people, let us not lose sight of other threats. We have already got the worst anti-union laws in Europe, being followed by restrictions on our political rights, and trespass which was never a criminal offence rendered so by new laws on squatting. We have young people being forced to work without pay, and disabled people and long-term ill being forced into desperate poverty so that many are dying or committing suicide. Perhaps if Walter Eliot MP were here now he could say "it is courting failure, and unnecessary expense, to think you must put the unfit on special trains and send them to camps with the motto 'Work Makes Free' just to get rid of them."
We don't want to over-dramatise or exaggerate. But just as in Russia the enactment of Section 28-type laws has encouraged barbaric attacks by fascists upon gays, so in this country government treatment of the disabled and the homeless has apparently spurred on lumpen thugs to violence against the most vulnerable targets, as a change from racial attacks. Fascism is always eager to find new victims.
It cannot help to rouse opposition to fascism if people are numbed by seeming indifference to what they are already suffering. Let us not forget either, that when right-wing dictators and fascists come into power, they are only too happy to use precedents and powers that already exist, rather than having to introduce entirely new measures. Therefore, whether or not we like the term "creeping fascism" to describe what's being done, we should be opposing it.
The quotes from Sir Thomas More and Walter Eliot are from Simon Haxey's book 'Tory MP' (Gollancz, 1939), the quote from Winston Churchill can be found in 'The Trial of Mussolini', by Cassius (Gollancz,1943).