Don’t invent a bogeyman – there’s one on the doorstep.
Posted on March 4, 2019
A working class hero is something to be. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who calls himself Tommy Robinson, certainly considers himself to be one. Those who back him financially – in a whole host of ways – either consider him to be one or are, patiently and strategically, content to perpetuate the notion. One thing’s for sure: he’s making more of an impact than many of his predecessors from the inglorious history of British fascism.
That history is littered with a mixture of dangerous buffoonery, comical self-delusion and hapless inefficiency. In the 1930s, posh-boy Oswald Mosley strutted his stuff in Nazi-type regalia, revelling in the approval of large portions of the British ruling class and, guess what, the backing of the Daily Mail: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ it thundered on its front page.
In the 1970s, Martin Webster and John Tyndall did a bumbling double-act which guided the National Front from a movement with significant working-class support to its current status of a rump of nasty street-fighters. Some years later, Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time to exhibit ineptitude of side-splitting proportions which then set in train the financial and electoral collapse of the British National Party.
And then along comes Nigel Farage, gurning and preening in front of a poster depicting people in desperate straits and somehow, somehow, preserving the myth that a privately educated commodity trader is a ‘man of the people’. As UKIP lurches to the right, courting Yaxley-Lennon as an ‘adviser’ as it does so, Farage has taken temporary flight in order to spread bile in different ways for different paymasters.
Two things stand out from this potted history. First, all of these manifestations of British fascism were defeated through mass, organised action led by the left and supported by a broad church (often literally) of supporters from a range of political opinions and other organisations. Fascism was called out on the street as its meetings and rallies were systematically blocked and disrupted. Its organisers were left in no doubt that they were not speaking for the mass of people. When they stood for political office, campaigns ensured that they were identified for what they were. What was more, they knew they were not going to deter protest against them by physically intimidating people.
The second thing to note is that the leadership of British fascist organisations has been the preserve of white men of a certain age and background. If the nightmare of your golf-club, racist uncle holding high office ever became flesh, this is what it would look like. And – and I’m sure you’re ahead of me here – if you consider that impossible, just look across the ocean.
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon doesn’t fit the profile. He’s smart, sharp, quick on the uptake and eager to learn. He can perform in front of camera and microphone and is slickly media savvy. He’s not short of advice and coaching from a range of seasoned, international right-wingers and he’s certainly not short of money. Although he still lets the mask slip from time to time, he has developed a careful discourse of anti-extremism and knows the language of equality and anti-discrimination. The flags of Israel and the LGBT community frequently appear at his rallies.
All too often, those who try to ‘expose’ him play into his hands. When Paxman looks down his nose on Newsnight, it confirms what Yaxley-Lennon and his supporters already know; these privileged people hate us. This becomes proof positive when Panorama journalists behave imprudently and carelessly around him. When indignant stories emerge of his large house, subsidised holidays and carefully flaunted Rolex watches, many supporters shrug it off as being the acceptable perks of celebrity and fame – even though their crowdfunding may have made it all possible.
All of which is by way of saying to the opponents of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – and I have been one for a long time – that attempts to catch him out as being a very naughty boy are fine up to a point, but there is no substitute for taking on the racism which he promotes. Boil it down however you wish, these repellent ideas inform every action and utterance from him and those who subsidise him. The message that he, his supporters and his entourage are not welcome must ring out from every town centre where they attempt to congregate. No other worthwhile options are available.
When Farage exited the UKIP stage, there ensued a riotous procession of pantomime villains flapping about trying to become leader, all finding a more hilarious way of embarrassing themselves and their party than the last. The latest incumbent, Gerard Batten, could have been a comic invention, were it not for the fact that we’re now way beyond any form of giggling. His outlandish comments about Islam and his determination to bring Yaxley-Lennon into the fold mark a clear swerve to the right of a party that started off there anyway.
All of which brings us with an almost weary, inevitable gravitational pull back to the fight against racism in all its forms. Yaxley-Lennon and Batten, even with their influential backers, will join the grubby ranks of defeated and discredited British fascism – just so long as we on the left continue to campaign and organise as we have always done. What would be good, though, is if we weren’t looking over our shoulder at those who have somehow managed to imagine an enemy when there’s a real one staring us in the face.