On Saturday 9 June this year I found myself, for the first time in my life, in the midst of a riot. I was a journalism masters student and had decided, based on some half-formed argument which now eludes me, that it would be a good idea to try and film the ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ rally taking place in Whitehall. I largely abandoned my original plan after one of the protesters made a grab at my camera opposite The Lord Moon of The Mall pub, but I continued to observe.
By mid-afternoon the atmosphere at the top of Whitehall, some distance from the main event outside Downing Street, had turned ugly. Robinson supporters, some clearly highly inebriated, began scuffling with, and then throwing missiles at, police officers. The situation degenerated rapidly. Police officers were pelted with bottles, placards, beer cans and traffic cones. Parts of a metal barrier constructed to contain the protesters had been broken apart, with individual bits of fencing being launched at police lines. At one point a detachment of officers was quite literally chased off Whitehall, down a side street. For an hour, perhaps more, the police essentially lost control of the intersection of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square to the mob. Those involved in the violence were a minority, perhaps 500 out of a total, according to The Guardian, of 15,000, but they certainly created an impression.
Yet it wasn’t the violence at the top of Whitehall which shocked me most about that day, but rather the rhetoric towards the bottom. The language used by some of the official speakers, preaching above a banner picturing Robinson with the caption “Exposed Muslim groomers: Became enemy of the state”, was incendiary. Many of the speakers were the sort you’d expect, representing classic far-right parties. Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has advocated banning the Koran, was cheered as he railed against “mass immigration” and “Islamisation”.
Yet perhaps the most unnerving rhetoric came from UKIP leader Gerard Batten, a party which until recently I had associated more with the tweed jacket than thundering demagoguery. Addressing his already inflamed audience Batten asserted “Islam means submission. You either submit or you resist. Are you going to submit? Are you going to resist?” The audience roared their support. It’s quite chilling, watching a crowd like that get whipped up in the flesh. Recognising just how powerful, how intoxicating, the human tribal impulse can be. A month later at the same spot, during a second ‘Free Tommy’ mass rally on 14 July, Batten was more specific. “Both our houses of Parliament are full of traitors” he exclaimed, “they must be swept away”. You don’t have to be a sociologist, or attentive student of history, to realise where such language can lead.
Since taking the reigns of UKIP in February, following Henry Bolton’s brief car-crash of a leadership, Batten has dragged UKIP steadily further to the right with an increased focus on identity issues and, above all else, Islam. He had foundations to build on. During UKIP’s 2017 leadership election second place was secured by Anne Marie-Waters, a Tommy Robinson associate who has described Islam as “evil”. But Batten certainly went further than any previous leader. He became a regular at rallies of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), a coalition of organised football supporters demanding tougher action against Islamist fundamentalism. Initially relatively moderate, and attracting significant numbers, its rallies became gradually more radical and prone to violence. The DFLA would go on to provide many of the foot soldiers for the ‘Free Tommy’ movement.
Throughout the year Batten started associating more with Robinson, appearing first on his YouTube channel and then at his rallies. When Robinson was imprisoned in May for contempt of court after livestreaming outside a grooming gang trial, a conviction which was later quashed, Batten was ready to provide support. The relationship was cemented when Batten first tried to grant Robinson UKIP membership, a route blocked thus far by his past EDL and BNP associations, and then appointed him as an unpaid advisor on “grooming gangs” and “prison conditions”.
So what does all this mean for Brexit, and indeed for Britain? Well firstly UKIP is clearly well within the radical right fold. The party’s NEC backed Batten in a confidence vote, even if it remains wary of Robinson. But everyday the party changes. Moderates, like MEP Patrick O’Fynn and Suzanne Evans, quit the party as other forces are drawn towards its flame. Robinson has repeatedly urged his 979,000 Facebook followers, a figure roughly twice that enjoyed by Theresa May, to join the party. The more do, and the more moderates leave, the further UKIP becomes intrenched in its new direction.
For sensible Brexiteers this is a tragedy. At the very moment when a hard-Brexit backing party could be tearing holes in Tory support over May’s Brexit deal UKIP is marching in a very different direction. On 9 December, two days before Parliament votes on the deal, Robinson and Batten are organising a mass pro-Brexit rally in Westminster. Left-wing and self-styled anti-fascist groups will meet them in numbers. Violence is virtually inevitable, with only the scale yet to be determined. As a depiction of Brexit supporters, and indeed Brexit Britain as a whole, just days before the crucial vote, the optics could hardly be worse. Nigel Farage, who has been fighting a thus far unsuccessful rear-guard action against Robinson and Batten, warned “that is the day that UKIP becomes the BNP”. The warning could scarcely be starker.
The radicalisation of UKIP may be terrible news for Brexiteers but it is scarcely any better for the country as a whole. Britain has never had a truly successful party of the far-right, nor even an electorally significant one since the implosion of the BNP after the 2010 General Election. But UKIP, even in its weakened state, retains significant infrastructure and brand recognition. YouGov and ComRes polls conducted last month put the party on 6% and 7% respectively. It is well placed to pickup support from angry Brexiteers who either don’t know, or are too angry to care, about its dramatic change in direction.
We used to boast in Britain of our political moderation, relative to mainland Europe. Political zealotry, with its unwavering focus on religion, race or social class, was for other people. With a Corbyn led Labour Party, and a Tommy Robinson sympathetic UKIP, this form of Anglophone exceptionalism is at an end. And by God, I suspect we will miss it.