Sunday 6th May 2018 saw two to three thousand people march through London flying national flags and holding signs decrying limits to freedom of speech after the former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson, called for a demonstration in response to Twitter’s decision to ban him from the platform for “hateful conduct” after he posted a message saying, “Islam promotes killing people”[1].

Robinson addressed the crowd, saying “We couldn’t have done this three years ago, we couldn’t have done this four years ago. We are now mainstream”. He said, “The people of this country have been silenced for 20-30 years with the tag of racists. They have managed to silence people so that they are too scared to speak up when they see things that are wrong … They now realise that that tag is dead: no one cares anymore with being labelled racists”[2].

The leader of UKIP, Gerard Batten, the Vice magazine co-founder, Gavin McInnes, For Britain political party member, Anne Marie Waters, and former Breitbart senior editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, also spoke. Yiannopoulos told the crowd, “Truth and righteousness are behind you. You are the vanguard, you are the dark [k]nights, the first men and women to proudly stand with your heads above the parapet, caring nothing for the bullets that come your way and I salute you … I saw what happened when Nick Griffin went on Question Time, in America when genuine racists [appear on television] … When those people are exposed to the harsh light of day, I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant”[3].

Counter-protesters demonstrating what they considered a far-right movement were separated from the protesters by riot vans. However, counter-protestors were outnumbered[4].

One counter-protestor, Freddi Hyde-Thompson said that he saw the protestors’ claims of support for free speech as a contradiction; “If their freedom of speech is going to rub out other people’s freedom of speech then they’ve got no point. If they want to ban certain religions, that speaks for itself”[5].

In her column in the i newspaper, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown also picks up on this contradiction. She writes that the right have “weaponised free speech”, they have “appropriated a central democratic tenet and are using it to break western democracies and snatch away modern choices and rights”[6].

She warns of British complacency as the threat of the far-right increases; “Incredibly, most Brits are dozing as the threat builds up. They rightly fear Islamist terrorism but seem unbothered by or blasé about the hard-right peril. Support for neo-Nazis has risen dramatically. Tommy Robinson is just as big a danger to social cohesion as the hard-line preacher Abu Hamza was, yet while the latter languishes in a US prison, Robinson is free to spread his messages … Freedom of speech is apparently now a right-wing or privilege claimed by xenophobic nativists and adamant sexists. Those who defend freedom of speech are also most selective in who should have access to it”[7].

Alibhai-Brown argues that this trend can be seen on government rules on counter-radicalisation in universities which require staff to report students who express “anti-Western views”, which also shows how this right-wing rhetoric is becoming more mainstream (as Robinson noted in his speech)[8].

She also picks up on the number of protestors on the right outnumbering the number of counter-protestors, writing “Sunday’s march revealed the influence of a new fascism in our country. Far fewer people than ever before turned up for the counter-demo. One of them, Sharon, a student of fashion design, told me in tears that she felt like her relatives must have in Lithuania during the Second World War when Nazis encouraged locals to get rid of the “Jewish problem” and decent people did nothing. Mohamad, a Muslim engineer, also went, with a group of anti-racist friends. He came away intensely worried that white supremacists were taking charge of the narrative and winning over millions”[9].

She concludes, “come on, trembly liberals, stand up and fight back. You do not have to tolerate the intolerant. Your forebears took on Hitler. Can’t you take on Robinson and his motley lot?”[10]

Despite the wide coverage of the march, the Guardian reports that, “Numbers [of protestors on the right] dwindled throughout the lengthy Whitehall march, while the atmosphere was unthreatening”[11].

[1] Gayle, 2018.

[2] Gayle, 2018.

[3] Gayle, 2018.

[4] Gayle, 2018.

[5] Gayle, 2018.

[6] Alibhai-Brown, 2018.

[7] Alibhai-Brown, 2018.

[8] Alibhai-Brown, 2018.

[9] Alibhai-Brown, 2018.

[10] Alibhai-Brown, 2018.

[11] Gayle, 2018.

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Sources

Alibhai-Brown, Y. (2018) ‘The right has weaponised free speech: Liberals need to fight back to keep it a universal liberty’. i newspaper. 9 May. p. 15.

Gayle, D. (2018) ‘Thousands march in ‘free speech’ protest led by rightwing figures’. [online] 6 May. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/06/thousands-of-far-right-protesters-march-in-london-in-support-of-free-speech. [Accessed 14 May 2018].