In Whitehall on lawns opposite Downing Street, something other than the cool change made me shiver Saturday.
Exiting Charing Cross station numerous St George’s flags are visible, flying at the top of Whitehall near Trafalgar Square. My first thought is Unionists are celebrating their referendum victory. Getting closer, the flags’ and separate banners’ slogans: “No Surrender”; “No More Mosques”; “No Sharia Law”; “Supporting Our Troops” reveal a more sinister, dangerous nationalism though.
Asking one of many police nearby, I’m told the English Defence League (EDL), the South East Alliance and other far-right groups are uniting in protest against the “Islamic threat” to Britain. Previously dismissing them as mere lunatic fringe groups, I’ve always walked past. This time I follow to see what exactly they hope to gain.
There’s a raucous march down Whitehall, EDL supporters yelling and chanting. They try to get as close as possible opposite Downing Street when they’re confronted by a small but highly vocal anti-fascist rally organised in opposition. The police keep both groups apart. Once the EDL are set up on the MoD lawn more police line up to separate them from the traffic and tourists walking past to Westminster and Number 10. It strikes me just how many police there are and what else they could be doing.
Standing on the small island surrounding the Women of World War Two monument in the middle of the road, I watch and listen.
One of the most noticeable things is how clearly inarticulate and badly educated most of the crowd, consisting of men, women and children of all ages are, including nearly all the speakers.
An elderly English couple visiting London are standing nearby taking photos. We begin talking, their contempt for the group opposite quickly becoming apparent. I point out just how young some of the children are – mostly “mini-mes” of the men with matching football shirts and shaved heads.
“Look – they don’t stand a chance. They’re indoctrinated with this idiocy. Give me the child and I’ll show you the man,” says the gentleman.
I point out how few people are actually there in opposition to the rally and the numbers of people who walk by, seemingly oblivious.
“They don’t call them ‘the silent majority’ for nothing do they? What worries me is it’s the squeaky wheel that’s getting the oil now. Look at the rubbish the politicians are coming up with to counter Salmond and UKIP,” the woman says.
Their main speaker, sacked UKIP parliamentary candidate Paul Weston is now head of the far-right Liberty GB. Weston rants about Rotherham child abuse and ISIL, reading what he claims are Sharia Law edicts condoning rape and murder. Whipping the 200 or so strong crowd into a frenzy, he claims Islam is a “cult not a religion”.
Frighteningly familiar complaints begin about British jobs for British citizens, foreigners on benefits and the blood of brave British troops being spilled to battle Islam’s evil influence.
Nearby stands Viscount Alanbrooke’s statue, one of Britain’s great Second World War heroes. One of the soldiers they believe they fight for he looks away, seemingly embarrassed.
Stressing today’s event is going well and how pleased police are with today, Weston emphasises its peaceful nature. The speech stops to rapturous applause as the EDL anthem is played via speaker: “We’re coming! We’re coming! We’re coming down the road! We’re volunteers of the EDL, we’re coming down the road!”
Everyone’s chanting the words when, with no warning, protestors, police and paparazzi run back towards Trafalgar Square. Keeping up, a freelance photographer explains to me despite common beliefs rival groups usually fight among themselves over who’s more far-right. When we arrive at a pub on the northern end of Whitehall the brawlers have fled into the West End.
I stand by Northumberland Avenue taking notes watching as a large group of 20-somethings make monkey noises in earshot of a lone black police officer. He smiles politely. His white colleagues nearby however fail to intervene despite police easily outnumbering protestors by about three to one.
Asking the officer how he feels about all of this he just shrugs.
Seeing me taking notes one of his colleagues asks if I’m a journalist. I explain I’m just starting, my first time covering anything like this and my surprise at the number of police. Explaining this, he goes on to confirm something else I’d noticed:
“It’s the first time we’ve had such a poor show from the anti-fascists.
“The EDL are usually the better behaved out of all of them. The problem is they cause such an adverse negative ripple around them.”
Asking why he did nothing to stop the monkey chants he says he didn’t hear them: “You get used to that in the police. Things like: “bacon” “Laurel and Hardy” – you’ve got to develop a thick skin.” Again, his black colleague shrugs.
I point out how similar their demands seem to be to UKIP’s and how other more mainstream parties seem to be increasingly competing on the same nationalist platform in response to their recent success. I give the forthcoming Clacton by-election as evidence.
“Yes. It’s worrying,” the black officer says.
“No I don’t think they’ll ever get a real voice,” the white officer says. I walk away, having seen and heard enough.