On a cold Sunday morning in London, Tommy Robinson and his fascist flock in the number of few thousands turned up to protest. As usual, they were outnumbered significantly by an opposition protest.
Social media is the battleground for mobilising numbers swiftly and the fascists have used it to lever their agendas forward, but conversely found anti-fascists rallying quickly, in greater numbers, to stop them in the streets. This was a protest made up of a myriad of smaller ones, centred a lot on Brexit. But with Tommy Robinson around, there will always be a topic on Islam too. As it happens, he and his supporters gained little from the day except the already-established fact that their marches will always be dwarfed.
We have been here before and we will continue to be here for a while it seems. A battle of ideas in a cultural war without a solid idea on how to actually defeat the white nationalists. And we are all, myself included, guilty of this intellectual failing. Tommy Robinson is a hero to the far right if he stays free and a martyr if he is jailed. The far-right across the world converge on isolated struggles and the support he garnered over the past few months is chilling.
It is difficult not to be disillusioned by how polarised our society is, and how frayed the social fabrics of Britain have become. There are a myriad of factors for that, each with a degree of truth, from inability of economic liberalism to generate growth fairly contributing to social decay and the fast pace of globalisation leaving people feeling like they don’t have long-term stakes in their local communities. Those of us persuaded by communitarian instincts are going to be deeply concerned at the rise of the far-right and what it spells for society, but also how the Brexit divide has become even more toxic. How as a society do we find some semblance of unity? It is only through division that the likes of Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins prosper.
The first is that the media have elevated the likes of Tommy Robinson and Anjem Chowdhury. These are people who have regularly incited violence and hate towards others, often groups without power. Tommy Robinson has been able to forge a career out of racism presented with a microphone and camera. His following has grown and there isn’t the faintest inkling on how to challenge him. Some will opt for political violence but that delivers him the status of martyrdom that he craves. The problem with trying to ignore him now of course is that he is no longer just a spectator in the political discourse. He is framing it where it concerns Muslims and minorities. The media have facilitated in turning him into an individual with considerable influence. The paradox here being now it probably makes sense to put him in the spotlight, but only to subject him to the most relentless, humiliating media experience. The sort of journalism that demands Jeremy Paxman or Jon Snow.
But there is an uncomfortable issue for those of us on the left to confront. Tommy Robinson and his fellow ideologues prosper when they fill the void and become the dominant voice. Those lurking on the fringes always need to shout the loudest. The white nationalists have done that because too often the left has been afraid to tackle issues like grooming gangs or Islamism. Our silence has not only let down victims but also let Robinson shape the debate. We are constantly reacting, rebutting stereotypes rather than actively dismantling them by shaping the narratives ourselves. Had we listened to Labour MP Sarah Champion, we might have been able to articulate the honest reality that a subset of British Pakistani men prey on young girls. But we didn’t speak and the far-right created a maelstrom in which all Muslims were generalised.
It’s noble and brave to face the fascists on the streets and shout louder there. But our voices are needed in the crucial debates because silence is the seed from which they grow.