Banning EDL marches, or being careful what you wish for

with 13 comments

If you were a genuine democrat at the turn of 1937, you would have been scared. Fascism was on the march across Europe. Italy had fallen first; German Nazism had shut down the world’s greatest labour movement virtually overnight and was upping the persecution of the Jews; and a fascist-backed military coup against Spain’s left-leaning government had plunged the country into a nightmare civil war.

Here in Britain, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – backed by the likes of the Daily Mail – were loudly agitating for a fascist government on the European model. Could British democracy fall next? Without the benefit of hindsight, and with the tragic complacency of many imprisoned (or dead) European leftists seared on to your recent memory, you could not be sure that the lights would not go out here, too.

So perhaps you would have backed the Conservative Government’s Public Order Act, signed in to law on 1 January 1937. Ostensibly, it had been aimed squarely at the Blackshirts in the aftermath of the iconic Battle of Cable Street. Among other things, it required police consent before political demonstrations could take place and banned the wearing of “political uniforms” in public.

You may not have realised that the Public Order Act would end up being used against the left. In the 1970s, it was used against pro-Irish Republican demos. During the Miners Strike of 1984-5, it was used against flying pickets.

More broadly, it established the precedent of state interference in protests. Wondering how we ended up with cops imprisoning 14 year old school kids in freezing temperatures for 8 or 9 hours? The Public Order Act is as good as any place to start.

This is a warning from history, because it shows what happens when you start asking the state to use its power against those who could be deemed political undesirables. If you set a precedent, how do you know it won’t end up being used against you next time?

The dramatic rise of the virulently Islamophobic English Defence League has provoked understandable fear throughout the left. When they have marched through town centres, they have been intimidating (particularly to British Muslims), and participants have been heard yelling racist abuse.

That’s led some on the left to call for their marches to be banned, most recently in Luton, and before that in Birmingham. Back in October, the Government actually did ban them marching in Leicester.

I think it is a mistake for the left to demand that the state steps in and bans any form of demonstration. In the aftermath of the student protests that began in November, it is far from beyond the realms of possibility that left-wing demos will be banned – it’s already been mooted. If a genuine mass movement against the Government gathers steam, it will be the left on the receiving end of repressive measures.

Under the last Government, we saw how authoritarian legislation was, in practice, used in a far more wide-ranging way than was originally claimed. Anti-terror laws have repeatedly been used against protesters – including octogenarian Walter Wolfgang for the crime of heckling Jack Straw. Even anti-stalking laws have been twisted to clamp down on the right to freely protest.

The answer to the EDL is not to run to the state like it’s some sort of neutral arbiter, giving it left-wing cover to chop away further at the right to protest. It is to confront head-on the grievances that the EDL feeds on: not least, the fact that working-class people in this country have been deprived of political representation.

So, next time an EDL demo gets banned, pause before you cheer: because it might be you next.

Written by Owen Jones

February 9, 2011 at 11:17 am

13 Responses

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AndreaUrbanFox ©, Ferret Dave, Tom Davies, steven maclean, Anna and others. Anna said: RT @OwenJones84: BLOGGED: Banning EDL marches, or being careful what you wish for [...]

  2. “Back in October, the Government actually did ban them holding a demonstration in Leicester”

    Not true, EDL were banned from marching, a static demo was held. The Government cannot prevent anyone from holding a static demonstration.

    Karma Unc

    February 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm

  3. Thanks Karma – I’ll amend.

    Owen Jones

    February 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm

  4. I really don’t like these arguments as there are very viable arguments out there that actually make sense in why we should allow the EDL to exist and march. But this argumentation feels more like fear of the gov twisting legislation against ‘you’. And since when did fear make hatred more tolerable?

    Dani Nobody

    February 9, 2011 at 1:26 pm

  5. Sympathetic to your point Owen, but I think the state has a democratic duty to prevent crimes, including violent ones. Police are correct to assess the risk of such crimes taking place, and shape their tactics accordingly.

    This is more likely to happen with teh EDL than the BNP. Both have violent streaks, but the BNP is trying to remove that image and does try to discipline its members from above.

    The EDL takes no action to to regulate violent or otherwise criminal behaviour on the part of its demonstrators. It’s a bit unfair for protesters to declare they are going to go about breaking the law and then complain when the old civic enforcement step in.

    Tom Miller

    February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

  6. In essence whilst I would be strongly against calling for state bans of any kid, I’m not against individual bans or other such tools if there is an objectively appreciable high likelihood of violence occurring.

    Tom Miller

    February 9, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  7. Apart from the possibility of state powers being used against us, the other problem with banning EDL marches (or banning far right parties for that matter) is that it doesn’t make the problem go away. The electorate of the far right still exists.

    A further problem is that the left still pretend that broad-based organisations like Unite Against Fascism or Hope Not Hate are the best solution to dealing with the far right. That approach works when fascists are trying to march through communities like the BUF were in the 1930s or the NF were during the 1970s and 1980s. These days the far right have ditched street demos in favour of electoral politics.

    Furthermore, it’s no good campaigning against the BNP and not providing a positive left alternative. Anti-fascist groups are still not telling voters to ‘vote Labour’ or ‘vote Respect’ etc. The left has to offer a viable progressive alternative to the BNP. New Labour failed to do that with its rightward drift, and the parties of the far left don’t use mainstream tactics in electoral campaigns (e.g. when I was involved in the Socialist Alliance we did not canvass and we did not apply national issues to local circumstances).

    Kevin Hind

    February 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm

  8. It’s not ‘the left’ calling for the marches to be banned.
    As a Luton resident, the debate has been raging in the local papers for weeks. The main reason for objecting is that as a town it cost us £800,000 in policing costs for those 1,800 people to march up and down and shout in our streets. And that’s without the lost business – most shops in the area were boarded up on a saturday.


    February 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    • That’s certainly not an argument the left can ever buy. The same argument could be made against student demos. ‘The right to freely protest costs money and can be bad for business’ is not a line I’m ever going to subscribe to I’m afraid.

      Owen Jones

      February 9, 2011 at 5:36 pm

  9. [...] and moral entity. Rules are rules, and if the ban is implemented, it can be used in any way. As Owen Jones has written, the Public Order Act of 1937, which was a response to the Blackshirts’ march through the City [...]

  10. The Fascists did far worse at and around the Olympia rally in 1934 than at Cable St. What happened at Cable St was that people resisted en masse. That was the real trigger for the Public Order Act – the fear that, if the Fascists weren’t clamped down on, people (and East End Jews in particular) would be ‘provoked’ into greater disorder in response. You can see something very similar with the ‘proscribed organisations’ clause of the PTA in 1974, which was introduced very largely in response to the outcry over an IRA-sympathising funeral march in Kilburn. Again, the idea wasn’t so much that shows of support for terrorists must be suppressed – more that *not* suppressing them would lead to worse trouble, in the form of anti-Irish vigilantism and mob action.

    The dynamic is a bit different now, thanks to New Labour’s tendency to adopt a spookish view of the world – these days the Home Office bans organisations for more straightforward reasons, because it wants them banned and their members locked up. But where public order is concerned the thinking is very similar – the threat posed by any march is primarily the threat of the reaction it would provoke. In the case of the EDL it’s a back-handed tribute to UAF, but the same approach could be turned against them just as easily if not more so.

    Wolfgang’s an interesting case, btw – by purportedly detaining him under s44 of the Terrorism Act the police exceeded their powers quite blatantly (or ignorantly), since s44 doesn’t give them the power to detain! What it lets them do is search members of the public for terrorism-related materials – but Wolfgang wasn’t searched. I talked to someone in Liberty about this at the time; he said they’d been in touch with him about taking proceedings for wrongful arrest, but he decided not to go ahead with it.

  11. Sadly this is not a left-right phenomenon, it’s authoritarian vs libertarian, which makes it harder to defend against, since libertarians lack organisation. Authoritarians are ten a penny, in mainstream politics in droves and would strip us of so many,rights.

    I loathe the EDL & BNP with equal passion but defend their right to free speech lest I lose mine.

    R Parks

    August 27, 2011 at 12:52 am

  12. [...] younger writers, Owen Jones has positioned the Daily Mail ‘campaigning for a Fascist State in Britain’ as a background feature of [...]

    Dark side of the Daily Mirror

    November 30, 2011 at 7:01 am

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