London, United Kingdom – Thousands of demonstrators converged in London on Sunday for a pro-Brexit march, led by far-right figure Tommy Robinson.
The “Brexit Betrayal” protest was advertised as a “peaceful and democratic” march against Prime Minister Theresa May‘s proposed deal to withdraw from the European Union, but Robinson – a former leader of the English Defence League and newly-minted adviser to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – made veiled suggestions that it could resemble the “yellow vest” movement which has swept across France in recent weeks in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron and seen protesters clash with police.
“Biggest riots in France in nearly 50 years due to anger at the corrupt political class,” Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, wrote on Facebook next to a video of burning cars and clouds of tear gas in Paris. “Revolution is coming, Prime Minster May should take note.”
Robinson has become the figurehead of Britain’s far right, capitalising on attacks by Muslim suspects and rape trials involving Asian men to amass over one million followers on Facebook and YouTube.
He has long denied accusations of racism or Islamophobia, but has called British Muslims “enemy combatants” and said refugees are “raping their way through” the United Kingdom.
A coalition of anti-racist and anti-fascist groups held a counterdemonstration.
Momentum, a left-wing movement which is supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, the main opposition Labour Party leader, is among the groups that rallied against Robinson and the far-right protesters.
Someone is wearing a 'Jo Cox false flag' sign at the ukip / Tommy Robinson March pic.twitter.com/FtYEGhork0
— Ruairi Casey (@Ruairi_Casey) December 9, 2018
London’s Metropolitan Police imposed conditions on protesters, such as staying in designated areas, and warned of “a robust arrest policy” on anyone intent on violence and disorder.
The marches came days ahead of Tuesday’s crucial vote by parliament on Brexit, which could throw the UK into chaos. MPs from both ends of the political spectrum are expected to reject May’s proposed withdrawal agreement reached with European officials.
The event began late morning, with far-right protesters chanting: “We want Brexit”, “Oh, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy” and “We want the Tories out and UKIP in”.
As well as UKIP supporters, members of the fascist Generation Identity group were also out in force.
A contingent here from Generation Identity, an international far right and more or less openly white supremacist movement pic.twitter.com/dSHOU1akuT
— Ruairi Casey (@Ruairi_Casey) December 9, 2018
Mary, a protester from Queens Park in north London, told Al Jazeera: “We’ve been betrayed by … that filthy b**** May. We voted to get out the EU and out meant out. It didn’t mean half in half out. We’d all live on baked beans forever more just to get out of that treacherous lot in Brussels, that is why I am here today.”
John, another protester who also only gave his first name, said: “Brexit means Brexit, Theresa May has lied to us, totally, totally. We shouldn’t accept her deal.” He suggested Britain should leave the EU without a deal.
At the counterdemonstration, Artin, a young Labour Party activist, said: “We’re here to protest Tommy Robinson and UKIP. They’re here claiming to represent some of the 52 percent who voted to leave and that’s completely not true.
“This is a message of unity. Regardless of whether you voted to leave or remain, we oppose Tommy Robinson.”
Sharon Price from Sheffield, a Socialist Worker Party member, said: “I’ve come here to oppose racism and fascism … the first people that the Nazis put in concentration camps were social democrats and trade union leaders, and six million Jews perished.”
Rising far right
Recent months have seen resurgent levels of far-right street action in the UK not seen in over a decade.
Robinson supporters threw up Nazi salutes at a demonstration in London in July, where 12 people were arrested during clashes with police.
The speaker’s list for Sunday’s rally was a who’s who of the British far right and includes UKIP leader Gerard Batten, who has called Islam a “death cult”, and Carl Benjamin, an anti-feminist and Islamophobic commentator on YouTube, where he uses the alias Sargon of Akkad.
Activist Avi Yemini was flown in from Australia with funds raised by Canadian far-right news organisation Rebel Media, which has in the past employed Robinson.
Yemini has previously tweeted that Islam is “a barbaric ideology that has no place in western civilisation.”
The event was Robinson’s first major demonstration since his recent release from prison.
The 35-year-old was jailed in May for contempt of court, after he was found to have breached reporting restrictions on a rape trial, but was freed on appeal in August. His case is currently being considered for retrial. Robinson has a serial criminal history, having previously been jailed for assault and attempting to enter the United States on a false passport.
During his imprisonment, far-right activists, some from across the world, rallied to his cause, insisting he was an innocent victim of a plot by the British government to silence him.
The right-wing US think-tank Middle East Forum spent $60,000 on Robinson’s legal defence and a series of demonstrations in London this summer, part of a growing international network, as documented by The Guardian newspaper, that provides him with financial and political support.
Robinson was appointed by Batten as UKIP’s official adviser on grooming gangs and prisons last month, circumventing the party’s rules which bar former EDL members and pushing the extreme right-wing party further towards open Islamophobia.
The decision prompted a slew of resignations from the party, including long-time leader Nigel Farage.
“The very idea of Tommy Robinson being at the centre of the Brexit debate is too awful to contemplate,” Farage wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
Farage is credited with having had significant influence over pushing Britons towards choosing to leave the EU and has himself been accused of Islamophobia.