The left is crying wolf over the EDL

The fewer English Defence League supporters that can be mobilised for a demo, it seems, the more left-wing campaigners feel the need to go out and counter them. On Saturday, there were about 150 far-right EDL members marching in Walthamstow, London. But that didn’t stop a counter-protest 20 times this size taking place in an attempt to ‘crush’ the EDL.

One thing that never seems to cross anti-EDL campaigners’ minds is what it would be like if the EDL was simply allowed to march without obstruction. The EDL did little to no mobilisation in Waltham Forest, the borough in which Walthamstow sits – it was the ‘We Are Waltham Forest’ anti-EDL campaigners who spent almost two months fliering, putting up posters, holding meetings, getting people to sign petitions, knocking on doors and running stalls in Walthamstow town centre.

Without the efforts of We Are Waltham Forest, 150 EDL members would have turned up on the bleak crossroads by Blackhorse Road station, and trudged for a mile or two towards their planned rallying point at Walthamstow Town Hall, causing minimal disruption. Walking along the largely empty Forest Road, they would have appeared slightly daft and pathetic. Indeed, for much of the route, with their ‘Allah is a paedo’ banners and feamongering chants drawing the attention of only a handful of passersby, that is exactly how they came across. (They really only came snarling to life when spurred on by anti-fascist protesters and photographers who were following the protest from a safe distance on the other side of the road.)

Not much to dread: 150 EDL supporters march down Forest Road, Walthamstow.

But the idea that the EDL could march unchallenged would be anathema to anti-fascist campaigners who are convinced they are witnessing the birth of a neo-Nazi party, or an angry swarm of Anders Breiviks-in-the-making. Indeed, many wanted the march banned altogether, with local Labour MP Stella Creasy leading the call. At a special meeting last month, she said of the EDL: ‘When they talk about marching on any day, it’s a no go for me. That’s a point when our welcome draws a line in the sand and says no.’

‘When you come with those views’, she continued, ‘when you come with that vision of our local community, it’s not what we expect, it’s not representative, and it’s not what we will accept’. Evidently for Creasy, and the hundreds of people whose views she claimed to represent, only people with the ‘right’ views are welcome in Waltham Forest. Lib-Con home secretary Theresa May and the police ignored the request for a ban, however, and the EDL’s march went ahead.

Some anti-EDL campaigners saw fit to attack May as a result. One furious campaigner started screaming hysterically at the police, who were keeping him apart from the EDL march: ‘It’s Theresa May’s fault, it’s her fault, how could she let them come here?’ One seller of a left-wing newspaper was challenged by a photographer about why he wanted the EDL banned. Are you not in favour of free speech and democracy?, he was asked. ‘Fundamentally, I’m against fascism’, he responded.

The idea that the left can gain unity through being against the EDL – perceived to be the twenty-first century frontline of fascism – was pushed by speakers and protesters. One prominent left-wing blogger tweeted: ‘The stereotype that the British left are best at mobilising AGAINST things is truest… when it comes to resisting fascism.’

An anti-fascist campaigner gives a scientific account as to why the EDL should be banned.

For all the bravado about ‘smashing’ the EDL, and chants comparing it to the Nazis and ‘stringing them up like Mussolini’, when the anti-EDL protesters got a chance to take on the individuals who share the ‘same hatred’ as Anders Breivik, they did, erm, nothing. With the EDL march diverted down side streets due to a ‘sit down’ protest by anti-fascist groups, the EDL’s leaders – including founders Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll – found themselves surrounded by about 500 anti-EDL protesters. Robinson took the opportunity to mock the crowds through a loudspeaker system, asking questions along the lines of: ‘If the sun didn’t set during Ramadan, would you rather starve than eat?’

Despite the EDL leadership being outnumbered 100 to 1 by protesters, and buffered by just a handful of policemen, all the protesters did was chant, ‘if it wasn’t for the coppers, you’d be dead’ (to the tune of ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’). Their failure to act rather gave the lie to the idea that they genuinely believe Robinson and his cronies to be the new Nazis. The Battle of Cable Street this wasn’t. The anti-fascist protest was exposed not as a groundswell of community members, willing to take to the streets to fight the fascist threat, but rather as an army of censors calling upon the state to ban the obnoxious, lager-swilling, working-class louts of the EDL.

If Tommy Robinson really was the same as Breivik, why did protesters just whine when they had him cornered?

Miffed that he wasn’t going to be able to address his supporters at the rally, Robinson bellowed down the loudspeaker, ‘What about our democratic rights? What about free speech?’ One voice in the crowd responded: ‘Fuck your free speech!’

Such an attitude sums up the censorious approach of the anti-Nazi left-wing campaigners. The EDL is cast as hate incarnate, needing to be banned for holding views that the likes of Stella Creasy MP deem unacceptable. The EDL can’t just be countered, it seems, it must be silenced.

The left has cried wolf over the rising threat of the EDL. Should it return soon – as it promises to – it’s unlikely such numbers will turn out from the community to protest against the EDL. Moreover, when faced with the perfect opportunity to ‘crush’ the ringleaders of the movement, these great anti-fascist protesters balked. Perhaps they realised that should the great fascist spectre of the EDL cease to exist, they would have to go through the effort of hyping up another threat instead.

A Capital offence against literature

Some people write novels because they have a burning truth to convey. Others just want to knock out a potboiler, or make money, or promote propaganda. Having made it through almost 600 pages of John Lanchester’s Capital, I still can’t work out what muse was at play for him to dedicate so much time to writing this novel. To be blunt: why did he bother?

Many critics have bigged up Capital, claiming it takes Britain’s pulse around the start of the financial crisis in 2008. That might be true if you see ‘Britain’ as consisting only of London, and you see London as just a collection of bourgeois individuals with a few tokenistic Muslims and Polish decorators thrown in for good measure. Lanchester’s microcosm of the nation is a fictional street in South London – Pepys Street – which was originally built in the 1800s for the lower middle classes but is now highly sought after by successful City types. ‘Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won’, he says. (Except those he doesn’t focus on very much, who could no longer afford to live in the street, and therefore moved out.)

In Lanchester’s view, the idea of what it means to have ‘won’ is a questionable one, especially in the run-up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of financial crisis. Through charting the fates of the characters on Pepys Street, Lanchester’s moral and political attitude towards their behaviours is laid bare. In fact, talking about the ‘behaviours’ of his characters would be wrong, since not a single character in Capital exhibits any subjectivity or goes beyond being a mere cipher, behaving in a way that Lanchester believes such a type should behave. Lanchester is either unwilling or unable to conjure up living, breathing subjects; instead he details the lives of symbolic individuals. He writes less as a novelist, more as a beat anthropologist.

While football managers, uppity doctors and insurance men get a rough ride, Lanchester reserves most of his bile for bankers. He gleefully constructs strawman bankers to bash. Take poor Roger, the middle-aged banker who, we are told, desires a million-pound bonus, ‘because he felt it was his due and it was a proof of his masculine worth’. Such jarring moments – and there are many – reveal just how little Lanchester has been able to empathise with the actors he has created, his creative waters continually being muddied by his own value judgements. The extent to which the reader might be able to empathise with the characters will be determined by his own imaginative efforts rather than by Lanchester having imbued the characters with any life.

Lanchester repeatedly invites us to sneer at money-obsessed, inept bankers. They have no taste in art, haven’t the faintest idea how to bring up their children, and when they try to attend to their children they end up covered in shit (literally). They spend their time plotting, scheming and gambling, and fantasising about taking young employees from behind. When one gets a smaller bonus than he expected, he is physically sick. And yet these grotesque bankers rail against the ‘tyranny of the mediocre’ and see themselves as supermen.

Lanchester is also a beater of bankers’ wives (in the literary sense, of course).  He clearly despises the partners of evil bankers, depicting them as always acting on impulse, craving overpriced luxuries that are ‘so lovely that the expensiveness [becomes] part of the point’. In the end, there is no redemption for bankers’ wives: ‘No Plan B. [It’s] labels, logos and conspicuous consumption all the way.’

Through his more sympathetic depiction of other characters – the Poles, Hungarians and Muslim shopkeepers, who undertake ‘real work [that never leaves] you feeling worse’ – you get an insight into what Lanchester probably really believes. These characters are not the native working classes, we quickly note – they are above that layer of society and, like Lanchester, are capable of looking down on it. So in the eyes of one of the shopkeepers, the internet, for example, is ‘a giant collective conspiracy to waste time. Given infinite freedom of intellectual movement, it turned out that what people mainly want to do is look at pictures of Kelly Brook’s tits.’

A Polish decorator is disdainful of people who moan about public transport: ‘They should just shut up. Yes, the transport was shit, but lots of things about life were shit… They should live in a place where life really was hard for a while.’ Other characters make mocking comments about the ‘hilarious’ idea that Christmas is a religious festival when it has become so riddled with consumerism: ‘everyone running round shopping as if their lives depended on it.’ Through these ‘good’ characters, Lanchester is able to have a pop at the garish lower orders in Britain as well as at the super-rich banking classes. The people who come out best in Capital are those who realise that there is more to life than money and Kelly Brook’s tits.

One of the characters – an asylum-seeker who is a former Marxist – quotes Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: ‘Humans make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.’ This comes across as unintentionally ironic, since little history making takes place in Lanchester’s novel. The characters on Pepys Street are primarily victims of circumstance: one is wrongfully locked up because he is a Muslim; another suffers a nasty sporting accident; one is fired due to his (understandable) ignorance of the actions of a subordinate; another gets cancer and chooses not to have chemotherapy.

Where characters do act upon the world, it is to deceive (the young rogue trader in a London bank; the Polish builder who intentionally takes the wrong mobile phone). Motivations are base: desire for money, status, stuff, sex. And where there is salvation, it only comes when material aspirations are reined in and the characters realise that they must ‘change change change’ their values, appreciating family and the benefits of an ‘economically smaller life’. On Pepys Street, we’re told, it was as if the houses themselves ‘had come alive and had needs and wishes of their own… Amazon parcels, personal trainers, cleaners, plumbers, teachers, and all day long, all of them going up to the houses like supplicants and being swallowed up by them’.

Freedom from Pepys Street can be found by hopping – or, more likely, being thrown – off the hedonic treadmill and playing football in Senegal, dying, abandoning a suitcase of cash, or by walking in a field in Norfolk: that is, through pursuing a quiet, conservative family life where people never want to do ‘anything that cost[s] money’ (author’s italics).

This questionable morality could be forgiven if Capital had a plot to speak of, if there were a driving narrative that kept the reader gripped. But other than the red thread of a wannabe Banksy putting postcards through the doors of Pepys Street, which say ‘I want what you have’, there is no plot at all. As they are tossed about by circumstance, the characters barely interact, which may accurately reflect their alienation from one another, but it is deeply unsatisfying for the reader.

Some have compared Lanchester to Dickens. Yet where Dickens produced characters that had an inner life, who transcended the author and his time to speak to an aspect of the human condition, Lanchester’s characters exist merely as puppets – albeit well-crafted ones – for the purpose of expressing the author’s own prejudices. For demanding more, one suspects that Dickens’ Oliver, if reimagined by Lanchester, would have been depicted as greedy or brainwashed by consumerism.

There is scope for a great novel to be written about London in the late Noughties, which captures something about our lives and aspirations in this era of crisis and social fragmentation. Sadly, Capital is not it.

Retweeting: the new 999

‘Listen, I take racism a lot lighter than others and I do understand the banter that comes along with it to get under people’s skin, but…’

So tweeted West Ham footballer Carlton Cole on Saturday. His team had just lost 3-0 to Swansea, and he was receiving a lot of the flak for it on Twitter. One 22-year-old fan from Southend, Essex, using the Twitter username @owliehammer, had been particularly bilious.‘3-0? 3 fucking nil??’, he tweeted. ‘Get the fuck away from my club u fucking useless nigger cunt.’

Having received the message, Cole was evidently faced with a situation: should he report the tweet with the knowledge that the tweeter could face the criminal consequences, or should he ignore it? Cole chose the middle ground, retweeting the offensive message and saying, ‘whether I am crap or had a bad game has nothing to do with my race, creed or religion. Let’s just keep it FOOTBALL. Kapeesh?’

On the pitch, in the dressing room, or face-to-face, this reconciliatory approach may well have been effective – dealing with the situation reasonably, informally, man-to-man. But, as is evident from what happened next, such an approach is now simply impossible on Twitter.

While it seems Cole didn’t personally call the police himself, his retweet acted as a klaxon call for hundreds of Twitterers to begin to lobby the authorities for @owliehammer to be thrown off Twitter, banned from West Ham games and locked up. ‘Who is racially abusing you? Out them’, said one Twitter user. Others started tweeting: ‘I think that merits the Metropolitan Police’; and ‘report the idiot’. Soon people were boasting of the fact they had contacted the police - ‘looks like I’ve just called the old bill! How can you be racist to anyone! I hope the police take good care of u.’ Others, like Twitter-user Darren Oakley, encouraged others to report ‘the idiot’: ‘Everyone, please report @owliehammer to the police as I have done for his racist abuse of Carlton Cole. Let’s get this neanderthal locked up.’

Members of the Twitterati soon joined in, with Telegraph football correspondent Henry Wintertweeting: ‘I hope the police take action over the racist abuse aimed at @CarltonCole1 on Twitter tonight. #kickitout.’ This was retweeted 445 times with loyal followers tweeting Winter to say they had snitched to the cops. Winter responded to one of these tweeters with a virtual pat on the back: ‘Good move, Warren. Regards.’

To the delight of many in the Twittersphere, Twitter duly suspended @owliehammer’s account, it was reported that West Ham was ‘certain to ban the tweeter’, and Essex police announced they had responded to complaints by arresting @owliehammer. ‘God bless Essex police!!!’ tweeted one West Ham season ticket holder. Jacqueline Gold, the daughter of West Ham co-chairman David Gold, and the CEO of Ann Summers, tweeted to her 28,000 followers: ‘Glad to hear someone has been arrested for racist remarks sent to @CarltonCole1. Idiots like this need to know they cant hide behind Twitter.’ Carlton Cole retweeted a tweet from the Essex police about @owliehammer being arrested to his 55,365 followers, without further comment.

It is true that you would have to be an idiot (or very drunk) to think you could get away with tweeting such horrible racist abuse on Twitter. As one user, Josh Dale, tweeted to Cole: ‘People like that are actually so dumb… saying it on Twitter is like shouting it out a megaphone in front of a police station.’ That is an accurate characterisation.

There are currently 340million tweets everyday, a number that is rapidly increasing. Obnoxious tweets are a tiny drop in that massive ocean, and they are only of significance when attention is actively drawn to them either by ostentatious offence-taking or through the act of flagging them up. The twitch-hunts, which we have seen against @owliehammer and against many before him, serve as a way of amplifying offensive tweets, turning them from inaudible squeaking to shouting at a cop with a loud speaker.

While it may seem like a way of dealing with a situation informally, celebrities retweeting and drawing attention to things they find offensive is now almost akin to dialling 999 and calling the cops themselves. They must know that their legion of loyal Twitter followers will squeal en masseto the cops for you. 

Responding to Telegraph writer Winter’s suggestion that people grass @owliehammer to the police, one person tweeted: ‘“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, a sentiment dead in UK.’ When more and more people are using Twitter to encourage the authorities to clamp down on free speech, it is beginning to look as if, on Twitter at least, that Voltarian sentiment is indeed long-deceased.

The fallen angel of the radical set

’We are all Julian Assange’, chanted campaigners outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London at the weekend, showing their solidarity with the Wikileaks founder taking refuge inside. Such is the diminished popularity of Assange that the number of cameramen and film crews outstripped the tiny coterie of protesters. But it was not so long ago that vast swathes of activists and journalists would have been queuing up to declare their support in a grand, I-am-Spartacus manner.

‘Assange was like a pied piper, gathering followers around him in region after region’, stated two former Wikileaks-worshipping Guardian journalists in a recent book. The extent to which Assange was fawned over is hard to overstate. Whenever Wikileaks published a new batch of revelations, newspapers would often run large pictures of Assange with his ‘lean frame and long silver hair [and]… boyishly enticing grin’, while excitedly discussing upcoming Hollywood biopics and who might play Assange. Neil Patrick Harris? Paul Bettany? Bill Hader? Perhaps Tilda Swinton? One New York Times columnist recounted a Wikileaks retrospective in Berkeley where Assange was beamed ‘like the mighty Oz’ on to a cinema screen to discuss how the Western media could do more to hold American imperialism to account. He recalls that ‘about half the audience seemed on the verge of tossing their underwear at the screen’.

Serious writers would pen pieces explaining ‘Why I love Wikileaks’; campaigning journalist John Pilger announced Assange was the ‘truth teller’; a writer for the New Yorker painted him as ‘a rail-thin being who has rocketed to Earth to deliver humanity some hidden truth’. Assange could do no wrong in the eyes of liberal commentators, to such an extent that he became parodied as ‘St Julian of Assange’, passing down the gospel through liberal news outlets. He was runner-up inTime magazine’s Person of the Year Award in 2010 (and was the readers’ choice by a landslide). Award-winning Guardian reporter Nick Davies personally assured Assange that ‘we are going to put you on the moral high ground – so high that you’ll need an oxygen mask. You’ll be up there with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa… They won’t be able to arrest you. Nor can they shut down your website.’

Yet having put Assange on such a pedestal, having hyped him up as a digital deity exposing the new clothes of imperialist emperors all over the world, the Western media then started to lose faith in him. Beginning to act like the messiah he had been made out to be, Assange had a spectacular falling out with the Guardian over what he deemed to be its libellous comments about his decision-making processes about what to publish. And accusations that Assange sexually assaulted two women in Sweden have led to a drawn-out extradition process. Initially the media – minus a handful of feminists who inflated the charges to be akin to rape – defended Assange, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find any mainstream journalist who would stick up for their former hero.

Assange is now being accused of having a messiah complex, by the very people who hyped him up to be a messiah in the first place. And, as he sits smarting in his windowless room, trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, he may be somewhat justified in wondering why journalist Heather Brook hasn’t yet turned up, Mary Magdalene-style, to bathe his feet - she recounted in a book that they had joked about doing something like that. The truth is that this once-friendless Australian computer nerd only became the irritating megalomaniac we see today due to the liberal media’s attempt to hoist him on to such a moral high ground that – to run with Nick Davies’s metaphor – he went giddy with oxygen deprivation.

Far more than an insight into the psyche of an over-hyped hacker, the fall from grace of Julian Assange reveals the flimsy, fickle nature of modern-day radical campaigning. In not facing up to his rape charges, Assange has now ‘tragically compromised’ the Wikileaks mission, says one columnist. His ‘halo has been tarnished’, declares an Independent editorial. Only last year, Assange spoke at Occupy London to rapturous applause, getting protesters robotically to repeat after him, ‘We are all individuals’. Now, even the remnants of the Occupy movement are deeply divided about whether to support one of their icons.

Previously, as those Guardian authors argued, ‘the media and public split between those who saw Assange as a new kind of cyber-messiah and those who regarded him as a James Bond villain’; now almost across the board, Assange is demonised as a cat-stroking baddie. While his celebrity status is still great – the Hollywood films, documentaries and HBO programme are still coming our way – it is far more down to a fascination about how this ‘third act’ will play out, rather than any popular desire to see Assange emerge victorious.

St Julian of Assange was never the messiah; many of his Earth-shattering leaks amounted to little more than tittle-tattle. But where once campaigners may have stuck by their leaders, seeing them as offering essential insight and direction, now they can be unceremoniously dumped at the slightest sniff of something unsavoury. The backstabbing and betrayal of this former pin-up by campaigners and the media speak to a fickle, Judas-like quality that is becoming ever-more commonplace in some campaigning circles.

Falling out over nothing at all

‘Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills but they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the coalition agreement, but also in our political system.’

Could there be any greater insight into the warped, insular political mind of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – or, indeed, Lib-Con coalition politics as a whole? After having officially to announce that House of Lords reform is dead in the water last week, Clegg took the tit-for-tat approach ofsinking the Tories’ plans for boundary reform in the name of restoring balance. (Does he think this is politics, or Star Wars?) Clegg justified his decision to instruct Lib Dems to vote against any boundary reforms by arguing that ‘an elected House of Lords was part of the coalition agreement… A contract not just to each other, but a set of commitments we have made, collectively, to the British people.’

Pull the other one, Clegg. The coalition agreement was never a ‘commitment to the British people’; rather, it was a fudge of a compromise thrown together behind closed doors following the hung parliament in May 2010. The public didn’t get to express their approval of the agreement; it was always a case of like it or lump it.

In making the failure of Lords reform a big issue, Clegg – and his Liberal Democrat party as a whole – seems to be desperately clinging to it as a way of signifying a big political divide between the two ruling parties. Yet, in truth, no such division exists between the ideology-free top tiers of the political classes. Indeed, as Clegg himself points out, both coalition partners had House of Lords reform in their election manifestos. Lords reform is no great ideological marker – and it is certainly not something that is seen to be a pressing public concern. Nor, of course, is the issue of boundary reform, which is being driven through merely to benefit the Tories’ re-election prospects, with little regard to whether such changes are in the public interest.

So the coalition currently lies in tatters over an issue that means little to anyone outside of the blinkered world of the political elite. Only seven per cent of the public believes Lords reform to be of pressing concern, and even 75 per cent of Lib Dem supporters told an Ipsos Mori poll that, ‘There are more important things that the government should be concentrating on’. These tit-for-tat exchanges appear to the wider world like petty, infantile squabbles. Not least because there are many serious issues of public concern where a genuine clash of ideas is much needed.

For example, last week, the Bank of England announced that it was cutting its growth forecast for 2012 from 0.8 per cent to zero growth, meaning the UK’s double-dip recession could last far longer than initially expected. But the coalition is not falling out over competing visions for growth; it is not being torn asunder by arguments over how to deal with the crisis. In fact, that’s an area where, like Lords reform, the coalition is also broadly in agreement – all its senior members have willingly signed up to a programme of austerity measures. As culture secretary Jeremy Hunt put it following the bickering over Lords reform: ‘There isn’t a cigarette paper between us on [economic policy].’ While Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable has recently said he fancies himself as chancellor, what is far from evident is what he’d do differently should he inherit the purse strings.

The dreadful economic forecast is a perfect opportunity, one might think, for the Labour opposition to make political hay through a serious critique of the coalition’s economic and fiscal policies. Yet Labour’s existing tactic appears to amount to little more than gloating and harping about the coalition’s ‘spectacular failures’, as if all Labour needs to do is to wait for the coalition partners to become so unelectable that its no-mark leader Ed Miliband and his unimpressive coterie can replace them by default.

Despite a recent poll that suggested only 16 per cent of the UK public think the coalition will last until 2015 – a finding that has given heart to Labour supporters and commentators – there is a will in both Lib Dem and Conservative camps to continue to muddle through. After all, with the Lib Dems facing electoral wipeout, and the Tories confronting another stint in opposition given current polls, neither party is likely to find an imminent election appealing. Before they both left for holiday, Cameron and Clegg met for a ‘clear-the-air dinner’ and agreed to work together to prioritise ‘the economy and fiscal policy’ upon their return.

With barely a ‘cigarette paper’ between them on the economy – and on many other issues – the coalition may well continue in the same vein as before: tactically wheeling and dealing when it comes to policies, but continuing to cling together for survival. And while it continues down this narrow road, it will become ever-more estranged from a public that never voted for it in the first place.