For the first time in around three months, the space around St Stephen’s tavern smells like a pub. The mixture of lager, salt and cigarette smoke lingers outside the Covid-shuttered business in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament as a coalition of right-wing factions including the Democratic Football Lad’s Alliance (DFLA), Britain First, the English Defence League (EDL), arrive. Their goal, they claim, is to defend statues.
“So far its been an entirely peaceful protest and I hope it stays that way”, says David Kurten. The London Assembly Member and former Ukip leadership candidate was not a part of the protest – but stopped at Parliament Square briefly in its beginnings as he cycled past, and sympathises with the anger others here feel over the treatment of the statue of Winston Churchill. A week prior, it had been daubed with the words “was a racist” beneath the wartime PM’s name – part of a national reckoning with Britain’s history as well as past symbols of racism and colonialism.
“I think people are angry about what they’ve seen,” he adds. “They are angry about the vandalism that’s gone on, the violence that’s been perpetuated against police officers, and are worried about what some people want to do to our culture and our history. I think people are here to say that they don’t like what’s been going on over the last week.”
It was a matter of minutes before that hopeful peace disintegrated. On the other side of the square, the crowd begins to travel along the length of Parliament down Abingdon Street – first at walking pace, then breaking into a run. Protestors, having identified a would-be agitator, begin to punch riot-gear clad officers in an attempt to get past. The air is thick with the acidity of lobbed cans of cider.
They push through, surging faster towards their perceived target – a 200-strong swarm of chanting aggressors chasing down what appears to be two young men. One, who has leaped over the barricade designed to keep terrorists from driving onto the pavement, pleads and tries to reason with those chasing him before being engulfed in a flurry of bodies and fists.
And so it continues on an almost hourly basis. The rally was designed to focus on protecting two memorials from Black Lives Matter protesters – that of Winston Churchill, which has been boarded up for fear of further vandalism – and the Cenotaph, which remains both boarded up and held behind a police barricade. With both powerful symbols simultaneously secure and out of reach, there is little to be done and for a few hundred of the thousand or so attendees attention turns to traditional enemies – and to violence seemingly for its own sake. By the end of the day, more than 100 arrests have been made.
On a typical cycle, the crowd amassed on Parliament Square will have 40 or so minutes of drinking and singing, then 20 minutes of aggressive stand off with someone – be that a perceived enemy, a member of the press, or the line of officers blocking off the road. Shouts go up that Antifa has arrived, or that the police presence has been bolstered, and around 200 or so people will chase down one of five streets that leave Parliament Square. Songs are sung – most notably “We’re racist and that’s the way we like it” and chants of “EDL”. Objects are thrown. Retreat, repeat.
The event had been due to play host to a number of elements that would likely have made the day more chaotic than this. A mass-march of anti-racism protestors under the banner of Black Lives Matter was called off for fear of violent reprisal. The man known as Tommy Robinson, the far-right former leader of the English Defence League, also decided not to show – saying he didn’t “want to be responsible for more racial division”.
However, out of the old firm football hooligan groups and galvanised far-right organisations, prominent figures did emerge. In particular Paul Golding, the leader of Britain First who was convicted with an offence under the terrorism act in May, was greeted first by subtle nods and whispers of recognition and then by applause and demands for pictures. Shortly after there was a marked change in the energy of the crowd, who decided to march to the cenotaph.
“Traitor” one protestor screamed at the officers who had been barricading the Second World War memorial throughout the day. Others began to pull the metal fencing they stood behind and hurl it at officers, who in turn clanged batons on the metalwork left in front of them. The song that went up, “Where the f**k were you last week?”, in reference to anti-racist protestors who attempted to set fire to the Union Jack and deface the memorial to Churchill.
In the pattern of assaulting the line and withdrawing to the square, the symbolism of their cause appeared to get lost on those who converged on central London. The attacks on police – and in particular police horses – had been a key source of criticism for BLM activists the week before. Seven days later right-wing aggressors hurled smoke bombs, traffic cones and faeces at horses that swayed uneasily at the rushing crowd ahead of them. The day itself had been about defending memorials to heroes, but a man urinating alongside a stone commemorating PC Keith Palmer, who died defending parliament from terrorist Khalid Masood in 2017, seemed to go on unchallenged.
In one oddly orchestrated moment on an otherwise chaotic day, a parade of military veterans were marched through the square, accompanied by a lone trumpet as the crowd sang “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, Britons never, ever, ever, shall be slaves”. Later, as the parade of veterans attempted, vainly, to peacefully walk down one street to pay their respects to the cenotaph, hundreds turned down another to hurl abuse and projectiles at officers of the law.
In essence, race is what brought them all to the square – specifically the challenging of a nation’s concept of its own multiculturalism by anti-racist activists seeking to change the conversation about Britain’s past and present. But conversations in the crowd focus less on outward anger towards groups and more on the defence of history, culture, and a glorified idea of Britishness.
“What we’re doing is standing up for what we believe in,” one says. “There’s no racism, it’s our history.”
“Multiculturalism was forced on us,” another notes, while a third talks fondly of the ethnic groups he believes do not want to change the culture of “my country”.
But across the day there are two kinds of nationalism on display on Whitehall. The first, a violent anger made physical, is easier to spot. It’s the hurling of projectiles at police horses, the screaming in the faces of officers, the hunting out of potential agitators and those who question the ideology in the crowd. The second is quieter, a more public-minded brand of patriotism built around symbols of perceived British exceptionalism – military heroes, songs of a long dead past and the boarded up statue of a former prime minister.
The former seem to believe they are defending their culture by taking the rage they feel and turning it into something tangible. But they are a violent minority, a few hundred in a crowd of around a thousand.
For the rest it is enough to occupy the space, despite the ban on mass gatherings implemented due to the coronavirus, and defend what they deem their culture alongside the covered-up monument to the wartime PM – now more symbol than man – singing “Winston Churchill’s one of us”.