Steve Anglesey takes on the hi-vis, low-IQ ‘Liberty Defenders’.
In his late-1980s masterpiece about a divided society whose deep fractures are only healed when a madman drops a deadly gargantuan squid on Manhattan, Alan Moore posed the question: ‘Who watches the Watchmen?’ In our own divided society, whose deep fractures Jacob Rees-Mogg proposes to heal by dropping Boris Johnson on 10 Downing Street, the question has become: ‘Who defends the Liberty Defenders?’
Who? Well, like the Watchmen, the Liberty Defenders wear costumes. But unlike Moore’s creations, they are not superheroes. Neither are they mentioned in Will Smith’s Men in Black theme song.
Instead, the ‘Liberty Defenders’ is apparently the nickname favoured by organisers of those yellow safety jacket enthusiasts – hi-vis, low-IQ – who were filmed calling Tory Remainer Anna Soubry a ‘Nazi’ and a ‘fascist’ on her way into parliament last Monday.
Their ranks include James Goddard, seen last summer telling a pro-Tommy Robinson rally that ‘satanic paedophiles’ were occupying Downing Street. Goddard was captured on camera during the Soubry incident apparently mistaking Remain campaigner Femi Oluwole for David Lammy and later telling a non-white police officer ‘you’re fair game… if you want a war I’ll give you a war… you ain’t even f**king British.’
Theresa May called the abuse of Soubry and, in a similar incident, Guardian journalist Owen Jones ‘unacceptable and disgraceful’. ‘A type of fascism,’ said speaker John Bercow. ‘They should be stopped. We must not mistake them for representing anything but a tiny fringe,’ added Jess Phillips, from what used to be the Labour Party.
But from key Brexiteers, the condemnation came with caveats. ‘The abuse is unacceptable and I condemn it but a parliamentarian who advocates overturning a referendum result she promised to respect should not be surprised at unleashing such ugliness,’ tweeted Tim Montgomerie, the former Iain Duncan Smith sideman whose Twitter profile includes a quote from the book of Isaiah, ‘I will turn the darkness into light’.
Morley MP Andrea Jenkyns wanted you to remember that Nigel Farage and Rees-Mogg had been targeted in the past and ‘abusive behaviour should not be tolerated from the left or the right’. With typical grace, Farage himself tut-tutted about the Liberty Defenders before hinting that Soubry should man up. ‘Those of us who have taken on the establishment have to endure the abuse; those within the establishment get a taste of it and suddenly they want the law changed,’ he sniffed.
Meanwhile Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay wanted the country to ‘come together in the national interest’, which he quickly clarified meant forgetting all about a People’s Vote and getting ready to ‘unite behind the only deal on the table’. Rees-Mogg claimed the ‘tense’ atmosphere outside Westminster was ‘one of the reasons for being very cautious about a second referendum’.
Godfrey Bloom, the former UKIP MEP who once said we should stop sending foreign aid to ‘bongo-bongo land’, popped up to argue that Soubry had ‘brought it on herself… ghastly woman’.
Goddard then followed up by telling his Facebook followers that he had called Soubry a Nazi ‘because she’s acting like one… we must remember the Nazis were elected into power and then went against ordinary Germans’. Facebook responded by suspending him. A PayPal account to which followers were urged to send donations was also closed.
So where was a Liberty Defender to find succour? The answer, of course, came in the shape of Brendan O’Neill, the controversialist whose hot takes include ‘If you were abused by Jimmy Savile, maybe you should keep it to yourself’, ‘Vegetarians: get over yourselves and eat a burger’ and ‘So what if a few horses die in the Grand National?’
When Soubry was abused outside Parliament last December, O’Neill wrote that since she was ‘at the forefront of a deeply cynical and elitist effort to demonise and destroy a great act of democracy… it is entirely natural that she should become the focal point for people’s anger.’ This time he argued that ‘Leavers have been subjected to similar abuse, though on an even larger, more constant scale.’ O’Neill moaned that ‘the chattering classes have been whispering and hinting about these sorts of people since June 2016’, seemingly oblivious to the fact that ‘whispering and hinting’ is not quite the same as surrounding a woman on her way into work and screaming ‘fascist’ directly into her face.
Later O’Neill cropped up on Sky News to compare the Liberty Defenders to the Suffragettes. ‘They have the right to protest on this sacred democratic space, the right to gather here and express themselves,’ he said. ‘It’s the price we pay for living in a free society.’ He was worried, he explained, about the free speech implications of not being able to scream abuse in a female MP’s face, just as in the past he’s been worried about the free speech implications of being told you shouldn’t burn an effigy of Grenfell Tower on Bonfire Night.
Perhaps, though, there is another reason for O’Neill’s disdain. At the end of the piece he wrote last December he reveals, ‘Anna Soubry told me to ‘f**k off’ within two minutes of meeting me behind the scenes at Any Questions?.’
To which the only possible response is: What took her so long?