Fright Club: The march of Pegida UK
A new far right is on the move with a simple, scapegoating message. ANTHONY CLAVANE reports
At the end of this month UKIP will elect a new leader at its party conference in Torquay. Anne Marie Waters, a founder of the far-right nationalist group Pegida UK, is one of the favourites to succeed Paul Nuttall.
Political commentators had not expected Waters to win but bookies – usually more astute judges – have started to shorten her odds, with some even making her the favourite.
Certainly, the mere prospect is alarming others in the party. When her leadership rival Henry Bolton, for instance, warned recently that the party could 'easily slip towards the ideals of national socialism', he was widely interpreted as having Waters in mind.
Bolton went on to say that the 'election of the wrong UKIP leader could have serious ramifications for the country', with his party moving away from its 'traditional' values 'towards something far darker'.
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The threat he identifies is a real one: that UKIP – which picked up only 590,000 votes at the last election, a massive fall from the 3.8 million secured two years earlier – could be superseded on the right by an emerging force in British society, the Pegida tendency. Whether this occurs as a result of a Waters victory, followed by an entryist takeover of UKIP, or as a gradual eclipsing of the increasingly fatigued-looking eurosceptic party by its harder right, energised rival, remains to be seen.
But the waning of the one and the rising of the other are inextricably-linked. As the referendum and Brexit have taken the concerns of UKIP, and UKIP voters, and made them the concerns of all the other parties, the party has lost its defining role. Euroscepticism has become mainstream. Pegida UK's raison d'etre is different and in some ways much simpler: Islamophobia.
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It is part of an international network of far-right activists, the British offshoot of a German-based group set up to 'protect Judeo-Christian western culture' and counter what it calls the 'Islamisation of our countries'. Its name is a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West.
Those who underestimate its appeal should be aware of the way its parent organisation has emerged in Germany. In that country it has created an umbrella structure for expressing xenophobic ideas, exploiting the insecurities of left-behind communities and scapegoating immigrants. It has particularly stirred up hatred online, directly challenging the post-war culture of tolerance, diversity and ethnic integration. And it has turned its ire on the political class, especially Chancellor Angela Merkel –whose asylum and refugee policies are blamed for making the country 'a safe haven for criminals and terrorists'.
Marches in Dresden have drawn up to 25,000 people. Demonstrations in other European countries have not been quite as big but just as provocative – and some have descended into violence. A few years ago, Pegida's founder, Lutz Bachmann, resigned after a picture of him posing as Adolf Hitler went viral. Although dismissed by its critics as 'pin-striped Nazis' Bachmann's movement has recently attempted to garner respectability by linking up with Alternative for Germany, which is all set to become the country's third largest party in the upcoming federal election. Bachmann has urged supporters to vote for the AfD.
The UK branch of Pegida has closely studied the way this Islamophobic grassroots organisation has managed to build a broad-based coalition. It has taken off in Germany and there is every reason to suggest it could make an impact on British shores.
It has suffered several false starts. Steven Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, attempted a march in London two years ago, which flopped. A few months later, former soldier Tim Scott was forced to resign as leader after a car-crash interview on Channel 4.
'What I've seen in Iraq and stuff like that,' he stuttered.
'If we were to get to that stage, that's my main concern.'
After this series of unfortunate events, the next re-launch of Pegida's British chapter, in January 2016, was relatively successful. Three joint leaders were announced: Robinson, Waters and Paul Weston. The three draw on disparate political traditions and attracts different areas of support.
Robinson, 34, is the best-known of the three. He claims to be a changed man since leaving the English Defence League, which gained a reputation for violence. The 'old Tommy' has convictions for assaulting a policeman, travelling to the US on someone else's passport and mortgage fraud.
The 'new Tommy' apparently seeks meetings with members of the Jewish community. Married with three children, and the owner of a sunbed shop in his hometown of Luton, he now writes for The Rebel Media, a right-wing Canadian website. Earlier this year he appeared on ITV's Good Morning Britain, where he produced a copy of the Koran, denouncing it as a 'violent and cursed book… the reason we are in such a mess.'
Although host Piers Morgan explained to viewers that he was a 'bigoted lunatic stirring up hatred', Robinson's public rehabilitation was boosted by a profile in the Spectator magazine which praised him as 'intelligent, quick, articulate, well-informed, good-mannered – and surprisingly meek in his politics for a man so often branded a fascist.'
So meek that he once stormed a local newspaper office in order to accuse its journalists of spreading lies. And, in a Facebook Live video, he warned his critics: 'If you've been talking shit online, if you've been trolling, if you've been lying about me, I could be about to land at your front door.'
Waters, a 40-year-old lesbian who has twice tried to become a Labour MP, is an unlikely bedfellow of Robinson's.
Indeed, she is an unlikely leader of a far right organisation. It is fair to say that the agnostic Irish feminist has been on something of a political journey. Before joining UKIP she spent four years at the secularist campaign One Law for All, led by human rights activist Maryam Namazie – who champions women's rights and opposes conservative religious ideology. She then founded the Sharia Watch pressure group before teaming up with Robinson and Weston at Pegida.
She was banned from standing as a candidate for UKIP in the June general election after describing Islam as 'evil' and a 'killing machine' and there were calls within the party to block her from standing for the leadership. She says she is actually no longer a member of the Pegida UK, but there has been no softening of her views.
Indeed, she has conspicuously made her opposition to Islam the centrepiece of her campaign strategy. In a recent blog post, she emphasised what she sees as her advantage, in this respect, over her rivals: 'I know what knowledge of Islam looks like, and I don't see it on the UKIP leadership candidate panel; no matter what other fine attributes they have (and they do).
'This is not a serious issue for them, and I know in my heart that if any were to win, Islam would not be tackled – it simply won't happen.'
Weston, 52, is a right-wing libertarian. He won 0.4pc of the vote as a Liberty GB candidate in the 2015 general election – and five years earlier could only muster a mere 664 votes as a UKIP parliamentary candidate. According to the monitoring group Tell Mama, 'apocalyptic and self-victimisation narratives continue to pervade Weston's ideology and writings.' Following Lee Rigby's murder in 2013 he warned 'we are losing a racial war' and later added: 'If I want to avoid a civil war happening in my country I am prepared to accept being called a racist'. Speaking at a Newcastle rally two years later he compared the Prophet Muhammad to the ISIS extremist Mohammed Emwazi.
Like the German model, Pegida UK is attempting to rebrand itself in three ways. Firstly, by associating itself with an established mainstream party – UKIP standing in for AfD. Secondly by hiding behind the veneer of bourgeois respectability. Robinson claims he wants it to be different from the EDL, to attract a more middle-class demographic and turn its back on 'alcohol-fuelled violence'.
According to far right expert Daphne Halikiopoulou, it will 'only become successful when it attracts members of the middle class' and speaks to ordinary insecure people who want to know 'it's not going to be hooligans getting drunk and breaking things up.'
And thirdly, by exploiting terror attacks to stoke up Islamophobia. Waters wants to ban the burqa, shut down all sharia councils and stop immigration. Even former UKIP leader Nuttall, who during his short-lived reign flirted with anti-Islamic policies, saw fit to bar her from standing on a purple ticket. Waters claims Islam has turned Britain into a 'fearful and censorious society'. Robinson – Waters has declared she would not be against him joining UKIP – has called for the segregation of male prisons into Islamic and non-Islamic inmates.
Weston wants a ban on all Muslims holding public office. 'I don't want Muslims in areas of political power because they put Islam as their primary allegiance,' he said. 'Deliberately importing people without checking what their backgrounds are, who are in their own religious and political terms sworn enemies of the West, what on earth is the West doing inviting any of them in at all? In World War II, did we fight the Nazis or did we fight the Germans? We had to fight the Germans. We could not differentiate between the good ones and the bad ones.'
Brexit and Trump have allowed such ideas to be normalised. According to one report, almost a third of people monitored by government counter-terrorism unit Prevent, in the year since the EU referendum, expressed support for right-wing populist ideologies. This month three men, including two British soldiers, were charged with terror offences as part of an investigation into the banned neo-Nazi group National Action.
Pegida UK's numbers, resources and its organisational structure may seem paltry – their web presence is pitiful – but the group should not be underestimated. The showcasing of Robinson by the likes of Good Morning Britain and the Waters surge in the UKIP race suggest an organisation on the move.
Between then, its leading proponents are attempting to reinvent their street group as a family-friendly movement. Citing the success in of Pegida in Germany they are attempting to break with the dark legacy of previous activists who organised picketing outside mosques, invaded halal abattoirs and tormented staff at Muslim-owned restaurants.
'I'm not far-right,' Robinson has claimed. 'I'm just opposed to Islam. I believe it's backward and it's fascist.' He talks of protecting freedom of speech and Waters even evangelises the European Way of Life.
'The differences among Europeans are minimal,' she says. 'It is what we share as Europeans, as westerners; democratic civilisation, that is what we're there to defend.'
In the current political atmosphere, which is becoming increasingly conducive to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, this cloak of respectability could yet allow Pegida's ideas to gain a foothold in British politics.
At UKIP's upcoming Torquay conference all eyes will be on Waters. Her election as leader would legitimise the scapegoating of this country's Muslim community.
As Bolton, Waters' rival for leadership, argues: 'Seeking to blame one section of our community for society's ills is not patriotism – it's a form of totalitarianism.'
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