I was there on Sunday (18th March) and I am prompted to write not just to advise your readers on what I saw (and who I saw) but also by a piece in The Guardian the other day attempting to discredit the Football Lads Alliance. But first a little background to Sunday.
Last week three young people, an Austrian, an American and a Canadian, were denied entry to the UK on the grounds that their presence was “not conducive to the public good”. One of the three was Martin Sellner, infamous in this very publication. The American was his girlfriend whose entry was denied on the grounds that she was going to interview Tommy Robinson, an odd offence you might think as he was recently interviewed by Piers Morgan, by ABC News from America and a few others. The Canadian was denied entry because she had, on a previous visit, distributed satirical leaflets in Luton about Allah.
In the UK it has, until recently, been quite OK to be satirical about religion and as nastily as you like. Much BBC comedy in the eighties was merciless lampooning of Christianity and there had been controversial West End musicals depicting Christ. He was even gay in one of them. Mohammed and Allah are off limits for our national culture of course, something the Canadian has learnt the hard way. Equality and a shared culture are now very elastic concepts as your readers will know.
Speaker’s Corner, where Sellner wanted to speak, has hosted many people down the years such as Lenin, Marx and George Orwell. These days it almost exclusively occupied by Muslims not a few of whom can be aggressive.
On learning that Sellner was banned Tommy Robinson undertook to read Sellner’s speech at Speaker’s Corner at 3pm last Sunday. He said he would do so without reading it first as whether he approved of the content or not was irrelevant. In preparation he visited Speaker’s Corner last Wednesday and was removed by the police. Apparently, his presence offends Muslims there.
The bush telegraph hummed for the next few days and it was clear something bigger than Tommy Robinson and a couple of hundred supporters was happening. My bush telegraph is a particular free speech website and 16 of us met in a pub at 1pm not too far from Speaker’s Corner. But the FLA were also recommending attendance – the same FLA that organised a 30,000 strong entirely peaceful march in London last year.
By the time that me and my fellow misfits got there the crowd was around 2000 strong and this was on a bitterly cold day. There were people in wheelchairs, 80 year old veterans, as well as Football lads. It was an extraordinary mix of people that ran across class (if the particularly elegantly dressed people in suits and ladies with Hermes handbags were not football supporters) and across ethnic origins. People had travelled from Suffolk, from Portsmouth and that’s just the ones I talked to. We would all talk to each other – are you a tourist or are you here for the cause? The cause (defence of free-speech in case anyone is a bit sleepy today) was the invariable reply. We were not all Tommy Robinson supporters. Somehow we all instinctively knew that numbers matter if Amber Rudd, Cresida Dick, and the Muslims were to be defeated. They were and magnificently as I shall shortly describe.
I thought some kippers might be there. In fact, I spotted two notable ones – Gerard Batten (our leader) and David Kurten (London AM) – and also Katie Hopkins. Notable by her absence was Anne Marie Waters which is odd as her die-hard supporters tell me how brave she is. It seems she had better things to do on a Sunday. Defence of free speech was not that important to her especially as it could be left to the brave pensioners who turned up.
And some bravery was required as Antifa was expected and they do not protest peacefully. What appeared to be some of their scouts on motorbikes were seen. They will have reported turnout and no doubt thought better of it for by 3pm the crowd may well have been 2500. Other outlets try to suggest there were more. I doubt it. Had the weather been better there could well have been. There were a few `Unite Against Fascism’ banner holders but they confined themselves to the periphery after being laughed away by some FLA members.
The big question was whether Tommy Robinson would make it. It was expected he would be arrested if he tried to enter Speaker’s Corner. I do not know if he and the FLA worked out the tactic but as his minibus arrived the crowd surged to flank him on either side and prevent plod from snatching him. He was led onto the corner to rapturous applause.
Few heard the speech as most of us were two far away such was the depth of the crowd around him. But for most of us hearing it was not the point. Defending Tommy’s right to be there and to read a speech was why we were there and everyone who swelled the numbers, to the point that any intervention by the left and their Muslim friends or by the police would have been a kamikaze mission, contributed to victory on that glorious afternoon.
There were some scuffles at the eastern end of the crowd involving a Muslim who hit a policeman, with the rest being Muslim on Muslim. They were hopelessly outnumbered and just turned on themselves it seems.
The big take-aways were the sheer variety of people who care about free speech and made the effort on a very, very cold day, and the impeccable behaviour of the FLA yet again.
This last point is important. The meaning of free speech and, when offence likely to engender violence can be an arrestable offence, was considered in Redmond-Bate v DPP which went all the way to the Court of Appeal in 1999. Two preachers outside Wakefield Cathedral had drawn a hostile crowd. They refused to stop preaching and were charged with obstructing a police officer who was motivated by “apprehension of violence”, that is he thought their continued preaching about which some there had complained would lead to trouble.
The Court of Appeal overturned the conviction. Lord Justice Sellby said:
“I am unable to see any lawful basis for the arrest or therefore the conviction… There was no suggestion of highway obstruction. Nobody had to stop and listen. If they did so, they were as free to express the view that the preachers should be locked up or silenced as the appellant and her companions were to preach.
Mr. Kealy for the prosecutor submitted that if there are two alternative sources of trouble, a constable can properly take steps against either. This is right, but only if both are threatening violence or behaving in a manner that might provoke violence. Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.” (My emphasis)
Last Sunday was a glorious day. I left feeling more optimistic than I have done for quite some time for what happened was a true grassroots fightback